Life birds come along oh so rarely in the U.S. for me, and I was in a lather to go find a McCown's longspur. Not just to check it off, but to experience it. I couldn't tell you how many life birds are on my list (which actually hardly exists) if you waterboarded me. I honestly don't care about numbers. I like experiencing birds.
So one morning Bill (who had seen the bird in Colorado, but wanted to see it again) and I gathered up a couple of folks from the Mountain Bluebird Trails/North American Bluebird Society meeting we were attending/working and played a little lifebird hooky. One of our companions knew just where to find the longspurs, on a seemingly forgotten prairie trace.
Readers of this blog know that seemingly forgotten prairie/high desert traces are my favorite kind of road. So much the better when they host beautiful birds (which they always do).
Just the colors alone knocked me out. It's mid-June, and the snow is on the high peaks, and the blues and sere tans of the landscape are my favorite color scheme (besides red hair and black leather...)
And there, sitting on a fencepost and launching himself up into the clear air, was my life McCown's longspur.
This little bird, named for its long hind claws and an Army officer named John P. McCown, is closely related to the chestnut-collared longspurs we enjoy each June on the North Dakota prairie. Like the chestnut-collared, it sings on the wing, circling over its territory. Its song is a halting, silvery shower of notes, like tiny jingle bells. To my ear, it has a minor key.
You can hear its song here. What do you think?
Most grassland birds have flash patterns of black and white--white tail feathers, black breast marks. Think of horned larks, with black face and breast crescents and black outer tail feathers. Meadowlarks, with their black V-necked sweaters and white tail panels. Chestnut-collared longspurs, with black breast and white in the tail. These flash patterns translate well over vast distances. A black breast mark shows up really well against pale grasses. There is very little black on the sun-blinded prairie.
McCown's longspurs have a distinctive black T on a white tail.
They show all these flash patterns to advantage as they flutter slowly in circles, singing. Flight song is the best way to broadcast in a place with lots of wind and very few perches. And thin, high, tinkling notes carry best in that environment.
Here, you can see his chestnut shoulders. As if he weren't ornate enough...he makes the pallid vesper sparrow below look positively dowdy.
but the ones I love best are the ones that show where he lives, the loneliness and perfection of it all.
alighting...the deserted cabin looking on in surprise
and oh, who needs to say anything about this one? It's a painting, that's all. I'd move the bird a little to the right...
I'm so thankful for my camera, who paints for me when I haven't time to.