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Seeking the Longspur

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Outside of Great Falls, Montana, is a stunningly beautiful place, a shortgrass prairie where a little bird lives. This happened to be a little bird I'd never seen or heard before. A life bird.

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.

Oh, we had such fun trying to capture images of the longspurs on the wing.

Here, you can see his chestnut shoulders. As if he weren't ornate enough...he makes the pallid vesper sparrow below look positively dowdy.

I got some images of the bird that I liked, like this one:

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.


Oh, so pretty--the land, the longspur.
A little piece of loveliness.

I enjoyed the scenery as much as the amazing bird. So unusual.

Thank you so much for the trips. They bring great joy to me.

hmm...It sounds like where it lives, I see wide open spaces when I hear its song...I wonder why that is?

I just liked his smile. Thank you.

Port Orchard Gal

Posted by Anonymous October 1, 2009 at 5:56 PM

Julie- we enjoy the same landscapes. I travel to North Dakota every fall to a town called Starkweather- such a great name. Unparallelled primal, austere beauty- raw. Life C-C longspur there last year. Also liked your post on Gackle, ND. I have taken that same exit- only going to Medina.

Continue the great work. Your blog is the first one I visit.

Posted by Tom Schaefer October 1, 2009 at 7:50 PM

He's beautiful and the landscape suits him. :c)

Hi Julie:

I like the bird in the bottom photo a bit offset from center. Looks a bit more spontaneous, don't you think?

Beautiful! And thanks for the sound byte link--that sweet little song piqued the curiosity of the dogs snoozing at my feet.

Julie, thanks for acquainting me with the McCown longspur. I like him especially in flight flaunting his T tail. I've never quite understood the idea of bird lists. I prefer, like you, to experience the birds. Mostly I remember what I've seen and always look forward to seeing something new. And I agree that the last picture is indeed a painting.

Oh - beautiful! Being a beginning birder, I became confused when I saw the picture - thinking of the lapland longspur...doh!

Lovely, loopy birdsong, too.

Please keep these amazing stories and adventures coming, Julie - thank you!

Beautiful! I hope to experience this bird myself one day.

Posted by Anonymous October 2, 2009 at 11:39 AM

Well captured, Jules. I especially like the surprised cabin.

Did you do the life bird wiggle? :-)

No mountain backdrop, but it sure looks like the short grass prairie of western South Dakota that we birded last Saturday. No longspurs, but burrowing owl and a bazillion vesper sparrows and horned larks.

Love the "t" in the tail. You described the song perfectly, "a silvery shower". Glad you got to see him.

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