Goshen News, Goshen, IN

January 5, 2014

Northern birds can transform a dreary winter day

Goshen News

---- — Snow covered the ground and much of the highway I drove. Snow plows had been over the road, but they hadn’t been scraped clean. The blacktop was bare only in four lines: The Tracks where many tires had worn away the snow. The sky was gray and dark, there was snow in the air and a cold wind blew from the northwest. It was a dreary winter day.

Then, on one side of the road ahead, I saw a flock of small birds, horned lark size and shape. They acted like horned larks, always moving, taking short forays in the air, walking or running on the ground.

I slowed as I got near the birds, drove onto the shoulder of the road, then stopped. I didn’t have my binoculars, and the day was too dark for me to make out what they were.

But I could tell what they were not. They were not horned larks. Horned larks have white outer tail feathers that are clearly visible when they fly, even on a gray day. These birds did not have white outer tail feathers.

Other vehicles passed me, and whenever one did, the birds flushed, flew into the field next to the road and dropped onto the snow. But each time they flushed to the field, they stayed only seconds, then flew back to the edge of the road. I watched several minutes, straining to make out what they were, but I could not. Eventually, I gave up and drove on. I passed two more flocks of what looked like the same kind of birds in the next mile and a half, 50 or more birds in each flock.

The next morning, I drove that road again, this time taking my binoculars, hoping those birds would still be here. It was another dark, dreary day with snow in the air and, or course, covering the ground. But one flock was still there, on the ground at the edge of the highway and in the road.

Even with my binoculars, I had trouble making out what these birds were. After a few minutes, though it seemed longer, I managed to identify them. They were Lapland longspurs, birds of the far north, birds that nest in the Arctic tundra, not just the north of North America, but around the globe.

The specimen for which the species was named was collected in Lapland, hence the first word of the name. The second word of the name is not for a spur, but for the hind toe, which is longer proportionately than the hind toe of other birds.

A male Lapland longspur in spring and summer, in breeding plumage, has a black face and throat bordered by a band of white, a chestnut-colored hind collar, brown back, wings and tail and a white belly. A female is another little brown job, sparrow-like year-round. In winter, the male takes on the same plumage as the female.

There are other longspurs and I glassed these birds carefully through my binoculars, one at a time, hoping to find a Smith’s or McCown’s, or a chestnut-collared longspur. None was likely.

All longspurs are uncommon visitors south of the U.S.-Canada border, and even in southern Canada. They’re sporadic, unpredictable. The Lapland longspur has been seen in the lower 48 states over a much broader range than the other three, from the East Coast to West.

The other three have been seen less often and only in the Midwest and southern Midwest.

I didn’t spot any other longspurs. But I did find a few snow buntings. These are other nesters of the far north, other unpredictable winter visitors to southern Canada and the U.S.

Two dreary winter days. Dreary, that is, until I saw the birds, Lapland longspurs and snow buntings. Then I forgot the dark sky, the snow and the wind.