Sunday, January 27, 2008

There's Gold in That Prairie!

My longspur search started last fall when my son indicated that he would be in Missouri for the holidays. There were a few birds left in Missouri that would be lifers for him, and it would be nice to find them while he was in Missouri.
When he was a young birder, we spent most of our Missouri birding time in the forests and edge areas of the Ozarks, rarely venturing out to the prairies just an hour or two west of our home. That is precisely the reason that some of the gaps in his Missouri list exist.In December, while birders gathered to begin the Taney County Christmas Bird Count, Jeff Nichols of the Big Bluestem Audubon Society in Iowa mentioned that he had been to Golden Prairie and had spotted longspurs in a burned off section of the grasslands. GOAS birder Charley suggested that we bird the agricultural fields around Lockwood to find the birds. For whatever reason, I thought the birds would be a slam dunk, and when my son arrived for the holidays, we searched around Lockwood instead of bee-lining to Golden Prairie. That was a mistake.
I continued to keep my ears and eyes open, thinking that the small birds were more ubiquitous than I eventually figured out. I birded my home area destination of Palmetto several times, drove to Riverlands for gulls, but hoped to find them there. One month of weekend searches passed, and still no longspurs.Finally, I talked my friend Marvin into heading west to the original December longspur site at Golden Prairie. He took all of the quality bird pictures on this post. We had a difficult time locating the prairie as no signs exist on the main roads south and west of Golden City. After finding large numbers of various sparrows, Harris's, White-crowned, Fox, Field, Song, and Swamp, we passed a microwave tower and arrived at Golden Prairie. We circled the entire tract of land, observing many more sparrows, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, and Horned Larks, but no longspurs.We returned to the micr0wave tower road where I caught a glimpse of a small bird with white outer tail feathers flying out of the gravel and into the former soybean field across the road from the tower. Although it briefly perched on a branch of a weed at the edge of the field, it disappeared into the barren field. We slowly edged down the road when I caught a glimpse of movement 100 yards away. I quickly set the scope up and "bingo", Lapland Longspurs. Their various plumage patterns gave their identity away immediately. Some of the males were coming into breeding plumage, while others were more well-camouflaged individuals.
Restlessly, the entire flock took to the air with rattly calls and chaotic patterns, eventually moving much further out into the field. I circled them to try to flush them back toward the road. For a brief moment, I was successful. I hope that Marvin got a picture or two. My photo attempts were very marginal.. Since I knew where to look, I could see the chestnut nape of one of the birds in the picture, but that's about it. Can you see it? Ok, I know, but it's there, I promise.
The gold was in the bag. I got my 384th North American lifer, the Lapland Longspur.

We birded the backroads back to Springfield, picking up 3 Loggerhead Shrikes for the day, a single American Wigeon among Gadwalls, and many more American Kestrels and Red-tailed Hawks. Forty one species in all, plus the satisfaction that comes with finding another life bird.


N8 said...

Love that Harris's Sparrow. Great bird.

Greg said...

Marvin was a little disappointed that all he was able to photograph was an immature bird. We saw some incredibly plumed mature birds with bright pink beaks. But I agree, it's a great sparrow. That 10 mile difference between Lockwood and Golden City seemed to make a big difference in species. Next time you are here in winter..... we'll get them.