Kindling Neighborly Connections between People and Nature.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Arctic Wild Neighbor: Lapland longspur

Lapland longspur (center), horned larks (right) at Brown Rd. Jan. 2018
The courtship display is a sight to behold, as the black-faced, rusty-collared male makes a flying, singing, gliding aerial display over the arctic tundra in June to gain the attention of a female.

Here is a link to a video that comes from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library of a lapland longspur's courtship display. It's worth taking 30 seconds to watch.

One of the most abundant birds breeding in the arctic tundra, you'd think that these sparrow-like birds would be easy to locate when they arrive at the wintering grounds (which includes Pennsylvania). That would be nice, except by the time these birds are headed south the male's bold breeding plumage is replaced with more subtle identifying features including streaking on the sides and a dark border to the face.

Furthermore, lapland longspurs express a strong association with horned larks. The bottom line is, when searching for longspurs in the winter, look for larks.

Part of the challenge of finding tundra birds like larks, longspurs, and snow buntings is that there can literally be hundreds of them in a wide open field of stubble and if they're hunkered down they might as well be invisible!

Fortunately, larks move around a lot in winter, swirling over big open fields; and when those fields become covered in snow the larks tend to spend time on the side of roads where they pick grits from roadside gravel to fill their gizzards for digestion.

So if you're up for the challenge, set out along roads adjacent to farm fields following the next decent snow storm. Look for flocks of larks flying over the fields where they pick for seeds, and watch for them ahead of you picking for grits on the road. If you can find the larks, scan through the flock one bird at a time. You may be so fortunate as to find a longspur.

Rough-legged hawks with bold shoulder patches hover over wide open spaces.
Tree sparrows tell of their presence with distinct jingled notes.
Herring gulls are a bold and boisterous presence on the lakeside.
Long-tailed ducks contribute a certain charisma to the open water.
Snowy owls bring a majesty to the tundrascape like none other.
Northern shrikes present a menacing beauty to shrubby field edges.
Common redpolls spark with an energy that puts the most rambunctious child to shame.
Snow buntings erupt over fields like a living snow squall.
Lapland longspurs blend and assimilate with larks and buntings; their presence and their beauty less obvious than these others. Yet, they too are our wild neighbors from the arctic tundra.

In our encounters with each of these Arctic Wild Neighbors, for a season the tundra is here. I hope we all can grow to appreciate and even to love our Arctic Wild Neighbors.

Lapland longspur (bottom), horned lark (top) at Brown Rd. Jan. 2018
There are two lapland longspurs in the mix with this flock of larks. Can you pick them out?

To learn more interesting facts about the lapland longspur, click this link.

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