Wild Side: Lapland longspur

Keep your eye out for this visitor from the far north.

First-year female Lapland longspur bird in Katama. — Matt Pelikan

On Sunday, Nov. 8, I took advantage of ridiculously fine weather for a quick birding and bugging trip to Katama. In addition to the usual suspects, I was lucky to come across one of my favorite birds: a ground-hugging, sparrow-like critter called the Lapland longspur (“Longspur” because this species sports a very long hind toe, an adaptation to walking on the ground).

Male longspurs in breeding plumage are striking birds, with a black face and throat, rusty nape, and a bold white stripe separating these two areas. But when this species visits us in the fall and winter, even the males are much duller, with just hints of that bold head pattern. And my bird was drabber still, a first-year female bird that I nearly dismissed as a boring ol’ sparrow. But it gave an unmistakable longspur call: A metallic, rattling “Brrrrt!” that instantly grabbed my attention. A look at the bird through binoculars showed a rectangular rusty patch on the wing, a valuable field mark for this species in all plumages.

The bird was on the dirt track that runs across the main pasture at Katama Farm, where it was feeding on grass seeds. Not unusual for this species, the bird was amazingly tame, far more interested in stripping seeds off crabgrass stalks than in paying attention to me. I walked to within about 10 feet of the bird and stood still; nonchalantly, it approached even closer, feeding as it went. Its behavior was surprisingly mouselike: It crouched low to the ground as it scurried along, plunging through and sometimes even under the bent-over grass.

Like pipits, horned larks, and snow buntings, Lapland longspurs invariably occur in open habitats. In our region, this generally means beaches and dunes, farm fields, or pastures. While pure longspur flocks do occur here, much more typical is finding a longspur or two mixed in with a flock of one of those other open-land species.

Lapland longspurs breed on the tundra, in a strip of high latitude extending from Greenland west across northernmost Canada and coastal Alaska, to northern Russia and Scandinavia. Observers who have written about this bird report that it often nests at very high density in this range. When you add it all up, this makes it a very numerous species.

Lapland longspurs are well adapted to life on the tundra. Arriving on their breeding grounds in late May or early June, they get right to work. Males stake out snow-free patches of ground and sing a twittery song to attract a mate. Once eggs are laid, incubation proceeds quickly by songbird standards, and the young, once hatched, mature enough to leave the nest in only about 10 days. You can’t screw around at high latitudes; summer is very, very short!

Most of the North American population funnels down during fall migration through the Great Plains, where flocks numbering in the hundreds of thousands have been observed. Lapland longspurs are less common in New England, though they’re a regular fall and winter feature on shorelines and pastures. While they may make it as far south as the Gulf Coast, they generally have the sense to travel no farther than they need to; migrating is perilous and energy-intensive. If I were a longspur, heading south to a region with snow-free real estate would be the priority, or at least with shallow enough snow so windswept spots are blown clear; these are seed-eating birds, and bare ground surely makes foraging much easier.

For some reason, despite its overall abundance, this bird does not often make it to the Vineyard. Perhaps they object to flying over water. Records here seem to occur slightly less than annually on average, sometimes of small flocks, sometimes of a few individuals mixed in with snow buntings or horned larks, sometimes of solo birds like my recent one at Katama. The species shows a clear seasonal pattern here, with most records coming from late fall or early winter. In mild winters, longspurs may hang around for the Christmas Bird Count, and even into January or February; spring sightings occur regularly in Massachusetts, but are decidedly unusual on the Island. Presumably a good portion of the population meanders south of our latitude during the winter, then heads north on a more direct route toward the breeding grounds, usually bypassing the Island.

Personally, I can only recall seeing longspurs twice previously on the Vineyard, both times solo birds in November, and both, coincidentally, at Katama Farm. So this is not a species I can give you clear instructions on how to find. But if you put in your time in the field in late autumn and scrutinize flocks of open-country birds, you may eventually catch up with this unusual visitor from the far north.