Smith’s Longspur Acrobatics

I wrote this several years back and just discovered it again, relating my finds of Smith’s Longspurs in northeast Texas along with friends.

During a past winter of I was conducting field work in northeast Texas, slogging through inundated prairie of Indian grass and bluestem counting sparrows daily.  On days off I explored the environs, consisting mainly of fallow fields, pastures, and patches of post oak savanna.  I drove around a mid-sized lake, looking for birds along its shoreline and woodland, observing the usual wintering species.  The road eventually straightened and after a few miles I came to an intersection, the kind where you could stop for an hour or more before another car would pass.  Both sides of the road were bordered by an open expanse of close-cropped pasture.  Figuring the area looked ideal for longspurs I stepped out of the car to take a closer look.  In particular, I was looking for Smith’s Longspurs, which are regular winter visitors to northern Texas, but are often hard to find due to their secretive behavior.  During the winter Smith Longspurs are mainly streaked brown and buff and spent the majority of their time creeping through the grass.  When alarmed they often crouch, only flushing nearly underfoot with obvious white outer tail feathers and soft rattle.  I scanned the short grass and listened, everything was quit, except for a flushed Savanna Sparrow that bounced out of the roadside grass and flew up onto the barbed wire fence.  After a few minutes I spotted a Northern Harrier patrolling the field, wavering low over the ground, and then suddenly a flock of hundreds of Smith Longspurs burst into flight.

I informed two of my good birding friends of my find, who joined me a few weeks later to look for the Smith’s Longspur.  We arrived at the field in the early afternoon and soon heard and then saw Smith Longspurs flying overhead.  We jockeyed for better views around the fenced field and eventually found a small stock pond where the birds came to drink.  Standing low between the barbed wire fence and the road the berm of the pond blocked our view of the birds landing and drinking.  We stood on our toes, stretched our necks, lifted our scopes higher, without success.  As a last resort we climbed onto my car and handed up the scopes, trust me, a two door Hyundai Accent is not necessarily built to support three eager birders and their optical equipment.  One of us was standing on the roof with a tripod splayed in front.  Another was sitting right above the windshield looking through a raised scope and I balanced on the edge of the trunk, trying to steady my binoculars.  We ended up with great views of dozens of Smith Longspurs as they cautiously circled above several times and then came down to the pond’s edge to bathe and drink quickly before rising again in small flocks.

Our setup looked quite crowded and I have a feeling we were definitely part of the dinner conversation of an elderly couple that drove by, passing slowly with looks of disbelief, maybe they will even relate the strange tale to their grandchildren.  I certainly remember that late afternoon every time I notice the dents in the roof of my car that look suspiciously like feet of a tripod.

Smith's Longspur acrobatics in northeast Texas


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