Bird #378 — Smith’s Longspur

calcarius (spur) pictus (painted)

Monday, December 27, 1999 — 9:45 am

Stuttgart, Arkansas — Stuttgart Municipal Airport

I first learned that Smith’s Longspurs could be seen at the Stuttgart Airport from A Birder’s Guide to Arkansas. I spent a day walking along the runways two winters ago, but didn’t see a hint of them. As this year’s trip approached, I checked the Arkansas birder chat line. At least 50 Smith’s Longspurs have been seen recently, along with a bonus bird, a Sprague’s Pipit.

We drove down on Christmas Eve and spent five days with the Sperrys. On Monday, I left the house at 7:15 and drove the hour and half to Stuttgart. I checked in at the terminal to make sure it was OK to go out on the runways. The guy was very friendly between phone calls. He showed me some notes other birders wrote on the back of business cards. The most recent was from the 10th and reported the longspurs and three or four pipits. The guy showed me an aerial photograph of the airport and pointed to the exact spot where the longspurs had been seen. When I had been there in 1997, I wasn’t allowed on the runways and had to walk all the way around the airport, probably five miles. This time I was allowed to park near a hanger and walk anywhere I wanted. I was only told that when an airplane came in or took off, I should walk off to the side and turn my back on the plane so the pilot would know I wasn’t about to walk out in front of him. The runways are surrounded by miles of fields and between and around them, the grass is quite short. The two main runways come together at a 90 degree angle. The longspurs had been hanging around in 150’ x 150’ squares of mowed grass that extend beyond the ends of the runways, and indeed, this is the place mentioned in the book.

I walked out to the angle and began wading through the grass. I flushed a whole bunch of Savannah Sparrows and saw several Horned Larks. I hadn’t gone far when several longspur-sized birds flushed from right in front of me. They gave a unique rattling call. It wasn’t musical, but it wasn’t harsh either. The birds flew up, circled (calling repeatedly) and landed in the grass at the end of the other runway. I watched them until they landed, then walked forward again. Almost immediately, more sprang up and followed the first group.

To make a long story short, I spent the next hour trying to get a good look at them on the ground. Two times I got very brief looks at the heads of birds as they ducked into cover immediately after landing. But that was it. I stood and stared at the grass looking for any kind of movement, but they were geniuses at keeping out of view. When they flew up, they weren’t shy. They called loudly and circled over the area, often coming within 15 feet of where I stood.

I left the longspurs and went searching for the Sprague’s Pipit.  That search took me back to the area where I saw the longspurs, and I decided to give them another look. Again they exploded out of the grass as close as 10 feet away, and often they would land within 50 feet, but then they would disappear. And then I saw a dark spot in the grass about 25 feet away. I focused on it and … it was a Smith’s Longspur. It stood motionless, facing me. Only the head and upper back were visible. After two minutes or so, the bird took off and joined its less brave companions.

During the three hours I spent at the airport, I flushed longspurs probably 25 times, usually from the square areas at the ends of the runways, but also from the edges of the runways as far as 500 yards from the original spot. I flushed as few as one and as many as … it’s hard to say, everyone else says 50, so I’ll say … 50.

Things I read advised me that they usually disappeared to parts unknown when flushed, but that wasn’t the case this day. Often they flew no more than 50 feet, sometimes as much as 200. At the end of my first chase, they had all gone off out of sight, but when I went back an hour later, they were all back and this time, they seemed to wait longer before flushing and to fly shorter distances before landing. I would have liked to get a full-blown view of one on the ground, but I saw almost everything the field guides mention at one time or another.

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