Bird #379 — Sprague’s Pipit

anthus (In Greek legend, Anthus, a youth killed by his father’s horses, was changed into a bird) spragueii (given by John James Audubon in honor of Isaac Sprague, artist and botanical illustrator, who accompanied Audubon on his Missouri River expedition in 1843)

Monday, December 27, 1999 — 11:00 am

Stuttgart, Arkansas — Stuttgart Municipal Airport

I went to the airport to see the Smith’s Longspurs that have been seen there in past years and regularly this winter. But three or four Sprague’s Pipits were also being seen, so I couldn’t pass up a possible two-for-one.

The guy in the terminal showed me on an aerial photograph exactly where other birders were seeing the longspurs. I spent an hour flushing them and watching them circle around me. I decided I wasn’t going to get a better view, so I determined to look for the pipit. But when I looked around at the huge expanse of territory to cover, I decided to ask for help. Besides, I had to use the bathroom. I went back to the terminal. There were three men there now, all very friendly. I told them I had success with the longspurs and ask for more specific directions to the pipit’s location. Again, I was shown the photograph and told exactly where to look. I don’t think the guys in the terminal were birders, but they were as friendly and helpful as tour guides.

I walked out to the spot where an old abandoned runway cut across the field with grass growing through cracks. It intersected the main runway about 350 yards from where I saw the longspurs. Before I got to the area, I looked in my field guide to review the Sprague's Pipit's marks. I also noticed its call, a repeated “squeet.”

I cut across a small (80’ x 50’) grassy plot and very shortly flushed a Horned-Lark size bird. It was thinner than the longspurs with a long tail. It gave a loud “squeet” as it took off and repeated the call three or four more times before landing in the grass on the other side of the main runway. I walked right to the spot, a strip of short grass between the runway and a weed bordered field of mud. I could see nothing, and so continued walking.

I noticed a dark spot and looked with my binoculars. I saw the head and shoulder of a bird. It was facing away but looking back over its left shoulder at me. I only had a few seconds before it took off. It flew right past me, maybe five feet away, again making the “squeet” noise. It circled and flew back across the runway and landed, or appeared to land, on the pavement of the abandoned runway, maybe 75 yards away.

I walked toward it. As I passed the patch of grass where I first flushed it, a bird flushed and gave the call. It flew back across the main runway to the strip where the first one flushed. I thought this was a second bird and continued to where I saw the first one land, but couldn’t find it. I went back to where the second one landed. It flushed 30 feet from where it landed and flew down the strip away from me, this time without making noise. I followed but didn’t see it again.

I walked down the strip the other way and flushed one. It flew about 50 yards further away, calling. I saw exactly where it landed. I approached from the direction of the runway and stood looking for several minutes, waiting for it to move. I saw nothing, so waded in. It took off from about 40 feet from where it landed and headed back to near where it had just come from. I never saw a hint of one again.

To sum up, I flushed one or two birds a total of six times. Four of those times it called. I also had one brief look at the head of a standing bird. In flight, I only saw it flying away from me. The tail was long, thin and black with white outer feathers. Its flight seemed choppy somehow. Otherwise, it just looked like a brownish-tan bird with a white belly. I never saw it fly more than 100 yards. It always flushed between 30 and 50 feet from where it landed (or not at all). When it gave the loud “squeet,” the call was repeated about once a second until it landed. The shape, size, call, and markings convinced me it was a Sprague’s Pipit. In addition, the habitat was right, other birders had seen it there recently, and it was right where I was told to look.

I had additional confirmation later in the day. On the way back to Conway, I stopped at the Joe Logan Fish Hatchery in Lonoke. On the mud in the wet bottom of a drained pond, I saw an American Pipit. It was the same size and shape as the Sprague’s, but much darker on the back. The face pattern was different, with an eye stripe and no noticeable eye ring. It flew past me giving a totally different two-syllable call repeatedly. It sounded like “peet-peet” and not at all like “squeet.” Also, the white on its tail, while visible, was narrower and harder to see, both in flight and when on the ground.

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