Thursday, 1 May 2014

I wasn't supposed to go back to Pelee until the weekend....

.....but then Jerry Ball found a pair of Smith's Longspurs near Hillman Marsh!!! Here is a quick timeline of my day yesterday:

8:30 AM: At the office, working away on a proposal and getting swamped with work. Trying to organize a moving van for tomorrow night. It's going to be a busy few days!

10:26 AM: News is broken that a group of birders - Jerry Ball, Bob Cermak, Ron Tozer, and Mike Nelson - found the longspurs in a corn stubble field just north of Hillman Marsh. A mega find, and species #391 for the Point Pelee checklist! The wheels start spinning as I try to justify a trip to chase the birds...

12:28 PM: Kory Renaud re-finds the birds in the same area. I try to tie up as many loose ends at work as possible.

Smith's Longspur - photo by Kory Renaud

12:55 PM: Close my computer and speed away from the office. The chase is on!

2:10 PM: Pick up Len Manning in Hamilton. Pull over and send off the last few pressing work emails.

2:30 PM: On the road again. Traffic in Cambridge!! We take evidently the same streets through Cambridge that everyone else does to avoid the traffic jam - half an hour wasted.

3:30 PM: Clear sailing! No news of the birds.....

5:55 PM: We arrive at the site. 10 or 15 birders are milling around and the birds are nowhere to be seen. Not great news...

6:15 PM: We are on the phone with Steve Pike, who had received permission to walk around in a field near where the 'spurs were seen that looks like great habitat. I decided to walk out in the field and join him in the search, as did several others.

6:24 PM: A small bird with a longspur-like "rattle" and white outer tail feathers flushes from only a few feet from me. It has a bit of white in the wings. Its one of the birds!! I call it out and luckily several others get on it before it drops back down in the grass. A group of us manage to track down two birds and are treated to great scope views of them as they crawled through the grasses only a half dozen meters away. This was a life bird for me, so I was pretty excited! It was nearly impossible to get a good photo of one.

Smith's Longspur - north of Hillman Marsh

7:30 PM: Finally, Len and I force ourselves to walk away from the scene of the 'spurs and check out a few other spots. Len is hoping to see 300 species in Ontario this year, so Marbled Godwit and Western Grebe were on the agenda! We nabbed the Marwit, but dipped on the grebe right before dusk. You can't get them all...

12:38 AM: Pull into my driveway after a long afternoon/evening. What a day!

Smith's Longspur can a tough bird to see in North America. They breed in a narrow band along the tundra, and winter in a relatively small area, mostly in north Texas/west Arkansas/Oklahoma. This species can be very secretive and quite difficult to find unless you flush one.

While Smith's Longspurs do breed in extreme northern Ontario along the Hudson's Bay coast, this area is inaccessible except by air, and unless you are doing arctic research, you probably won't ever have a chance at seeing them on their breeding grounds. They migrate west of the province and have only turned up in southern Ontario four times previously. The last was in 2002.

This was the newest addition to my Ontario list since the Elegent Tern last November. It happened to be a lifer as well! It turns out that six Smith's Longspurs were seen, as Paul Pratt and Tom Hurst flushed four additional birds while walking in the field.

While a new species for the Point Pelee checklist (here we come, Long Point!!), it was certainly one that was on the radar. Smith's are fairly regular in Indiana and southwest Michigan, and recent records in Ohio add to the trend of this west/central species being seen further east than what is expected during spring migration. I would not be surprised in the least if Smith's migrate through southern Ontario every year, but they can be bloody tough to find!


  1. Six previous records for southern Ontario, now there are seven.

    1. Get the other two records sent in then!

    2. Sent in to where? They've already been published in American Birds!

    3. How about the records committee?

    4. Yadda, yadda, yadda .......