Monday, 19 December 2016

Smith's Longspur near Long Point

While completing their section of the Long Point Christmas Bird Count on December 17th, a group of birders (Matt Timpf, Adam Timpf and Ron Ridout) discovered a Smith's Longspur feeding on some seeds scattered at the shoulder of Concession A, a rural road passing through farmland a few kilometers north of Long Point. This was the first record for the Long Point CBC and the third record for Long Point, and one of only a handful of records from southern Ontario of which three have been reviewed and accepted by the OBRC.

After completing our area during the St Catharine's CBC on Saturday, Dan Riley and I drove down to Long Point to look for the longspur. Rare any time of year, it is especially unusual during the winter - this is in fact the first December record for the province.

Smith's Longspur - Concession A near Long Point, Norfolk County

We made decent time on the back roads on the drive down, keeping an eye out for other interesting species on the drive. Two Turkey Vultures flew over the car when we were south of Smithville - a good winter bird, though one that has been increasing in number during the winter in southern Ontario in recent years.

Eventually we turned onto Concession A, the road where the longspur had been seen. It was not difficult to know where to go - three or four parked cars on the roadside and several birders were watching the longspur as we arrived!

Smith's Longspur - Concession A near Long Point, Norfolk County

The Smith's Longspur provided excellent looks as it foraged with a dozen or so Snow Buntings, content to feed on the plentiful seed supply only a few feet off of the roadside. The Smith's often called as it flew in to land with the Snow Buntings and was not all concerned with the presence of birders as it fed nearly continuously.

Smith's Longspur - Concession A near Long Point, Norfolk County


Smith's Longspur - Concession A near Long Point, Norfolk County


Smith's Longspur is a species associated with tundra grasslands, where it spends the summer months in a wide band just above the treeline from Alaska in the west to the Hudson Bay coast in northern Ontario. During the winter, the population can be found in the south-central United States, including Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas. Despite breeding in Ontario, Smith's Longspur migrates to the west of the province, which helps explain why it is so infrequently seen during migration.

Smith's Longspur - Concession A near Long Point, Norfolk County

It was unusual to view this Smith's Longpsur so well, as usually this species stays hidden in short grassy fields, rarely providing close views. However it is not surprising to see it act like this - presumably the bird is somewhat stressed since it is located well away from its usual wintering grounds, and the abundant seeds along the roadside provide an excellent food source that is difficult to resist. It did seem quite active and alert, feeding constantly and overall looking quite healthy.

Smith's Longspur - Concession A near Long Point, Norfolk County

Unlike the brightly plumaged males with their striking black and white head pattern over a light orange body with streaked, brown wings, the females at this time of year are quite drab looking. This individual is a first cycle female and can be told apart from a female Lapland Longspur of the same age by its buffy belly, thin whitish eye-ring, lack of bright rufous in the wings, and more muted facial pattern among other features.

Smith's Longspur - Concession A near Long Point, Norfolk County


Occasionally the Smith's Longpsur landed on the road for a moment or two, and against the cold blue/gray of the asphalt the buffy tones of the bird were quite apparent.

Smith's Longspur - Concession A near Long Point, Norfolk County

I did not manage any great photos showing the tail pattern, however it is partially visible in the following photo. Compared to Lapland Longpsur, Smith's Longspur has more extensive white along the edges of the tail.
Smith's Longspur - Concession A near Long Point, Norfolk County

With a number of birds other than the Smith's Longspur feeding along the roadside only a few meters from our lenses, we took advantage of the situation and photographed the rest of the lot. Snow Bunting is an attractive species that I don't study enough, but with views like this it was much easier to appreciate their subtle beauty. 

Snow Buntings - Concession A near Long Point, Norfolk County

Snow Buntings - Concession A near Long Point, Norfolk County

A couple of American Pipits were also located along the roadside at various locations. They looked a little cold in the snow but all seemed to be doing just fine.

American Pipit - Concession A near Long Point, Norfolk County


A Savannah Sparrow on the other hand did not appear to be in the greatest condition, as it kept lifting its left foot as it stood in the snow. While individuals can survive the winter given suitable food sources, I can't imagine that these frigid conditions are easy on a species such as this.

Savannah Sparrow - Concession A near Long Point, Norfolk County


The American Tree Sparrows however were much more at home - southern Ontario is a part of their core wintering range, and along with Dark-eyed Junco it is the most frequently encountered sparrow at this time of year.

American Tree Sparrow - Concession A near Long Point, Norfolk County

Despite all the other distractions, the real reason we had driven to Long Point was of course to observe the Smith's Longspur, so our attention kept returning to this bird. It was an excellent opportunity to study this species, much more so than my previous sightings of Smith's Longpsur in Ontario, which consisted mostly of distant or fleeting glimpses of the birds found north of Hillman Marsh several spring's ago. This bird was much more confiding!

Smith's Longspur - Concession A near Long Point, Norfolk County

It was a great find by Matt, Adam and Ron, the latest in a string of rarities that have been found across the province in the last month. Thanks, guys!

Smith's Longspur - Concession A near Long Point, Norfolk County

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing the killer shots of a winter Smith's Longspur. Very revealing images of a plumage not easy to learn about from the limited number of photos out there.

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    1. Thanks Bruce - it was a unique opportunity for sure!

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