Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lapland Longspur

On 16 March 2011, I got my first photograph of a Lapland Longspur.  This milestone is surprising because Lapland Longspurs are among the most common birds in North America, and is especially abundant in the winter in the mid-west.  Some wintering flocks have been estimated to contain four million birds! One problem is that they breed in the arctic and spend the winter camouflaged in fields.  Unless snowy weather forces longpsurs to roadsides, one can have trouble finding these often wary birds.  Near Northfield, Minnesota, Gene B. and I found several Lapland Lonspurs in a mixed flock that contained a half-dozen Horned Lakes and a single Snow Bunting.
This individual is acquiring its striking breeding plumage, molting from its drab winter colors. Lapland Longspurs can be difficult to identify.  An unwary birder might decide this bird is a Chestnut-collared Longspur.  After all, this bird has a chestnut collar and a striking black and white facial pattern.   In all plumages, the chestnut-edged greater coverts are an excellent field mark (very apparent in the first photo).  Another good field mark is this bird's streaky flanks, streaks lacking in other longspurs.  Finally, the dark breast band, visible in the photo below, is restricted to the upper breast and contrasts with the white belly.
In most current field guides, taxonomically longspurs are placed among the sparrows.  After a decade of genetic studies, ornithologists have decided that longspurs and sparrows are not closely related.  Lonspurs now occur after waxwings and before warblers.  They are no longer placed in the sparrow family Emberizidae. They now reside their own family, Calcariidae.

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