Smith’s Longspurs

Gideon B. Smith wasn’t an ornithologist. Nor was he a bird watcher. What Gideon B. Smith was interested in was silk worms. So much so he was one of the first people to import silk worms into the United States. Which made him rich. So how did this secretive bird get to be named after him. Well he knew people. And one person he know was John James Audubon. And Audubon needed investors for his magnum opus if it was to become reality. And in return he’d name a bird after you as a special gift.

Smith’s Longspur are quite possibility the toughest of all the Longspur species to tick off anyone’s life list. As you can see by the map below that I copied from “All About Birds” web site, they over winter in the south central United States, and breed in the subarctic tundra of Canada and Alaska.

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The fact that they’re drab in color and ground foragers make them pretty hard to detect amongst the corn stubble of a field that’s several hundred acres in size. With my limited experience with these birds I can only think of 3 ways that you might see them. One is if you’re pretty lucky enough to see them by the side of the road. Second if you watch them as they fly overhead and land in a field, or just keep flying away. Or third is if a farmer will allow you to walk his field where you just saw them land from when they flew over.

This was the scenario, that Jon and myself were in this last Saturday as we drove the back roads of rural Indiana, about an hour and a half from my house. As you can tell from the range map, Smith’s Longspur aren’t suppose to be in Indiana. But tell that to the birds. Word quickly spread from the initial sighting last Wednesday as local birders gathered along these farm roads scanning the fields and sky. This area between Brookville Lake and College Corner Indiana is a grid work of farm fields and country roads. Half the fields have been turned in preparation for spring crops, and the other half is left over corn stubble from last year’s fall harvest. As with our last experience with these birds in 2013, they tend to stick to the same area prior to moving on later in the month.

Ever since we started birding together, Jon and myself talked about traveling to “The Burn” and check off another life bird both of us needed. Now you might ask yourself what is “The Burn”. Well “The Burn” is an 80 acre tract of land near the small town of Crawfordsville Indiana (about halfway between Indianapolis and the Illinois border) owned and maintained by local Longspur expert Clint Murray. And the “Burn” name comes from the fact that he’ll regularly set fire to the area to help promote better vegetation habitat for wildlife, especially Smith’s Longspur and also migrating wading birds. So one Saturday we made the 3 hour, 180 mile trip, and came away with some great memories.

The photos below are digiscoped images of Smith’s Longspurs that I took while I was there in April of 2012

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So this last Saturday afternoon we made our way over to Indiana an staked out the area where the Longspurs were reported. The good news is we were able to spot them as they flew overhead calling. A sizable flock of 50 to 60 individuals intermixed with American Pipits and Horned Larks. They flew over, landed in the corn stubble and disappeared. One or two would sit up on a corn stalk for a few seconds before dropping down where they’d go out of sight. This process repeated itself a few more times while we were there with the  same results. And that was how the day went. And the bad news is no new photos. Some days birding can be just like that. Fleeting moments. So technically we were able to check off our target bird for the day, just very unsatisfying.

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2 responses to “Smith’s Longspurs

  1. Very interesting post combining some history, bird facts, and persistent field activity. Its fun setting out with a goal and target bird and see what happens. That’s a bird that will require some for me on the east coast.

  2. Well, I don’t consider myself an expert in anything, thank you anyway, but I have found Smith’s Longspurs by myself at sites where they hadn’t been found before, and for 17 straight years. Most of those years was in corn fields, but it’s easier now to burn a section of foxtail in my field to attract them. The Burn gets its name from what happened in the spring of 1936. The farmer raked his corn stalks into windrows and lit them up. The peat soil, being dry, caught fire and burned like a cigar for weeks until a rain put it out. In a lot of the field it burned off three feet of topsoil. It’s now lower than anything else in the area and in spring is a swamp. The shorebird tally is 30 species, with 5 rail species–seen, not heard. Total species–206.

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