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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Probably my most enjoyable Michigan birding experience ever

And I don't use those words lightly. For years I have wanted to see a Smith's Longspur anywhere in the world, but have not been privileged to do so. This includes searching on the e. Denali Highway in Alaska where they breed. In recent years, I have suspected that they might be more common in MI than the available evidence suggests, and that we're missing them due to low abundance, low detectability, and the low frequency of birders targeting the microhabitat during the appropriate window of time. This still remains unresolved, but against this backdrop I was only mildly surprised that a flock of these birds was found (by Alison Village) yesterday in Berrien County. In recent weeks there has been a flock of 35 of these beauts hanging out in w. central Ohio, and I couldn't understand how such birds could make it to the arctic without passing through Michigan.

In any event, when I caught wind of Alison's sighting I immediately began building contingencies to chase. At first light this morning I was able to be at the location, where I was greeted with overcast skies, intermittent drizzle, and cold winds from the north. I was ALSO greeted by the songs of at least 4 male Smith's Longspurs from less than 100 ft! Imagine my surprise when I noticed that the birds were displaying! The display involved the birds crouching until their bellies hit the ground, then lifting their tails straight up into the air, and finally fluttering their wings. It was SHOCKING to witness this behavior in Michigan, to say the least.

These birds are absolutely GORGEOUS. To me, they are right there with Painted Buntings in terms of their striking, colorful, clown-like pattern. I wanted to call them Harlequin Sparrows. The face pattern at times recalled Lark Sparrow, at times even Harlequin Duck. And the salmon-tinged orange underparts constituted a color I have never before witnessed on a bird.

Put all this together, and you have easily one of my most memorable birding experiences in my Michigan birding career, and probably my life. I nailed a nemesis and saw a very rare and strikingly gorgeous bird, in unprecedented numbers (at least 20) for Michigan (previous record is 3 individuals from Chippewa Co in 1994). This would be Michigan's 15th record if accepted, only the fourth from spring. Will flocks such as this become more regular in s. MI in late April in future years?

With no further adieu, here are my photos:

No words necessary.

At times the males appeared to have a more intense buffy color on the nape than on the underparts reminiscent of Chestnut-collared Longspur.

Clown-like face pattern.

The only acceptable photo of a female all day.

Note the extensive white in the outer tail (2 feathers on each side rather than 1 in Lapland)


Jeff Schultz said...

Sweet shots, Caleb! I wish I could have gotten some last night, but no way with the poor, evening lighting. Nonetheless, seeing my 356th species for the state was reward enough! Congrats on this life bird!

Jerry Jourdan said...

Congratulations, Caleb! You nailed 'em. Great shots!


Ed Stonick said...

Wow! Great blog and very nice photos! I am researching spots for a trip to Michigan in June. I came across a brochure of the tours you used to give and wanted to find those same places and birds. We've already made arrangements for Kirtland's Warbler but would like to find Spruce Grouse, Connecticut Warbler, Three-toed Woodpecker and some others. Any tips you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Caleb Putnam said...

Ed- Skye Haas will be leading Specialty Tours for Michigan Audubon for these species in June 2009. Please call the Audubon office to sign up: 517-886-9144
Thanks for asking!