Thursday, January 27, 2011

2011-01-26 Lapland Longspurs in Oakland County

2011-01-26 Lapland Longspurs and other rare winter birds off Dutton Road

Darn (well ... I really mean bless!) Ed Lewandowski! I had just settled down for a short winter's nap and Ed called to tell me that he had just seen Lapland Longspurs (Monday, 2011-01-24) at the spot where previously I had seen his Snow Buntings. I immediately recognized the name of a bird we had never seen ("lifer" in bird-speak) - all the while thinking in my waking moment "Where the heck is Lapland?" It's not as easy as you might think. I knew Scandinavians had something to do with it, but different countries seem to lay claim. Since the Finland tourism agency pays for the top ad on Google, I guess they win. I do think they have really cool costumes in Finland. I guess if I lived there I would have a really cool costume as well - just to stay warm! Hey, sounds like birds to me ... they all have evolutionarily-expensive down jackets. Even the more "southerly" Michigan birds have down jackets! I suspect if we were "street people" only those of us with good winter coatings (and a good food source) would survive here.

And what is a long spur anyway? I guess it must have something to do with the birds foot - spur, get it? I have not pursued it yet.

So up I get, and off I go. Ed knew it was a "lifer" for me and he always knows how to get my attention with a quick call telling me of a nearby bird. What a wonderful friend!

The weather was overcast with light snow. In other words it was not very good for photos. But I was rewarded with a large flock of Snow Buntings and a few Horned Larks. On my prior trip to this spot I had seen  and photographed a single Snow Bunting (a "lifer" then) with the Horned Larks and that was exciting enough. Snow Buntings are beautiful birds. Now I saw a bunch of Snow Buntings. Indeed beautiful!

Because of less than decent pics, I doubted the Longspurs I saw and photographed Monday - until today (Wednesday, 2011-01-26). In comparing my pics from today with the pics from Monday, I found - indeed - I had shot a couple of Longspurs feeding with the Horned Larks at the back of the area. Cool! I can now recognize the differences between some of the very rare "drop in birds" from up north.

So after my initiation and original frustration to the presence of fin birds (I always thought that somehow birds were related to fishes - I think maybe somehow involving an evolution thru herps ...), I returned each day this week.

Yesterday (Tuesday) there were no Longspurs present in the brief 20 minutes time I was there, but the flock of Snow Buntings was now in the order of 80 birds. Simply incredible! Today I believe a second smaller flock joined them so the Snow Buntings now number over 90 birds.

I am so happy with the Snow Bunting pics I have processed so far.

Flocking Snow Buntings - how pretty!

Snow Buntings doing breast stroke! Incredible!

I am really amazed at this lucky pic. Over the last year, I took many pics that look like many different individual birds were being shot into dart boards, but never several at the same time. Now I finally understand. Some bird species "do the breast stroke" as they are flying. They are cutting the air very similar to how we cut the water when we do a breast stroke. OMG! I surely wish I had such muscles in my chest! Or ever did for that matter! Maybe I could have been a "water bird" to show off before female friends! Flap - push thru medium - glide as a bullet. Repeat as necessary. Geez! It happens so fast we never even see it with birds! They just kind of look like they are constantly flapping.

Gorgeous birds! Another lucky shot.

Off we go into the wild grey yonder ...

Hey! Food here! Come on in!
I am not really sure about "the story" on how Longspurs relate to Snow Buntings or Horned Larks. On Monday, the Longspurs were hanging out with the dozen Horned Larks in the rear of the area. They did not fly off much. On Tuesday and Wednesday the Horned Larks (again about a dozen) fed for quite awhile, then went off to sit on the retaining wall. The Longspurs were not with them. I was even using my Christmas binocs!

Horned Larks are much less spooky than Buntings. I do not know about Longspurs, I have never seen any Longspurs on the wall. Where did they go?

So far I think I have seen that the Snow Buntings have two flocks at Dutton. The largest one has about 80 individuals and is "pure". The second one has about 20 buntings and the longspurs seem to join it as they like. Sometimes they "flock off" together, but I am guessing that the longspurs are not very loyal to the flock. I really wonder when the longspurs detach and do their own thing!

From postings on the UM Birders and Ohio birders lists it seems that Lapland Longspurs are a regular rare minority within flocking buntings and I just can't help but to think maybe they opportunistically join either larks or buntings as they will. (Not that this makes any sense when thinking of a bird from "up north". I would certainly want to make the long flight with buddies ...) So many questions...

Buntings fly in together, eat briefly and take to the skies. In 20 minutes they might do this several times. Often they fly a quick loop and return. Sometimes they just go away. Their flight is such a marvelous sight with their contrasting wing patterns! I wonder how the tidbits they grab so briefly justifies the energy expended in flying in and out so often!

Horned Larks do not seem to be triggered by whatever drives the flocking buntings. Here I think about my deck birds. House Sparrows come in, eat, and leave almost instantly like the Snow Buntings. I have learned from birders that flocking has this distinct advantage. Bird paranoia triggered by probably one individual. With so many birds, some bird is always looking in every direction.  Quick! I saw a possible bird-eater! Flee! Dumb trigger bird probably forced the flock to use up all the calories they ate in the last minute? Well, it seems to work well, so who am I to second guess?

Horned Larks - the right one is definitely horned!

Mourning Doves on our deck will just sit there when the flockers flee until I approach the window, and even then will not leave until I approach further and smile at them. Maybe that is why Mourning Doves are so much bigger and fatter than Snow Buntings or House Sparrows? To me at this moment Horned Larks are the Mourning Doves of winter migrants. They eat - then just go sit on the wall until they get hungry. Yet, I tend to wonder why they are not larger... So many questions ...

Anyway, back to the story. The Dutton Road place Ed set up is just a fantastic gift to all local birders. It is perfect. I am normally not willing to leave the house in the dead of winter except for sure things - like needing groceries - and this spot is a sure thing. Barring "weather" - I mean scary roads or bad visiblity for my camera - I plan to go there often while the property is "Ed-tended". It is like having my deck feeder yet away from home where I can sit in my car and watch birds in my new backyard! I am warm. I am happy. I see fantastic birds! What more could I want? 

I tried on my first visit to get out of the car to take pics of the Horned Larks.  Just then a flock of Snow Buntings (then they were my lifers) flew in. They made some of the cute bunting noises I have heard since ("Let's get the heck outta here") and left me quite disappointed. My brief out-of-focus wing shots gave me enough confidence to call my lifer bunting for eBird.

I persisted in revisiting, knowing that Ed was ensuring the vistations. This has been one of the most memorable experiences of my birding life. I know exactly where to go. I know for sure that if I sit there for 20 to 30 minutes, a flock of buntings will drop in - normally several times. I love the wonderful colors and patterns of Snow Buntings on the ground and in flight. I will not pull the scope out of the trunk when it is freezing, nor do I need it here. I certainly will return again and again when I think there is an excellent chance of seeing birds that are normally found so much farther up north. Ed was the main person who got me into using eBird and I just recorded three species for Oakland County I will never see again before next winter. Great "car-birding"!

Suggestion: do NOT get out of your car. I suspect the birds are becoming accustomed to cars, but not moving people. I learned this last week - they flew in, saw me, flew off, and never returned for the twenty minutes I stayed there.

I have over 1000 pics I took there. I am still processing them. I'll eventually add them to my Pbase site, but just wanted to share highlights now. I set the camera to bracket my shots so I have three shots for each one! Bracket means the camera shoots one at original setting, then one at a "stop" darker and a "stop" brighter. Yes, most will be deleted. The most frustrating thing is that when I shoot the three pics almost simultaneously, most often the best pose is not the one with the best lighting. So goes frustration.

Oh - and the Lapland bird?  This really has been fun. Just seeing the lifer bird was great. Looking at the pics was fun. Quizzing Judy from the pics was even more fun. She knows what it is. She remembers looking for it along the road in all the freshly-manured fields last year and this year as we visited relatives in mid-Michigan. We never saw one. I realize now it was an impossible quest - espacially at highway speeds! Heck, I can drive up to the Dutton Road site and still never see any birds until I stop the car and pull out a lens to focus on the "spots" there. I guess it is like most birding - birds are always hidden by natural camo, and the main indication of presence for something on which to focus is triggered by seeing flight and landing. Anyway, quizzing Judy was fun. It takes her awhile as it does for me. Her best answer was a Laplong Landspur. She knows what it is, but until you get one yourself it does not stick very well. It's all fun! Now she knows it.

Here are a few pics. I suspect that James, Darlene and others got much better pics with their better lenses and look forward to seeing them soon, but I am just so happy I had a chance to "be there then"! Yes, the Lapland Longspur is quite different than a Horned Lark.

Lapland Longspur and Snow Buntings

Lapland Longspur and Snow Buntings

Lapland Longspur and Snow Bunting

Lapland Longspur and Snow Buntings

What fun!!!

And for y'all on the UM Birders list, refer to Ed's posting this week. Ed made this whole story possible. Thanks so much Ed...


Cathy Carroll said...

Very nice story and very nice photos. Flocking Snow Buntings are pretty spectacular and you captured that. It's also pretty special to be close enough to a longspur to get a photo. Good blog, Bob.

James Fox said...

Those are actually better than the pictures I got. It is really hard to photograph birds on snow.

"Dr. Bob" said...

Allen Chartier sent me an e-mail I want to share:
"In your first photo with the 4 Snow Buntings and 1 Lapland Longspur on the left, with his foot raised, you can see the long spur on the hind toe that gives these birds their name. Pretty cool. Prior to 2010, longspurs and Snow Buntings were classified with the other Old World buntings in the family Emberizidae, which also includes the New World sparrows and towhees. But in 2010, the AOU created a new family just for the 4 species of longspur and 2 species of bunting (Snow and McKay's), the family Calcariidae."

I really did know that birds have "spurs" (I thought something related turkeys) but was punning on the spurs worn by cowboys and hoping for a response. I really appreciate Allen for setting this straight for the Lapland birdies! Thanks goodness I shot it!

Actually I have been quite fascinated about the fancy hind toe that allows birds like nuthatches to do something different - like walk upside down on trees. I think a treatise on the evolutionary advantage of hindtoes (are they all "spurs"?) would be quite fascinating!

Yes really cool! Thanks Allen!