Monday, September 12, 2016

Pawnee National Grasslands Part II

After we left the great but very bland-looking flock of longspurs, we finally came up on where the real Rhynchophanes action was. Hands shaking and drool forming at the corners of my mouth (not Billy's), we pulled up to several male McCown's Longspurs and all their black-bibbed glory. The females and juveniles were immensely pleasing, but these are the birds I was really hoping to see...I have no explanation for this, but I still remember the grainy image of one from an old Audubon field guide my parents had when I was a kid. This was a bird, for some reason, that I really needed to see...not just this species, this plumage. Why the mind holds on to things like this, I don't know, but as a badly-addicted bird junkie, I have always appreciated birds that melt the face and birds that have no such power, but can be equally as fascinating.

Male McCown's casually paraded around on the ground next to the car while others performed their flight displays in the distance. Everything was coming was all finally happening, as they say down in Austin.

I'm trying to find the right word to describe a male McCown''s not a crippling bird by any means, nor should it be relegated to LBJ status (*shivers*...can we banish that phrase forever please?). It belongs in that warm, very comfortable realm between having a subtle beauty (this bird is not subtle though) and possessing what la gente consider true, undeniable beauty. I think I will dub this bird, now having seen them well, as impactful. When I next return to the prairie, longspurs will very much be on the brain.

Though it is tempting to linger in a MCLO daze, I can't avoid posting a Horned Lark photo, sorry. There are hella at PNG, which should surprise absolutely no one. I suppose a Horned Lark can leave an impression as well, and I won't deny them that, but the impression tends to fade after seeing thousands and thousands of them. Still a mellow bird though, and the lark is a known friend of the longspur and the Snow Bunting, which I have always been grateful for.

Longspurs are famous for their ability to frustrate observers, but this juvenile Chestnut-collared (year bird!) had yet to learn how to skulk and give fleeting, frustrating views. It did take me by surprise I said before, very few birders are well-versed with juvenile longspurs and I was utterly unprepared to separate juvenile Chestnut-collared from juvenile McCown's. Luckily I had my wits about me enough to realize this longspur was not like the others I had been seeing.

This bird has a smallish bill and more of a face pattern than the McCown's (a very blank-faced bird, even as juveniles), and lacked any sort of scaliness in the upperparts. Much like a fine whiskey is best appreciated by the ardent and experienced drinker, juvenile longspurs are best enjoyed by the veteran (and thus, deranged) birder. Had I seen this creature as a beginning birder, I would have been struck down with fear and confusion...longspurs are not for the faint of heart.

I've got to post another male Lark Bunting, I have no choice in the matter. This is a bird for all.

After finishing up the usual tour route, it was time to fall back on listservs and eBird...we had not yet seen Mountain Plovers, and that was completely unacceptable. A spot seemingly in the middle of nowhere had many plover reports in the preceding weeks, so we barged our rental car down some questionable dirt roads and made it to the spot...a giant, sprawling prairie dog town, the biggest I had ever seen. This "town" had it all...Lark Buntings, longspurs, a Burrowing Owl, a Ferruginous Hawk loafing on the ground, and a great many frolicking prairie dogs.

Finding the Pastoral Plovers was easy, though this bird tried to make it difficult by crouching behind the spoils of some prairie dog burrows.

As with McCown's Longspurs, Prairie Plovers are shortgrass prairie specialists, and have a very similar breeding range. Many of them spend their summers in the company of prairie dogs, but the majority of the population drifts over to California during the winter months. Since Agrarian Plover is considered a California "specialty", it was especially novel to connect with them far away, at such a great refuge for grassland wildlife.

After leaving the magnificent prairie dog town behind, we headed west to bird a stretch of County Road 45, which is northwest of the standard auto loop and best accessed from Highway 85...after all, as The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive says, "Middle of afternoon is best for see the most good bird".  This is another birdy section of PNG, and we finally managed track down some adult male Chestnut-collared Longspurs, which is arguably the most astonishing-looking prairie bird of them all. Great success...very nice!

On the last day of the Colorado trip we checked out some of the natural areas in Fort Collins, and bagged a couple year birds (Baird's Sandpipers and Franklin's Gulls) on the way out. All in all, I hella enjoyed seeing/birding that part of the country for the first time and look forward to visiting again for some of the lekking superstars the state is known for. Not a bad way to kill a week in July.


  1. I've never seen anything remotely like a male McCown's Longspur - looks like something I would find on the Mongolian steppe. Want.