Saturday, February 19, 2011

Longspurs in the slush: A February report from Joe Neal

We are past mid-February and Lapland Longspur season in northwest  
Arkansas is either over or nearly over. The historic storm of February  
9 (up to 24 inches of snow and as low as minus 18 on the 10th) may  
have kept them here longer than usual. Main roads were open after the  
10th. I managed to get out of my driveway in Fayetteville and over to  
the former prairie lands at Siloam Springs and Maysville on the 12th  
and the 13th.
Since open fields still had deep snow cover, longspurs and their  
?snowbird? brethren dined in the roadway slush on spilled poultry  
grain, on the road and the thin plowed grassy shoulder ? or,  
alternately, didn?t dine at all. It?s hard to imagine the mortality  
among snowbirds during the height and aftermath of this storm, BUT I  
imagine it would make the now infamous blackbird deaths at Beebe on  
New Year?s pale by comparison.
Chief flocks in the height of the storm include Dark-eyed Juncos,  
Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, American Tree Sparrows, Savannah  
Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, Song Sparrows, cardinals,  
meadowlarks, starlings.  I see one flock of 7 Harris?s Sparrows.  
Traffic is heavy along the roads so the birds are flushed constantly.  
Longspur and Horned Lark flocks (pure flocks and more often mixtures)  
land on the road, then scurry to the shoulder to feed. FLUSH! A loud  
WHOOSH! of wings. Now longspurs race over me in a low tight flocks,  
dipping as if to stop, circling, passing close so I cleanly hear the  
low hard buzz prrrrt or a sort of geeeb they say to one another in  
Tiny sparrow birds, they settle in sight of the roadway, on a field of  
white. Through the spotting scope I can see the long spur from which  
they derive their common name. Standing in the pure white, in a vast  
field of pure white: in their plumage rich chestnuts, blacks, summer  
tans and yellows -- their dark legs ? 25 birds, males and females, all  
in bold relief. It?s much like a huge, white canvas upon which has  
been painted the heart of the matter. While the traffic passes they  
preen and watch. Most of the drivers are in too big a hurry to get to  
work, to the chicken houses, to the cows, to the store, to haul the  
kids somewhere, to notice.
Unfortunately, they miss a basic reality of the world of which we are  
but part. Longspurs define the open country in a storm. It?s the  
laplands in Arkansas. It?s a fact, but it?s all but unknown.
Survival foraging on a roadside has its price. I?m watching a flock of  
10 Savannah Sparrows. They don?t flush as rapidly as the longspurs.  
One truck passes too close and up and off they go. As I watch, one  
Savannah seems to peel off, or so I think. Right in front of the feed  
truck it sails straight up in front of the windshield, then with  
folded wings, flops down to the yellow stripe. Flops again, and is  
still. Tiny, tiny creature of broad open fields: survived 24 inches of  
snow, 18 degrees below, survived all the winter that came before the  
big one, but not our traffic, not the world we are in such a big hurry  
to own. Poor perfect Savannah Sparrow. Pity for us, for not recognizing.
t?s now been 25 years or more that I was at Beaver Lake on a fall day  
when the lake was very low. I walked out on a long spit and there, in  
the middle of the lake, on the last rocky bit before water, there was  
a single Lapland Longspur. I was looking for eagles and found a  
creature of less than an ounce. From the extreme far north, no less.  
Trying to understand, I wiped my eyes and the lens and looked again.  
Yes, it was a longspur. Here it had come all these thousands of miles,  
from the place of native Arctic peoples, to?well the land where we  
Call the Hogs. Seemed a miracle. Still does. I?m definitely NOT  
against Calling the Hogs. Here I go, WHOOO PIG SOOEY!!! But it is the  
miraculous incongruity that spurs me on.
Where they breed across the vastness of Arctic tundras virtually  
worldwide, Lapland Longspurs are either the most common terrestrial  
bird or among the most common. And in their swirling masses they are  
about the most numerous bird wintering in North America. Enormous  
numbers, like the unimaginable and uncountable masses of Passenger  
Pigeons recorded by Audubon.
? the Inupiaq Eskimo name ?Kungnituk? may be a modification of  
?kungenook,? meaning black, with reference to the male?s black throat,  
face, and flanks. The Yu?pik name ?Natchakuparak? means ?hood-like  
marking on head.? Eskimo names vary considerably across range, with  
the following all being documented. Inupiaq: in Nunavut, ?Kungnuktah?  
on Bylot I., ?Nasaulik? on Belcher I., ?Kingnituk? or ?Kungnituk? on  
Southampton I., ?Kowlegak? or ?Kaoligak? on Baffin I. Greenland,  
?Narssarmiutaq? Yu?Pik: in Alaska, ?Tuk-cho-fluck?and both  
?Tik-i-chi-ling?-uk? and ?Natchakuparak? at Hooper Bay, ?Nessaúdliga?  
at Point Barrow, ?Potokialuk? at Anak-tuvuk, ?Pig-git-tig-wuk? at St.  
Michael, ?Chir?-loch? on Attu I., and ?Chí-loch? on Atka I. (From the  
Birds of North America species account for Lapland  Longspur by David  
J. Hussell and Robert Montgomerie [2002])
JOSEPH C. NEAL in Fayetteville, Arkansas

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