I’ve grown up seeing a few Lapland Longspurs each winter, sprinkled into Horned Lark flocks in the farmland of Pennsylvania. This past summer I was able to spend some quality time in the midwestern prairies, and was fortunate to see both Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs on their breeding grounds. That left me with one final longspur species to see in North America – Smith’s. The Smith’s Longspur spends the breeding season in northern Alaska and then migrates down to the southern midwest for the winter, using its drab, camouflaged plumage to hide in flat, open fields of dead grass in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Or at least, that’s where most of the Smith’s Longspurs spend the winter months – but this winter, one bird decided that western Virginia was the right place to go, and on February 23rd Marshall Faintich discovered a lone Smith’s Longspur foraging along the entrance road to the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport in Augusta County! This is Virginia’s 1st record of this species, and has attracted a lot of birder attention every day since its discovery. In typical vagrant longspur fashion, this bird is incredibly cooperative and has been offering crippling views for the many chasers that have gone to visit it so far. This past Sunday was my first opportunity to try and see the bird, so Michael David and I carpooled down I81 to the airport. We arrived a little before noon, and almost immediately as we turned onto the entrance road to the airport, I spotted the longspur launch up off the side of the road and then land again nearby. We quickly parked, and walked back to have a better look…right where we saw it land, the longspur was silently foraging through the dead grass. Hunched down and slowly scurrying around like a little tan mouse, the Smith’s Longspur seemed to ignore the two of us as we watched it through a scope and I crept closer (on my belly, through the snow) for photos. This bird’s strikingly intricate patterning and subtle beauty made it all the more exciting! Finally, I had seen the final North American longspur – and it was also my 650th species for the ABA area! There were also at least 26 Horned Larks and a beautiful Lapland Longspur along the entrance road, which offered a nice comparison with the Smith’s.
Of course, a 3 hour chase trip for one bird isn’t exactly economical, and it was a Sunday, so what better way to spend the rest of the day than to bird the area near the longspur and see how many species we could turn up. Michael and I came up with a nice birding loop through the area, and then set out to see what we could find. Altogether, we saw 62 species including a continuing adult Trumpeter Swan at Silver Lake (one of 18 waterfowl species we found on various unfrozen ponds and lakes), Pine Siskins, Common Raven, American Pipits, and many Red-shouldered Hawks and American Kestrels! I have spent two spring and summer seasons in coastal Virginia, working on projects with Whimbrel and Peregrine Falcons, but this was my first time really birding Virginia in the winter, so I was also able to add 19 species to my state list! Overall, it was a pretty nice day of birding, highlighted by an excellent lifer!