Sunday, February 21, 2021

Nature: Lapland longspurs, native to the tundra, more frequent in Ohio

A male Lapland longspur stays alert on a recent snowy, frigid morning in Franklin County/Jim McCormac

Nature: Lapland longspurs, native to the tundra, more frequent in Ohio

Columbus Dispatch
February 21, 2021

NATURE
Jim McCormac

My, how birding has changed. Just over two centuries ago, in February 1819, frontier ornithologist John James Audubon was exploring the Ohio River near his home in Henderson, Kentucky.

Audubon encountered vast numbers of a bird new to him: “I saw immense flocks scattered… on the grassy banks of the Ohio [river]. Having my gun with me, I procured more than sixty in a few minutes”. He went on to note that “…a relative of mine… killed about 600.”

The legendary birdman had met the Lapland longspur, a sparrowlike bird of the far north. And Audubon did comment that he found them to be “excellent eating.”

No one that I know shoots longspurs these days, but birders train a lot of optics on them. And this has been the winter for longspur-watching.

Lapland longspurs are one of the world’s most abundant birds, with a global population estimated at 150 million. It’s understandable if you never heard of this species, though. They breed nowhere near you, and normally are out of sight and mind in winter.

The original specimen was collected in Lapland, in northernmost Finland. This songbird breeds in tundra regions around the top of the globe. The other part of the name, longspur, comes from the species’ elongated hallux, or hind toe, perfect for scratching out seeds from the frozen earth.

No one know for sure where the longspurs wintering in Ohio originate, but without doubt it was FAR to the north.

Perhaps the bird in the photo bred in Quttinirpaag National Park on Canada’s Ellesmere Island. It’s the second most northerly park in the world, about 3,000 miles north of Columbus. In such inhospitable Arctic regions, Lapland longspurs are sometimes the only nesting songbirds.

Because of their isolated tundra breeding locales, longspurs can be quite tame. They are not used to people and the perils we pose. In Audubon’s day that made for great shooting opportunities. Today, longspurs provide interesting fodder for photographers.

When Lapland longspurs peregrinate south to southernmost Canada and the U.S. in winter, peak numbers occur in the Great Plains. Kansas is an epicenter, and flocks estimated at 4 million birds have been recorded in core wintering grounds.

Longspurs are far scarcer to the east, and birders normally must seek them out along rural roads bisecting sprawling farm fields. Small flocks sometimes scavenge grain along berms, often in company with horned larks and occasionally another northern visitor, the snow bunting. More often they remain far out in fields.

This winter, Lapland longspurs have appeared in Ohio in perhaps unprecedented numbers. Large flocks have appeared statewide, even in places that they are rarely seen such as urban farms and strip mines in southeast Ohio’s hill country. Perhaps brutal winter weather to our north and west pushed them our way.

Now, longspurs like the male in the photo are in relatively drab winter plumage. Come mid-April or so, males will have molted into a rich chestnut nape, ebony face and throat, and candy corn yellow bill. They’ll be skylarking about, delivering a gushing symphony of musical jangles sure to impress the ladies.

By early spring, wanderlust, or vaellushalu as the Laplanders would say, will have infused the 6 inch, 27 gram longspurs. The northward pull is insurmountable and off they will go to the land of polar bears and midnight sun, far from the eyes of most people.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

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