Monday, July 6, 2009

Leaving Town for Mr. McCown

Monday, July 6, 2009
The view from the special birding spot.

The second half of my family's recent trip out West was spent in Montana, a lifer state for me. Julie spent a summer in northernmost Montana when she was a teenager, living with her sister Barb and family. The other three of us only knew about Montana what we'd heard from friends and absorbed from books and pop culture. We spent three amazing days canoeing down the Missouri river and camping—and there are sure to be more posts about that in the future. Today's post is about a few hours devoted to our attempt at finding a target species in a very specialized habitat.

Julie and I had been invited by Bob Niebuhr to speak at the Mountain Bluebird Trails 35th anniversary meeting in Great Falls, Montana. For more than three decades this organization has been putting up houses for mountain bluebirds all across Montana, and their success is evident by the widespread presence of this lovely all-blue thrush.

Our first night (Friday) at the MBT event we played music as the opening act to birding funny man Al Batt, the world's tallest Lutheran with a sense of humor. If you've never heard Al Batt speak, you really should. You'll have an excellent chance to hear Al at the Midwest Birding Symposium where he is one of the evening keynote speakers. But back to our story...

The following morning I was slated to co-lead a bird walk along the Missouri River in Great Falls. Though it was only a few hours in duration, the birding at Giant Springs Park was very good, with wonderful looks at cliff swallow, common merganser, black-headed grosbeak, and a nesting pair of Bullock's orioles.

The rest of the morning and early afternoon were filled with a series of talks and presentations, which covered some interesting topics. But there was a problem. We'd met Liz Larcom on the field trip and she mentioned in the course of our conversation, a place about an hour away that was a reliable location for a very special bird—one that would be a lifer for Julie: The McCown's longspur.

In North Dakota each year we try to get our fill of the stunningly beautiful chestnut-collared longspur, which prefers dense grass—especially native prairie. To see the McCown's you have to go farther west, to the more barren and dry grasslands of the western Great Plains. I'd seen this species once, years before, in the Pawnee Grasslands of Colorado, but never since. So I was eager to go and Julie was eager at the chance for a life bird. So we swallowed our sense of guilt at missing some of the day's speakers, and we loaded up the truck and headed north. Liz and another Montana birder came along voluntarily as our guides. Phoebe and Liam came along less willingly, but got more into it as the snow-capped mountains hove into view.

After passing through a small town, we turned off the main road onto a gravel road that pointed us west. The mountains, perhaps 20 or more miles away, seemed close enough to reach in an hour's walk or so, the clear, thin air and sunlight reducing the distance in what was literally a trick of the light. Less than a mile along the road we saw chestnut-collared longspurs doing their song flights above the grass. Vesper sparrows and horned larks eyeballed our vehicle from the barbed wire fence.

Then we was a paler gray bird hovering in the sky, singing. It swooped to the ground and was lost, but not before we knew what it was. We'd found a small set of McCown's longspurs—probably pairs with adjoining territories. So we got out and waited for the song flight to begin again.
Deploying birders seeking longspurs.

Here is what we saw.

Male McCown's on his fave perch.

The male McCown's flew to perch on a fencepost along the road and sang several times. Then he took to the air once more. Of the 200+ images I took of him in flight, only a couple are worth saving and here is perhaps the best of those:
In flight, the McCown's tail shows a black T on white feathers.

Each time he finished his display flights he flew to a different spot in the grass, and then walked to what we imagine was the nest site, near this large rock (below). Once or twice he flew directly to the rock, sang, preened, and then disappeared into the grass.
Dropping in near the nest.

The meadow where he was nesting was loosely covered in dry grass. There we cattle grazing in part of it, near to some ranch buildings. The setting was not remote but it did feel a bit lonely.

We moved farther down the road to be in a better position to take pictures when the longspur returned to his favorite fencepost. He obliged us just twice.
He gave us a striking side view, then turned to show us his chest and his cap.

I wonder if the patterning on the head and breast are disruptive coloration, meant to break up the bird's outline.

This species could, perhaps, have been called blackpoll longspur.

The female McCown's was less striking, but still showed the species' obvious chestnut shoulder patches and obvious white outer tail feathers. If you get a good look at the tail on a flying McCown's longspur, you can see the tail is bisected by a dark line and tipped in black, forming a T.

A female McCown's.

The white face really stands out above the male's black chest.

We spent about 45 minutes with the longspurs, drinking in the sights, listening to their thin, tinkling songs, and marveling at how alive with birdsong this place was so late in the morning. Then we hot-footed it back to Great Falls in time to catch some lunch and to reconnect with the event.

Tomorrow I'll share a video clip of the longspurs.


On July 6, 2009 at 5:00 PM Julie Zickefoose said...

Oh what a lovely memory. Thank you for this and for coming with us to find the longspurs. I want to go back to Montana next year!

On July 7, 2009 at 8:04 AM Anonymous said...

Congrats on getting that lifer! What a cool bird! Looking forward to the video.