IN PURSUIT OF MY LIFE BIRD # 629: McCOWN'S LONGSPUR

We join this expedition in progress... Early in my 12-day, 2800-mile loop tour 
around the northern Great Plains, skirting the southern fringes of the great 
boreal forests (which are another story), I had already spent many hours 
wading through the chest-high vertical foliage of remnant tallgrass prairies 
in eastern North Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba, and thoroughly enjoying it--
for the profusion of flowers and the feeling of unbridled freedom it aforded 
as much as for the sparrows.  I had already seen spectacles of Chestnut-
collared Longspurs fluttering and hovering at eye-level over their hidden 
mates; Sprague's Pipits, as if defying the laws of bioenergetics, parasailing 
virtually beyond view of the sharpest earth-bound eye from dawn to dusk while 
emitting their incessant and ventriloqual descending tinkling calls; Sharp-
tailed Grouse scurrying across the road, and Upland Sandpipers perched sentry-
like on prairie fenceposts, very unshorebird-like.  But when I reached the 
high plains and short-grass prairies of far western North Dakota with its 
prairie dogs, bison, and pronghorn, I knew I was in a subtly different world.  
Many more hours of ornithambulating were in store, as I searched for Baird's 
and Grasshopper Sparrows and, ultimately, for McCown's Longspur.  The former 
two I found relatively early in this phase, although I only ever saw 2 of the 
rare Baird's.  Over the next two days, I went on to hear numerous renditions 
of the faint tinkle-tweetering of Grasshopper Sparrows, usually concealed in 
the dense undergrowth of the shortgrass prairies. 

After spending all morning hiking in the North Unit of Teddy Roosevelt 
National Park, where I added Yellow-breasted Chat, Lark Sparrow, and Lazuli 
Bunting to my triplist, I endeavored to find a prime piece of prairie as I 
headed south and then west into Montana.  This is not so easy, as what looks 
like one big chunk of "National Grassland" on the map is actually a crazy 
quilt of private/public lands, so I drove on.  Finally I found a likely 
sideroad through the prairie, and birds were flitting everywhere.  It had been 
a shadeless scorcher of an already long day afield, and about 100 meters from 
the car I realized what a bad sunburn I was developing. Finding myself with 0 
SPF, I wrapped my bandana around my nape and tried to look away from the sun.  
It soon become apparent that there were Longspurs galore in this very closely 
cropped prairie (a much different place from the earlier longspur hotspot in 
Manitoba, so I thought...).  And they were fast, skittish little buggers.  But 
I did get good glimpses of several birds, and they all turned out to be the 
commoner Chestnut-collared.  There were also numerous Horned Larks and, of 
course, the ubiquitous Western Meadowlarks, which I had long ago learned to 
filter out in my increasingly focused search.  Feeling parched and fried, I 
returned listlessly to the car, cranked the AC and sped off to my destination 
for the night, having not the energy nor inclination to look for a bird for 
the next few hours. 

After crossing into Montana and a little supper, I headed south from Wibaux 
along a little traveled road, as the sun was sinking, which at the same time 
resulted in decreased intensity of burning rays yet increased sharpness of 
focus on objects and landscapes viewed eastward.  This perked my spirits and 
supplied my second wind, psychologically.  The prairie looked pristine in 
large part through this remote area of large, lonely ranches with widely 
scattered herds of "slow elk" (as Ed Abbey called 'em) and pronghorn.  At 
about dusk, a turnoff onto a side road led to close encounters with impressive 
numbers of Upland Sandpipers, Killdeer, and Lark Buntings, and wonderful 
staring contests with pronghorn and a wiley old badger.  Then on to bed and 
hope for a cooler day.  I knew I wouldn't be much in longspur country for the 
next day-and-half, but then I was looking forward to being back in the land of 
ponderosa pine.  Ahead of me loomed a couple of isolated regions of hills just 
high enough to be cloaked in forest--cool oases on the dusty plains. 

Ponderosa pine brings back powerful memories of my year plus five long summers 
in Colorado.  Not many other trees are such potent memory triggers as this, 
because they lack the source of powerful and delightful fragrance that 
ponderosas inexaustibly exude from their bark--the smell of vanilla.  It's 
also an attractive, gnarly, majestic tree in its later years.  Not 
surprisingly, it's near the top of my list of favorites.  And of course it 
harbors its unique fauna, including the tassel-eared Abert's squirrel and the 
Pygmy Nuthatch (neither of which occur in these isolated stands), the gorgeous 
Western Tanager and the Red Crossbill.  In the first little stand of these 
trees, lying lonely and exposed in the remoteness of Southeastern Montana, I 
added the crossbill, Say's Phoebe, and Violet-green Swallow to my triplist.  
Later, Prairie Falcon and White-throated Swifts. 

At Devil's Tower--a truly magical place, where mature ponderosas surround like 
a beard this awesome monument to the god Vulcan--White-throated Swifts ruled 
the sky from dawn to dusk.  I read somewhere that they are probably the 
fastest flying birds (in sustained, powered flight).  At any rate, they should 
be the envy of any fighter pilot, as their speed and maneuverability and 
daring are unmatched in either human or avian worlds.  They are quite 
attractive, rather large swifts, and they fill the sky with their pleasant but 
ceaseless tinkle-twittering.  Curiously, they nested atop the 800-foot column 
alongside exotic and normally uninteresting Rock Doves, who had found a 
counterpart to their natural habitat in Europe. 

After leaving Devil's Tower, I knew this would be my last day (possibly for 
years) in which I had any chance of seeing a McCown's Longspur.  I had studied 
the road maps and the North American Breeding Bird Survey abundance maps on 
the Web sufficiently to know that Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming 
was THE place.  By that evening I would be in the Black Hills and then heading 
back east across the Dakotas, out of range of this elusive prairie denizen.  I 
made a few stops along the roadside after I descended back into the plains, 
and ticked off Brewer's Sparrow--the first one came hard, but that turned out 
to be the rusty floodgate pried open.  My first long walk into the high dry 
plains of the National Grassland itself proved to be annoyingly windy (hey, at 
least it was 20 degrees cooler than 2 days before in ND) and full of the same 
common birds I'd seen legions of over the past few days.  I pressed on farther 
into the prairie, stopped for lunch. 

A growing sense of desperation now compelled me to start entertaining worst-
case scenarios; as such pressure usually necessitates developing a tightly 
proscribed strategy, I decided I could afford to go only 15 miles west 
(opposite my homeward direction) to seek out habitats that looked likely for 
my "life" McCown's Longspur.  I hiked around in two or three spots within the 
western 5 miles of this area, and added Sage Thrasher, but no McCown's.  It 
was starting to get hot again.  But the scenery was spectacular.  I headed 
back east toward my lunch spot--one more stop was all I could afford.  I was 
really running late .  A half hour hike produced no longspurs.  I had now 
spent nearly one entire day searching for this one bird, and parts of two or 
three other days--to no avail.  I was not going to see this bird.  It was 
going to be my "western nemesis bird."  I had to head for the hills, 
literally, and so I went, dejected. 

In semi-conscious desperation, I stopped twice alongside the highway to scan 
the horizons and to listen.  No longspurs.  After about 10 miles--I wasn't 
even sure if I was still in the National Grassland, but I was certainly 
getting close to the eastern boundary of McCown's range (I was beginning to 
see too many signs of civilization on the outskirts of the Black Hills, which 
grew steadily taller on the horizon)--I noticed a dirt road leading north from 
the highway into a small oilfield development.  It looked like good prairie, 
and it was not posted.  I drove in about a half mile and parked. I took about 
a 15-minute loop out into the prairie, spooked a sleeping mule deer and 
flushed numerous of the three ubiquitous high plains birds with "lark" 
somewhere in their names.  But nothing else.  So I headed back to the car, to 
quit the game for good.  Damn!  You win some, you lose some, and I was just 
going to have to bite the bullet.  This one went into the loss column.  

But then, I heard something.  Something I don't think I'd heard before, but 
somehow a light just went off in my head that suggested longspur (I guess it 
was my subliminal memory of listening to those tapes so many times). 

Tinkling, warbling, I don't know how you'd describe it, but it wasn't anything 
I could eliminate based on any other bird I'd seen or heard that long day.  My 
pupils probably dilated and my nostrils probably flared, and perhaps my brow 
wrinkled in an attempt to squeeze some extra acuity out of my 20/60 eyesight.  
Every muscle was poised as I kicked the grass hoping to flush something.  And 
then it happened--the tail was black with big white margins--not a lark or a 
meadowlark or a Vesper Sparrow, all of which also had white-margined tails.  
It was certainly a Longspur.  I flushed it twice before it sat in a spot open 
enough for me to see it.  It was a juvenile.  Juv's of the two longspur 
species can only be distinguished by looking at the tail pattern, which is 
damned hard to see as they are undulatingly flying away from you. 

My best hope was to keep flushing it and maybe I'd flush another or attract 
the attention of a parent.  I had heard at least one bird singing, and it 
probably wasn't this juv.  As I stood there thinking about all this, it 
finally happened.  A picture-perfect adult McCown's Longspur came fluttering 
over in my direction, with wings and tail spread wide, variously hovering and 
flitting until it was directly overhead, showing its black breast, cap and 
mustache and singing its warbling song. 

I jumped (when people get excited, some scream, some giggle... I jump).  It was 
a jump that would have made any white man proud.  But I stuck around.  And the 
longspur rewarded me with another close pass and a fine view.  On my way back 
to the car (which was considerably farther away than I had imagined it to be, 
lost as I was in my only little world), I flushed another adult.  In my 11th 
hour I had stumbled upon a good place for these little buggers.  I guess this 
is one bird whose distribution you might call "local."  And here at the 
boundary of its range!  

A brief reality check suddenly suggested itself, whereupon I come up with the 
following analysis. I had spent entirely too much time searching for this one 
species and had long ago crossed the threshold of bug-eyed, punch-drunk, 
blithering fanaticism.  And I had been rewarded!  The moral was clear--the 
totally out-of-bounds attitude that the truly hopelessly addicted birder slips 
into, the never-ending "just one more stop" refrain that echoes within his 
empty skull, the "if at first you don't succeed" broken record, the kid-in-
the-candy-store lack of self restraint... these were precisely the formula for 
success in finding birds.  This is the way you should behave each and every 
time you go to seek out a bird.  If something is worth doing, it's worth 
overdoing.  No excess goes unrewarded, unless its not excessive enough.  

So what if you've played that silly tape at 50 stops for the past 4 hours? 
It's that 51st stop that holds the key to your bird.  In birding terms, this 
is paying the piper.  A quasi-birding companion would never understand, and 
this is why you should screen you birding partners carefully, or else go 
alone, with only you and your little voice (that prolix little psycopath that 
will probably drive you over the edge someday, but for now you're going to 
hang on tight and enjoy the ride as long as you can; the really 
institutionalizable case of dementia that's coming will, with luck, wait until 
you're too physically decrepit to be able to take up the challenge of 
overdoing it in the field). 

For now, let it all hang out and enjoy.

And that's my story about my McCown's Longspur.

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