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Let's take another look:
Identification and hints to locate Louisiana's longspur species
There are four species of longspur (genus Calcarius). This group of migratory, terrestrial sparrows is named for their very long hind claw. Adult male longspurs are strikingly patterned and easy to identify in alternate plumage, but rarely do we get to observe them in this plumage in Louisiana. Here, longspurs are not usually detected until mid-October (at the earliest), after they have completed their post-breeding molt. In fresh basic plumage, longspurs are cryptically colored -- adorned in shades of brown, buff, and white -- and blend in with their environment of dirt and dried grasses. Each feather is thickly edged with these colors. The edges wear off through the winter to gradually expose the alternate plumage. Thus, longspurs "wear into" rather than molt into their breeding colors (there is limited pre-alternate molt), which become visible by late spring/early summer. Because the alternate plumage is essentially shrouded during the winter, adults, especially males, show only a "shadow" effect of their fancy alternate pattern. Immature plumaged individuals present a great identification problem because they show little, if any, of the muted alternate pattern. Immature females are the least patterned, and therefore present the greatest identification challenge of all. The accompanying illustration shows all four species in immature female plumage and emphasizes the key features to scrutinize to distinguish each species. All species have some degree of white in the tail feathers; the pattern of light and dark is an important identification mark. The four species can be segregated into pairs based on the amount of white in the tail. Figure 1 illustrates these patterns on closed versus well-spread tails. From the illustration, it is obvious that the tail pattern is best viewed when the tail is spread. Study the tail closely when longspurs take-off or come in for a landing.
Longspurs are birds of wide-open spaces both on the breeding and wintering grounds. Though they occur in featureless open environments, longspurs can be amazingly difficult to locate. Unlike other sparrows, their behavior is mouse-like; longspurs creep along the ground with a hunched posture, much like a Horned Lark or Sprague's Pipit. They frequently crouch to avoid detection, and have an uncanny ability to hide in depressions and behind dirt clods, or flush just as you are about to get a good look. Longspurs form flocks during the winter (with their own species, other longspurs, Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, or American Pipits). Large flocks are often first detected when flushed from a field as the birds are wheeling around. Back on the ground, longspurs disappear from sight. Because they hunker down close to the ground and move in and out of furrows and depressions, it is easy to pan past many individuals when searching a field with a telescope. Longspurs sometimes move between foraging areas during the day, individually or in flocks of various sizes. When in transit, they are easy to detect by their frequent calls. All species give a "rattle." This note can be compared to the call of a female Brown-headed Cowbird, the longspur "rattle" being somewhat quicker, notes more evenly spaced, and without emphasis on particular notes. The rattle call varies somewhat between species, but other non-rattle calls, are often more diagnostic (e.g., the "tew" call of the Lapland Longspur).
Longspur species show a preference for habitat types. Crudely, these habitat preferences can be broken into "species that prefer dirt" and "species that prefer grass." To find longspurs, locate the "best" types of fields for particular species. Also important is choosing the best portion of the state to begin your searches. Unfortunately, the geography of Louisiana (no mountains and valleys) does not tend to concentrate longspurs in certain areas during the winter. Longspurs have been found throughout the state in appropriate habitats. The agricultural areas of northern and southwestern Louisiana have yielded the most records and are probably the best areas to search.
Lapland Longspur (Calcarius lapponicus)
Although overlooked in Louisiana until 1932, Lapland Longspur is the expected wintering longspur. Most years, small to modest numbers are recorded, with flocks in the single or double digits (e.g., the species has never been missed in the 11- year history of the Crowley CBC). Occasionally, much larger numbers will be found, with single flocks numbering in the hundreds or thousands. Annual abundance is usually thought to be linked with harsh winter conditions and heavy snows to our north. "Laps" typically arrive in Louisiana during mid-October and remain through March. Most Louisiana observations are associated with the Christmas Bird Count period.
Laps are fairly flexible with regard to habitat selection, with birds discovered at sod farms, on river levees, in plowed fields, or in rice or cotton stubble. Their favorite foraging sites in Louisiana appear to be slightly wet (=muddy), barely vegetated fields (including plowed-over cotton, soybean, or other crops). These fields appear to be essentially "wet dirt" at a distance. Laps are sometimes in the company of Horned Larks, but are usually in pure flocks of varying size. Despite their preference for sparsely vegetated fields, they are easy to overlook if the flock does not flush or calling birds are not detected. Laps on the move frequently utter their characteristic rattle (a "rt-rt-rt-rt-rt") or "tew" (similar to a distant Lesser Yellowlegs) calls. Both of these calls can be heard at some distance, often well before the bird comes into view. Once these are learned, you realize just how many Laps can be out there! With luck, transient calling birds may lead you to a larger flock on the ground. Sometimes it is necessary to walk fields to detect lurking lonspurs, if you are not fortunate enough to be standing next to a field when a flock flushes.
As longspurs go, Lapland is a fairly well-marked species in basic plumage. The combination of rusty-edged brown secondary coverts, restricted white to the outer tail feathers (not usually seen unless the tail is fanned),and very light (or white) underparts that are heavily streaked on the sides and flanks, eliminates all other species. Streaks across the breast form a necklace. Laps have a finchy-looking brownish-pink or reddish-pink bill, are relatively large, and have proportionately long wings. Laps have a fairly distinct head pattern with pronounced buffy or golden-colored eyebrow, median stripe and cheek. The cheek is boldly edged by a black "triangle." The throat is white. On the ground and from a distance, birds blend in amazingly well with their dirt background. Once a group of birds is found, it is often possible to "work the flock" for eventual close approach. Birds may get used to your presence and allow you to mingle with the flock. If close inspection is permitted, either by proximity or optical equipment (good telescope), Laps can be seen to have amazingly variable and detailed plumage. It is not unusual to find adult males in Louisiana with bright rusty collars and large areas of black on the chest. The illustration of the immature female shows the drabbest extreme; as compared to the other species, its pattern is the boldest.
Smith's Longspur (C. pictus)
Smith's Longspur has a very restricted and localized winter distribution in Louisiana. First recorded in 1952, the known Louisiana winter range remains the extreme NW portion of the state in Caddo/Bossier parishes. It is found most winters in small numbers (flocks less than 50). Its winter distribution is apparently linked with that of three-awn grass (Aristidassp.), a native grass genus of the short-grass prairie. There are only two Louisiana records away from the Shreveport area: Natchitoches (Natchitoches Airport) and St. John-the-Baptist parishes. Smith's is truly a "grass species." It prefers ankle to shin-deep grass (deep enough that the birds are seldom visible), that is somewhat sparse, so that individuals can move through the grass with their feet actually touching dirt. Smith's are very elusive in this habitat, and rarely are individuals detected before they are flushed. Compounding the frustration, Smith's allows fairly close approach before an individual will flush. That translates into to a lot of walking in hopes of initially flushing a longspur, and lots more walking and re- flushing to get decent looks.
All recent reports of this species are from the Shreveport Municipal Airport where fair expanses of three-awn grass still persist. Unfortunately, access to this area is restricted, so Smith's should be looked for in other stands of three-awn grass, or perhaps in any superficially similar appearing habitat. Chances of detecting fly-bys are slim, and birds will likely be found by walking fields in hopes of flushing birds. Like Lap, Smith's vocalize in flight. They have a similar rattle, reported by some observers as harsher, each note of the rattle being somewhat more punctuated. Smith's Longspur is on the LBRC Review List.
Smith's is another large longspur. The combination of completely buffy underparts and limited white in the outer tail feathers separate it from all other species. Similar in structure to a Lap, it has proportionately long wings, a relatively short primary extension (compared to a Lap), and long tail. It is also the only species to show a white shoulder patch, although not prominently on immature females. Like Lap, its bill is a dull brownish-pink, but somewhat less "finchy," more slender and pointed than a Lap. Its head pattern is somewhat similar too, although it is much more muted because it set on a buffy, rather than white, background. The small white inner spot in the cheek is often visible on close inspection. The illustration depicts the drabbest extreme. In this plumage, note the size compared to the other species, the somewhat uniform appearing plumage, and bill shape.
Chestnut-collared Longspur (C. ornatus)
Chestnut-collared Longspur was also first recorded in Louisiana in 1952. There are fewer than 15 records of this species (it is on the LBRC Review List), all but one of which (July-Cameron Par.) fall between mid-October to late March. Also a "grass" species, it is not surprising that all but three of the records are from Caddo Par. (rest Cameron Par.) and were of birds that were associated with Smith's Longspurs. The maximum Louisiana count is a flock of 35 individuals; most observations involve 1-5 birds. Chestnut-collared regularly winters as close to Louisiana as NW Texas. This species prefers large open expanses with short-grass. In Louisiana, fallow fields, including rice stubble, would be good areas to search. Because of the vast areas of potential habitat in Louisiana, it will always be a challenge to find this species. In the western US, it often occurs with Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs. But in Louisiana, these species seem to prefer more sparsely vegetated fields, which are less attractive to Chestnut-collared. Like Smith's, Chestnut-collared stays hidden in the grass until flushed. When flushed or in transit, birds give a distinctive two-note "kid-del" call; it can also give a rattle.
Chestnut-collared Longspur is the smallest species. The extensively white tail with a black triangle is diagnostic. The tail pattern is most easily observed when the bird comes in for a landing. On the ground, white is usually visible on the sides of the closed tail. Chestnut-collared is fairly drab, uniformly buff below, with faint median crown and eyebrow stripes, cheeks slightly outlined, and a faint malar mark. It has short wings, short primary extension, and short tail. The bill is small and dark pinkish-brown, the underparts are only vaguely streaked. Adult males often show rust on the collar or sides of the head and muted black underparts, but even adults appear relatively unmarked in fresh basic plumage. The illustration indicates the relative size of this species compared to the others. Compare especially with the other buffy "grass"-loving species, Smith's Longspur. Smith's is larger, white is restricted to the outer two tail feathers.
McCown's Longspur (C. mccownii)
McCown's Longspur has been found only twice in Louisiana: 30 Nov. 1979 (one on the UNO Campus in New Orleans) and 27 Jan. 1991 (three with Laps and Horned Larks in a newly planted muddy field in northern Jefferson Davis Par.). It is on the LBRC Review List. McCown's commonly winters as close to Louisiana as central Texas. McCown's prefer over- grazed, sparsely vegetated, or bare dirt fields. The best chance to find this species is probably in flocks of Laps in western LA. It may occur more frequently than the two records would indicate.
McCown's is unmistakable. On the ground it looks small, fairly dull, and more sandy or grayish in color than a Lap. It has a distinctive House Sparrow-like face pattern with a pale supercilliary, broad eyeline, and a large dark-tipped pink bill. Its short tail is mostly covered by very long uppertail coverts and when the tail is spread the diagnostic white-bordered inverted black "T" is clearly visible; from above, the "T" has a two-toned (gray-black) look because it is partially covered by the uppertail coverts, rather than the "T" being completely jet black (compared to the all-black triangle of the Chestnut- collared). This pattern is best viewed when the bird comes in for a landing, but a good deal of white can be seen on the closed tail when the bird is on the ground. It has a rusty shoulder, dark malar mark, unstreaked underparts, very long wings, and long primary projection. In a flying flock of Laps, it can usually be picked out by its smaller size. McCown's will also announce its presence in a flock by its half-hearted rattle and Horned Lark-like two noted call ("prit up"). The illustration is of a drab extreme individual; note the House Sparrow-like appearance, long wings and very short tail as compared to the other dirt-loving species, the Lap.
We would like to acknowledge LSUMNS for use of longspur specimens to prepare the illustrations. Longspur distributional information was gleaned from the LA bird record card file and the LBRC files. Bill Fontenot provided insight to LA occurrence of Aristida ssp. See also A guide to the identification and natural history of the sparrows of the United States and Canada by James D. Rising, for more general information on longspurs.
---Donna L. Dittmann and Steven W. Cardiff
---LSU Museum of Natural Science

January LOS News