Connecticut Audubon Bird Finder for January 10: Lapland Longspur

Lapland Longspur 2Lapland Longspur
Calcarius lapponicus

Each winter, uncommon avian visitors from the north appear in open habitats such as fallow farm fields, coastal beaches, grasslands, and dunes. Among these winter visitors may be the Lapland Longspur, a small songbird in the family Emberizidae  – a taxonomic category composed of certain finches, American sparrows, towhees, buntings, and New World sparrows. Lapland Longspurs breed in wet meadows and grassy hummocks of the Arctic tundra of Nearctic and Palearctic regions. Their winter range extends much wider – in North America it covers most of the lower 48 states but is very rare in the southern reaches of the border and Gulf states. They typically begin to appear in Connecticut by mid to late October, stay through much of the winter, then depart by the end of March.

Where to find it: Those searching for Lapland Longspurs should visit coastal locations with open expanses of grassland, dunes, sand barrens or other open ruderal habitats. We’ve seen this species a number of times at the Stratford Point Coastal Grassland Conservation Area this winter, usually in the company of Horned Larks or Snow Buntings, foraging at the edge of the paved roadways and accessways where wind blown weed seeds accumulate where the pavement meets the vegetation. Other times, it may be found along the outer bluffside trail, where it can typically be spotted by slowly walking the trail until you note avian activity in the grass along the edge of the trail. Do not be fooled by the seemingly ever-present Song Sparrows that forage along these trails as well.

What it looks like: The Lapland Longspur has a similar size, shape and actions as a number of other sparrows that forage within open habitats, making it somewhat of an identification challenge for beginner birders in our area. This is because these birds are typically not sporting their breeding plumage when visiting during winter months. Instead they are more drably colored in the streaky earth-tone rust and browns of their sparrow cousins. Look for dark bordered auriculars (the feathers behind the eyes covering the ears), dark streaking on the flanks, and usually some amount of rufous on the nape or tertials. Occasionally one may be found lingering into late winter or may stop by while passing through during its northbound spring migration, rewarding birders with a view of its more striking breeding plumage.    

How to find it: The Stratford Point Coastal Grassland Conservation Area (1207 Prospect Drive, Stratford) and the Milford Point Coastal Center (1 Milford Point Road, Milford) are good places to look for this uncommon winter visitor. Other productive spots in the past have been the grassy field near the Nature Center at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison and the gravelly parking lot or grassy fields at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport. Searching large flocks of Horned Larks or Snow Buntings out in the open grassy, weedy, or intermittently barren habitats is likely to turn up one or more Lapland Longspurs.

What if the bird isn’t there: The beach areas at the places mentioned above are top choices in Connecticut to find this bird and many other wintering species. At Stratford Point, visitors are welcome on the property when CAS staff is there and the gate is open. Someone is usually on site each day during the week unless we are busy with fieldwork but the site is typically not open on weekends. If the bird is at neither location, you can also look for it at other coastal locations and within any large open agricultural land foraging among the stubble of the previous season’s row crops.

At this time of year at Milford Point, birders are welcome on both the beach and sandbar on Long Island Sound, and on Smith Point, which extends west along the beach, toward the Housatonic River. The views and the birding are excellent. Follow the signs and please stay off private property. Also note that parts of the McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, on Smith’s Point, are closed.

Conservation status: Lapland Longspurs in Connecticut have no special conservation designation status other than protection from collecting/capture under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. However since they do not breed in the state and are often overlooked in the field, they are eagerly sought by birders each winter. As spring approaches, finding one in its full breeding plumage before it departs for its breeding grounds in more northern latitudes can be a rewarding and memorable experience.

This week’s Connecticut Audubon Bird Finder was contributed by Anthony Zemba, director of Connecticut Audubon Society’s Conservation Services Department. CAS Conservation Services is an ecological consultancy specializing in flora and fauna surveys, habitat assessments, and a variety of natural resource management and planning services.

Photo by Anthony Zemba/Connecticut Audubon Society.

To sign up for future Connecticut Bird Finder emails, send your name and the name of the town you live in to tandersen@ctaudubon.org.

One Response to “Connecticut Audubon Bird Finder for January 10: Lapland Longspur”

  1. Charlie Barnard Jr. says:

    A first rate photo by Anthony and an informative article.

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