On 24-OCT-10, a couple of us headed down to San Diego in search of the three longspur species reported at the dog park on Fiesta Island in Mission Bay. You wouldn’t think an off-leash dog run area would be a great place to bird, but this is not your average bark park. The area is huge, with very few trees over gently rolling terrain of grasses interspersed with bare areas. Hundreds of people were there with their dogs, but all were very well-behaved. In fact, neither of us can remember a single instance of barking the whole morning – there may have been some, but it was so unobtrusive it simply didn’t register. A bumper sticker on a car there offered this good advice for life: “Wag more. Bark less.”
The first birds we saw were Horned Larks posted up everywhere all around us or walking around with their odd long stride. Their colors were radiant in the early morning sun. We joined several familiar birders on a knoll where they already had a very confiding Chestnut-collared Longspur. Typically, longspurs on their wintering grounds in southern California, are never confiding! We regularly see longspur flocks near Calipatria east of the Salton Sea. The most common species there is Chestnut-collared, with Lapland and McCown’s occurring in much smaller numbers and rarely, a Smith’s. Out there, you wander through grassy fields, trying to locate the longspurs in the vast flocks of American Pipits, Horned Larks, Western Meadowlarks and Savannah Sparrows. Then you try and view them on the ground before they flush and fly hundreds of yards away, starting the search all over again. Once you have a longspur in view, the challenge is to get a good enough look or hear them clearly enough to separate them down to species. So to have a Chestnut-collared Longspur, calmly sitting between tufts of grass, all of 20 feet away was simply unimaginable. We didn’t just get to see it – we got to study it! This dull, streaky bird might be been easily overlooked as a female House Finch except for the strangely long rear claw for which longspurs are named.
The next bird we found was more brightly marked, and it turned out to be a McCown’s Longspur. Neither of us managed a decent shot of this bird, which is a shame, but it was fun to see. This bird was considerably more skittish, ducking behind clumps of grass and generally managing to stay out of view. From there, another birder led us to a pair of Lapland Longspurs that turned out to be the stars of the day! In winter, the Lapland is the most colorful longspur, and one of these was even friendlier than the Chestnut-collared had been. We ended up within 15 feet of this bird as it munched on seeds and ambled around in front of us. Apparently, neither the presence of a dozen excitedly whispering birders nor the constant whir of shutters going off bothered this bird a bit. The closeness of this bird made us grateful for the 15.5-foot minimum close focus of the Leica Apo-Televid scope, which enabled some stunning digiscoped shots with the D-Lux4 camera, and a foot further back, with the Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope and Nikon CoolPix P6000.