Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Rare Bird Breaks Summer Doldrums
July 14, 2012
By Steve Grinley

     In my column a couple of weeks ago, Doug Chickering commented how this was the doldrums of summer in the bird world, when not much was happening. He was hoping that a rarity might appear to stir things up. Since nothing earth-shattering had surfaced locally, Margo and I recently decided to head out of state and try to see a chestnut-collared longspur that had had been found at the East Point Sanctuary at Biddeford Pool in Maine. It was a life bird for her and, I thought, it was for me as well.

     The chestnut-collared longspur is a bird of the central plains and it was one that we missed at the Pawnee Grasslands during our trip to Colorado a few years ago. Though it has shown up in Massachusetts more than once over the years, it often is a one-day wonder, and just a bird I hadn’t caught up with here.

     We headed for the East Point Sanctuary after a few days of positive reports that this bird was, apparently, sticking around. We had not read what plumage this bird was in. Usually it is young birds that stray this far from home, so we expected a rather drab, sparrow-like bird if, in fact, we were lucky enough to see it. It was not a long drive, about an hour and a half, on a bright, sunny day. We found the trailhead to the Sanctuary and I grabbed my scope and Margo was armed with her camera and we headed out to try to find the bird.

     The trail passed through some woods bordering a golf course and eventually opened up to a large tract of grassland at the edge of the ocean. The point was bordered on the north by the mouth of the Saco River with the Wood Island lighthouse on an island at the mouth of the river. It was a picturesque Maine coastal scene. A few lobster boats dotted the rocky shore as common eiders with young huddled the rocks. Terns and gulls flew by, often carrying food for their offspring.

     As we walked along the path into the field, we encountered a local birder and another couple who told us that the longspur was out there, and mostly very cooperative. They said that it liked to feed along the paths, which made it more easily visible in the low cut grass. They also told us that it was a male in breeding plumage. Wow, what a bonus!

     We proceded along the path, and I went a little further ahead to the point. I turned left on another path when I flushed a bird. I could see it had white in the outer tail feathers and it was dark below, so I figured it must be the longspur. It dropped down along the path in front of Margo and after viewing it with her binoculars, she lifted her camera and began firing away. I walked back near her and raised my binoculars to view this spectacular looking bird. It was deep black on the belly and its beautiful chestnut collar stretched from across the back of its neck “ear to ear.”

     I then grabbed my scope and zoomed in for some awesome views. Margo also peered at her life bird through the scope. She continued to take pictures and got some incredible shots. You can view some of her photos at:http://www.flickr.com/photos/24246528@N05/7429150252/

     A few other birders arrived, some we knew from Massachusetts, and they also had great views. The bird occasionally flushed, but always seemed to return to one of the paths. But the last couple of times it got more into the higher grass, making it more difficult to relocate.

     We had been there for a few hours so we decided to leave. Before we hit the edge of the field, we encountered our good friends Denny Abbott and Davis Finch from New Hampshire. Denny had traveled with us on our Alaska trip and we often see these guys only when a rare bird shows up!Since we knew where the longspur had most recently flown, we decided to help them locate the bird so we turned around and headed back out with them.

     They went to the area where we saw the bird most often while I searched the taller grass area where the bird last put down. After more time than we expected, the bird finally flushed from the taller grass and landed where Denny and Davis could see it. They ended up getting great views as Margo was able to get it in the scope for them. Success!

     After we got home, it wasn’t until a few days later that I decided that I should update my Life List book with this remarkable sighting. When I went to the page with the longspurs, I saw that the Chestnut-collared was already filled in! Apparently I had seen one in July of 1966 in the Pawnee Grasslands of South Dakota! That was during my cross-country birding trip in a Volkswagon Bus when I was a teenager. Not surprising that I didn’t remember seeing the bird after forty-six years!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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