Another slow week of migration (thanks mostly to strong winds) has concluded with an exciting capture: the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory’s sixth ever Lapland Longspur. Though we may see them near daily in the late fall, they are quite unlikely to find themselves in our nets. The last one banded was back in September of 2010. Much like the Belted Kingfisher from a couple weeks ago, Lapland Longspurs prefer flying down the open shoreline rather than among the trees where our nets are located.
Lapland Longspurs are one of four species of Longspur in North America, named for their extra long hind claw. If you are unfamiliar with Scandinavian geography, you may have thought the name “Lapland” is another example of a species named after an early ornithologist. Lapland is instead the northernmost region across Norway, Finland, and Sweden. They get this name because Lapland Longspurs are found in both Eurasia and North America, although the continents have different subspecies that do not appear to mix.
Many seem to be surprised when they discover that we share species in common with nations ‘across the pond’, but Lapland Longspurs are not unique in this trait. Horned Larks, Boreal Owls, and Osprey are other species common in the so-called new world and old. Yet the list of common species is shrinking – not due to local extinctions, but because ornithologist have been splitting previously shared species by their genetics or behaviours into unique species. Hence Common Magpies are now Black-billed Magpies in the Americas and Eurasian Magpies in Europe, and Mew Gulls are now Short-billed Gulls here and Common Gulls there.
In North America during the breeding season, Lapland Longspurs move into the tundra in northern Canada, Alaska and the southern edges of Greenland. Males will put on a performance to attract a mate, flying up high and singing as they glide back to the ground. Nests are cup-shaped and made up of grass lined with feathers and fur, hidden under tussocks of grass and other vegetation on the ground.
Nonbreeding and female Lapland Longspurs are identifiable by the rusty patch on their wings and darkly outlined cheeks. Breeding males are far more obvious with a black cap, face and throat, and a rusty nape. They prefer open spaces and forage for insects and seeds on the ground. While moving to and from their wintering grounds at the southern border of Canada and across the United States, they can be found on local beaches, and in prairie and pasture in large mixed flocks including Horned Larks, American Pipits, and Snow Buntings.
Overall, the Lapland Longspur is not at risk, although as with any species, humans do make their impact. On one hand, they face the same perils of our other birds including depredation by cats, colliding with structures, and adverse effects from pollution and pesticides. On the other, they benefit from an increase in their wintering habitat and seed diet due to agriculture.
By Bronwyn Robinson, LSLBO Assistant Bander, and Robyn Perkins, LSLBO Bander-in-Charge