On Saturday April 23rd, Chris Hockema and I headed to Weaver Dunes in the evening in hopes of seeing a Short-Eared Owl, which are sporadically reported from the area. We had no such luck with the Owl, but did repeatedly hear, and, only only once, glimpse in fading light a Smith's Longspur. I headed out Sunday April 24th to attempt to relocate the bird just to raise my certainty from 95% to 100%. Thankfully, the lone Smith's Longspur was still around! While I never had a portrait look on the ground, several times, I had good looks in flight, and was able to notice an overall buffy bird, with a large amount of white in the tail feathers, and white wing bars. I did not notice the breeding male facial pattern, indicating this bird was in a somewhat drabber plumage. The bird called a lot in flight, and at first Chris and I thought we were hearing the 4-note sputter call of a Brown-headed Cowbird, or an Eastern Meadowlark (plenty of both were present). The "dry rattle" was quite unlike that of a Lapland Longspur. As I was leaving Sunday, John and Chris Hockema were just arriving, so perhaps they will have more to add.
From Wabasha County Road 84, head east on Twp Rd 141 (605th St.). At fire marker 13551, you will come to a 3-way split. Park here, and walk along the leftmost of the three "roads." This path is sometimes driveable, but right now, there are wood beams there, I think to help improve the roadbed, but right now, they will take out the undercarriage of your vehicle. From here, it is about a 1/4 mile walk to the Nature Conservancy parking are, where there is a large windmill, a useful landmark. From the parking area, there is a wide, mown path, that heads due east. Walk this about 200 yards, and there is another wide, mown path that heads due south. The bird has been favoring on, or near these two mown paths, as well as (maddeningly) the taller grass to the right of both of these paths. Finding one lone Longspur, as long as it stays in this area, is not too difficult a task, but if the bird ever explores more of the amazing amount of habitat here, the needle in a haystack cliche will rear it's ugly head in spades. Or something like that.
Loggerhead Shrikes, Woodcock, and numerous nocturnal Henslow's Sparrows are other fun birds in this area. I had a Lark Sparrow NEAR here on 4/17, but otherwise they, and Grasshopper Sparrows, common here in summer, don't appear to be in yet.
While Spring Smith's Longspur records in SE Minnesota are slim, eastern Iowa actually has quite a few, and as Weaver Dunes has expanded in size and quality, it shouldn't be a huge suprise that we find Smith's Longspur here in Spring migration.
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