Verification of Unusual Sight Record
For Utah

Rec. # 2013-18

Common name:

McCown's Longspur

Scientific name: Calcarius mccownii
Date: December 28, 2012
Time: 4:00 P.M.
Length of time observed: 20 minutes.
Number: 1
Age: 1st winter
Sex: male
Location: 9600 N Penrose, Utah
County: Box Elder
Latilong: 41.680893,-112.287405
Elevation: 4,450 ft. (?) Estimate not exact.
Distance to bird: 20 Feet
Optical equipment: Nikon Monarchs, Swarvoski HD 60X Scope, Canon Powershot SX 40.
Weather: A few clouds in the sky, cold temperature, barely any wind.
Light Conditions: Good light, but after 10 minutes of viewing the sun started going down.
Description:        Size of bird: Smaller bird, about the size of a Horned Lark.
(Description:)       Basic Shape: round plump bird, a little smaller than the Horned Larks around it. Shortish tail.
(Description:)  Overall Pattern: Pale face and overall markings. No defining facial pattern like Lapland should have.
(Description:)            Bill Type: Big thick bill.
Field Marks and
Identifying Characteristics:
At first, I was not able to identify the bird. I sent an email report in for ID help, posted on a flickr ID help group page, and sent a few emails out to experienced birders. I got a few responses for either Chestnut-collared or McCown's Longspur, and only one for a pale first year Lapland. Here are some of the responses I got that made me sure it was a McCown's:

(This was commented on a photo that will be shown below) I think this photo shows the tail pattern quite well as a McCown's. You can see the dark "T" on the tip,and the outer most tail feather has a mostly dark tip,with a white edge. In all other longspurs I think the outer most tail feather should be all white. Sorry,I didn't take a long enough look at the photos before,so I change my vote from Lapland to McCown's.

(Another response to a picture) 1st winter McCown's Longspur. This view shows the short tail and shortish primary projection, but not quite as super-short as Chestnut-collared should be.

I think this may be a first-year McCown's Longspur. Notice the unstreaked breast, and the fairly large bill. In another shot, you'll also notice the lack of white on the median coverts, present on the 3 other species. Finally, in the first shot, you can really notice the short tail, and shorter primaries, characteristic of both McCown's and Chestnut-collared, but I'm thinking more McCown's.

With the new photos, we have a pretty good view of the primary spacing, which is better for McCown's, not Chestnut-collared as I argued before. The spacing is more reliable than other, more subjective, marks.

Putting these all together the main points are:

Bigger sized bill, unstreaked breast, no prominent face markings, primary projection (short) and spacing, lack of white on median coverts, short tail, primary projection and tail length are not as short as a typical Chestnut-collared Longspur should be, and dark "T" on the tail tip and the outermost tail feather has a mostly dark tip with a white edge. The other three Longspur species should have an all white outer tail feather.

When I first saw the bird it was in the same scope view as three other Lapland Longspurs so I could compare them very well. I noticed that this one was a lot paler than the other three and didn't have the prominent facial markings as the others did. So I thought it was different, but just kind of shook it off due to my lack of experience with Longspurs. Sent it into the list serve and got answers for three species of Longspur (no Smith's) so I sent it in to a Flickr ID help page. I kept getting answers for either C-N Collared or McCown's, but no definite answer. I luckily found some more pictures which showed tail projection very well and then people started concluding that the bird was a McCown's.

(Comments added on 16 Feb 2013 - with quotes from Jay Carlisle and Darren Clark)
In several of the photos the primary projection looks quite short, inconsistent with Lapland. I place a lot of emphasis on structure because plumage is highly variable. Different individuals wear differently, there is underlying variation in pattern, color (especially in photos) can be hard to judge, etc., creating an endless variety of patterns but wings and tails don't shrink or grow longer during the course of the winter. Back to plumage, the greater coverts appear plain brown with paler edges but no hint of the rufous typical of Lapland and lacking the white tips (that form a distinct wing bar on Lapland), the face seems on the plain side - especially the narrow border around auriculars, flanks are indistinctly streaked, and it has a distinct eye ring all arguing against Lapland but I'm not quite sure what to make of the bird because it doesn't seem to fit a typical Chestnut-collared either. I think the indistinctly streaked breast sides and flanks argue in favor of Chestnut-sided and against McCown's but it's a tough one and I'm really not sure what it is so I asked for opinions from a couple birders and here's what they said:

1- "I'm not sure. I can see it being a possible Chestnut-collared. It's a pretty washed out bird either way. I wish we could see the bird in profile and I wish the tail pattern was visible better. Obviously if we had those two pics then the ID would be straight forward and we wouldn't need to try this hard to figure it out. I'm having a hard time telling for sure how long the primary projection is. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't know for sure one way or the other."
2- "I'm honestly torn between McCown's and Chestnut-collared - the broad, unstreaked supercilium, unstreaked nape, buffy chest and obvious white belly make me think McCown's. But, not sure about bill size and the dark edge of the auriculars seems a little paler than Sibley shows for CCLO but definitely more marked than MCLO ... ???"

(see photos)

Song or call & method of delivery: The bird was primarily silent for what I heard. I did hear a rattle call, but I'm pretty sure it was the Buntings.
Behavior: Feeding on the roadside with 3 other Lapland Longspurs, 2 Snow Buntings, and about 50 Horned Larks. The bird would fly with the group and occasionally land in the fields off the side of the road and then fly back onto the pavement.
Habitat: Snowy fields, paved road with melting snow on the sides, just a typical rural farm town area.
Similar species and how
were they eliminated:
Lapland Longspur, Chestnut-collared Longspur.

Lapland Longspur: The Lapland Longspur typically has a more defined facial pattern with black colored arriculars. This bird was very pale and did not show a typical Lapland look. Lapland Longspurs also usually have some rusty and orange coloring in the wing, mantle, and back area which this bird again didn't have. There is also streaking on Lapland that goes down the flanks (Dark on adult and lighter, but still noticeable on 1st winter). Also a smaller bill. I compared the McCown's with the other 3 Laplands in the scope view and they were noticeably different. Primary projection was too short for Lapland as well.

Chestnut-collared Longspur: The C-N Collared Longspur was the tough one to rule out, but there was enough evidence to do so. From the pictures provided you can see that the primary projection of the Longspur is short, but not as short as a typical C-N Collared should be. The facial pattern on the McCown's was still a bit lighter in the arricular section that a C-N collared should be. There was also a lack of streaking on the breast which usually shows on C-N Collards.
Previous experience with
this & similar species:
That day was my first time ever seeing any Longspur species so I did not have any prior experience.
References consulted:

Bryant Olsen, David Wheeler, Cliff Weisse, "Palmchat" (Flikr username), "Bird_Nerd" (Flickr), "Birdman95" (Flickr), and two other birders very experienced in Longspurs. I forgot their names [Jay Carlisle and Darren Clark], but one banded birds in Wyoming and the other did breeding bird surveys for Longspurs [see their comments in the "description" section].

Description from: From photo(s) taken at the time of the sighting
Observer: Kendall Watkins
Observer's address: 2622 Dry Creek Drive Riverton, Utah
Observer's e-mail address: **
Other observers who independently identified this bird: John Watkins
Date prepared: 2/13/13
Additional material: Photos