Lapland Longspurs breed across North America, Greenland,
and Eurasia in a circumpolar range mostly north of the
Arctic Circle. They are the most numerous passerine birds
on the Arctic tundra, reaching densities of about one
breeding bird per acre.
Lapland Longspurs arrive on the Arctic breeding grounds
in May, as snow and ice begin to thaw. Because of the
uncertain spring weather, migrants retain some of their
fat reserves from migration. Males arrive first and
quickly establish territories in moist open tundra by
singing nearly incessantly and interacting aggressively
with their neighbors. Males begin to court females when
they arrive a few days to one week later. They perform
courtship flights during which they ascend 15 to 30 feet,
then glide to earth, singing with tail spread and wings
held in a "V."
In the short Arctic summer, Lapland Longspurs experience
a compressed breeding season. The onset of courtship,
nesting, hatching, and fledging is very synchronous.
Females begin building nests within a few days of arrival
on the breeding grounds. Within three days they complete
the cup of grass, lichens, moss and rootlets in a
sheltered depression on the ground. The nest may be lined
with ptarmigan or raven feathers, and caribou, lemming,
or dog hair. The female incubates the five to six eggs
for less than two weeks. Hatchlings are fed a diet of
insects, especially mosquitoes, craneflies, and beetles.
They leave the nest even before they can fly, at eight to
ten days of age, thus avoiding predators such as weasels
and jaegers attracted to the smell and noise of the nest.
Three to five days later the young can fly. Often the
last-hatched nestlings are left behind. After the
breeding season, they gather in small groups that
gradually unite into larger migrating flocks.
Autumn migration may begin as early as August, with the
main flight in September to October. Lapland Longspurs
spend the winter primarily in the central and northern
Great Plains of southern Canada and north-central United
States. They are most common in areas with agricultural
crops of winter wheat or oats. They are gregarious during
migration and in the main part of their winter range.
Huge flocks numbering up to one million have been
recorded. They are also found in much smaller numbers,
often associated with pipits, Horned Larks and Snow
Buntings, from northern California and British Columbia
to the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to
Newfoundland. Winter habitat includes pastures, fields of
stubble, airfields, coastal marshes and beaches. The
number of observed migrants fluctuates during winter from
year to year with the severity of weather and the
abundance of food.
In flight, Lapland Longspurs appear chunky and have a
stronger, more powerful style than the fluttering Horned
Larks with which they may associate. They forage on the
ground, walking or running while searching intently for
seeds. When flushed, they circle in tight flocks, giving
a characteristic flight call, a short hard "prrrrt"
followed by a short musical whistled "chu."
Longspurs tend to stay together even in mixed flocks.
Description: Lapland Longspurs are large
sparrows with relatively short tails and large heads.
Males in breeding season are distinctively colored. The
short bill is yellow with a dark tip. The face, throat
and breast are black, separated from the rufous nape and
black crown by a white supercilium stripe that extends
down to the shoulder. Male upperparts are blackish,
streaked with pale buff. Lapland Longspurs have a white
belly bordered by black flank stripes. Their outer tail
feathers are white.
Females are distinguished by their rufous nape and
greater wing coverts, and by blackish lateral crown
stripes separated by a bold supercilium from the
blackish-bordered ear coverts. Like the males, they have
striped upperparts and whitish underparts with striped
flanks. In winter, males resemble females in breeding
plumage, but the male's dark breast pattern is visible as
faint barring or spotting.
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