What happens after Lexington we're not sure yet!
As for today, Smith's longspur is the last bird I will realistically have time and energy to try to find this year. The most reliable spot for this species within striking distance of Dallas is an old airstrip adjacent to Lake Tawakoni. Smith's longspurs spend their summers on tundra and look for similarly flat, open areas for their wintering grounds. A defunct airstrip covered in low grass is an ideal winter haunt for this species. The only problem is that access to this area and the airstrip is restricted on all but 1 day a year. That lone day was yesterday when the Lake Tawakoni Christmas Count occurred. As I discussed, I was not able to participate in this count due to time/distance constraints. Participating in this count would certainly have been my best shot at this species.
Smith's longspur range
Even though I was not able to participate in the count yesterday, I decided to position myself close to the count circle for today. I did this on the off-chance that someone might find Smith's longspurs in an area that I could legally access this morning. At 11pm last night, I received an email from Dallas birder and eBird moderator Chris Runk. He told me that a flock of ~30 Smith's longspurs had been found on and eBirded from the count. However, as I expected, these were found on the restricted airstrip. With experience birding this area, Chris suggested that I head over to the airstrip anyway. He said that he sometimes sees longspurs as they fly over the publicly accessible County Road 1480 that borders the airstrip to the north. There is another large field to the north of CR 1480 where the birds are sometimes seen. As I had no other solid leads, I figured that this idea presented at least a chance of ticking this bird.
You can kinda see the outline of the old runway
slanting from bottom left to top right.
Temperatures were in the low 30s when I set off from the Emory Best Western this morning. I had a 10-mile ride to the spot. It was just too cold to set off at sunrise, but I was able to reach the area by 9:00am or so. I was greeted with lots and lots of fence; "Authorized Personnel Only" and "No Trespassing" signs were prominently displayed. However, I found a very large gap in the fence through which I could easily squeeze. Hell, it was early on Sunday, and it was cold. No one would be around to catch me if I just slid under the fence and walked around for a while. If I could walk along the airstrip, I could probably kick up at least one longspur given the number that were found here yesterday. I am sure I am not the first birder who has had thoughts like this. However, they remained just that, thoughts. I was sure as hell not going to be the birder to get busted sneaking into the area. Getting busted might mean that the already limited Christmas Count access could be revoked entirely. I'm not going to pretend I have been a perfect "access angel" in my 30 years of birding, but I will say that I the know the difference between taking a risk on behalf of myself and taking one on behalf of the birding community. The former is sometimes OK, the later is much less, if ever, so. It's all about judgement, so let's just leave it at that........
Anyway, I spent a freezing 45 minutes not seeing Smith's longspurs. I walked up and down CR 1480 listening for their distinctive flight calls. I figured that a flyover was my only shot. At around 9:45, I heard what sounded like Smith's longspurs calling from overhead down the road. I got my binoculars up in time to see 4 stout birds flying high across the road. I was fairly certain these were the sought bird, but given that this would be a lifer for me, I just wasn't ready to call it 100% from what I heard/saw. I needed about another 5 seconds. Bummer, but encouraging nonetheless. I continued my pacing routine for another 30 minutes. I then heard this loud racket coming from behind me. I looked up to see a huge swarm of Smith's longspurs flying 50 feet above my head. They were all calling, and I able to make out stout, buffy, short-tailed birds as they flew off to the north. They flew in a tight flock with undulating flights. This group spiraled upwards and eventually returned to the fenced airstrip to the south. I estimated that this flock contained ~40 birds. And there it was - year bird #615 was on the books. Sure I wish I had had a better look, but this was what I expected. They are on the list, and I have yet another good story to tell. Those are the important things. As this is almost assuredly the final new bird for 2014, it's extra special given that it was a lifer. Sure I could have had a better look, but I'll go to Alaska to photograph them breeding at some juncture and then it will be a moot point! Over the course of the last 45 minutes I spent at the spot, two more groups of 8-10 birds flew over. Huge props to Chris for recommending this approach.
View north from CR 1480
And with this, I would bet my camera that all the species that will join the 2014 Biking for Birds party are presently represented. After finding these birds, I rode to the Best Western in Greenville for an afternoon of football. This place is just as nice as the Emory BW! The timing of how this all worked out couldn't have been more perfect as Sonia is going to arrive late tonight. Right now the revised plan is to head into Dallas for the last few days of the year. One of my best friends from high school has invited my to her house for a New Year's eve party. She lives in a suburb with parks and such, so I will probably do some casual neighborhood birding with Sonia (if temperatures allow!) The older of my friend's two sons (8 years old, I think) has actually developed a bird interest, so I figure I can spend a least a few hours at the end of my year mentoring the next generation of birders. All of this will be done via bike of course! No car until 2015!
39 miles today - Smith's longspurs sandwiched by Best Westerns.
Greenville Best Western Lobby
In case anyone is curious, it would be ~380 miles with 6000' of climbing (~2300' net gain) to reach Lesser prairie-chicken in Northwestern Oklahoma. While I have astounded even myself with some of the miles I have biked this year, 380 miles north in 3 days, with elevation gain, in freezing weather, and 2 of 3 days with north winds just isn't going to happen - at least not with energy/daylight to find the bird!
With Sonia's arrival, I am sure there will some entertaining blog content forthcoming. She actually pulled a very cool stunt today that will be well-worth your time tomorrow to read about. I will also start thinking about some of the lists I promised, so there should be decent blog content for at least a few more days!