“Hey Kids! Get in the car…NOW! We’re going on a twitch.”
“Don’t ask what that is or where we are going…you won’t care! Get in the car…we gotta leave…NOW!! Alex, why aren’t your shoes on? Where’s your coat? Please..Come Onnnn!!!!”
Sunday 23rd October had been a great day. Ingrid and Indra had left after a lazy breakfast to do family stuff. Lighthouse had been slow for hawks and I returned to the house with Alex’s pal Benny in tow. While they entertained each other I set about sanding the rear hallways to prep them for some painting. By 2pm, I had gotten everything prepped and happened to check my phone and saw a missed call from Greg Hanisek. A garbled message was all that was left. Calling him back, he answered and deciphered his voicemail for me, “Sprague’s Pipit at Sherwood Island..I am already on RT 8 now.”
Jesus, Mary and Joseph! What a mega!
I made a few calls to spread the news and we were off but traversing I-95 on a Sunday afternoon in New York traffic would be like Cannonball Run …grrr!
Sprague’s Pipits are difficult birds to get in the US and, away from the breeding grounds, they are a monster rarity in the east. There’s only a couple of late fall/winter records from Massachusetts (Provincetown and Wachusett) and I don’t believe New York or New Jersey has any records, and until today, it was absent from the CT list.
I made really good time despite folk who can’t drive for @@!! You people (you know who you are), remember that the left lane is for passing, not maintaining synchronized speed with people in the right lane. Executing this simple decision will prevent you from pushing birders in full twitch mode (i.e. me) to the brink of homicide.🙂
I arrived and parked by the model airplane field and frantically ran over to the small group huddled together in one corner. Breaking the circle, my gaze followed an outstretched arm and finger pointing downwards to small patch of grass. No more than 5ft away, a sandy-colored form broke cover, revealing a staring dark eye and a sparsely-streaked breast that belonged to a full-on Sprague’s Pipit. Holy crap…it was so close! It sensed it was corralled and suddenly flew-up and landed about 30 ft behind us.
Clearly the bird was tame and confiding. We circled around and with the sun behind us several of us crept closer to the spot where it had landed. We waited…and waited…but nothing appeared.
Edging closer, Frank went ahead and tried to coax the bird out, but the little bugger was like a little furtive mouse, running along the ground like an Old World locustella warbler.
We finally relocated it further away, and the bird performed beautifully for us in the late afternoon sunlight. What a cracker!! The kids were not as impressed as I was. But who cares!!
It was a lifer for many seasoned birders! This was only the third one I had seen, my previous ones being one in a stubble field in Texas in 2006 and an unsatisfying one in flight calling on my tour to Laguna Atascosa during last year’s Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.
Sprague’s pipits winter in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. In the United States it occurs from southern California (casually), south-central and southeastern Arizona, southern New Mexico, central and eastern Texas, occasionally found in southern Kansas, southern Oklahoma, very rarely in southern Missouri, Tennessee and northwestern Mississippi south through Arkansas and Louisiana
Found in mixed or short grass prairie throughout the central northern Great Plains of North America. In Canada, Sprague’s pipit breeds in southern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan, and southwest Manitoba. In the United States, they breed in northeastern and central Montana, western and central North Dakota, northwest South Dakota, and in the Red River Valley of Minnesota.
Ageing these is easy. You really can’t! I thought I would be able to age this one on median covert pattern (as is often the case with other pipits, especially Old World ones) but reference to Pyle revealed that there really aren’t any plumage clues to ageing them. Sometimes a Sprague’s pipit is “just” a Sprague’s Pipit…unless it is in CT!
Kudos to young birder Preston Lust for a great find, having the wits and sharpness to work out what it was and be brave enough to put the word out. The bird had gone by morning, so this really was the only chance to twitch it. Amazingly this little field has also hosted Smith’s Longspur and CT’s first (and only) Western Meadowlark!