A Lapland Longspur in Ventura County sod fields
A couple of weeks ago, I took my son to meet up with some of his friends at Leo Carrillo State Beach. It’s almost an hour’s drive from our house, and he was going to spend several hours with them. As a result, it didn’t make sense to drive all the way home to just have to drive out there again to pick him up. Like any good birder, I checked eBird to see where I might wander during the wait. There weren’t any potential lifers reported in the area in the previous week. But Leo Carrillo is at the L.A./Ventura County border, so I figured it would be a chance to bump up my Ventura County list.
I decided I’d head to two spots that were just 20 minutes away – some sod fields south of Oxnard along Arnold Road, and the beach nearby. The sod fields are a birding special spot. In my only trip there a few years ago, I got a lifer Red-throated Pipit and a lifer Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Another Red-throated Pipit had been reported in the sod fields since late September, as well as Golden-Plovers, Mountain Plover, and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. Not sure what it is about these sod fields, but they are good for rarities.
I pulled up to the sod fields at about 11:00am. I don’t have a scope, so my hopes weren’t high. The birds usually stay far away from the road. So even if I was able to pick out something that looked different, I might not be able to figure out what it is. The first scan of the field produced a decent flock of pipits that weren’t terribly far off. I spent about 15 or 20 minutes going from American Pipit to another American Pipit. the flock flushed, so I drove down the road 100 yards and scanned some more. While I scanned the same pipit flock, another birder pulled up and (always a good sign) got a scope out of his car. Just as he was setting it up, I noticed a bird that was definitely not an American Pipit, just 30 yards or so from the road. Its head was distinctly patterned, with a strong creamy eyebrow and a dark edge on the cheek. It’s back was very streaky. There was a notable patch of chestnut in the wing. And there was a smudgy black area on its chest. I drew the other birder’s attention to it, he got it in his scope, and identified it as a longspur.
Any kind of longspur would be a lifer for me. I didn’t know what field marks were important, but Devan (the Ventura County expert birder I was lucky to have next to me) did. It was a Lapland Longspur. These are high Arctic breeders who winter mainly in the Great Plains. But they can be found from coast to coast in winter. They like barren land and shortgrass fields. And it was just my luck to be killing time at a sod field when this rarity decided to pop up on an irrigation pipe. It was even close enough to get a photo that wasn’t total crap when zoomed in. The bird moved around for 5 minutes before we lost it, and I didn’t spot it again.
Red-throated Pipit in the same field
I spent another 15 minutes scanning the pipit flock looking for the Red-throated, but couldn’t pick it out. So I headed off to the beach. This spot is right next to Naval Air Station Point Mugu. The last time we went for a family hike in the area, a bunch of soldiers were doing target practice with automatic weapons. Today, just after I parked my car near the beach, an honest-to-goodness missile was launched from the military base. It took off like a rocket out over the ocean, where it disappeared into the clouds. There’s a marshy area, some dunes, and beach all within a short walk. I managed to spot a White-faced Ibis, a Yellow-headed Blackbird, and a Loggerhead Shrike during my walk.
With hours still to kill, I stopped at the sod fields on my way back. I’d missed the Mountain Plover earlier (a tractor was working the field it preferred) in addition to the Red-throated Pipit, so I gave it a second look. Still no Mountain Plover, but I did find the Red-throated Pipit amongst the American Pipits. It was a bit further out than the Lapland Longspur had been, but was still close enough to get a photo showing the streaky back. The Red-throated Pipits are widespread in northern Europe and Asian, but are found annually in the fall in fields with American Pipits on the west coast. A couple other birders were at the field looking for the Lapland Longspur (Devan had sent out an alert), but it was nowhere to be seen. All in all, it was a pretty productive day.