Chestnut-collared Longspur

The elusive Chestnut-collared Longspur showed for a few seconds

Chestnut-collared Longspur at Toyon Landfill

Every October 29th, I go to a closed landfill in Griffith Park in Los Angeles and see a life bird. At least, that’s what I’ve done the last two years. In 2022, I went to Toyon Landfill hunting for stray longspur. I didn’t see one, but I did stumble across L.A. county’s first-ever Sedge Wren. This year, I was back again in search of a longspur. A Chestnut-collared Longspur had been found the day before, so I was optimistic.

Getting to Toyon requires some commitment. It’s only a half hour drive, and only a bit over a half mile walk from the parking. But you climb 500 vertical feet in that span, which is over a 20% grade. Thankfully, at 8am in late October, it’s not a hot walk. Still, it’s really steep. I alternated walking regular, and walking backwards, up the hill. Andy Birch, who has inhaled more of the landfill’s burping methane than anyone thanks to his countless hours birding the landfill, was there when I reached the top. That always makes birding easier.

Bird’s-eye view of Toyon Landfill – now grown over with vegetation

As I got near him and another birder, they were crouching down near a patch of tall grass and then backing away. I half wondered whether some fireworks were about to go off.  But then Andy pointed in the sky, and I saw a sparrow-like bird circling, with white in the outer-tail, giving a “kibble-it” call I had listened to the night before in preparation. After a half dozen failed fall trips to the landfill in search of a lifer Chestnut-collared Longspur, I finally had it.

We then spent the next 20-30 minutes staring at different patches of grass and weeds, failing to see the bird. It flushed thrice, once from no more than 10 feet from our feet. In the air, it would fly some big circles, never rising too high in the air, give its call, and then inevitably settle some 100 feet or more away. With Andy and the other birder seeking a photograph, I selflessly volunteered to slowly approach the spot where we thought the bird was hiding to see if it would flush into view in some shorter grass, so they could get a photo. I succeeded in flushing the bird, but it went away from them, and landed just 20 feet away. I snapped a couple of shots before it moused its way back into the grass.

Chestnut-collared Longspurs are birds of shortgrass prairies and desert grasslands. They breed in the far northern plains, and winter in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and north-central Mexico. They’re far more likely (though still rare) in the Antelope Valley than the L.A. basin. But Toyon Landfill has been a good spot for a chance longspur encounter during October. As they fly through, it’s probably the only big weedy-grassy field uninfested by humans for miles in any direction. That it sits atop a hill might help it attract skulky grassland birds like longspurs that would otherwise fly on past.

A much more colorful version, photo copyright of David M. Bell

The breeding males are worthy of the name, gloriously marked with a black-and-white striped head, a patchy yellow beard, a big black belly, bright white at the base of the tail, and (of course) a rich chestnut collar. The nonbreeding birds, like the one I saw, look like what you’d get if you gave someone just a brown colored pencil and told them to draw a bird with patterned plumage.

Looking forward to next October 29th at Toyon Landfill for my next lifer.