By Alyssa Nyberg

Photo credit: Shari McCollough

Thank goodness for the Smith’s longspur. It’s a welcome distraction… a mission, a challenge, a journey to temporarily take my mind and heart off the concern and anxiety that I have been feeling about COVID-19.

This little six to seven-inch plump bird, with a caramel-colored breast, black-and-white striped face, and brown streaked back and wings migrates through Indiana in the spring, stopping at Kankakee Sands to rest and refuel for just a few weeks before it will fly further north to nest in the Arctic tundra.

According to Brad Baumgardner of Indiana Audubon, Kankakee Sands in Newton County remains one of the top five areas in the state to see Smith’s longspurs from late March through early April. Year after year, small flocks of them have been seen in our short grass prairies. Yet, I have never seen even one!

Seeing a Smith’s longspur (Calcarius pictus) can be tricky, because much of the time that they are at Kankakee Sands, they are down on the ground searching for seeds of three-awn grass, dropseed and foxtails, and on the hunt for protein rich foods like ants, beetles, moths and spiders to fuel up for the remainder of their journey north.

Birding friends tell me that the best bet for seeing a Smith’s is lucking into a moment when the small flock will be spooked, take flight, circle over the prairie calling their short four to five note rattling call, and then settle down into the prairie again some distance away.

The longspur has a lovely song, but will wait to sing until it has established its territory up north, and wants to attract a female. So, it’s the rattling call we should be listening for. A good site for learning the call of the Smith’s longspur is the Cornell Lab website (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Smiths_Longspur/sounds); the 19 second recording of the call that was made in Alaska is a good one!

Though the Smith’s longspurs travel in small flocks, once they reach their breeding grounds, the group will disband. Males will establish a territory of 40 square miles, and females a territory of 26 square miles. Imagine trying to find one Smith’s longspur in 40 miles…I think our chances are much better at Kankakee Sands!

Smith’s longspurs aren’t a rare, threatened or endangered bird, but they are rarely seen due to their hard to see feeding behavior and their nesting location so far to the north. So, this year, during the mess of the COVID-19 outbreak, I’m giving myself this get-your-mind-off-it mission: to see and hear a Smith’s at Kankakee Sands. I sure hope I do… but even if I can’t locate the Smith’s longspur, COVID-19 can’t stop the joy of spring from happening!

It won’t stop the calling of the chorus frogs from our Kankakee Sands wetlands; the blooming of our spring wildflowers at Conrad Station Savanna; the song of the little Henslow’s sparrows singing from our prairies; the return of the monarch butterflies from Mexico to lay eggs on the milkweeds that grow at Kankakee Sands; the birth of the bison calves; the longer days, bluer skies and brighter sunshine.

At this unique time in the history of our world, allow yourself to sink into the beauty of spring erupting around you, at least for a few moments each day. Spending even a little time in nature, thinking about nature, or looking at nature in magazines, on tv. or out the window, can provide us inner calm and a little break from the pressures of life, which sure feels refreshing right about now.

If you live near to Kankakee Sands, and if you feel up for it, join me in the quest…

Your mission, my friend, should you choose to accept it…is to find the Smith’s longspur.

While practicing social distancing, of course.

Special thanks to Brad Baumgartner of Indiana Audubon for sharing so much information about the Smith’s longspur with me!

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The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands is an 8,300-acre prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana, open every day of the year for public enjoyment. For more information about Kankakee Sands, visit www.nature.org/KankakeeSands or call the office at 219-285-2184.