February 26, 2015
Thanks to Marshall Faintich and other alert birders in this area, I was able to see -- and photograph -- a Smith's Longspur today, my first life bird of the year. Two birds of those species were identified at the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport over the past couple days, and my initial skepticism was quickly dispelled as photos taken by Marshall and by Brenda Tekin clearly showed several key field marks such as two white feathers on the outer edges of the tail, rather than just one such tail feather on each side for the more-common Lapland Longspur. Unfortunately, none of my photos (several dozen at least) showed the tail feathers very well.
There were five other birders with me at the airport this afternoon -- from Roanoke, Charlottesville, and Danville. For them to drive so far was a good indication of how significant this finding was. I had to wait at least 15 minutes before the target bird finally made its appearance, but the wait (in the cold) was worth it. No doubt the recent snow storms created this special opportunity, as many ground-foraging birds are forced to move to cleared areas along roads whenever their preferred open-field habitats become snow-covered.
This is the first time a Smith's Longspur has ever been recorded in Augusta County. [UPDATE: Brenda Tekins informs me that it's the first time one has ever been seen in all of Virginia!] Lapland Longspurs have been seen on occasion in winter months, and some were at the airport yesterday but not today. I last saw a Lapland Longspur in South Dakota in January 2014. This makes #458 on my Life bird list. We also saw several Savannah Sparrows and Horned Larks along the road.
I have posted other photos taken today, and in recent weeks, on my Wild birds yearly photo gallery page. Earlier in the day, after lunch* and before my Latin American Politics class, I made a quick trip over to the North River bridge in Bridgewater. There I saw several interesting birds that had been reported there recently:
It was the first time I had seen a Goldeneye in over a year, I believe. The photo I took was from a distance and in bad lighting, unfortunately. I almost missed seeing the Pintail, which was right next to the shore less than 40 feet away with a group of Mallards, but caught a glance and then took some photos just before I left. It might have been the same one I saw there last month.
* I had lunch with Prof. Robyn Puffenberger, who took her Ornithology class to see the Smith's Longspur at the airport in the morning. Quite a coincidence!