23 March 2010 – Sprague’s Pipit

It’s happened.

In the roughly 15 years that I’ve been paying attention to window-killed birds in my community, I’ve encountered many surprises. Today, however, is the first time I’ve encountered a window-killed bird that I have yet to encounter in life: the rare, secretive, North American grassland endemic, Sprague’s Pipit.

Just a bit of backstory: I have passed on the task of day to day monitoring at the NRC to one of our OSU undergrads, Daniele Benson. She’ll be doing most of the legwork over the next couple of months, and report her findings to me. Today was Daniele’s first survey at the NRC; she emailed me earlier today to let me know that she had found “a bird” on the north side of the building. I took a walk to confirm the ID of the bird she found, and at first thought it to be a House Sparrow. But once I got close to the bird, its white outer tail feathers immediately indicated something far more unusual.

With thanks to Vince Cavalieri for the photos below, note the thin bill that rules out sparrows for this small, streaky, buffy bird. The elongated claw on the hind toe indicates a pipit, and the pale legs, streaked back, and unmarked flanks and auriculars confirm it to be the rarer of our native midcontinent pipits, Sprague’s.

Sprague’s Pipit is an endemic grassland bird of the northern prairies in North America, and it migrates to spend winters in southern Texas and northern Mexico.

This species is a difficult one to find outside of its breeding grounds where the males engage in spectacular display flights to claim territories and impress females each spring. Due to loss of native grasslands, Sprague’s Pipits have endured dramatic declines. The species is listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN.

So what was one doing in Stillwater? The 5th Edition of the “Date Guide to the Occurrences of Birds in Oklahoma” lists the species as a spring and fall migrant in all Oklahoma counties. So the fact that one was migrating over Stillwater last night isn’t such a big deal. The sadly puzzling thing, as always, is what lured the bird in low on an urban university campus such that it collided with a window? Again, I am blown away by the diversity of species that have met their demise in this very unlikely place. Cassin’s Sparrow, Mourning Warbler, Canada Warbler, LeConte’s Sparrow, Sprague’s Pipit – these are high quality birds on any checklist. It means there’s a lot more flying around us every day than we generally appreciate, and it inspires me to pay even closer attention.

PS: Some may wonder if I’ll count this bird on my “Life List.” No, I won’t – live birds only on my life list.