Wednesday, November 13, 2013


After a long day yesterday driving to and from New Mexico, I'm happy to be on my way back home this afternoon - but not without first trying for one last bird: Sprague's Pipit.

Sprague's Pipit is a bird that breeds in the northern prairies - from North Dakota and Montana north into the grasslands of Saskatchewan and Alberta. They're much easier to find this time of year, when they come south to Texas for the winter. Superficially similar to the more widespread American Pipit, these birds have a distinctive scaled back, open face pattern and paler legs. And - more importantly - when they're flushed they have a very distinctive flight call - squeet, squeet - rather than the sharper pip-pit of the Americans. 

I'm at Travis Lake, just west of Austin. Texas is suffering from its second worst drought in recorded history - which explains why I'm standing on the bottom of the lake. A few years ago this whole area was underwater. Now there's a lot more grassy habitat for pipits, and a lot less for the Coots that are bobbing up and down in what's left of the lake.

"Lake" Travis

I start walking around the grassy areas near the shore. Sprague's Pipits like really short grass - short enough that if you're lucky enough not to flush them first, you can see them pretty well. I'm dressed more for New England than for Texas - the cold front from yesterday is still chilling this part of Texas.

It's not long before I flush a flock of American Pipits - pip-it, pip-it. They're in more open rocky habitat - not ideal for Sprague's. I move on, working the more grassy areas. But after 3 hours, and no Sprague's, I'm starting to worry about missing my flight.

The landscape here is deceptive. It's such a flat open area that it's difficult to tell where I've walked and where I haven't. As I'm heading back in the direction of the car, I find a large grassy area that I'm sure I haven't seen before. It looks ideal for ... "squeet, squeet". Four birds suddenly jump into the air right in front of me. From the call I immediately know they're Sprague's. They circle around above - giving me brief views of their streaked backs and bright white outer tail feathers - and then fly off. I follow their undulating flight to another grassy area, and head over there, mentally calculating how much time I have before I need to leave (not much!)

And just as I approach the area where they dropped in, they're up again. Calling, bouncing around in the sky, and finally flying off too far for me to follow. I'll have to make do with the calls and flight views.

As I'm driving to San Antonio airport I'm thinking about how great Texas has been to me on this trip - 4 new birds in 4 days: Amazon Kingfisher, Rose-throated Becard, Streak-backed Oriole and today's Sprague's Pipits. Just when I thought my big year was starting to sag, this was a welcome boost. And at 731 (+2 provisionals) I've moved into 3rd place on the Big Year leader board - tying Bob Ake who saw 731 species in 2010 (the same year Chris Hitt saw 704 in the Lower 48.) Only two people have seen more species in one year - John Vanderpoel (743+1 in 2011) and Sandy Komito (745+3 in 1998.) 

But before I start getting carried away with records, and realizing there's no prize for 3rd place (or any place!) I have a plane to catch. Thank you Texas (and New Mexico) for some great birds!

Welcome to Texas!

+ + +

BIG YEAR LIST: 731 + 2 provisional (Rufous-necked Wood-rail, Common Redstart)

NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Sprague's Pipit


  1. As per ebird I saw you found your Sagebrush Sparrows this morning. So as my calculations go you have 736 (+2) without Aplomado Falcon, whereas Sandy had 745 (+3) w/ Aplomado Falcon (, leaving you by my calculations with 10 birds to go until you break the record.
    Any thoughts on what birds you're likely to get/want to see? I figure Whooping Crane is easy in Texas and you can swing by and try for Hook-billed Kite again. Alaska has a good chance of getting McKay's Buntings around Nome or other parts, and you have a chance for Whooper Swans there. Maybe a trip to Alaska/Adak is in the works for December? Hopefully something good will also show up in Florida, Texas, or Arizona.

    1. Hey Tom!

      Good to hear from you! Your math is spot-on. So is your comment on Aplomado Falcon. There's a lot to dissect here, including potential end-of-year birds and the feasibility of a trip to Adak / Alaska. Rather than answer these questions here - I'll write a post on this, probably at the end of the month. I'm still 4 posts behind - I'm too busy birding to write!

      Thanks again for the great questions,
      - Neil

    2. We will keep our eyes out for the Dusky Thrush that has hung out in an Anchorage, AK, neighborhood the past 2 winters. Last year the first sightings were in December so it could be number 746.

    3. Seems like one of you found it today! That was fast.

  2. Glad you got the Sprague's out there. They're not gimmes in the county, and they've been pretty hit and miss at Lake Travis. Congrats on a buttload of birds. I'm pulling for you.