Status and Occurrence of McCown’s Longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii) in British Columbia
by Rick Toochin and Don Cecile
Read the full article with photos here.
Introduction and Distribution
The McCown’s Longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii) is a small passerine that breeds in Canada on Prairie Grasslands from southeastern Alberta to southwestern Saskatchewan the overall population has seriously declined since 1900 due to intensive agricultural practices that have destroyed the species’ preferred breeding habitat of arid, sparsely vegetated native grassland with patches of bare ground as provided by shortgrass prairie or heavily grazed mixed-grass prairie (COSEWIC 2006). As a result, the Canadian population numbers approximately only 375,000 breeding birds (COSEWIC 2006). Long-term trend analyses based on Breeding Bird Survey data indicates an overall decline of 98% in McCown's Longspur numbers in Canada since 1968 (COSEWIC 2006). This decline appears to have slowed over the last decade; however, the shrinking population has given this species the status of Special Concern in Canada (COSEWIC 2006). In the United States the McCown’s Longspur is found breeding in Montana, southwestern North Dakota and extreme northwestern South Dakota, Wyoming, western Nebraska and northern Colorado (With 2010, Dunn and Alderfer 2011). The breeding range was formerly more extensive prior to intensive agricultural practices and range extended to northeastern North Dakota, southwestern Minnesota and south to Oklahoma Panhandle (Rising 1996).
This species is a short distance migrant and winters in Oklahoma, Texas, and more localized into southern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona (With 2010, Dunn and Alderfer 2011). The McCown’s Longspur also winters in northern Mexico on the Plateau from the northern Sonora, Chihuahua and western Coahuila, south to northern Durango (Dunn and Beadle 1998, Howell and Webb 2010). As a vagrant this species has wondered well east and north of its range throughout North America (With 2010, Dunn and Alderfer 2011). In California, the McCown’s Longspur is regular enough that it is not a review species of the California Bird Records Committee with most records involving single birds, occurring in sparsely vegetated habitats across the state, especially in the southern half, where most birds are found amongst flocks of Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris)(Hamilton et al. 2007). In Oregon, the McCown’s Longspur is an accidental species with 6 accepted records by the Oregon Bird Records Committee (OFO 2012). There are no accepted records for Washington State (Wahl et al. 2005, WBRC 2013). In British Columbia, the McCown’s Longspur is an accidental species with only a handful of records (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). There are no records for Alaska (Gibson et al. 2013).
Occurrence and Documentation
The McCown’s Longspur is an accidental species in British Columbia with only 6 records. The first record for British Columbia was an adult male collected by Allan Brooks on June 1, 1887 on his family property in Chilliwack (Brooks 1917). Incredibly three years later at the exact same spot in Chilliwack, Allan Brooks collected two adult females on June 20, 1890 (Brooks 1917). Brooks felt these birds were migrants as they were not later found in the interior of British Columbia (Brooks 1917). It will never be known if these birds were trying to breed in the area or if they were in fact heading to an unknown area to breed in the interior of the Province. The next record was a female collected by Dr. Austin L. Rand at the Tobacco Plains across the Kootenay River near Newgate on May 29, 1930 (Rand 1943). The fourth record for the Province was an adult male found by Bill Nicholson and Dave Lewis on Mitton Lake Rd., West of Parson on May 24, 2002 (Cecile 2002c, Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). This record was accompanied by detailed notes and field descriptions by the observers that left no doubt as to this bird’s identity. The fifth record was an immature found by Mike Boyd in Stanley Park, Vancouver from October 10-14, 2009. This bird was well documented and seen by many lucky observers. (Boyd 2011, Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). The sixth Provincial record was an adult male found by Phil Ranson and photographed by Sandy Proulx west of William’s Lake, Becher’s Prairie on June 29, 2014 (P. Ranson Pers. Comm.). This bird was in perfect breeding habitat that in the past had confirmed breeding Sprague’s Pipits (McConnell et al. 1993). This location looks very similar to breeding habitat in Alberta and the entire area should be checked in the future by observers to see if more “Prairie Grassland” species can be found. There is also a record listed in Cannings et al. (1987) as hypothetical of an immature bird seen by J. A. Munro at Okanagan Landing on August 18, 1926. The bird was not collected and prior to the early 1970’s exceptional records without specimens or at least multiple observers was not accepted as confirmed. As a result there is nothing more that can be done with this intriguing record.
The McCown’s Longspur is a very rare bird away from its core range. The low population, restricted breeding range, and short migration of this species, makes finding vagrant strays that much harder. From the few Provincial records that have been found it is clear that this species follows the same vagrancy window seen in other grassland species, with late May and June as best period to be on the look-out for this species. As with other grassland species like Lark Bunting, the cluster of spring records likely refers to overshoots on their spring migration. There is only one fall record from the month of October which is not enough to gauge the peak migration period in the fall. The McCown’s Longspur is definitely a very unusual find in British Columbia, but likely will be found again in the future. As with all unusual species, observers should try to get good photographs and get other observers out to confirm such a rare find.