Thursday, June 19, 2014

Sprague's Missouri Lark

One hundred and seventy one years ago today, somewhere near the junction of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, Edward Harris and John Bell fired their shotguns simultaneously at a small straw-colored grassland bird that rose from the grass in front of them. They searched for more of these birds, but wound up returning to Fort Union with just the one specimen. Harris and Bell were important members of John James Audubon's Great Western Journey up the Missouri River and the following day Audubon named this new species of lark, not after either the collectors Harris or Bell, but the other artist (primarily botanical) on the trip - Alexander Sprague - Sprague's Missouri Lark (Alauda spragueii), now known as the Sprague's Pipit (Anthus spragueii). However, this was not their first contact with this species. Harris, in his journal entry for June 21, 1843 describes how he ".. discovered that a remarkable note of a bird which we have heard for some days and which has given us a great deal of useless walking, by appearing to proceed from a certain spot, and as soon as we reached it it sounded in another direction, was the note of our little new titlark, and that it sings while flying in the air in the manner of the European Skylark and of our Shore Lark.."

The ethereal notes of the displaying male Sprague's Pipit (click here to access recordings of their songs on the Xeno Canto site), as well as comments on their great abundance in the prairie grasslands they inhabit were a consistent comment in the early ornithological records of the explorations of the Northern Great Plains. Captain Thomas Blakiston (of later Fishing Owl and Japanese Ornithology fame) noted that.. "The Missouri Skylark, hitherto looked on as a rare bird, is common on the prairies of the Saskatchewan [River] during the breeding-season. The first occasion on which I found it was in the neighborhood of Fort Carlton, on May 6th. When disturbed from the prairie grass, which is it's general haunt, it utters a single chirp, and immediately mounts the air by a circuitous course, with a very undulating flight, to a great height, where it rests on its outstretched wings, and utters a very striking song, which it is difficult to describe, and I can liken it to nothing I know. The sound is repeated in a quick succession of notes in the descending scale, each note being lower than the preceding. The bird then usually descends to the ground with great rapidity, almost like a stone, and something similar to a hawk swooping on its prey. These striking manners, if once seen, are not to be forgotten; and I should recognize the note instantly, even if I heard it in the depths of a mangrove-swamp in the tropics...How this bird should have been so long overlooked seems marvelous, for I do not know of a more common bird in the buffalo plains of the Saskatchewan [River] during the summer..."

Elliott Coues was even more loquacious with his description of the song.."Rising from the nest, or from it's grassy bed, this plain-looking bird, clad in the simplest colors, and making but a speck in the boundless expanse, mounts straight up, on trmulous wings, till lost to view in the blue ether, and then sends back to earth a song of gladness that seems to come from the sky itself, to cheer the weary , give hope to the disheartened, and turn the most indifferent, for the moment at least, from sordid thoughts.  No other bird-music heard in our land compares with the wonderful strains of this songster; there is something not of this earth in the melody, coming from above, yet from no visible source. The notes are simply indescribable; but once heard they can never be forgotten. Their volume and penetration are truly wonderful; they are neither loud nor strong, yet the whole air seems filled with the tender strings, and the delightful melody continues long unbroken. The song is only heard for a brief period in the summer, ceasing when the inspiration of the love season is over, and it is only uttered when the birds are soaring."

Although unmistakable, the song of the pipit is also surprisingly easy to overlook against the backdrop of the wind and other singing grassland birds as well as the fact that the song is coming from high above you on a treeless plain. Arthur Cleveland Bent explored the prairies of southern Saskatchewan in both 1905 and 1906 and overlooked Sprague's Pipits entirely during his first year on the prairie. He described how the pipit was overlooked the first year "probably because we did not know where or how to look for it or realize the difficulty of seeing or hearing it. It was really fairly common on the prairie in 1906, frequently heard and less frequently seen. The males spend much of their time way up in the sky, almost out of sight, and it is only occasionally one can be seen as a mere speck against a white cloud; in the blue sky it is almost invisible." Modern pipit seekers can still attest to the difficulty of finding displaying pipits in the vast prairie skies.

1 comment:

Thomas Kallmeyer said...

Nicely done John, I thoroughly enjoyed this.