Sprague’s Pipit is Not Supposed to be this Easy

“Hey, Honey…” How many conversations between a birder and non-birding significant other have begun thusly? That was Friday night, when I told my wife there was a bird I’d like to chase – a Sprague’s Pipit that was found that day at a sod farm in Marshallville, Georgia.

I don’t consider myself to be a hardcore twitcher/chaser. But: 1.) This would be a lifer; 2.) Lifers are getting harder to come by; 3.) It was “only” two and a half hours away; and 4.) It was a Sprague’s Pipit. Sprague’s are rarely found in Georgia, and are hard to see anywhere. They breed and winter in open, grassy areas where they skulk around like mice.

Sprague's Pipit hiding in the grass

As you can (barely) see, they tend to blend in. Approaching the sod farm on Saturday, the day after it was found, I was expecting a long and arduous search that would, hopefully, culminate in a view like the one in the picture above. Instead, I got this:

Sprague's Pipit in the road

It’s a poor digiscoped shot, but it gives a good idea of my introductory views of Sprague’s Pipit. I was encouraged to see a few birders at the sod farm when I arrived. As I approached one whom I knew, he said I was in luck. The bird was along the side of the dirt track we were standing on, about 75 feet further down. Sure enough, I could see the bird in the grass well enough to count it. But it then stepped out, right onto the “road”, as you see above. That was about the last thing I expected from this “elusive” bird (as based on its inclusion in the very enjoyable Rare and Elusive Birds of North America).

But it didn’t stay there long. It flew up, over us, and down into some short grass. Along the way, I got to hear its flight call that helps differentiate it from American Pipits.

Sprague's Pipit in flight

It’s coming right toward us!

We watched it for over an hour. Several times it flew, but it always stayed within about 50 feet of the road and its fans. It would walk within the relatively short grass, and every now and then stand up straight and look around. This bird looks very plain in field guides, but in person I found it to be quite attractive and, if I may say so, adorable.

Sprague's Pipit

Sprague's Pipit

Sprague's Pipit

Sprague's Pipit

Sprague's Pipit

It didn’t seem to even notice us, as this photo shows:

Sprague's Pipit with birder

I should mention that this birder did NOT approach the bird this closely. He had been sitting in the road photographing the bird, with the rest of us on the road 20 feet away from him. We were all about 20 feet from the bird, as it made its way toward us. The pipit then flew up and landed less than ten feet away from this amazed birder! He soaked it in for a little while, and then slowly stood up and walked back to the rest of us. The pipit never seemed to mind at all.

Unsurprisingly, this was an incredible experience. I always thought I’d have to go to North Dakota to get my life Sprague’s. But even there, according to the trip reports I’ve read, you’re not guaranteed a close, clear sighting like this. You may “just” see it as a tiny speck in the sky as it sings its song on the wing. But even though I don’t “need” a Sprague’s anymore, I still plan to make the trip to its breeding grounds one day. I think this sums it up perfectly:

But how inadequate a printed picture to portray this wisp of the thin air. The substance of the bird is there all right – the outline, form, and feather texture; the brown streaks and buffy wash, the pinkish legs, the black shining eye – but you need more than that to know the skylark of the Northern Plains, you need atmosphere. You need to know the plains themselves, the softness and the glow of distance and the reach of sky, the spicy air, the clarity…and then that thin music overhead.

A photograph is not enough.
William Burt, Rare and Elusive Birds of North America

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4 Responses to “Sprague’s Pipit is Not Supposed to be this Easy”

  1. Marcus Valdes

    Thanks for the write up. Makes me want to go look for the pipit!

  2. Larry Jordan

    Great shots of the Sprague’s Pipit Grant! I can’t believe you got that in-flight photo! Thanks for including the shot of the back too. It is amazing ow well the pipits blend into their surroundings. Sometimes they’re difficult to see out in the open. Great quote form William Burt too!

  3. Drew

    Wow, great photos! My favorite despite how good the other ones are is the head on flight shot.

  4. Grant

    Thanks. I’m shocked I got anything recognizable from the flight shots. I just pointed and shot.

    This bird was, in turn, almost impossible to see and very obvious. When it was in taller grass, it was very much the former.

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