The Sprague's Pipit is all of those things. Usually when bird and birding-related conversations come up in birding circles, I tend to keep my mouth shut. I have not been birding long enough to have accrued substantial personal experience, nor am I enough well studied to have educated opinions or even a lot of information about things relating to behaviors, distribution, migrations etc. on micro or macro level. But where I do opine is when the aesthetics discussion comes up, and when that discussion doesn't come up, I bring it up, because I'm bad at being quiet. One can't be proven wrong when arguing about a bird's appearance and subjective coolness any more than arguing about how many stars shine down on one night or another.
Sprague's Pipit is a bird for which I have searched in varying Arizonan grasslands longer than it is prudent to admit. Having spent so many hours walking and driving around Sprague's habitat, I have obviously had a lot of time to brood about this bird. This Sunday I was finally able to end that search and see how the bird compared to the various machinations of a depraved and mediocre birder's mind.
The Good: Sprague's Pipits attract a mate and declare territory by singing a descending call from high in the sky. This is reported to be the longest in-flight display of any bird in north America, including that commune of Canadian Skylarks. They begin their breeding cycle in April, relatively early, which means their impressive displays are some of the first to be witnessed in early spring--full points for punctuality. They're insectivorous; one always has to appreciate any bird or other animal that eats some percentage of its own body weight in insects and spiders.
The Bad: If it weren't counterintuitive for there to be a king or queen of skulk, then Sprague's Pipit would be such a monarch. They were actually going to name it Skulk's Pipit back in the early 1800s, but the Skunk Lobby in Washington, very powerful at the time, argued it was too close to trademark infringement, so they decided to throw a bone to the Czech rebels as part of an anti-Hapsburg statement.
These birds are small, dainty, duly and dully camouflaged, and walk through the grass very horizontally like a mouse. They lack all of the confidence and posture of their American counterparts. Unless they're crossing a dirt road or flushing, this makes them very, very difficult to spot. I recorded all of 6 other species in the 5 hours I was stalking around after this bird, shown below. On top of that, they tend to prefer areas with low activity overall, and apart from when they are mating they are solitary, which means one can't really pinpoint their location by following roving bands of Horned Larks (this might work, but it would be coincidental).
The Ugly: American Pipits are good looking birds. Hell, Sparrows and other such ground-lovers are some of my favorites. SPPI is not a good looking bird. Its face, breast, and mantle patterning are very lackluster by both GLANA (Ground Loving Avians of North America) and Sparrow Cartel standards. The big bug-eye is somewhat peculiar and endearing, but it can't be described as pretty or elegant. When one of a bird's most-discussed features is its mildly pink legs (see top photo) then it's a sign the bird doesn't have much going on.
Also, crawling around in the Pipit's dry and dusty hang out for so long has condensed about 3 years of regular allergies into the remainder of my afternoon.
All that being said, it was so good--SO GOOD--to see this bird in the Santa Cruz grasslands. It is more impressive than overdue, and one I had to work pretty hard prior to enjoying the reward. It took five hours of ambling through grassy fields before the movement finally caught my eye, and it was literally at 11:50am, ten minutes before I told myself I would turn back for home.
It may not be the only individual in the area, and this or another bird has been found off and on for the last couple of weeks in this heavily birded area. That being said, two other birders who joined me in the morning tried to ID two different Savannah Sparrows as the SPPI and might well have claimed it had I not disagreed (they eventually left empty-handed). Picking up 27 Mountain Plover and a fly over Caracara for years birds nearby was also nice. It had been a while since Butler's Birds has lifered, but a good birder always brings extra pants.
This passive-agressive note on my windshield was also quaint: