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Lapland Longshot

January 11, 2010

The grandstands for the racetrack literally towered above me, row upon row of empty seats looking out on an oval strip of concrete broken nearly a mile distant by another, equally massive, array of seating.  This was the Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Beast of the Southeast, which several times a year turns into a 2000 plus acre temple of gearhead gluttony.  There could be no greater illustration in the 20th Century and beyond of good old fashioned American excess.  Excessive speed, excessive danger, excessive advertising, excessive fossil fuel consumption.  It was, in short, everything that I instinctively recoil from.  Even slumbering, this city, and there was an entire infrastructure of hotels and restaurants and racing paraphernalia vendors set up around this track, was equal parts grotesque and amazing in the way that it seems only American culture can be.  And while I’m no stranger to huge athletic venues, this place that seats 140,000 people seemed an entirely different animal, something foreign.  It goes without saying that I felt fairly out of place.

So what was I doing here in the very beating heart of NASCAR country? What else? I was looking for some birds.

A structure as massive as the Motor Speedway requires parking options to accommodate the regular influx of visitors.  The question of where to park 140,000 people is answered in the vast grassy lots that surround the track complex.  Birders know what vast expanses of closely cropped grass means, and Charlotte area birder have long since known this area as pretty good for Horned Larks.  While I walked back and forth over the dried grass looking for any sign of movement I found a few, but that wasn’t the bird I was looking for.

I must have been a strange sight, walking back and forth with my scope over my shoulder, occasionally stopping to put it down and run my binoculars over the crests of the hills.  I kept glancing back to my car, mindful not only of the fact that I had parked just off a busy street but that the sight of a lone empty car and a strange fellow with binoculars might be enough to induce some paranoid passerby to call the cops.   The last thing I needed was to add my own story to the weird police interactions that have been peppering the local listserves this last week.  Maybe it was because of this back of my mind worry that my survey of this particular field was less than thorough.

But noting an open road on the actual grounds of the Speedway I quickly jumped at the opportunity to check out some other fields that previously appeared closed to me. Just behind the RV parking lot I found a flock of nearly 60 Larks, and in them, Lapland Longspurs, my target species.  Success!

What first appeared to only be three Longspurs quickly became five on closer inspection.  The birds allowed pretty close approach and I was able to take these passable photos.  After that, and with one more glance at the track and the infield stretching out behind me into the distance, I headed back to Chapel Hill one state bird richer.

It’s sort of amazing that I was even able to find these birds in the expanse of grass available to them, and I was lucky that they didn’t decide to spend the day in the infield of the track where I would have been completely out of luck.   But so far, so good.  2010 is turning out to be a pretty good year.

  1. January 11, 2010 9:34 am

    Nice birds, but I am also always a bit nervous when birding within human settlements (see my recent comment on The Nightjar blog).
    I really don’t know how the New Yorkers (NYC, that is) do it.

  2. pinguinus permalink
    January 11, 2010 5:38 pm

    Jochen: We do it very carefully.

    Nate: Nice birds! I’m always amazed by the crappy venues that great birds sometimes choose.

    • pinguinus permalink
      January 11, 2010 6:10 pm

      Having read the sad tale of the arrested birder, I’ll just add:

      I tend to be suspicious when I see that someone has been arrested for resisting arrest/assault on an officer with no other charges filed. Too many instances where bad or overreacting cops use that combo as a “get out of scrutiny free” card. Within the past year, both a prominent science fiction writer that I have a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon level relationship with and my own brother were nailed with such charges.

      See also: Henry Louis Gates.

      • January 12, 2010 4:06 am

        Carrie, the US of A have an international … well … let’s call it “reputation” for this kind of thing and I can tell you that I was always scared shitless when a cop car was following me. And I’ve never been scared of cops in any other country I’ve been to.

    • January 12, 2010 8:55 am

      @Carrie (first comment): Ha! So that’s what city birders and mating porcupines/hedgehogs have in common – oh, old joke is oooooold.

  3. Nate permalink*
    January 11, 2010 7:16 pm

    @Jochen- I absolutely agree, it’s something I have first hand experience with. While staking out a Mississippi Kite nest near a church a couple years back, I was given the evil eye by parents on a nearby playground. It’s disconcerting to be mistaken for that sort of person.

    @Carrie- I couldn’t agree more. I haven’t read the whole story (is it available somewhere?) but it absolutely struck me the same way it struck you. But in situations like that I always tend to agree that the officer is in the wrong, especially as nearly every incidence I’ve had with police has been fairly low-key. A good officer is rarely going to overreact in a situation like that.

  4. January 11, 2010 8:29 pm

    Congrats on the state bird!

    You seem to be getting better with digiscoping.

    • January 12, 2010 4:36 am

      John, he was surely using the macro function of his bare point and shoot, right?

  5. January 12, 2010 12:11 am

    I guess that means you don’t have a NASCAR # on your vehicle’s rear window.

    Congratulations on the state bird!


  6. Nate permalink*
    January 12, 2010 9:50 am

    @John- Thanks, but I don’t think it was the macro function. I typically don’t think that far ahead when I do it.

    @Bob- Thanks! No, no I do not. 🙂

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