Lapland longspurs, known as Lapland buntings in the UK, breed on Arctic tundras, and head south in search of milder habitats in winter months, settling temporarily across much of the United States, around the coasts of England and Scotland, and throughout Europe.
Male Lapland longspurs have two distinct plumages, for breeding and nonbreeding seasons. The male’s showy breeding plumage is bold and colorful, with a black head, throat and flanks, a white eyestripe, chestnut nape, white underparts, a heavily streaked gray-black back and wings, with chestnut panels, and a broad yellow bill.
During the breeding season, female Lapland longspurs have similar marking patterns to breeding males, but lack the heavy black coloring, instead showing a patchy blackish streaked throat and washed out streaky facial markings. They have the same chestnut nape, white underparts and a paler version of the male’s gray-black wings.
Lapland Longspur male in nonbreeding plumage (Winter)
Lapland Longspur male in breeding plumage
Nonbreeding male Lapland longspurs molt into a sparrowlike plumage, with a less remarkable orange-brown head which is streaked with darker markings. Its back is streaked with black and brown, and it has a reddish-chestnut nape and rusty wing panels.
Nonbreeding females are also sparrowlike, lacking any bold coloring and having an all-over paler appearance. Their nape patch is more of a gray-brown shade than the rufous chestnut of the nonbreeding male.
Juvenile Lapland longspurs resemble non-breeding males but are altogether darker and more streaked, and have less vibrant markings, with browner tones.
Lapland Bunting / Longspur female
Lapland longspurs are slightly larger than sparrows, and have relatively long tails. Females are marginally smaller than males in length, wingspan and weight.
A pair of Lapland Longspurs preening their feathers - female left, male right
The rolling song of male Lapland longspurs is quite musical, rapid and loud, and heard frequently at the outset of the breeding season. Wheezy alarm calls are made by the male when danger is sensed, and a hard ‘prrrt’ call, made by both sexes in flight, is thought to serve as a contact call.
Lapland longspurs survive mainly on a diet of seeds and insects. They use their short, stout beaks to crack open the hard, outer shells of seeds, including grass seeds, millet, wheat and chickweed.
In summer, insects, in particular crane fly and beetles form a large share of the Lapland longspur’s diet. Caterpillars and spiders are also widely eaten.
Young Lapland longspurs are initially fed on a diet of larvae, crane flies, sawflies, caterpillars and midges. After fledging, seeds are gradually introduced.
Lapland Longspur foraging on the ground for food during the winter
Treeless landscapes offer suitable landscapes for Lapland longspurs all year round, supporting both the foraging and nesting needs of this ground-dwelling species. They are found mainly on low-lying Arctic tundra, as well as higher altitude uplands in Alaska, dotted with sparse vegetation.
During winter months, coastal scrubland, open habitats with short grass or stony expanses of shore or wasteland offer foraging opportunities until they can return to their northern breeding grounds.
Lapland longspur breed in the Arctic Circle, from Alaska and northern Canada, along the western and southern coasts of Greenland, and around the northernmost regions of Scandinavia, Finland and Russia.
The winter range of Lapland longspur stretches in a wide band across the United States, immediately to the south of the Canadian border.
Of the eastern population, known as Lapland buntings in the UK, a small number spend winters in Britain, while for the majority, the distribution range extends in a corridor across Central Asia, from Ukraine in the west into Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, as far as northeastern China and North and South Korea.
The largest breeding populations of Lapland longspurs are found in North America, with up to 40 million birds. US states with the highest winter population counts are found west of the Great Lakes, in particular Iowa, Illinois, Colorado, North Dakota and Kansas.
In Europe, Norway, Sweden and Finland host the highest populations of breeding Lapland buntings.
Lapland Longspurs / Buntings are mainly found on low-lying Arctic tundra
Lapland longspurs are an abundant species across North America, with a breeding population of around 40 million in the continent. Migration flocks numbering into hundreds of thousands have been observed over Canadian prairies and as far south as Kansas.
However, despite these numbers, Lapland longspurs have a reputation as being elusive birds that prefer to stay out of sight, so spotting one at close range would definitely class as a rare event.
In the UK, Lapland buntings are considered a rare migrant species, with only just over 300 individuals arriving to overwinter in Britain each year. Sightings are limited to coastal areas, and would class as a highly sought-after spot on any keen birder’s list.
Kansas, North Dakota, Iowa, Illinois and Colorado all rank at the top of the list for Lapland longspur sightings during winter months. Within the United States, the only location in which Lapland longspur breed is Alaska.
A small number of Lapland buntings spend winter months in the UK each year, and can be found around the eastern coast of Scotland and England, from East Lothian to Kent. The largest concentrations of sightings have been reported in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and North Norfolk.
Lapland Longspur foraging on the tundra
The average life expectancy of a lapland longspur is around 3 years, with breeding attempted for the first time at one year. Some cases of individual ringed birds reaching 5 years of age have been recorded.
Animal predators include Arctic foxes and weasels, while bird species that prey on lapland longspurs include gyrfalcon, parasitic jaeger (Arctic skua), peregrine falcon and snowy owl. Nests may be raided by Arctic foxes, weasels, rats, lemmings, snowy owls and ravens.
Across their entire global range, lapland longspurs are classed as a species of least concern, as they are considered widespread and common in their large circumpolar range. Global populations are estimated at up to 150,000,000 adult birds.
In the UK, lapland buntings have Amber status on the Birds of Conservation Concern list, due to their low population in the British Isles of only around 310 birds each winter.
Male Lapland Longspur in alternative winter plumage
Nests built by lapland longspurs are well concealed in vegetation and often excavated in the ground or in the side of a bank or a mossy tussock by the female.
A cup-shaped nest is crafted from dead grasses, moss and leaves, and lined with soft feathers from Arctic birds, such as the ptarmigan, raven or Eider. Occasionally fir from musk ox is used as a lining.
Eggs are semi-glossy and can be any shade between yellowish-brown and pale greenish-white. Scattered brown or black blotchy markings are usually present.
A typical Lapland longspur clutch contains between 3 and 7 eggs, which are laid from the end of May onwards. Females incubate the eggs alone, with hatching occurring after 11 to 14 days.
Pairs form early in the breeding season and remain together for the duration of raising their young each year. Usually only one brood is attempted and second broods are likely to be less successful.
Some males may leave their territories to seek an extra mate once their original mate is incubating, although finding a willing partner is not always guaranteed.
Three Lapland Longspur eggs in the nest
Male lapland longspurs show territorial aggression during the breeding season and noisily and physically defend their patch against neighboring males. While breeding, it’s most common to see pairs of lapland longspurs rather than larger flocks, although in poor weather, small groups may form.
During migration, vast flocks of several hundred birds may gather and associate loosely together on wintering grounds.
Little is known about the winter night-time roosting habits of lapland longspurs, but during the breeding season, males are observed to roost alone perched on a relatively high branch of a tree, and continue to sing throughout the night.
This is perhaps not as strange a concept as it may initially sound, as their breeding grounds are found in regions where on summer nights there is little or no darkness.
Young juvenile Lapland Longspur
Lapland longspurs are fully migratory, breeding in the extreme north of their range, then migrating to wintering grounds further south until the harshest seasonal conditions have eased.
The North American population of lapland longspurs breed in Alaska and the extreme northern regions of Canada, as well as around the western and southern coasts of Greenland.
Wintering grounds are located across most of the northern and central United States, from the northern border with Canada as far south as northeast Texas and eastern Virginia.
In Europe, the species breeds in southern Norway, the extreme north of Scandinavia and Russia and into the Kamchatka peninsula in the far north-eastern reaches of Asia.
European lapland buntings spend winters in coastal regions of Britain, parts of Germany and southern Scandinavia. The largest numbers are found in winter months across Central Asia, in a region that encompasses southern Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and northern China.
Lapland Bunting in first winter plumage
Lapland bunting is an alternative name for the Lapland longspur, and is the most familiar name for the species in the UK.
15cm to 16cm
25.5cm to 28cm
20g to 28g
A large member of the bunting family, the Yellowhammer is best known as a farmland bird. The bright yellow head of the male, combined with its high-pitched twittering whistle, makes it stand out against countryside hedgerows and freshly ploughed fields.
The Snow Bunting is a small songbird that breeds in extreme climates. These gregarious birds live in cold, open habitats, frequently flying from spot to spot and showing off their snow-white wing and tail feathers.
Reed buntings are resident birds found throughout much of the UK. They breed at wetlands, nesting in waterside vegetation, but sightings during the rest of the year are increasingly common on farmland and even in back gardens in winter months.
There are forty five different species of Old World Buntings, which are predominantly European seed eating birds similar to finches and are related to American Sparrows. Of the forty five different species, forty fall within the genus of Emberiza. The corn bunting is generally classed within this genus and is monotypic.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.