Sunday, February 17, 2013

“Quite a Handsome Bird”

This afternoon on the way home from singing and errands, I stopped in at a few favorite birding places. On this very cold, very windy day, not much was about. I saw a few Field Sparrows (good find!) in the farm fields to my north, and glimpsed a smallish Sharp-shinned Hawk as it flew across the road and into a copse.

On a whim, I pulled into a small, unpaved commuter lot near the center of town, where close proximity to a golf course, pond, and a weedy field often provides opportunities to see birds up close.

As I drove through, I scanned the flock of geese (duck, duck goose), but didn’t see anything unusual. I was just turning to exit the lot when two small birds flew up almost from under the truck’s wheels.

Light brown, black tails, high calls: Horned Larks. Nice find for a parking lot!

I maneuvered the truck around the perimeter of the lot, and crept in low gear toward where the two birds (one male, one female) were foraging in a scrap of grass that wasn’t covered by snow. I managed to get a few photos of the male. You can see the little black "horns" that give this species its name. During the breeding season, these little tufts of feathers are a little longer and more prominent.

These little birds are so well camouflaged that if you don’t know they are there, and/or if they are not moving, you almost can’t see them.

I love the little marks on this bird's head, especially as seen from above:

 So pretty!

Horned Larks breed across the far northern regions of North America and Europe, and in high mountain habitats as far south as Mexico. They are birds of open habitat, foraging in short grassy areas. During their migration, they need open fields and edges, such as farm fields and the like. In these open areas during the winter, Horned Larks may be seen occasionally along the edges of roads, where traffic and snowplows have exposed the grass. You might also spot them along the shore during winter.

Their winter colors are rather muted. In their breeding plumage, their black and yellow facial pattern is quite striking.

Thoreau wrote about Horned Larks. This entry was made in his Journal on March 24, 1858:
… I scare up from the ground a flock of about twenty birds, which fly low, making a short circuit to another part of the field. [They] utter a faint sveet sveet merely, a sort of sibilant chip. Starting them again, I see that they have black tails, very conspicuous when they pass near. They fly in a flock somewhat like snow buntings, occasionally one surging upward a few feet in pursuit of another, and they alight about where they first were. It [is] almost impossible to discover them on the ground, they squat so flat and so much resemble it, running amid the stubble. But at length I stand within two rods of one and get a good view of its markings with my glass. They are the Alauda alpestris, or shore lark,* quite a sizable and handsome bird; delicate pale-lemon-yellow line above the [eye], with a dark line through the eye; the yellow again on the sides of the neck and on the throat, with a black crescent below the throat; with a buff-ash breast and reddish-brown tinges; beneath, white; above, rusty-brown behind, and darker, ash or slate, with purplish-brown reflections, forward; legs, black; and bill, blue-black. Common to the Old and New Worlds.
*Now known as the Horned Lark, Eremophila alpestris.

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