Wednesday, February 5, 2014

“Almost impossible to discover”

“Returning about 5 P. M. across the Depot Field, 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.”

That’s Henry David Thoreau, writing in his journal on March 24, 1858. But I could have written the same passage a few days ago, changing just a few words:

“Returning about 1 P. M. across the South Meadow, I noted a flock of about twenty birds, which fly low, making a short circuit to another part of the field.”

What were they, Thoreau wondered? I recognized them the moment I saw them. I stopped in the little dirt lot next to the farm stand (closed for the winter), and positioned the truck so I could get some short cell-phone videos:

and off they go:

Thoreau described what I saw:

“At first they remind me of bay-wings [he probably refers to Vesper Sparrow], except that they are in a flock, show no white in tail, are, I see, a little larger, and utter a faint sveet sveet merely, a sort of sibilant chip. [You can hear a few of those notes in one of the video clips.] 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. [Exactly right! as evident in the video clips.] But at length I stand within two rods of one and get a good view of its markings with my glass.”

Here are some photos of Horned Larks that I took just about a year ago; these show what Thoreau described:

Thoreau continues:

“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 reflection, forward; legs, black; and bill, blue-black. Common to the Old and New Worlds.”
—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), March 24, 1858.

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