Saturday, March 9, 2013

Horned Lark

March weather in Wisconsin can be tough on seed eating birds.  Farm fields covered with snow or made chemically weed free to begin with, do little to support bird life.  The exposed vegetation has already been stripped and the short grasses remain covered, out of reach for small songbirds.  The Horned Lark has a method of surviving these hard times, though. 

Dixie Road is only six miles long and lightly dotted with farms.  Ozaukee County was my choice of rural places to look for Horned Larks this day. Horned Larks like the open, short grass habitat of rural America and mowed ditches are a favorite. 

March snows drift across empty fields filling ditches nearly to eye level.  The ditch collects a lot of snow, but the county snowplows add even more.   After a snowplow passes, a two-foot wide band of scraped roadside shoulder exposes enough bare grass to satisfy dozens of Horned Larks. 

As I drove down Dixie Road, the birds scattered in front of me, only to fill-in a porpoise through water.  It was a very surreal visual effect, but I was looking to photograph them, not scare them away! It took me several passes with cat-like creeping, below idle speeds, to invite myself into their flock. Even at that it took me three hours to get my pictures. Luckily, only one car and one truck needed to pass the whole time.

Horned Larks are short tailed social birds that live throughout the United States, including all of Alaska and Canada.  Cold and snow doesn’t bother them, they seen to prefer lower temperatures.  

They are considered an early nester, sometimes starting to lay eggs in February.  They are seedeaters, but they raise their young on insects, so they must time their nesting to the supply of available insects. 

It would be very easy to mistake a Horned Lark for a sparrow.  Similar in size and coloration from the back, look for the Horned Lark’s yellow throat and dark mustache before they fly away. From the back they are difficult to ID.

Good luck though seeing the horns at 50MPH.