Speaking of Nature: Elusive & unforgettable
Bill Danielson photo
A pair of male horned larks explore a frozen field in search of food. Note the “horns” and the bold coloration on their heads.
Bill Danielson photo
A profile shot of a male horned lark shows the bold markings of the “horns” even if they don’t stand out too much when seen from the side.
Bill Danielson photo
A female horned lark in a position that shows just how drab these birds can be. Note the ever-so-faint suggestions of the male’s bolder black feathers.
I purchased my first camera in January of 1998. I knew nothing about photography. More importantly, I knew nothing about nature photography. I didn’t understand the exasperating situations I would find myself in, the long periods of waiting, the heat, the cold, or the sore neck one could acquire by peering through the eyepiece of a camera for too long. So, I went out and blundered around for a while.
By January of 1999, I had learned a lot. I had a couple new lenses and a bit more experience, but I still didn’t fully appreciate the x-factor that was luck. So, when I drove down a quiet road in Hadley and found myself sitting just a few yards away from a flock of horned larks, I was enthusiastic, but not sufficiently excited.
I clicked off my photos one frame at a time. My Nikon 6006 was a film camera (remember those) so I wasn’t able to check the quality of my work for at least an hour. Still, I fired away until I ran out of film and then I retreated to allow the developing machines to do their work. Eventually, some of the photos turned out to be usable and I wrote a story about them a couple weeks later.
Since then, I have seen horned larks many times, but I wasn’t ever able to get as close to them. Again, there is a big difference between watching a bird and getting good photos of it. Time and time again, I was stymied in my efforts to get close. Or, and this is the worst, there were times when the birds were right there and I didn’t have my camera with me.
Well, the spell was finally broken just a couple weeks ago. I was driving home from the grocery store and I noticed a flock of small birds by the side of the road. Precious little life was poking through the snow at the sides of the road and these birds were searching through every bit of it to try and find something to eat. I initially thought they might be snow buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis), but upon closer scrutiny, they revealed themselves to be horned larks.
I zipped back to get my camera and returned to the scene as quickly as possible, but it couldn’t be that easy, could it? No. I spent several hours slowly moving up and down the road; freezing in a car with the engine off and the windows open. A human on foot would have chased them off, but in the mind of these birds, a car is something different.
Finally, after a period of acclimation, the birds began to accept the presence of the car and I was rewarded with a couple close passes. And just like that, 15 years later, I had a new set of horned lark photos. Yep, it was that easy.
If you look at a range map in any quality field guide you will see that the range of the horned lark is easy to describe. In the Lower 48, the horned lark is found throughout the year in every state except Florida. In the summer, the bird’s range expands into Alaska and every Canadian province, with a curious core of nonuse in the center of our northern neighbor. As common as they appear to be on paper, however, I don’t personally recall seeing these birds at any time other than winter.
These birds are so distinctive that you could never forget seeing one. Different field guides put them in different places, but the one thing that remains consistent is the fact that there is only one page with pictures of horned larks. This is because the horned lark is the only lark native to North America.
If you go to Europe, you can find a variety of larks all over the place. You can even find the horned lark, but don’t look for it under that name in any European field guide. Across the pond the horned lark is known as the “shore lark.” But even in a land loaded with larks, the horned lark stands out.
The male (as usual) is the one with all of the color. He has the same drab feathers of every other lark on his back and wings, but on his face he wears a triplet of black patches accented with bright white and a sumptuous lemon yellow under his chin. The female has patches of graphite gray feathers in the same basic places, but her feathers are much more muted than those of the male.
But let’s not forget this bird’s name! Above each eye there are elongated feathers that carry the black-and-white stripes out beyond the regular limits of the head. When seen from the side, these feathers are dramatic due to their color, but when seen head on, they truly do look like little horns. The effect is similar to the feathers on the head of a great horned owl; clearly not horns, but certainly horn-like.
Oddly enough, this distinctive field mark is not mentioned at all in the bird’s scientific name. The genus name “Eremophila” is a variation of the Greek word “eremophiles,” meaning “solitude-loving.” The species name “alpestris” is of Latin origin and means “belonging to the Alps.” Apparently this is a not an exclusive reference to the Alps, but rather any high mountains, as in “alpine.” I guess the horned lark’s appearance is not as important as its love of remote places.
Wherever the horned larks find themselves in the springtime, the males go through courtship displays that involve elaborate nuptial flights similar to those of the American woodcock. A hopeful male will fly straight up, as high as 800 feet, fly in circles while singing a “tinkling” song and then plunge back to earth with wings closed until just the last possible minute. This is something I would love to see!
Horned larks nest on the ground where the female builds a simple cup-shaped nest of grasses and rootlets. Once completed, the female will lay an egg per day until she has a clutch of three to four speckled eggs. Incubation only lasts 11 to 12 days before the altricial chicks hatch out and then scamper around with their parents.
The chicks grow on a diet of insects and small invertebrates. Then, when the short Arctic summer comes to a close, the birds fly south to join their American relatives for the winter. Their diet will still feature insects whenever possible, but it will also expand to include weed and grass seeds. And, somehow, they survive the winter. I still don’t really understand how they manage.
Today is the first day of spring, but it’s going to be a while yet before it feels like it. If you have an urge to get out and try something new, then I would suggest a ride out to any farm where manure is spread in the fields. Horned larks are often found picking through such areas. Just remember a pair of good binoculars. The birding gods might not grant you a close-up on your very first try.
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com