For the Birds: Pausing for horned larks

Photo by Chris Bosak A horned lark looks for food in New England, February 2021.

The crossbills were going to have to wait. I wasn’t about to just walk past a field full of horned larks.

Last week, I wrote about my trip to see red crossbills. The target birds were clearly being seen close by as a crush of photographers and birdwatchers were standing on a boardwalk huddled together as much as possible in these days of socially distancing ourselves. I knew the crossbills were there, but to get there I had to walk along the edge of a field where about a dozen horned larks were hopping about looking for food.

One of the larks made the temptation even greater as it flew in closer to the edge of the field where I walked. It proved to be too much as I stopped my progress toward the crossbills and kneeled down to get a better angle of the lark that was now well within photographic range. The lark looked for food and in doing so, kept inching toward me. I held my ground and put the crossbills on hold.

Eventually, the larks flew off as one to the far end of the field. OK, crossbill time, I thought — just as the crossbills flew away from their convenient spot next to the boardwalk. As I wrote last week, the crossbills settled in a tree not far away and offered plenty of quality time to the photographers and birdwatchers, this time including me. Horned larks are named for the horn-like feathers that sometimes stick up from either side of the birds’ heads. The “horns” were not out on the birds I photographed, but the birds still proved to be handsome photographic subjects.

From a distance, horned larks are not much to look at. They are small birds and appear to be rather bland as you see them from across a field. Many people may see them and not give them a second look.

Closer inspection yields a bird that is mostly white underneath and brown above with decorative yellow and black markings on its face, throat and head. Females are similarly patterned but overall more dull in color.

Horned larks are year-round residents in parts of New England, but they are seen most frequently during the winter. They favor open, barren areas so look in low-cut fields and on beaches for the best chance to spot them. Even snow-covered fields are good places to look as larks seek out seeds that still cling to the grasses that poke above the snow or have been blown on the snow’s surface.

Despite favoring open spaces, they can be difficult to spot. In the winter, the grass and weeds are brown, as is the sand, making it a perfect camouflage for the bird. Usually, it’s their movement that betrays them as they are constantly moving around. They typically gather in fairly large flocks as well, making them easier to find.

Winter can sometimes be a difficult season to get through, but larks are one more reason to get out there and make the most of it.

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