Of Horned Larks and Warbling Vireos

There are certain species you group together and others that never cross your mind in the same thought. And I can’t say I thought of Horned Larks and Warbling Vireos together until this past summer.

After 20 miles of the 25 mile route of the Uncompahgre BBS route in western Colorado I could tell things were slowing down. At an elevation of 9500 feet there wasn’t much habitat left except for the occasional Alpine Glade. I wasn’t seeing many species and the few I encountered were calling less and less.

Except for Warbling Vireos.

I think every Alpine Glade had one or two calling.

This is an Indiana Warbling Vireo. I didn’t have time on the Uncompahgre BBS to get a photo.

And then it dawned on me things weren’t all that different from running the BBS routes in Central Indiana. The further away I got from the trees and water of the Big Blue River on the Shelbyville BBS and went further east into the agriculture lands birding slowed down dramatically.

Except for Horned Larks.

It seemed every stop past 20 miles had a few calling or landing on the road. And not much else.

And these aren’t Indiana Horned Larks. The Connecticut coast at Christmas.

I find it eerie how two things totally unrelated make you recall the memory of one another. There’s nothing even similar about the habitat or the birds to tie the two experiences together. Just the lack of birds.

Not many birds in this environment, just Warbling Vireos from distant Alpine Glades.

The start of the BBS route had numerous birds calling and flying by. Exciting. But I didn’t think “Oh, this reminds me of the start of the Shelbyville BBS”.  Or any other experience.

Horned Larks and Warbling Vireos
And nothing in the Indiana corn fields besides the occasional Horned Lark.

I think what it comes down to is at the start of both routes I was living in the excitement of the present.

And it must have been the slow birding at the end of each route that let my mind wander to other times and tie the two experiences together.

Horned Lark Numbers

While checking a flooded field for shorebirds during the Big May Day I heard a Horned Lark. It then took flight and landed close to the car. Now if I hadn’t kept my eye on the lark I would never have seen it. This got me thinking about Horned Lark numbers.

Horned Lark Numbers
Can you see the Horned Lark

It wasn’t more than twenty feet away. Luckily I picked it up in flight.

Perhaps it’s easier to find in this photo. (Sorry, my car mirror in lower right)

Spoiler: If you’re having a hard time seeing it, the Horned Lark is in the center right of the photo.

Do we really know Horned Lark Numbers?

I have previously stated the main source for species numbers come from either BBS routes or Christmas Bird Counts. I know from my summer BBS routes Horned Larks are hard to count. Unless a flock flies on the road it’s the one or two heard out in the fields. Because as the photos above prove you’ll never see them.

But as we all know in winter large flocks gather along the side of the road after a snowfall. So maybe in this case the Christmas Bird Counts are a truer indicator than BBS routes.

Horned Lark Numbers

JC CBC BBS
2010 562 14
2011 5 19
2012 39 54
2013 1401 5
2014 38 27
2015 5 64

The above numbers compare the Johnson County Christmas Bird Count versus my Shelbyville BBS route. Not the same territories but close enough.

The point is the total number of Horned Lark wouldn’t be known without the Christmas Bird Counts. The 50 year BBS numbers show Horned Larks have had a slight 1.5% decrease. That’s probably correct with the loss of farm land. But with the high numbers seen on Christmas Bird Counts that might not be accurate. Either way I don’t think Horned Larks are currently in danger.

4 Gull Species at Once

The local patches have been slow the past couple of weekends and with the rain and cold not many highlights or photos. So I’ll throw in the other half of the Connecticut Holiday trip. Always several highlights when you are away from home but I’ll go with 4 gull species at once.

Before I discuss the gulls I’ll recap the rest of the afternoon.

Brant
After earlier seeing the Brant flight I came across three at Long Beach in Stratford. I spent time viewing Brant since we don’t encounter them in the Midwest. 12/26/16
brant flight
The small group kept close before swimming out.
A comparison showing Brant are about the same size as Herring Gull.
A flock of Horned Larks are just as camouflaged on the beach as they are in a Midwest cornfield.
I was searching for Dunlin or Ruddy Turnstones along the rocks and finally came across a small group of Dunlin.
I thought this was a decent photo showing Dunlin in winter plumage and its down-turned bill.

Gulls

Being from the cornfields I spent time watching and photographing the Gulls at both locations.

The gulls were obviously used to people and wouldn’t stray far. Like this Ring-billed Gull. 12/26/16
This Herring Gull didn’t seem to be sea shell hunting but he did like to stand on them. 12/26/16
The only Lesser Black-backed Gull of the day was hanging out with a mixed flock. 12/26/16
One of several Great Black-backed Gull on the day. 12/26/16
4 gull species
And now for all 4 gull species at once. The smaller Ring-billed Gull, the darker backed Lesser Black-backed Gull, and several different aged Herring Gulls. The large youngster to the right is a Great Black-backed Gull. 12/26/16
I have forgotten how large Herring Gulls are. It didn’t take long for a couple of close flybys to remind me. 12/26/16
With freezing rain forecast for late afternoon it was time to cut the visit to the coast short and head back to the interior of the state. 12/26/16

Brant Flight – Weekend Highlight

Before I continue with posts from my recent Colorado trip I’ll have to inject a post or two from birding Connecticut this past weekend. The weather was a little cooler than last year’s 70F temperatures but was still pleasant with the highs in the upper 40’s. I birded the local reservoir a couple of days and made my usual holiday trip to the Long Island Sound. There were several personal highlights but I’ll go with the Brant Flight as the main highlight.

We did enjoy a White Christmas. The area had received 8″ of snow the previous week.

As with all of the Northeast the continuing drought lowered the water level at the local reservoir. I’m not sure this had an effect on birding but I didn’t see any loons as in past years. Since most of the species I saw there are the same as the Midwest I’ll jump to the ocean.

The red lines are the normal waterline. I’m guessing the reservoir has dropped a good 8-10 feet.

I overdressed both days birding the reservoir. Unlike the Midwest I think it has to do with the hills and trees blocking the wind. So of course I under-dressed at the ocean where the winds were coming off the water dropping the temperature 10-20 degrees. I managed to layer up with some old clothes in my nephew’s trunk and made a day of it.

A view to the east where the strong SE winds were originating.

As usual I spent most of the day at Sherwood Island State Park since it has a pond, marshes, wooded area, and an ocean each. One of those spots I could see birding every day. The woods held the usual suspects and the pond had Mute Swans, Gadwall, and American Black Ducks.

brant flock
I’ll throw in a photo of American Black Duck since it’s a species we don’t see in large numbers in the Midwest.
The surprise of the day was a Greater Yellowlegs that made its presence known by giving its tu-tu-tu call. Checking a range map, it winters as far north as New England.
Common Goldeneye had the largest count on the water with several flocks flying by and landing. Red-breasted Mergansers were the other main species.
Not as many Long-tailed Ducks as in past years.
A distant photo that appear to be Scaup from the white wingbar. I’m leaning towards Greater since they are the expected species.

Brant Flight

After walking the park for almost three hours I was about ready to leave. I was going to climb over the break-wall, take a quick scan, and make the short walk back to the car.

brant flight
The last hurdle, the main break-wall in the park. Up and over and out of the cold!

As I get to the top the break wall I’m jolted by an eruption of birds with a strange call taking flight.

Brant!

BRANT Flight flikr

They had been on the other side of the break wall.

I have never experienced a Brant Flight. The sudden flight and calling was like the Great Horned Owl experience from last week. A captivating scene that keeps one birding.

The quicker wing beats and more agile flight show the difference between Canada Geese and the smaller goose’s flight. More of a duck type flight than a goose’s.  I watched them until they were out of sight far to the east.

I wished they would have turned back but when they didn’t I headed to the car and on to my next stop.

Wondering About Horned Larks

This is short post to on a couple of things.

1. Even when the weather stinks, the snow is deep, and I can’t do birding by foot without a lot of hassle, there are still birds to be found.  In this case Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Buntings along the roads of Johnson County.  Actually hundreds of Horned Larks, a few Lapland Longspurs, and only one Snow Bunting.

The photos aren’t the best since the day was pretty dreary.

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A few of the hundreds of Horned Larks I saw on the day. This group flew over to a field and waited for cars to pass. Johnson County 02/22/14
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I posted this picture to show that it really isn’t so hard to pick out Lapland Longspurs at a glance. I used to have problems picking them out of a flock of Horned Larks but once I got used to the color difference, not so difficult. Horned Lark center, Lapland Longspur right. Johnson County 02/22/14
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An out of focus picture but still one that shows the differences in color patterns of a Lapland Longspur and Horned Lark. Johnson County 02/22/14

Plus some sparrows and friends along the plowed roads of Johnson County Park.

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American Tree Sparrow – Note the bi-colored bill. Johnson County Park 02/22/14
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White-crowned Sparrow. Compare head pattern with the next photo. Johnson County Park 02/22/14
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White-throated Sparrow – compare head pattern to previous White-crowned Sparrow. Johnson County Park 02/22/14
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Dark-eyed Junco – Johnson County Park 02/22/14
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A Fox Sparrow got in on the action. Johnson County Park 02/22/14
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OK, Mr. Robin, I will post a picture of you. He wouldn’t move to let me see the Fox Sparrow. He wanted all the attention. Johnson County Park 02/22/14

2. And I have wondered about the following for some time.

I’m not the guy that tracks up the most hours in the field, especially the past year. But I’ve put my share of hours in the field.  So where are Horned Larks in the summer? Sunday I must have seen 5 or 6 flocks of 150-200 Horned Larks along the road.  In the summer I  hear a few but might go weeks without seeing one. I know they are in the fields but besides one gravel road in Illinois that always had 10-20 I never see many in the summer. Just wondering?

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This Horned Lark posed nicely for a for photo. Where will it be hiding in July? Johnson County 02/22/14

 

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