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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The only true lark species in North America, the horned lark congregates in winter flocks ground feeding on weed seeds. © Bill Schmoker
The only true lark species in North America, the horned lark congregates in winter flocks ground feeding on weed seeds. © Bill Schmoker

December 2008

Winter wanderers

Larks and buntings are a welcome, but spotty, winter find.

Anita Carpenter

Wisps of snow dance across the country road between fields covered with six inches of sparkling white. I'm out on this crisp day searching for winter birds that like wide-open, windswept places. With miles of travel already behind me, it's becoming a slow birding day. Many snow-covered clods catch my attention. I check each one hoping to find a sleepy-eyed snowy owl. Today, they prove elusive.

Finally several small, slender, seven-inch Larks and buntings are a welcome, but spotty winter find. Winter wanderers birds run nervously along the road, darting here and there, pausing often to pick up seeds. Afew fly up, circle low around the field and return to the road. Horned larks, Eremiphilia alpestris, are always a delight to see with their tiny black "horns," yellow chins and black breast bands. As I linger to enjoy the birds, more magically appear. The flock eventually grows to include an incredible 200 birds, the largest flock of horned larks I've ever seen. These birds should be farther south but nature is always full of surprises.

A kestrel flies over causing the flock to scatter and quickly disappear. I rediscover them around the next corner and stop to look once again. The larks are skittish, as usual, and as individual birds fly before me, I notice three seven-inch chunky white birds with black wingtips – snow buntings.

The buntings, Plectrophenax nivalis, are a special sight in winter. These arctic visitors sport winter plumage of earth-toned backs and forage for seeds on the ground. Like the horned larks, snow buntings are jumpy and will quickly retreat to the fields to escape. There they are impossible to find as they run among the clods. If they take flight, their white and black wing pattern is easy to identify. To see a large flock flying, turning and tipping as one, their black wingtips flashing against the white background or blue sky is a real gift in winter. Snow buntings will remain with us until March or April. Later in winter the feathers on the males' backs change from brown to black in preparation for a summer on the tundra.

Snow buntings find securtiy in numbers in winter. Big flocks are quick to skedaddle if they sense a nearby predator. © Jack R. Bartholmai
Snow buntings find securtiy in numbers in winter. Big flocks are quick to skedaddle if they sense a nearby predator.

© Jack R. Bartholmai

Horned larks. Snow buntings. Whenever I see them, I always look closely for a third species I find most challenging to locate – Lapland longspurs. They are a lot like the snow buntings, but no black wingtips. I spot a few. It's been years since I've seen them.

The Lapland longspurs look a lot like fat house sparrows with buff colors and a subtle rufous face patch. This is their winter plumage, which we normally see. The adult male's breeding plumage is stunning with a yellow conical bill, yellow eyeline, black cap, face, chin, breast, and a rufous nape on the neck. We rarely get to see these bold colors as the longspurs depart for the arctic before their colors change.

A flock of longspurs does not fly in as tight a formation as the snow buntings. Rather, each bird moves on its own undulating flight path. Collectively the flock looks like popping corn as it bounces along, up and down. When migrating, Lapland longspurs fly high overhead, and many birdwatchers hear their mechanical rattle flight calls rather than see the birds.

The Lapland longspur, Calcarius lapponicus, is one of four longspur species found in the United States, but the only one likely to visit Wisconsin. "Longspur" refers to a long nail on the hind toe, and "Lapland" was a common term that European taxonomists used to describe birds that nested in the arctic.

Like horned larks and snow buntings, the Lapland longspurs wander about in winter, frequently in company of the other two species. Search for them in open fields, beaches and near airports, wherever expansive, flat exposed lands might resemble their arctic home. Some years they are numerous, and other years devilishly difficult to find.

What a day this turned out to be. First, the largest horned lark flock I've ever seen, then the snow buntings and a close look at Lapland longspurs. Later, on the way home I'd find a flock of 400 snow buntings and three rough-legged hawks; a great way to start the winter birding season that dawned so slowly that morning.

Anita Carpenter loves her winter birding trips from her Oshkosh home.