Friday, February 14, 2014

Mid-Ohio HOLA!

Mid-Ohio birding in February can be a bit daunting. But like the postal service, "neither snow nor rain nor heat, nor gloom of night will keep me from making" my appointed rounds. Throw in ridiculous winds, three foot snow drifts, and unplowed roads and you have described the general condition of my neighborhood.

Horned Lark (HOLA in bird bander's code)
HOLA!  What have we here?   Hola = Greetings!  Hola is not just a Spanish salutation, it is also the bird bander's code for HOrned LArk. 

HOLAs, welcome to my winter world!

Horned Lark (left) and Snow Bunting (right)
Much has been made of this winter's appearance of Snow Bunting and Lapland Longspurs.  Both species are birds of the far north, which occasionally winter in small numbers in Ohio. They are often found gleaning for grain and generally fraternize with Horned Larks in open fields.

Large flocks of birds feeding in the open field.
Horned Larks are found year round in Ohio's farm country.  However, their dull brown backs blend with the soil in the fields, making them difficult to see most of the year. Snow cover makes them highly visible. Watch along the edge of country roads during heavy snow events, and you may see flocks of birds feeding along the gravelly road edge where snow plows have cleared down to the grass. 

Horned Lark, Eremophila alpestris  
 Horned Larks are easily overlooked by the novice, and difficult to study once found.  These skittish birds of the field flock together and move in large circular patterns when disturbed. When you see road-side birds take flight at the approach of your car, watch in the rear view mirror after you pass.  Most likely they will be re-forming their ranks on the edge of the road once again.

This winter, with its exceptional periods of snow cover, drove flocks of larks and snow buntings into feeders and fields baited with small grains or cracked corn on the ground.

Horn Lark of a different race- the all-yellow face of the Northern race or E.a. alpestris 
    Much of my last two weeks have been dedicated to watching and photographing Horned Larks in the local "baited" ditches. Face-on views reveal stunning yellow or yellow-and-white faces, both with the distinctive "horns," which are not horns at all. They are feathers that stick up, generally when the bird is excited or alarmed. There are 20 subspecies of Horned Larks which occur regularly in the US and Canada, but only three of those probably occur in Ohio. I have found it interesting to try to sort them, but I have no real confidence in my ability to do so. Therefore, I will bow to the advice of expert birder and friend, Kenn Kaufman:
    "I think for starters you can say, deep yellow face = Northern, bright white face = Prairie, all those others = unidentified. I don't even try to name the intermediate ones, but the extremes are fairly straightforward."
Looks intermediate to me!
 That sounds like a plan to me.  So, Horned Larks by any other name or race considerations are still Horned Larks. They are all immensely enjoyable to watch, when and if the opportunity ever presents.  I'll try not to get too hung up on sorting them out.

Horned Larks, E.a. praticola  "Prairie" male with a very light face and a probable female (right.)

The more I learn about these local "Prairie" birds, and the migrant "Northern" larks which come south to winter, the more I admire their differences.  And note, the various races mix peacefully in the field.  

Apparently, they have that one-up on us humans!  I always knew I liked these birds.

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