Nature Nut: Horned larks are a striking tenant in Minnesota winter

Horned Lark - Credit Kurt Schulzetenberg..jpg
You might have a hard time getting close enough to an elusive horned lark to see its striking markings.

I sat down to write this column just before Valentine's Day, on what I thought might be the coldest night of the year thus far. And, as I am writing it, my son is flying in from San Diego so he will be feeling a 100-degree temp swing in one day.

He reminds me their unusual heat and our cold are both connected to this year's El Nino I wrote about a couple months ago. But, by the time this goes to press, I am guessing we will have hit 40 degrees at least once.

I decided to head down to the river that morning to see what kind of activity there was in the Whitewater Valley and from there into the Mississippi backwaters. I was hoping something would inspire a column topic, as this was one of those weeks nothing was coming to me. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that most of nature is in somewhat of a holding pattern this time of year.

In spite the bitter cold, the sun was shining and it wasn't windy like the previous couple days so it was a very bearable. I wished I had stayed over on the backwaters to see the sun rise above the Wisconsin bluffs. Although there wasn't too much stirring on the drive, I did see a couple eagles on nests in the Whitewater valley and marveled at how they could keep eggs from freezing in this weather.

Fortunately, the one bird I was counting on seeing along roadsides, the horned lark, did not let me down. I am guessing my car kicked up at least a hundred ahead of me, some in groups of 10 to 20, and others just a handful. When flushed, most would fly out into a nearby field and circle back to the road shoulders.


Horned larks are a tough bird to get very close to, but after a while their flight characteristics make them pretty easy to identify. Occasionally a couple other similar-sized species, Lapland longspurs and snow buntings, will occupy road shoulders and open fields as well. I can usually pick out the buntings when they fly, as their whiter color gives them away, but the longspurs are trickier for my eyes. However, all of these birds are a bit larger than the tree sparrows and junco I wrote of a couple weeks ago.

Horned larks nest in southern Minnesota, as well as most of the rest of the U.S. and parts of Central America. However, I am guessing most of them nest further north as I typically only see them here during winter months. It is then I suspect they are on the road shoulders looking for gravel to put in their gizzards to aid in digestion.

Although horned larks are difficult birds to get a good look at, up close they can be quite striking. The female has a black band around her throat and a little washed yellow above. Like many birds, the male is brighter colored with a bolder yellow face wrapped around its neck and a black cap to accentuate it. During breeding season, the cap feathers of the male form two backward-slanting horns, thus the name.

Fortunately some fellow birders have been able to get good pictures of horned larks so I could attach one to this column. And there is still time get out for a ride on some of the area roads to see if you can scare up and identify your own horned larks.

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