I went searching for Snowy Owls (again), but found a field of larks instead. Our single representative of the lark family in North America is the Horned Lark, which has carved out a niche for itself and lives pretty much everywhere there is some short grass to hunt for seeds and insects.
An incredibly lucky shot of a male Horned Lark, barely showing his little black horns. While driving back roads looking for Snowy Owls, I screeched to a stop when I saw this lark on a snowbank along the road. The light was in my face, the focus was rushed, but I managed to capture the bird anyway.
Horned Larks are probably the earliest nesting birds; some try to pull it off as early as February, even in northern climates. They certainly were singing up a storm out on the icy fields, but I can’t imagine trying to bring off a brood of chicks when the snow still covers the fields and the temperatures are barely above freezing.
The bird allowed me one quick snap before flying off. Those aren’t deep shadows on his tail; he really does have black outer tail feathers which are normally covered by the central brown ones.
He finally settled down out in the field 100 yards away, which is where the rest of the gang was hanging out. It doesn’t look like a great place to hunt for seeds. This is the best my 400 mm lens could do!
Zooming in by cropping, you can see the striking black facial stripes which distinguish this bird from sparrows. There might be some yellow color in the face above the eye and below the beak, depending on where the bird lives. Horned Larks return to the same area to breed each year, so regional differences in their plumage develop over time.
The “song of the lark” is a high-pitched tinkling trill that sounds like it is coming from a much smaller bird. I found them difficult to locate in the wide open expanse of this snowy field, but that could just be my ears. Or, it could be an attempt to advertise but remain hidden in plain sight. Here’s an example of what I mean from The Music of Nature series by folks at the University of Missouri-Columbia.