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Friday, January 28, 2011

Horned Lark sub-species in Centre County

Horned Larks feeding
Image Credit: One Jackdaw Birding

Over the last few weeks, I have done quite a bit of open field birding. As expected, the species of bird that I encountered most frequently was the Horned Lark. The birds are always exciting to see, with their black masks, yellow throats and their batman-like erectile feathers on their heads.

With few exceptions, virtually all the Horned Larks were observed feeding in harvested corn fields or picking grit from the edge of the road. Sometimes, the Horned Larks would be accompanied by other birds, such as Mourning Doves, Snow Buntings and (rarely) Lapland Longspurs. Of course, each time I observed a flock of larks, I was sure to break out my tripod and mount my spotting scope to peruse the flock for these other tag-alongs. After all, you seen one Horned Lark, and you’ve seen them all, right?

Well, that is what I initially thought. While scanning the flocks, I noticed that there were at least two different “types” of Horned Larks present, one with a white supercilium and pale throat, and a second with a yellow supercilium and yellow throat. I initially dismissed it as normal variation. Then last weekend, I was out field birding with Steven Feldstein and he made the same observation. I decided to look into the matter.

As it turns out, Clement’s Checklist of Birds of the World recognizes 41 subspecies of Horned Lark (27 New World and 14 Old World). According to the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America, there are two sub-species of Horned Larks that commonly migrate through the eastern US, the “Northern” Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris alpestris) and the “Prairie” Horned Lark (E. a. praticola). A third sub-species, Hoyt’s Horned Lark (E. a. hoyti), is a very rare eastern migrant.

Horned Lark
Image Credit: USF

All Horned Larks have a black mask which extends from the base of the bill to down below the eye, a black bib at the base of the throat, and black stripes on the flanks of the crown which extent rearward, forming horn-like projections. The face and throat are typically colored white or yellow. The sub-species can be distinguished by careful observation of the head pattern.

Northern Horned Lark

Northern Horned Lark (E. a. alpestris)
Image Credit: David Raymond

The Northern Horned Lark in the nominate sub-species. It breeds primarily in northern Quebec, Labrador and Newfoundland. The Northern can be distinguished by its bright yellow supercilium and throat.

Prairie Horned Lark

Prairie Horned Lark (E. a. praticola)
Image Credit: Kevin Fleming

The Prairie Horned Lark breeds in Southern Canada and the Eastern US. According to Ron Pittaway, its breeding range is separated from the Northern and Hoyt’s Horned Larks by a wide boreal forest. The Prairie is distinguished by its overall paler appearance, pale yellow throat and white supercilium.

Hoyt’s Horned Lark

Hoyt’s Horned Lark (E. a. hoyti )
Image Credit: Marshall J. Iliff

The Hoyt’s Horned Lark breeds in "arctic islands south to northeastern Alberta, northwestern Saskatchewan, northeastern Manitoba, extreme northwestern Ontario”. It migrates primarily through the prairie region west of Lake Superior. Hoyt’s in similar in appearance to the Prairie Horned Lark, except that it is larger. Further, the yellow on the throat is typically paler and restricted to the central region of the throat. As mentioned above, Hoyt’s is a very rare winter migrant to the east.

Based on the observation made in the field, it seems that the differences in appearance of the Horned Larks that were observed around Centre County over the last few weeks correspond to the two common eastern sub-species, the Northern and Prairie Horned Larks.

One additional difference that may be of some interest is that the Northern and Prairie Horned Larks have different spring migration habits. Prairies typically migrate earlier, arriving on the nesting ground in early to mid February. Northern Horned Larks arrive later, in mid-March to early April. As such, the two sub-species we are currently observing could be headed in different directions.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Winter Field Birds in Central Pennsylvania

Lapland Longspur
Image Credit: Nick Kontonicolas

Although it lacks the diversity of the spring and fall migrations, birding in the winter can be quite rewarding. One aspect of winter birding that I particularly enjoy is looking for birds in the open field – something I don’t typically focus on during the rest of the year.

Winter birding can also test your patience and your will. For one thing, it can get quite cold, and in the open field it can be a tad on the windy side. Moreover, the birds are not always cooperative. Case in point – a Northern Shrike (or two) has been seen lurking around Bald Eagle State Park since last December. Following the initial reports, I drove out to the park to get a glimpse at it. And that is exactly what I got – a glimpse! I spotted the bird perched on the top of a tree. I saw it just long enough to say it was a shrike when it dropped down into the brush. I was unable to relocate it.

Northern Shrike
Image Credit: Terry Sohl

I spent the better part of the next three weekends trudging through the snow in sub-zero temperatures trying to get a better look at the bird but came up empty each time. Upon reading the State College Bird Club listserv, I would see other birders reports of having seen the shrike. Many even posted photos on their bird blogs. I would go out again the next day and strike out. Finally, this past weekend I was able to relocate the bird along the West Launch Road. This guy sure made me earn my view. Perhaps in recognition of my efforts, it was very cooperative this time around. Although the bird moved frequently between perches, it stayed at each perch for several minutes and I was able to put the spotting scope on it for some nice views!

Other birds have not rewarded my patience. A pair of Short-eared Owls was recently reported in Huntingdon County on a neglected farm. The habitat is perfect for the owls. I drove out there last week to try and find them. About an hour before sunset, there were several Northern Harriers patrolling the fields. At least one of the harriers was an adult male, two others were juveniles, and the fourth was either a female or another juvie. Three Rough-legged Hawks and a male American Kestrel have also made their appearance. I waited around ‘til well after sunset, but the owl never showed up.

I went back a few days later and ran into another birder on the same quest. Again, the harriers, rough-legs and kestrel showed up, but not the owl. We returned again the next night with the same results. Because the Short-eared Owls are crepuscular, I figured I might have a chance to catch it just at dawn, so I went back the following morning. Again, no owl!

Horned Lark
Image Credit: Ohio Nature

Having struck out on the owls, I though I would test my luck with some open country birds. I drove the back roads through Center Hall, between Rts. 322 & 45. There were several moderate sized flocks of Horned Larks working their way around the fields. Yesterday, I tallied around 130 or so birds. I tried putting the spotting scope on the birds, but between my shivering in the sub-zero temps, and the wind rattling my scope, I was unable to get a clean look at the birds. Fortunately, a small group of about 15 birds alighted on the road about 50 yards off, providing me with a fairly good look.

Horned Lark, juvenile
Image Credit:

I went back again this afternoon. The wind was not nearly as bad, and the sun was breaking through the clouds periodically, providing good lighting conditions. I spotted a flock of about 100 Horned Larks in the same field as the previous day, but much closer to the road. I pulled over and set up the spotting scope. I got some excellent views of the birds feeding. I even spotted a few juvenile birds in the mix. The juveniles look similar to the adults, except that they lack the horn-like tufts, mustache and yellow throat.

I started scanning the flock for other field birds, particularly American Pipits, Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs. I missed on the pipits and bunting, but surprisingly, I did spot a Lapland Longspur – a rare but regular visitor to Central PA. This was a lifer for me - #505! I watched the longspur for several minutes before it got chased by an aggressive lark. The bird did not appear to fly off. Rather, it scampered into a cluster of wind-burned cornhusks, and I was unable to relocate it.

Image Credit:

I continued to search for the longspur, as well as look for the other above-mentioned birds when the flock suddenly shot up off the ground and scattered. I looked up to follow the birds when I spotted a male Merlin streaking overhead. The larks were a step ahead of the Merlin which did not even pursue them. Rather, it touched down at the top of a tree about 100 yards off. I spotted a second Merlin a few miles down the road, near the Elks Club Golf Course.

I still have a few more winter birds that I would like to pick-up over the next month or so. Crossbills and Redpolls have both been reported in the area, so I will come up with a strategy to search them out. I am also going to keep on target with the Short-eared Owl. Other birders who have seen it at the present location say the likelihood of seeing it on a given trip is about 50/50. I am batting 0 for 4 at present, so my chances for upcoming trips should be better. Moreover, a full moon is on slate for this week, so that should increase my chances of seeing it as well. Either way, I’ll keep going back until I get it.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Winter Birding in Juniata County

Barn Owl
Image Credit: BBC – Inside Out

After striking out on both Northern Shrikes and the multiple flocks of Horned Larks roaming around the Centre County, PA, I figured a change of scenery might bring some good birding my way. Fortunately, I got a call from Chad Kauffman to see if I was interested in having a look around Juniata County.

I got the OK from the boss (read: wife), so I headed east on Rt. 322 early this morning to meet up with Chad in Mifflintown. We primarily birded the back roads and farms between Routes 35 & 333, from Oakland Mills to Port Royal.

Made several stops along the Juniata River looking for waterfowl. Overall, waterfowl were scarce, other than a few local Mallards and several flocks of migrating Canada Geese. We did spot a Bufflehead and three Common Mergansers on the Juniata, as well as some American Black Ducks and a lone Greater Scaup on a mostly frozen-over farm pond. A Bald Eagle was also observed circling above the river.

Northern Harrier
Image Credit: Lilibirds

The most productive areas were the back roads and farms. Our target raptor for the day was a Rough-legged Hawk. Unfortunately, we were unable to find one. Other raptors were plentiful. Red-tails Hawks and Kestrels were fairly abundant. Seems that there was one or two of each on just about every road we were on. Also had several Northern Harriers, including one individual that stayed out in front of our vehicle for a good stretch, almost as if he was leading us somewhere. The harrier had a light russet color on the breast and tail, suggesting that it was an immature bird.

We also stumbled upon a pair of Barn Owls sitting at the opening of an old barn silo that looks like it had seen better days. This was a particularly exiting, as the Barn Owls were lifers for me - #504!

Horned Larks
Image Credit: Dave Appleton

A few of the farms had recently spread manure. This drew in some good sized flocks of Horned Larks. We carefully scanned the flocks to see what else they might contain. We were unable to find any Lapland Longspurs, but Chad did spot a Snow Bunting.

A few of the farms also had some springs or seeps that seemed to draw a lot of sparrows. We scanned the seeps looking for shorebirds. The first few places we checked were not productive, except for a few Killdeer. Chad said he knew a reliable place where we might be able to pick up a Wilson’s Snipe or two. He was right about that! Just driving slowly along the road, we were able to count 16 Wilson’s Snipe – by far the most I have seen at one sitting. There was also a solitary American Pipit.

Wilson’s Snipe
Image Credit: Toronto Hiking

Near the end of the day, we had a fair number of Black Vultures and one Turkey Vulture. We finished up the day in a small park near the Lost Creek Shoe Shop where Chad spotted a Red-headed Woodpecker chiseling at a tree that looks like it has seen its fair share of woodpeckers.

In all, we tallied 44 species for the day.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Birding on the Edge (of Centre Co)

Rough-legged Hawk, dark morph
Image Credit: Marcel Gauthier

I stopped by the Duck Pond this morning to get another look at the female Redhead (or is it a late-molting male) - as if I haven't seen it enough already. While I was there, I bumped into another birder (Steve lastname?) and we got to chating – about birds, of course. I mentioned that there was a Rough-legged Hawk sighting last week, along Rt. 220 near Bellefonte, in case he was interested in searching for it. He told me that there was a better and more reliable place to see them – out on the eastern edge of Centre County, near the Union County Line. More specifically, in the town of Woodward.

Woodward lies at the eastern end of Penns Valley, along Rt. 45 East. It’s mostly Amish farms out that way. According to Steve the birder, the Amish maintain hedgerows between fields, don’t plow the soil as often and refrain from the heavy use of pesticides. Taken together, this makes for a nice healthy population of rodents – primarily meadow voles. Sounds like good eatin’ for a raptor.

I asked for directions, and he kindly provided them. After lunch, I went out and spent the afternoon driving around Woodward Gap (map) tallying raptors. I made few loops around Cemetary and Jackson Hill Roads. I saw lots of raptors and other nice birds.

I spotted lots of American Kestrels along the power lines adjacent to Rt.45 (Penns Valley Rd.). I turned left at the second entrance to Cemetary Rd., and immediately picked up a Red-tailed Hawk. About a half-mile in, I spotted another hawk in a tree about 20 yards off the road (see "A" marker on map). It was a dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk. I observed it for about 1 minute or so before it took off and slowly glided across the field and set down in another tree about two-tenths of a mile off. I got a fantastic view! Might be the best look I have had of a Rough-leg.

I continued along Cemetary, spotted one Red-tailed Hawk after another. Also picked up a Sharp-shinned Hawk and a few Ravens. A lone Killdeer was observed hanging around a cattle feed station. Along the way, I spotted a handful of Goldfinches and American Tree Sparrows in an abandoned brush field.

It was getting late, so I started to make my way back to Rt. 45. I decided to sneak out the back way – along Pine Creek Hollow Rd. At the junction of Pine Creek and Jackson Hollow Roads, I spotted another Red-tail. While viewing it in my binoculars, I picked up another more distant bird to the northwest of Buffalo Mountain. To my surprise, it was a circling Black Vulture – somewhat of a rarity in Centre County at this time of year. Certainly the earliest I have ever seen one.

Black Vulture
Image Credit: Patrick Lynch

Woodward Gap looks like a promising place to pick up some good winter birds. I will definitely head back in February to search for more Rough-legs. I should also be able to find some Horned Larks, Snow Bunting, and perhaps even a Longspur. I'll keep you posted!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Time to Start a New List!

Northern Goshawk, juvenile
Image Credit: Nature Pics

2010 is history! Time to start a new bird list for 2011!

My goal this year is to find 220 species within the state (PA), and 200 within the limits of Centre County. Both goals are modest and achievable. The county mark is a bit tougher, but I should be able to hit it if I pick a few rarities during the spring and fall migrations. In addition, I gotta make sure I pick up the easy birds I missed this past year (Herring Gull, Red-breasted Merganser, Screech Owl, Black-billed Cuckoo, Northern Waterthush, etc).

I got 365 days to get it done! Figured that New Year's Day was good a day as any to get started.

First bird of the year was an American Crow. I have a few that roost in the spruce trees in my yard. Having them around makes my alarm clock optional.

I hit the Centre Furnace Duck Pond at first light and picked up a few gimmes, like the Mallard, American Black Duck and Canada Goose. Also got a few regulars like the Kingfisher, Ring-necked Duck, Northern Shoveler and Redhead.

Next it was off to Millbrook Marsh where I added the House Sparrows that nest under the barn eaves, the Carolina Wrens taking up residence around the bird blind, and a few Song Sparrow I spotted along the boardwalk.

I spent the rest of the morning at Toftrees Gamelands (eastern part of SGL 176). Activity was quite high there this morning. Got all the common woodpeckers (Downy, Hairy, Sapsucker, Flicker, Red-belly & Pileated). Also got some finches (Gold, House and Purple), sparrows (White-throats, Juncos, Tree) and thrushes (Bluebird, Hermit).

After lunch I went out to Bald Eagle State Park. Picked up some Rock Pigeons, Mourning Doves, Kestrels, Red-tailed Hawks and a Cooper’s Hawk along route 220 on the drive out. Once I arrived at the park, I spent about 4 hours walking around in the intermittent drizzle looking for the Northern Shrike that is lurking there, but came up empty. But all was not lost. I picked up a juvenile Northern Goshawk late in the afternoon as I was getting ready to leave.

The Goshawk was a lifer for me - #503! It was perched in a small tree adjacent to the road (between the Frog Pond and the Inn). I pulled the car over and got some really good looks from a distance of about 30 yards. Awesome bird. Big hawk. Confirmed the ID by the size, uneven tail bands and the distinct white supercilium.

Ended the day with 39 species. What a great way to start the year!