Field Birds in the Snow

By Derek Stoner, Family Program Coordinator

A Horned Lark displays the reason for its name: tiny horn-like feather tufts atop its head.
A Horned Lark displays the reason for its name: tiny horn-like feather tufts atop its head. (12/22/09 Smyrna, DE)

With the winter landscape covered in snow for the past week, the conditions were perfect for watching a particular(and perhaps peculiar) group of birds: Field Birds.  While not an actual category or official designation in ornithological terms, “field birds” are those small birds that inhabit open fields and barren habitats.

An Eastern Meadowlark perches aatop a snow pile, displaying its brilliant yellow chest.
An Eastern Meadowlark perches atop a snow pile, displaying its brilliant yellow chest. (12/22/09 Smyrna, DE)

In the winter months, flocks of Horned Larks, American Pipits, and Eastern Meadowlarks converge upon the vast agricultural fields in our region.  Often ocurring in mixed flocks of dozens or even hundreds, these birds search for seeds to eat as they work through a field. 

All these species have cryptic coloration on their backs, helping them blend into the landscapes of brown, gray, and white where they typically are found.  The chests and faces of these birds, however, offer a bright contrast to their dull upperparts: bright egg-yolk yellow on the chest of the Eastern Meadowlark, and the lemon yellow face of the Horned Lark.  Black masks on both these species may serve to shield them from sun glare on the bright expanses of snowfields and prairie where they roam.

A Snow Butning perches on a sand dune, showing its long back toe nail or hallux.
A Snow Bunting perches on a sand dune, showing its elongated hind claw. (3/5/05 Stone Harbor, NJ)

The true prizes to find amidst these flocks are of course the less-common “field birds”:  Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs.  Both these species breed on the Arctic tundra, adding to their allure and intrigue.

The namesake spurs on this deceased lapland Longspur are quite evident. (photo by Bill Stewart 12.27.09)
The namesake spurs on this deceased Lapland Longspur are quite evident. (photo by Bill Stewart 12/27/09)

The name longspur refers to the elongated hind claw(also called a hallux) that these birds possess, a key feature that all field birds share.  In the windy, open expanses that they frequent, a long claw helps them keep a good grip on the ground.  Rarely do these birds perch in trees or anywhere but the ground.  In fact, they even roost on the ground in fields, where I’ve encountered flocks many times while walking or driving through fields at night.   

A Horned Lark in flight, showing the long hind toe nails that many "field birds" have that helps them keep their grip in slippery field conditions.
A Horned Lark in flight, showing the elongated hind claw that many "field birds" have that helps them keep their grip in slippery field conditions. (12/22/09 Smyrna, DE)

A good snow makes it much easier to pick out flocks of field birds, as their dark bodies stand out against the white background. As a bonus, these birds often feed on the cleared edges of roadsides after snow, making it easier to view them up close.

As we head into the depths of winter, I hope you encounter some of these interesting field birds and make their acquaintance.  Wait for the next snowfall!

(Interesting note: during the Bombay Hook Christmas Bird Count on December 27, youth birder Mike Hudson found a dead Lapland Longspur on the road.  Bill Stewart collected the bird for use by the Delaware Museum of Natural History, and photographed the bird’s long spurs for our viewing pleasure.  This was the only longspur documented during this count, but it cannot be officially recorded because the bird was dead!)

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