Out for a Lark

By eBird Northwest Team February 4, 2019
Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris

It is that time of year, when millions of songbirds from northern populations have traveled south of the U.S.A-Canada border in search of food and better conditions. One such species, the Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris), can often be found from November to March in large wintering flocks, sometimes mixed with other grassland species like longspurs and buntings. Horned Larks are obligate open-country species, preferring habitats with minimal vegetation such as short-grass prairies, fallow agricultural fields, semi-arid deserts, coastal sand dunes, airports, and tundra. We would like your help learning more about the movements of the Horned Lark.

Since 2002, researchers at the University of British Columbia have monitored an alpine breeding population near Smithers, British Columbia. All birds are fitted with 3 colored leg bands and one metal band. In 2015, we began tracking the migration of adults to investigate their migration and winter habitats. Light-level geolocators have revealed that at least several individuals winter in the Northwestern states. We hope to locate color banded Horned Larks during the non-breeding and migration periods to better understand the wintering behavior of these songbirds.

Our geolocator data suggest that at least some larks winter in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Specifically, they winter east of the Cascades, from the Okanogan Valley south to Central and SE Washington and Oregon (including Klamath Falls), and near Boise and Twin Falls in Idaho. eBird shows us the December to February sightings.

In late February to May, many of the larks move north to the British Columbia/Washington border in the South Okanagan, up to the Central Okanagan, Merritt, Kamloops, and William’s Lake. The eBird map for March and April tracks these movements.

How can you help?
Whether you are already out birding in open habitats and come across a flock of Horned Larks, or you are interested in checking out some of the nearby locations in the above eBird maps, we ask that you take a closer look and see if you can distinguish any color bands. Since exact color combinations can be difficult to read, we ask for 3 pieces of data that together are just as useful:

  1.  any band colors and which leg if possible (bird’s right/left)
  2.  male/female
  3.  yellow wash to throat (yes/no).

Yellow plumage indicates a Streaked Horned Lark, a threatened subspecies. A GPS location and photos are always welcome!

Like most grassland birds, Larks are declining rapidly across North America (~70% decline since 1970). Knowing where birds spend the winter is vital to understanding conservation threats. We greatly appreciate any information you can contribute to the first migration study of Horned Larks in North America, and one of the first for an alpine songbird.

In addition to your eBird report please direct color band sightings to Devin de Zwaan at the University of British Columbia.

Email: drdezwaan@gmail.com
Follow sighting updates on Twitter: @DevindeZwaa

Photo 1: Male with attached geolocator

Photo 2: Typical female

Photo 3: Color bands used

Photo 4: Example of a Streaked Horned Lark with yellow wash on throat and supercilium

To see what other citizen science projects are happening on eBird Northwest, click here.

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