Photographs follow further down
Yesterday was the 76th Hudson Christmas Bird Count and J and I were out all day counting birds on our usual route. I’ll get to the day report shortly but first want to ask you to Consider the Horned Lark.
Why? Because we found something interesting and I think it will interest you also and encourage you to look more closely at the next group you happen upon.
After we had completed our assigned CBC route we decided to go off and look for Snowy Owls. That was not a success but we did happen across a small group of some twenty or so Horned Larks out in the flatlands west of St-Clet and I duly pulled up at a decent distance and crept up on them with the camera. Like Snow Buntings, they are pretty skittish birds and depart when you are some distance away, but I got a few record shots, got back in the car and headed off. It was only when I got home and downloaded the pictures that I realized that I had something unusual. The typical Horned Lark that we see here has a yellow face and throat and indeed, most of the birds showed those markings. Mixed in amongst them though was at least one bird whose face/throat were white. Look at these photographs to see what I mean:
I confess to never before having noticed such differences between birds, ostensibly of the same species, and so did some reading. There are a remarkable 21 recognised subspecies of the Horned Lark which really makes life hard – fortunately most of those are out west which reduced the options somewhat. I concluded – and have confirmed – that the yellow faced birds we normally see here in winter are Eremophila alpestris alpestris while the white faced bird is Eremophila alpestris practicola
The following details are from Cornell’s Birds of North America (goo.gl/9VSvFc):
Our regular yellow-faced bird (E. a. alpestris) is the nominate race, breeds from w. Ontario east to Newfoundland and Labrador. Almost completely migratory, it winters from Manitoba and Newfoundland south to Kansas and N. Carolina, mixing with the resident E. a. praticola . It has a sepia brown dorsum, spectrum yellow, throat, and eyebrow stripe, and white belly.
The white-faced bird (E. a. praticola) is the “prairie” race, breeds from Minnesota to Nova Scotia and south to e. Kansas and N. Carolina. In winter, some individuals move as far south as Florida. Smaller and darker than E. a arcticola, but chin pale yellow to white.
There is also a very useful paper published in 1994 by Ron Pittaway (Subspecies of the Horned Lark; Ontario Birds Dec 1994; 12:3; 109-115) which notes that praticola breed sparsely in southern Ontario and that the breeding range of the Prairie subspecies is separated from the breeding ranges of the two northern subspecies by a wide band of boreal forest.
So finding alpestris alongside praticola is not necessarily unusual provided you are viewing the birds somewhat south and west of here. It’s the praticola bird that is historically out of place here in Quebec.
The take-away from this being not to just note Horned Larks (nice birds, lovely to see on a cold day) but to scan the flock carefully for different forms because they are not all the same. Now – what about the other 19 subspecies? Were any of them present yesterday as well?
Thanks for reading this far – I find this sort of thing fascinating. Now, keep going, the photographs are not far away:
So – back to the Hudson CBC as it played out for J and I who were doing our usual “Route 2″ of the circle.
We have been doing this route consistently each year for a dozen, possibly more, years and so have a pretty good idea of where to look the hardest and where the birds hang out in largest numbers. The day and night prior to this year’s count had seen the area enjoy a heavy fall of freezing rain and cars were in ditches all over the place. Nearby town of Rigaud had closed a couple of roads on their mountain because two of their gritting trucks had gone into the ditches it was that slippery!! Fortunately, by the time we set out in the early morning temperatures had climbed a degree or so above zero and things were not too scary. Our route starts in a residential area of west Hudson, takes us along a countryfied road with big houses and horse barns (and big dogs that chase cars) then down to the flat lands around St-Clet where we always enjoy the winter visitors and hope – usually vainly – for Snowy Owls.
By the end of the day we had ticked off 19 species of birds which is good for the territory we were birding in at this time of year, but we noticed a continuation of recent years in that while the species may be reliable the numbers of individual birds is diminishing. Almost always the first birds we tick off are Blue Jays but yesterday we found only 5 altogether and they all in the southern sector of our census area. Again, flocks of Euro-Starlings used to be the norm around the farms but a mere 24 were seen altogether. It was also noticeable that where once there used to be many bird feeders in gardens, these days we are down to just a couple that are in active use. One in particular that for many years has been swarming with birds when we pass was totally devoid of seed. Hard to understand why people put feeders up and then don’t keep them filled, but there you are, there is no accounting for folk.
Snowy Owls were notable by their absence. This was a pity as one had been photographed a week beforehand on our route but was probably passing through. After the heavy freezing rain the ability of SNOWs to break through the ice crust on the snow and get at their rodent prey must have been seriously compromised.
We found a few Wild Turkeys – handsome birds – as well as a colourful flock of American Robins, Cooper’s and Red-tailed Hawks, two Common Ravens and all the usual birds (list follows). A nice flock of Snow Buntings were very active on the flat fields – attracted to, but not that reliant on, some seed bait left by the banding group who are studying this species. After we had completed our rounds we “invaded” the territory covered by the Route 1 team to look for Snowy owls – again with no success but it did allow us to locate the Horned Larks discussed above.
Anyway – enough of that. It was a good day, the roads were better than expected, and the birding, while hard, was rewarding. Here is a list of the species we added to the CBC count for the day/year and a few photographs.
Wild Turkey 7 – Cooper’s Hawk 1 – Red-tailed Hawk 1 – Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 115 – Mourning Dove 7 – Downy Woodpecker 5 – Hairy Woodpecker 1 – Blue Jay 5 – American Crow 14 – Common Raven 2 – Horned Lark 20 – Black-capped Chickadee 60 – White-breasted Nuthatch 8 – American Robin 8 – European Starling 24 – Lapland Longspur 6 – Snow Bunting 120 – Dark-eyed Junco 21 – American Goldfinch 5 – House Sparrow 2