One of my favorite winter birding pastimes is searching for one of the most spectacular birds that visits northern Illinois from the Arctic north during the winter: the Snowy Owl. While I’m searching for Snowy Owls, I occasionally come across other large raptors like Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Harriers, and Rough-legged Hawks. I also see many flocks of much smaller, sparrow-like birds that seem to enjoy foraging on the sides of the rural roads that I drive on, the entire flock rising as one and flying off at the approach of my car.
These smaller birds aren’t nearly as spectacular as their larger cousins but are very interesting in their own right. While they look fairly drab and sparrow-like from a distance, closer examination reveals that these birds aren’t sparrows at all but are two distinct species that also visit our region during the winter months, migrating south from the Arctic, similar to the Snowy Owl: Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings. These little birds travel great distances to spend the winter on our midwestern farm fields from their breeding grounds near and above the Arctic Circle. Horned Larks are a third species of bird that form large flocks in the winter in our area, sometimes flocking with Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings as well. The Horned Larks don’t migrate to our area from far away but are year-round residents here and are also very interesting little birds. I’m dedicating this month’s column to these unappreciated little birds that many people have probably seen, but don’t realize how unique they really are!
Horned Larks actually live in the Fox Valley area year-round but often go unnoticed during the warmer months. They are ground-dwelling birds that favor foraging in the soil of farm fields for seeds and insects. Their overall brownish color blends in with the soil and they are difficult to see. In the winter, they become more apparent, not only because their colors contrast with the snow on the ground, but also because they form large flocks of over fifty birds that join together with Dark-eyed Juncos, some sparrow species, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Buntings traveling through the countryside looking for places to forage along roadside fields.
The Horned Lark gets its name from two small black feathers that emerge from either side of the top of its head, forming “horns” that are sometimes visible. They are very active, wary little birds and are quite often difficult to get close to as they are constantly on the move. For me, the Horned Larks are the most common of the roadside birds that I see when I’m out looking for Snowy Owls. While still fairly common, Horned Larks have seen population declines of about 65% over the last 60 years and are listed as a “Common Species in Steep Decline” because of this. The reasons for this decline are not widely understood.
The Lapland Longspur is one of the most common, yet most overlooked species of bird that inhabit North America. That’s because during the warmer months, when they are breeding and in high color, they inhabit the tundra of northern Canada near and above the Arctic Circle. When they do migrate to their wintering grounds in southern Canada and the northern United States (including the Fox Valley), they spend their time in flat, treeless agricultural areas, normally away from people.
The Lapland Longspur gets its name from the area of northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland collectively known as Lapland where they also breed, and the long, spur-like rear toe of its feet. While they are in our area, their coloring is interesting, particularly on their faces, but drab in comparison to their breeding colors that include a deep black on their faces with a rich chestnut brown on the nape of their necks.
Lapland Longspurs sometimes form huge flocks of literally millions of birds in their wintering grounds over agricultural fields. When I’ve seen them around here though, they have been in flocks of fifty to one-hundred birds that have sometimes also included Horned Larks and Snow Buntings.
Snow Buntings are also strictly winter visitors to our Fox Valley area. Like the Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs, they favor open, treeless, agricultural fields as a preferred habitat. Unlike the others, they also inhabit the shorelines of large bodies of water, like Lake Michigan, in the winter months.
Like the Lapland Longspur, the Snow Bunting breeds in the Arctic north. Unlike the Longspurs who breed directly on the ground in the tundra, Snow Buntings nest in rock crevasses along the shoreline of the Arctic Ocean. When they are in breeding condition, the Snow Buntings are a brilliant snow-white color interspersed with black markings. While they are in our area, they are a lighter color than either the Horned Larks or the Lapland Longspurs, but they have a buff color to their feathers. They change to their brilliant white coloration in the spring on their way to their breeding grounds, not by molting like many other birds that change colors during breeding, but by eroding the tips of their feathers against hard snow and ice, exposing the snow-white “roots” underneath.
Like the Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks, they form large flocks in our area during the winter months. Their populations are also decreasing over time but not as quickly as the Horned Lark.
So, when you’re driving in rural areas during the winter, keep your eyes peeled for large flocks of small birds that rise from the roadside in front of you, circle out over the open field and then return to the roadside after you pass. Chances are those flocks are a mixture of Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Buntings! It’s very neat to know that some of these birds have traveled all the way from the Arctic to visit our area in the winter. They add a bit of movement and color to an otherwise dark and relatively lifeless Illinois winter landscape!