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Birds of the Open Fields
By Bill Volkert

Driving the country roads of Dodge and Fond du Lac counties in winter, it is a common sight to see a flock of birds fly up from the roadside and circle off over the surrounding farm fields. When traveling near rural residences where people may be feeding birds, these flocks may be common winter birds such as juncos or house sparrows. If brush, hedgerows or thickets are nearby it may be a flock of tree sparrows visiting us from Canada.

However, among the wide open countryside it is common to watch flocks of birds fly off over the plowed farm fields and often circle around to land again on the shoulder of the road after we have passed. If you take the time to scan the areas of spread manure you may also see flocks of small birds flitting around as they pick through the material looking for waste grain and small seeds.

It may seem strange to suggest that bird watching should entail scanning areas of spread manure for interesting birds, but that is exactly what many of us do. There is an abundant food source in manure with plenty of excess grain that remains undigested. In fact, turkeys are commonly attracted to this as well, especially when the manure is spread along the edge of a woodlot. Its what some of our wildlife biologists refer to as the hot lunch program for wildlife.

But the birds I wish to focus on are not turkeys or the common backyard birds that we can easily see at our feeders, but rather a group of migrants that spend their summer on the wide open tundra and seek out the open farm lands of the upper midwest as wintering habitat. These are birds which originally associated with the shortgrass prairies but today have found suitable habitat among the farm fields. In fact, Dodge and Fond du Lac counties are among some of the better places in the state to watch for these birds. The farmlands north of Milwaukee, west of Racine, and between Horicon Marsh, Lake Winnebago and north to Green Bay are among the best places to watch for this group of birds in Wisconsin.

The particular birds I am referring to are the horned lark, lapland longspur and snow bunting. The snow bunting may be among the easiest to recognize of the group. The adult males are a striking dark and white which stands out as these birds take flight. The males may begin to take on their breeding plumage of black and white by early spring as the last of the flock begins to migrate north towards their arctic breeding grounds.

The buntings are nesting birds of the far north. On Hudson Bay you may encounter them during the arctic spring but they will not remain there for the nesting season. They commonly nest in the middle and high arctic latitudes. I have found them nesting on the Arctic Circle as well as 1,000 miles north of the circle! They will essentially fly as far north as there is land.

The lapland longspur is also an arctic nester but will nest south to the lower edge of the tundra, including the Hudson Bay lowlands. This bird looks like a large, dark sparrow - which it essentially is. It is distantly related to our native sparrows and finches but prefers the open country rather then shrubs and forest edges. Longspurs are best identified by the dark face and bib on the adult males which again is the breeding plumage and may begin to develop towards the end of winter. In the dead of winter the females appear streaked while the males have a chestnut colored patch on the back of their heads. When they take flight they may show a bit of white on the outer most edge of the tail.

Horned larks are not only birds of the open country but have a very wide distribution. We have a population of horned larks that nests in Wisconsin and the prairie lands to the west. Another population of birds nests in the arctic and spends the winter mixed in with our summer horned larks. I have also watched horned larks in the grasslands of Mongolia and southern Siberia. So here is a bird that has found suitable habitat in the grasslands and tundra of the northern hemisphere on both sides of the world.

Horned larks are among the most common of the winter birds in open country. I have watched flock after flock lift up from the roadsides, then circle over the fields only to land behind me after I have passed. Horned larks have a smooth, soft tawny color on their backs with a light underside. Their tails are black, which stands out as they take off. However, on close inspection you may see a black bib and cheek patch, with a soft yellow throat. A closer look may reveal the tiny "horns", or feather tufts that stand out on each side of the head.

All of these birds are wanderers and while common in eastern Wisconsin in winter, it is hard to predict where and when you may find them. The best tactic is simply to drive the back roads in open farm country. Drive slowly and watch for flocks along the roadside. They may be picking gravel and fine grit to help in digesting the hard kernels and seeds that they have found in the fields. As I mentioned earlier, you may also want to scan the spread manure for these birds, but since they may often be out in the fields at quite a distance it is best to watch for them with a field scope rather than just binoculars.

While these birds are commonly overlooked in early winter when the fields are browns, the best times to watch for them is in years of relatively deep snow. At these times the flocks may be forced to the side of the road making themselves more visible. It always amazes me to be driving along the roads in a winter blizzard with driving snow, poor visibility and vicious conditions and then to come across a flock of these tough and intrepid arctic migrants pecking along the roadside as if it were a comfortable day. I often feel bad when I flush such a flock from a secure feeding grounds only to watch them take flight into the driving snowstorm.

So if you are looking for a different wildlife experience this winter, get your bird book and binoculars and take a short drive around the countryside and see if you can locate a flock of horned larks, lapland longspurs or snow buntings. This is the time to watch for these hardy and energetic arctic visitors.