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
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