Larks of the Shore

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

Recently a group of Nantucket birders were fortunate enough to be able to 'bird' at Nantucket Airport. One of our target species was the Horned Lark. "Birding Nantucket" lists this species as being 'common' year-round, but I'll wager most of you have never seen one. When we say 'common' we mean that if you know where to go, you can always find them. The trick is knowing where, and these birds favor spots that most humans generally avoid.

Arthur Cleveland Bent comments. "America's only true lark lives at the bleak end of the ecological series of bird habitats, which begins with the heavy forests and ends with the barrens, the tree-denuded, wind-swept hilltops of the Northeastern States, and those peculiarly unnatural and artificial barrens, the hazards of these modern-day golf courses."

So, there's good news for those of us that play most of our golf games in the rough, we may spot a Horned Lark! Other favored spots on Nantucket include our more desolate beaches and even the grasslands around the old Naval Facility.

The birders found just one lark, sunning himself with a group of Killdeer at the edge of a parking apron. We were able to see its face pattern clearly in our glasses and identify him as a 'Northern' Horned Lark. Our host, Jeff Marks, commented he had a flock of 15 or 20 the following day, but we were happy just to see the one.

So how would you know if you saw one? Unless viewed with binoculars, these are undistinctive, light brown birds, slightly larger than sparrows that run, not hop, along the ground. Their flight pattern is distinctive, described as a choppy undulation, flapping a few times and then closing their wings and coasting. Each time they start to flap, you hear their high-pitched "zee t-it" call note. From underneath, the black tail contrasts sharply with the lighter belly.

But the trick is to get them in binoculars. Then the lark's clown-like, yellow and black face pattern appears. There is a black splotch below the throat, then bright yellow to the beak, framed by black sideburns. If you have a male, you may see the little black, feathery horns sticking up on top of the head.

There were once considered to be seven different species of Horned Larks in North America. In the fifties, we looked at every one closely because we had to decide if we were seeing a Prairie Horned Lark, or a Northern Horned Lark. The Prairie variety is the one which nests on Nantucket in the summertime and I remember being fortunate enough to find such a nest on Great Point in the early 60's with several young in it, too young to scramble out of the nest. Horned Larks nest on the ground, in a depression scraped out by the female and then lined with grass. They like to construct a little paved area around the nest, which seems to define it better.

Prairie Horned Larks have white foreheads while Northern Horned Larks have yellow. At this time of the year, you might see either. These are now referred to as 'subspecies' but who knows, the great ornithologists in the sky may deign to split them back into true species again and then you could have two species on your life list instead of one!

Horned Larks are among the earliest songbirds to nest. The actual courting and nesting cycle begins when we have two consecutive days with average temperatures of 40 degrees or higher. They proceed thereafter even if the conditions deteriorate. On Nantucket, this may happen in March or April, depending on what kind of a winter we are having. That is when our Horned Larks put on their show. The males fly up in the air between 200 and 800 feet and then either cruise in circles or hover into the wind and produce their beautiful song. It is an incredibly high, but joyous series of notes that you should listen for on early spring days, particularly if you are around the airport, or perhaps out on Eel Point. Langille (1884) describes the flight song as "quit, quit, quit, you silly rig and get away", which really picks up the rhythm of it.

This is a bird you will never see at your feeder, or in town. Your best clue is to hear the call note as the bird flies over, or hear its wonderful song in the spring. At this time of year you may see them bounding through the air in flocks of 15 or 20 if you are near the beach. When they land, they disperse and run, hunched over, mouse-like on the ground. Catch them in your field glasses and enjoy the bright yellow and black face pattern as we did recently at the airport.

If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.