Every winter after the first snow, I head to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in West Alton to try to photograph horned larks (Eremophila alpestris). I say “try” because it is difficult to get a sharp image of a horned lark as they are always on the move, foraging on the ground for seeds and other morsels. The second challenge is to capture a glint, something photographers call a “catchlight,” in the horned lark’s deep, black eyes. You wouldn’t think such a sparkle would be so important, but without it the horned lark’s eyes can appear hollow and lifeless.
Last December, Charlie Deutsch, environmental manager at Riverlands, called me to report the first influx of horned larks following a midweek snow. The weekend couldn’t come fast enough but I finally made it to Saturday and hit the road long before dawn. A couple hours later, I was folded into a makeshift blind in the snow with my lens trained on the ground beneath one of the area’s bird feeders. I knew horned larks were opportunistic ground foragers and were not shy about feeding on the wasted seeds of cardinals, finches, and other songbirds. As the promise of sunrise cast an azure tint on the snowy landscape, I saw one, two, and then several small birds dropping to the ground near the feeder. It took me a few seconds to confirm my suspicion that the birds, nondescript in the muted light, were all horned larks!
I watched the bat-eared larks in the twilight and waited impatiently for some more help from the sun. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so I knew the soft glow of morning that photographers relish was near. Minutes seemed like hours, but I finally felt the soothing balm of the sun’s rays on my neck as the bluish snow turned white. I focused my lens on a striking male with a black mustache, buttery-yellow chin, and prominent, feathered “horns.” I waited for the requisite twinkle of reflection in the lark’s eye and released the shutter.
Horned larks are common across Missouri but most people never notice them because they blend so well with their preferred habitat of open fields and bare agricultural ground. They are among Missouri’s earliest nesters and can even be found nesting in a blanket of February snow. I look for horned larks on public land with plenty of open ground, such as the Riverlands, where I photographed this bird, or the Department’s Columbia Bottom Conservation Area.
Horned larks can be photographed any time of year but their antics in the snow are hard to beat. I enjoy watching territorial males as they spend as much time chasing off other birds as they do foraging for seeds themselves. Their posturing usually begins with a short flight and often ends with an out-of-control slide that leaves them careening awkwardly into one or more adversaries. I’ve spent a lot of time with these horned and mustachioed songbirds and I consider it time well spent.
—Story and photos by Danny Brown
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