By Bill Chaisson
I have not spent a lot of time birdwatching in grassland habitat. Consequently, I don’t know those birds very well. Grasslands are an endangered habitat in the northeastern United States because the amount of rainfall that we get is spread evenly through the year and dictates that the land should naturally be forested. European settlers cleared the forest between the 17th and 19th centuries and created extensive grasslands in the form of pastures and fallow cropland.
It is thought that during this period, several grassland bird species moved north and east to fill this newly created niche. Two things have conspired to make those species progressively more rare in the northeast through the 20th and 21st centuries.
First came the abandonment of farmland. When the Erie Canal opened in 1823, it created a new frontier in western New York, and many New England farmers left their stony upland acreage to till the thick, rich soil of the Finger Lakes and the Genesee Valley. The New England forest grew up behind them. When the trees were big enough to cut for timber, the forest grew back again.
But the other force that eliminated grassland habitat in the Northeast also eliminated it all over the country: science. The Progressive Era of 1890-1929 brought the scientific method to all walks of life, including farming. Hedgerows were cut down and crop rotation cycles became tighter. After World War II petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides not only eliminated the need for fallow fields, but also poisoned the food chain. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and a library of books with the same message led to laws to protect the food chain, but hedgerows and fallow fields have not returned.
In the Finger Lakes I lived at the southern border of extensive farm country in Seneca County. Some of the land was farmed organically and much of the rest of it was not farmed as intensively as it could have been. In the winter, when I drove through on my newspaper assignments, I would often see a swirl of birds out in the corn stubble and sometimes I would stop to see what they were. Inevitably they would be mostly snow buntings, but sometimes there would be a few Lapland longspurs and horned larks mixed in.
The snow buntings and longspurs breed on the tundra, but the horned larks breed across nearly the entire continent, absent only in the coniferous forest of central Canada. In the case of the horned lark, because of their strict association with grasslands, the thumbnail maps in national bird guides are misleading. If you look at the map in Randi and Nic Minetor’s “Birding New England,” it shows the species wintering throughout New England, but breeding only in southern Vermont, southwest New Hampshire, the southwestern half of Connecticut, the Maine Coast and in the St. Johns River valley of northernmost Maine. All of these areas have extensive open country, either because of farming or in the case of Connecticut, a lot of golf courses.
If you drill down further, as it were, to look at the specific sites that are monitored for the “Atlas of Breeding Birds in New Hampshire,” it contradicts the Minetors’ range map. Horned larks are recorded as breeding at only three sites in southeastern New Hampshire with two additional “probable” sites there. Similarly, the map for horned lark in the “Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont” shows no overlap with the breeding range asserted in “Birding New England.” All the known breeding sites are in the Champlain Valley, which is indeed the flattest, most open part of Vermont.
The description in the Vermont atlas notes that the major requirement for horned lark nesting is bare ground. Their preferred habitats are “cropped grass of airports and athletic fields, harrowed fields, freshly turned sod, and overgrazed pastureland. But because it requires largely unvegetated barrens, overall this species is thinly distributed.”
Iain C. MacLeod, writing for the New Hampshire atlas, notes that two different subspecies are seen in the state. The “northern form” Eremophila alpestris alpestris, winters here, while the breeding population consists of E. a. praticola, the paler so-called “prairie form.” This latter subspecies is documented as having arrived in New Hampshire after 1844, when the state was largely open and cleared for agriculture.
The breeding birds, MacLeod writes, arrive after mid-February, and the males begin to perform their elaborate flight songs, with nest building beginning in March, often while there is still snow on the ground.
There are 21 genera in the family Alaudidae with all but one in the Old World. Our only native lark species is the only member of its genus, but in a family full of relatively drab sparrow-like species, the horned lark is pretty racy. It has that combination of yellow and black that it shares with the dickcissel and the meadowlark (a blackbird, in spite of its name). In the males of many horned lark subspecies, the yellow extends from the throat to behind the eyes. Narrow black bands extend from the beak through the eyes and then broaden below them. There is a black crescent across the top of the chest and two black streaks on the top of the head that terminate in small “horns.” The back of the head, rump and sides are varying shades of tan, and the wings and back are grayish. The plumage of the female is a faded version of the male.
Earlier in the year the online New Hampshire Birds forum reported a horned lark in Hanover on July 1, which triggered the Rare Bird Alert. Given their nesting schedule this could have been a post-breeding bird that was dispersing. Right now, you have to drive to the open country of southern New Hampshire to see horned larks to find them among the buntings and the longspurs.
Bill Chaisson has been a birdwatcher from the age of 10. He is a former managing editor of the Eagle Times and now works and lives in the town of Wilmot.