Stalking gophers

OK, not really gophers.  In fact, gophers are easier to photograph.  I’m actually talking about stalking meadowlarks.  More specifically, eastern meadowlarks (Sturnella magna).  But looking for them falls within the purview of looking for gophers: move slowly and wait for heads to start popping up.

An eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna) hiding in the grass (2009_10_23_032908)

These birds remain invisible until the last minute—when you’re already too close—and only then do they reveal themselves.  From the moment one or more faces rise over the grass, the clock starts ticking.  The countdown can end within seconds or a few minutes depending on how close you are to the birds and what you do while they watch.

An eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna) hiding in the grass (2009_10_23_032701)

People usually see meadowlarks perched on low tree branches, power lines, fences or brush.  Collectively, the eastern and western meadowlarks remain the singular avian species most associated with open country, whether farms or ranches or prairie.  And in autumn and winter they become much easier to find as they congregate together in small flocks.

An eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna) hiding in the grass (2009_10_24_033814)

Both western meadowlarks and eastern meadowlarks are year-round residents in Texas, and their seasonal and yearlong territories overlap in several places around the continent.  But don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll know the difference between the two if you see a meadowlark in the field.  The two species are so similar that most people will never know which one they’ve seen.  The only reliable way of differentiating them is by their vocalizations, not their plumage.

Even location can be deceiving.  People east of the Mississippi River can guess most meadowlarks are of the eastern species; likewise, those west of the Rocky Mountain states can guess they are seeing the western species.  In both cases, though, vagrant birds and territorial overlap make the guess nothing more than an assumption.  And some assumptions are safer than others: Pacific states can more correctly assume the western species than can Atlantic states assume the eastern species.

A very close look at plumage can offer little help with identification.  Although the western and eastern species have accepted differences in appearance, those differences exist wholly on paper since natural variation and the variation of subspecies create birds who look exactly like the other guy.  No, if you want to know which meadowlark species you’re looking at, you need to stop looking and start listening.  Generally speaking, no meadowlark identification from the field in North America can be 100% accurate unless based on song, and that even if in a state with no record of “the other” species.

An eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna) perched in a tree (2009_10_23_032869)

Finding these birds in my area becomes a simple task this time of year.  Some of the rarest remnants of the Blackland Prairie ecosystem exist only at White Rock Lake, hence the native plants harbor some of the few places where native wildlife feel truly at home.  This brings in sizable groups of meadowlarks in autumn and winter (though individuals can be found here all year.)  One need only stroll through one of the native meadows to stir up little avian gopher heads who watch from behind shields of native grasses and wildflowers.

An eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna) perched on an overhead wire (2009_10_23_032743)

Get too close and off they go, short aerial sprints carrying them to a new spot where they quickly vanish behind the plants that harbor them.  Once in a while they fly up to a tree or power line, but mostly it’s a vision of fluttering wings and that identifiable white-striped tail as the bird flits low to the ground and disappears 10-20 yards/meters away.  And in most cases, when one takes off several others follow—some of whom you never knew were there.

4 thoughts on “Stalking gophers”

  1. In my best whiny voice, “How come I never see Meadowlarks?”

    I had no idea we had Meadowlarks in Dallas! Thanks for the tips on how and where to look. Maybe I’ve been amongst them but spent my time looking up instead of down.

    For all of my travels over the last month, I have yet to have a single day to myself to spend birding where I want, for as long as I want. I’m definitely going to spend a day at White Rock Lake!

    1. In your best whiny voice… LOL! I had to laugh at that, Amber. Too cute.

      Yes, we do have meadowlarks. The eastern species is here all year, but the western species hangs out in autumn and winter (they’re year-round in the western third of Texas, so we see vagrants here as well). And yes, they’re easy to miss if they’re on the ground–though most people have seen them as they fly away.

      White Rock is definitely a good place. The pelicans have amassed in large numbers, a lot of our winter birds have arrived, cormorants, gulls, terns, geese and ducks are still arriving, and in the next four to six weeks our winter residents will be in full force.

      Do visit the fields of Winfrey Point if you want to find the most meadowlarks… Plus some kestrels, hawks and other goodies. One of these days I need to give my grand tour–showing you where and how I find all the cool stuff.

  2. How did you get some awesome photographs of these very shy birds?!

    I’m not a very good birder, but I remember my fellow tiger beetle colleague – an astute birder as well – teaching me the differences in their song on our ’04 trip through Texas. It was pretty exciting when I “got it.”

    1. Shy is definitely a good way to describe them, Ted. Flighty was the second word that came to mind. I’d hoped for some better shots, yet I was quite pleased to get any that showed more than a blur flying away from me!

      Finding them is easy enough since they love the native prairie available here. Getting photos relied on not spooking them. Once I got them to reveal their locations by walking slowly through the meadows, I moved in their direction but at an angle that would take me by them about 10-15 meters away–and I made a point of not looking at them directly (like most birds, they’re sensitive to “predator eyes”).

      They don’t sit still for long, however. Even if they allowed me to get close enough for a few pictures, it never lasted more than a minute or so–and usually the encounter lasted only seconds. The trick was knowing they’d eventually fly away and letting them do that but watching them closely so I knew where they landed. I only stalked them two or three times in any one field before moving on; the more they’re bothered, the more flighty they become.

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