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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.