Earlier this week there was quite an exciting commotion over a bird at Rocky Hill Meadows as tens of birders likely raced to their cars to see what appeared to be a Sprague's Pipit. After being found in the early morning, those who got to the site throughout the morning had also temporarily fallen prey to a vexing identification. This "pipit" was able to deceive many very experienced and knowledgeable birders...for a little while. It did not take too long for those on hand to determine that they were looking at a juvenile Horned Lark. Here are some photos taken by Patrick Comins.
The bird looks is going through a molt and still is rather "messy", with the streaky breast rather blotchy instead of finely streaked, and a dark patch under the eyes instead of being all pale. The bill is too large and the legs are too dark, plus it has that white edging on the tail as Horned Larks do. The pattern of the white coverts with some white spots and an overall drab (even with the dark photo) brown color stands in contrast to what should be a warmer and maybe more buffy brown for a Sprague's. This is very easy to sit here and write now, staring at photos and a couple books and having thought about it, rather than anxiously tracking it in the field hoping for a life bird. The problem is that we only exceptionally rarely get to see a Horned Lark that looks like this in our state, and I am sure 99% of us would not immediately think it was what it actually was initially.
Before you ask me why I am writing about this in the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds blog I should mention that Horned Lark is actually one of our target species. Most people in Connecticut think of them as a wintering bird, seen in sizable flocks feeding in open areas, sometimes mixed in with Snow Buntings. However, they do breed in Connecticut, and this breeding population is in fact a state-listed endangered species! They also nest in short grass and barren country, utilizing locations like airports, beaches, and associated dunes. One could expect them to be able to nest near a location like Rocky Hill Meadows, the Coastal Center at Milford Point or Stratford Point, or any of the large airports such as Sikorsky in Stratford or of course Bradley in Windsor Locks.
Check out this very cool fledged Horned Lark that Twan Leenders spotted at Stratford Point on one hot July day in 2009 on the Connecticut Audubon Society blog. We will be watching for Horned Larks year-round and hoping to see more of them in the summer months in the future.
Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society partnering to improve conditions for coastal waterbirds in Connecticut.