Rich Ditch's Photography Blog

April 1, 2009

Horned Lark Challenge

Filed under: Birds, composition, favorite places, light, Veterans Oasis Park — richditch @ 6:09 pm
Horned Lark

Horned Lark

I’ve seen a lot of Horned Larks in 35+ years of birding: in New Jersey they’d form large flocks in winter fields, where they’d twitter softly as they flew about not far above the ground; and here in AZ where they occur in dry dusty flats and also on lush wet sod farms. They are nice to hear and fun to watch as they prance around and flash the yellow throat as they turn to face the viewer.

But I’ve yet to master the skill of getting close to them for some serious photography. As birds of open areas they see photographers from a long way off and are quick to fly to maintain a comfortable distance. There’s usually no cover for the photographer to hide behind. Their habitat is so undistinguished that one part looks very much like another, so it isn’t possible to pick a likely feeding area and hang out waiting for the birds to come closer. When I visit some of the area sod farms in my Toyota I can sometimes get much closer to the birds just off the road, but then I’m stuck with too high of a perspective and a downward shooting angle.

The image above is basically a cheat – it is a substantial crop (only 26% of the full frame), so it is what I would have gotten with a lens twice as long as the one I used. I wish I could figure out a better way and break the distance issue!

Taken 3/31/09 at Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler, AZ, with Nikon D200, 300/2.8 plus 2x converter, ISO 200, 1/800th at f/5.6. This is a typical open area for the species where they blend in well with the color of the pea gravel. I lucked out getting a good light angle to provide enough shadow to separate the lark from the background along one side, and to have a nice head position to make the face beak and throat stand out.

Addendum 4/2/09. A friend in New Jersey is a fan of Horned Larks and applied her banding experience to this image:

Compare this to a juvenile bird. This bird’s bill has gotten partly black but still shows some paleness. The bright white feather tips and fringes have worn off, leaving very worn, raggedy mantle/contours, scapulars and secondaries with dark centers and light brown edges. Yet it has not grown adult plumage feathers with rose colored centers.

Even the pale edges of those central tail feathers (or are they long upper-tail coverts?) have worn off. The bird has now grown in some yellow, especially the chin, but the black face pattern and bib are nowhere near fully developed. And it seems to have one stray loose feather on its back.

Now, I haven’t gone to look it up at all … but I would guess from the heavy wear and incomplete colors that this is a bird hatched last summer. The time from first post-juvenile basic plumage to first adult alternate (breeding) is longer than the time from an adult basic to adult alternate. Which means that a completely tattered bird like your little lark immediately raises suspicion of being a teen-ager, so to speak.



  1. Considering how much was cropped out of this image it still looks amazing. I love the little bit of yellow coloring on these birds- I’ve never seen one before. Why do they like to be near Arizona sod farms? Do you ever go to the Evergreen Turf farm? My yard is Evergreen so I think that would be funny, plus what attracts the horned larks to the sod farms and not just a yard of sod?

    Comment by Katie — February 18, 2011 @ 10:47 am

  2. Yes, I visit sod farms in AZ – east of Scottsdale and south of Arizona City. See and as well for birds at the Scottsdale sod farm.

    Horned LArks need lots of room and open space so they aren’t likely to show up at small grass yards.

    Comment by richditch — February 18, 2011 @ 12:38 pm

  3. Thanks richditch, such great photos!

    Comment by Katie — February 28, 2011 @ 9:13 am

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