Rich Ditch's Photography Blog

October 26, 2009

Meadowlark Identification Questions

Filed under: Birds, favorite places, Gilbert Water Ranch — richditch @ 5:58 pm
Meadowlark 124

Meadowlark 124

First things first – these photos aren’t my normal quality. They were taken for identification purposes only at a distance greater than I normally work and are essentially 1:1 crops from the image viewed at 100%. I didn’t process them at all beyond cropping and applying unsharp mask – no changes to white balance, levels, curves, saturation, exposure, or any other post processing manipulations. They were taken at the Water Ranch in Gilbert, AZ on October 25, 2009, in the dry bed of pond #6.

Meadowlark 126

Meadowlark 126

I’ve never mastered visual identification of meadowlarks in Arizona. I learned Eastern Meadowlark song back in my New Jersey days and figured I’d be seeing nothing but Western Meadowlarks when I moved west to Arizona. I was surprised to find out that both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks can be seen here. What’s more there’s a sub-species of Eastern in AZ called Lillan’s that closely resembles the Western Meadowlark.


Meadowlark 128

Meadowlark 128

I have most all the field guides but the illustrations in them for the meadowlarks don’t help me much. And the text in most guides talks about overall paleness but points out the gradient in Eastern Meadowlark from the pale Lillian’s to the darker birds in farther east.


Meadowlark 133

Meadowlark 133

The best guide I’ve seen so far is Kevin Zimmer’s The Western Bird Watcher. Zimmer states

Southwestern birds [Lillian’s)]do show one excellent mark that is consistently different from Westerns, and that is a cream-colored or white, unstreaked cheek patch.Westerns typically show a brown, streaked cheek patch. Although Westerns are somewhat variable in this respect, they are never as clean as the Easterns.

Based on that I’d say this bird is a Western Meadowlark. But I’d love to hear your views on the identity of this bird plus how you reached your ID and what references you rely on for it.





  1. From the location, I’d also say western. The best way is the call. These two species always look the same to me but the call is very different. But if I don’t hear a call I just look at a map and hope I’m not in central Texas, because they are both common there.

    Comment by Don Lamprecht — October 26, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

  2. This looks to me to be a fairly typical Western Meadowlark. The cold grayish-brown upperparts and very pale flanks with well-defined black marks are not characteristic of Eastern other than Lilian’s. And I don’t think it’s a Lilian’s:
    1. The 2nd photo shows the crown stripe & eyeline with darker streaks – in Lilian’s, even in fall, they would both tend to be a more uniform blackish-brown.
    2. The cheeks are fairly uniformly streaked – Lilian’s would at most show a little streaking on the lower part of the cheek.
    3. The yellow on the throat clearly extends across the malar to the grayish cheek – all Easterns would typically show a whitish malar stripe (tho’ that can be obscured in the fall).
    4. The tail isn’t spread, but it certainly looks as if only the outer couple of rectrices are white – with Eastern, particularly Lilian’s, I would have expected to see more white, at least on the 2nd photo.

    Comment by Michael Marsden — October 26, 2009 @ 11:00 pm

  3. The mark I find most useful is the extent of the yellow throat, Rich. If the yellow includes the malar region, as it does here, then it’s a Western. I checked my copy of Jaramillo, and he considers this a good mark too.

    As Don says, the callnotes are entirely different, but the meadowlarks I’ve been seeing lately haven’t been very vocal.

    Comment by Pete Moulton — October 26, 2009 @ 11:56 pm

  4. Hi Rich,

    As soon as you mentioned the location, I thought “probably a Western.” This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but at least in southeastern AZ it seems that the “Lilian’s” Eastern typically takes the better quality grassland habitats while Western is left with “lower quality” habitat like scrubby fields and agricultural areas. But in Texas I’ve seen both species in both kinds of habitats…

    When I’m looking at almost any songbird, I usually start with the head. Head patterns are typically the most distinctive aspect of birds across the board (except for some ID challenges like Empidonax flycatchers.)

    The first thing I noticed looking at the face is how extensive the yellow is in the malar region. Lilian’s will at most have just a hint of yellow coming into the bottom of the malar region from the throat. I would agree with Michael in that the eyestripe and crown would be more blackish in Lilian’s (and all Eastern’s) even in the fall, but rather than trying to determine the exact color, for me it is usually easier to compare these patterns in terms of strength: because it is more blackish, AND Lilian’s usually has a much paler cheek, the eyeline appears to “pop” out more from the facial pattern. (I actually find this easier to judge in the field than in photos.)

    If you can ever see the upperside of the tail fanned (in flight), Lilian’s has way more white in the outer tail – in fact it usually looks like a mostly white tail to me, as opposed to Western which has only thinner strips of white and mostly brown mid-tail.

    Some field guides say that in the flanks, Western tends more towards spots and Eastern tends more towards streaks, but I would only use that as a supporting mark – it’s not terribly reliable or easy to judge. The yellow in the malar is much more useful. In these excellent photos, however, the flanks are much easier to analyze (they seem “spotted”).

    Of course, some of these things are pretty difficult to judge and subject to lighting conditions in the field – if the bird is backlit, good luck! But as has been mentioned, the Western call note is quite distinctive once you learn it. Their call is a short, emphatic “Weem!” (Or if you’re a bird bander, “WEME”)

    John Yerger

    Comment by John Yerger — October 29, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

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