I recently took some time to do some birding in one of my favorite habitats: short-grass open country. Some species seek out this type of habitat, and since it is in generally short supply for public access in our area, those species can be hard to find around here. I waited until a very cold morning. I love walking through open fields with frost on the ground, bundled up against the cold. It’s invigorating, and depending on the birds, can be very exciting.
I chose to drive out to the parking fields at Charlotte Motor Speedway. There are spots where there are no trees for hundreds of yards, with grass just a few inches high and numerous scattered bare areas. To the casual observer, it probably looks totally devoid of birds. A walk through, however, proves otherwise.
Within a few seconds, I heard the distinctive high-pitched calls of horned larks. They love this type of habitat and are dependable here. I scanned the grounds and found a flock of about two dozen birds hunkered down in the cold wind. These flocks of horned larks occasionally have some real rarities mixed in with them, such as Lapland longspurs. I flushed the flock several times, hoping to hear the characteristic rattle of a longspur, but there were none present.
A bit farther along, I started flushing small sparrows from the grass. Savannah sparrows like this habitat too.
A bit farther, an Eastern meadowlark started flying off the ground in front of me. When they are sitting low, meadowlarks are perfectly camouflaged. When they stand up, the bright yellow underparts become evident. In flight, the white outer tail feathers are conspicuous, too. I noticed some larger birds that opted to run away instead of flying. A small flock of killdeer was moving away from me, giving shrill warning calls to each other. Eventually they took flight with a chorus of loud, incessant complaints.
Though I saw no rarities, I was still glad to see these common, open-country birds that are not generally found in more conventional habitats. I can’t wait for the next cold snap.
Taylor Piephoff is a local naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.
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