Winter flocks fun to watch as they prepare to fly out

By Clay Christensen

As I think about birds and fall, I think about migration and flocks of birds flying about, turning in the sky like a cloud with some sort of intelligence behind it. The one that comes to mind first is the European starling. To me, they look like miniature fighter jets with swept-back wings.

These are the birds you may have seen on the internet flying in a smoke-like cloud that changes shape and direction as though they really knew where they were going. Fascinating!

But I’m not going to write about starlings. I’ve thought of three other bird species that I’ve seen flying in flocks this time of year: the horned lark, the Lapland longspur and the snow bunting.

As I usually do when I’m writing my column, I researched each of these species and found that they tend to hang out together! I did not know that. They flock together and feed together.

The horned lark is an early spring arrival, especially in agricultural areas, on the edges of planted fields or on sod farms. They run and walk more than they fly. I usually hear a tinkling song, then stare at the plowed field until I see some movement. I watch for that furtive, almost sneaky run and then a duck for cover.

Pete Dunne, noted author and bird watcher, calls the horned lark a barren ground specialist. It is especially drawn to fields when manure has been spread. It favors short grass, like athletic fields or sod farms. Its general posture is horizontal and crouched.

Flocks sometimes include several hundred birds. They lift up into the air, fly a short distance and then land by turning 180 degrees, facing toward the way they’ve come.

The horned lark is 7–8 inches long, cinnamon brown with a white underside. The “horns” are black tufts on the crown of the male. The face is white or yellow with a dramatic black streak coming back from the beak and bending down below the eye. It also has a black throat patch.

I saw my first horned lark in Wabasha County. It was a “road bird,” the kind that flies up and away as a car approaches. Driving through southern Minnesota in the spring is a good way to spot horned larks. Fall migration peaks in mid-October.

The second species on my flock list is the Lapland longspur. I saw my first Lapland longspur in northern Minnesota, on the beach at Park Point in Duluth. A small flock was feeding on weed seeds along the beach, flitting from weed bed to weed bed, sometimes jumping up to the seed head to knock down some seeds.

It’s called a longspur because of the long toe that extends back from the foot. The bird is 6–7 inches long. Both sexes are a rich brown overall. The male has a black face in summer and a chestnut nape. Females have a rich reddish chestnut in their wings. They sometimes feed with horned larks in the winter.

Longspurs especially like farm fields that have been spread with manure. There must be lots of seeds for them to pick out. Dunne says they a highly gregarious group.

My third winter flock species is the snow bunting. I saw my first snow buntings while participating in the Sherburne Christmas Bird Count. It was zero degrees.

The buntings were foraging in open fields. They seemed to take flight at the slightest provocation, often for no discernable reason at all. This bird does what I call the “Starling Close Formation” flying, lifting off a field and zooming around in a group until it comes to a settling place and drops to the ground.

Dunne says buntings seem “structurally incongruous — plump and somewhat hump-backed in front, slender and longish behind.” Breeding males are starkly black and white. No other songbird shows so much white. The bird is 6–7¼ inches. The female is pale brown and white, with big white wing patches, black in the tail and on the wingtips. Dunne says they move about meekly, hunched over, and fly like a crazed snowflake, in an undulating pattern.

So, what’s with this close formation flying? I think it’s the first step in escaping from danger, up and out! Then, I think the birds are confusing potential attackers (hawks, for example) by making it hard to focus on a single bird as a target. The cloud of birds presents swirling masses. A hawk might sense a risk to itself if it waded into that maelstrom.

Watch for swirling flocks of birds this fall, especially if you’re driving in southern Minnesota past farm fields or sod farms. 

Clay Christensen, a longtime birder, lives and writes in Lauderdale.

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