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Manure Chasing

Every winter we spend at least one cold day on a manure chase. We hope to find Arctic-tundra and grassland-breeding birds–specifically horned larks, Lapland longspurs, and snow buntings–that sometimes spend their winters in Pennsylvania farm valleys. These seed-eating birds feed on fresh manure because it contains seeds that have passed through the digestive systems of domestic animals. Otherwise, they glean both weed and domestic seeds from open land.

While horned larks are uncommon breeders in sparse vegetative areas, such as reclaimed strip mines and agricultural fields throughout the Commonwealth, snow buntings and Lapland longspurs are strictly Arctic-breeding birds. Seeing them is a rare treat. Last winter, though, birders in Lancaster and Northampton counties reported flocks of all three species. Other scattered reports in the state made me hopeful that our own valley would also harbor them.

Yet despite spending a cold winter morning driving slowly along the back roads of the valley and scanning every harvested cornfield with and without fresh manure, no snow bunting or Lapland longspur could be found. We did, however, finally spot a flock of horned larks in a cornfield beside the road and spent many minutes watching them as they ran around among the remains of corn stalks, pecking on the windswept, open ground and then flying off together to another field while uttering their “su-weet” calls.

Before they flew, I was able to study each bird and all of them had the black sideburns and breast band and yellow throats of horned larks. The “horns,” for which they are named–a pair of tiny, black feathers sometimes erected in the back of their heads–were only visible on a few birds. Otherwise, they had white breasts and bellies and brown backs and wings. No longspurs or buntings had joined that flock. And, in fact, other birders who made regular trips into the valley found only horned larks throughout the season.

The same thing happened the previous winter. Then we had joined our local Audubon group for its annual manure chase led by birder-expert Dave Kyler. Eleven of us met at the local grange hall parking lot one Saturday in January. A rosy-fingered dawn had followed a cold, clear, full-moonlit night that had glowed with stars, and because it was three degrees, we were all properly bundled up.

The first bird of the day was a Cooper’s hawk in a grove of trees, followed by two red-tailed hawks that flew into trees at the base of the mountain. They were routed out by a pair of American crows. Other, common birds appeared as we drove slowly along–mourning and rock doves, tufted titmice and European starlings. In one small, open, spring fed pond, mallards swam. A local hunt club property bristled with hundreds of penned ring-necked pheasants and several more ran loose. Open water in a ditch beside the road hosted a pair of killdeer.

And then, on a freshly manured field lightly covered with powdery snow, we found 75 horned larks foraging. Out came the spotting scopes and we all had eye-filling views of them. Kyler told us that while a few horned larks breed in cornfields in the valley, they are practically impossible to see then, hence the allure of winter-watching.

That, it turned out, was it for our major quarry, although we did have a respectable list by morning’s end including a calling eastern screech-owl, a northern mockingbird, and a great blue heron hunched up in the open water of Arch Spring. We were so close to it that we could see the muted gray-blue and lilac of its feathers before it slowly straightened up like an arthritic human and flew off. Altogether, we counted 26 species that still, cold day.

Maybe, I thought, we should have had the howling winds and occasional snow squalls of the January day back in 1981 when our Audubon group had braved the five degrees of a Super Bowl Sunday afternoon to look for Arctic birds. Swathed in layers of clothes and fortified by hot drinks, we made several stops at windswept fields before we hit pay dirt. In the midst of a snow squall, our leader’s car squealed to a halt. He pointed up at the edge of an immense field. I could barely make out the black specks in the distance that he said were birds–maybe horned larks.

We piled out of our cars and surged up the frozen, uneven furrows of a harvested cornfield. As we neared the edge of the field, a flock of birds rose up in front of us, swirling above our heads in a breathtaking aerial ballet. Snow buntings–at least a hundred of them–flashed their white wing patches against the gray sky.

Ahead in the furrows what looked like a hundred brown mice skittered around in the corn stubble. However, through our binoculars they morphed into horned larks. As we admired them and kept our eyes on the buntings as well, our leader spotted two Lapland longspurs slightly in front of the horned larks. They had the rusty-colored wing patches and napes of male Lapland longspurs in winter plumage.

Most of us had never seen any of the bird species before and despite the piercing cold, stood watching until we could no longer stand the bitter wind. At a stumbling run, we covered the half-mile back to the cars in record time. Not only had we seen Arctic birds, but we had had a fair idea of the weather conditions they endured.

Although Lapland longspurs are often hard to find during eastern North American winters, flocks as large as four million birds forage on the agricultural fields of the Great Plains from southern Canada to northern Texas. They leave their wintering grounds in late February and early March and arrive at their breeding grounds from mid-May until June. Lapland longspurs nest in both the wet meadows and drier slopes of the Arctic tundra across North America and Eurasia. By then the male has donned his flashier black face outlined with white and reddish-brown collar.

While they are strictly seed eaters in winter, particularly relishing grass, foxtail, cultivated millet, crabgrass, and wheat seeds, during breeding season insects make up almost 50% of their diet. They are highly sociable in winter and tolerant of their own species as well as snow buntings and horned larks on their nesting grounds.

After raising a single brood of between three and seven young, they begin their southward migration as early as mid-August although some remain in the Arctic as late as early November. Here in Pennsylvania peak migration is between the third weeks of October and November along Lake Erie and the first or second weeks in December for the rest of the state.

Snow buntings, too, breed in the far north around the world. However, they nest in rock cavities, which provide more protection from nest predators than the open-nesting arctic songbirds such as Lapland longspurs. The males return to their breeding grounds in early April, having traded in their rusty-brown and white winter coats for snowy-white heads, wings, breasts, and bellies and black backs. They immediately begin singing and competing for the best cavity nest sites during the still cold and snowy weather, sometimes suffering huge dieoffs when late storms hit. Four weeks later, when it is warmer and the snow is melting, the females arrive.

Snow buntings are feistier than Lapland longspurs, fighting and bickering continuously among themselves, both on their wintering and breeding grounds, but they too are tolerant of other songbirds in their territory, including Lapland longspurs, even though both species feed their young the same foods.

They raise a single brood of between three and six young and leave their nesting grounds from mid- to late-September, although some linger until early November. Immatures, which flock together as soon as they are independent, depart after the adults. The first snow buntings in Pennsylvania are usually spotted the last week in October or first week in November again along the Lake Erie shoreline. Cold fronts in November and December move them on to more southern parts of the state.

According to McWilliams and Brauning in The Birds of Pennsylvania, “flocks in the hundreds or thousands have been recorded in the Glaciated Northwest and Lake Erie Shore during [February and March].” In 1978, they write, 2,000 snow buntings appeared at Harvey’s Lake in Luzerne County in mid-February and 3,000 in late February foraged in a sorghum field in northern Berks County. Both Lapland longspurs and snow buntings occasionally visit bird feeders next to agricultural areas where they are feeding.

Horned larks are also holarctic but they breed from the Arctic south to Mexico, Austria, Hungary, and central Asia. They even have outlying populations in Morocco and Colombia. Migration occurs only from northern regions in the winter, which means Alaska and Canada on our continent. Although primarily a prairie species, they moved into Pennsylvania from the west in the late 1800s when most of our forests had been cut and the land cleared for farming.

Horned larks may nest in early March so they are able to bring off a brood before the fields are cultivated. Safer choices are the abandoned, reclaimed strip mines in western Pennsylvania, which they were one of the first species to colonize.

They eat mostly seeds all year long but feed their young insects. In a depression on the bare ground, the female builds a nest. Two to five young hatch. Horned larks can have as many as three broods a season in the warmer parts of their range, but they suffer high mortality from agricultural operations in farm fields later in the season. Nonetheless, their numbers appear to be holding steady in much of their worldwide nesting population.

In fact, all three manure-chasing species seem to be thriving. That’s good news in a world where many bird species are threatened by habitat loss. Their choice of remote breeding areas and grain-filled wintering sites may keep them abundant species, thus guaranteeing that manure chasing will continue to be a fun activity for Pennsylvania birders on cold winter days.

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