When I awoke on the morning of the 25th November, I had no idea that American Horned Larks existed. So just before breakfast, when I checked the notifications on my phone and saw “Horned Lark still present 8am” I thought that the perilous auto-correct had struck once more. However, once I looked into it in more detail, I realised that this wasn’t just the product of a birder with cold and numb fingers.
I have to say that Staines Reservoirs is not the most inspiring birding location, which is probably why my parents have been unwilling to drive me there before. It is comprised of a North and a South basin, with a central kilometre-long monotonous causeway separating the two. Yet when I was dropped off at one end on the chilly November morning, I was quite eager to get to the other.
The news was negative when I first arrived at the far western end of the causeway, where most of the visiting birders seemed to be clustered. I began to scan the cold concrete apron on both sides of the causeway, to no avail after about 10 minutes. The resident Pied Wagtails were constantly distracting me with their calls.
It wasn’t long until negative turned to positive however. Alerted by a call that sounded almost fluty, I spotted a quite chunky small bird fly low over the causeway. The careful rush of the birders closest to where the bird had landed confirmed my suspicion that the bird had returned. For the next 30 minutes or so, the assembled birders had brilliant views of the the American Horned Lark on the northern side of the causeway, often venturing within 10 feet.
The photos I was pleased to have taken of quite a mobile bird show the features that separate this American Horned Lark from the more regular Shore Lark. Shore Larks are winter visitors to the UK, with usually around a hundred overwintering on the East coast. As their name suggests they are mainly restricted to the coast, so even a normal Shore Lark would have been a brilliant record for London/Surrey.
Eremophila alpestris is the species that Shore Larks and American Horned Larks belong to. Although some authorities split them into separate species, most recognise them as only subspecies. The species is actually split up into a massive forty-two subspecies by some authorities, which is what makes Horned Larks so confusing. The regular Horned Larks found in the UK (Shore Larks) belong to the subspecies flava. And although this particular Horned Lark is named as ‘American Horned Lark’, around twenty-one of these 42 subspecies are found in USA and Canada. This particular bird is considered to be either:
- alpestris – the nominate subspecies, found along Eastern Canada and Eastern USA.
- hoyti – found in Northern Canada, wintering in Northern USA.
- praticola – sometimes lumped together with alpestris, found in South-eastern Canada, North-eastern and East-central USA.
Luckily, and unsurprisingly for a bird with so many subspecies, there are noticeable differences between the British flava and the American subspecies listed above. The main ones are:
- The extent of the yellow on the face is much less than in flava (as the name suggests, flava translating as yellow, golden), with a completely white ‘eyebrow’.
- The flanks and overall colouration are much more russet than the pale-brown colouration of flava.
- More obvious breast streaking than flava.
So although at the moment there is little doubt that the Horned Lark at Staines during the last week of November was of an American origin, the challenge of identifying it to subspecies still remains. Luckily however, if the Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris is split into different species, it is likely that all the American subspecies will remain as E. alpestris and the British subspecies will become E. flava.
A nice article to sum up the proposed splits of Eremophila alpestris can be found here: http://birdingfrontiers.com/2014/02/06/horned-lark-not-one-but-six-species/
Oh, and if you were wondering about the title of this blog post, Eremophila alpestris roughly translates from Latin to ‘lover of a lonely mountain’ – a reference to the breeding habitat of most of the subspecies!