Photographed on the Bolivar Peninsular.
Look carefully at a bare, brown field, especially in winter, and you may be surprised to see it crawling with little brown shapes. When they turn, you may see a neat yellow face, black mask, and tiny black “horns” waving in the breeze. Horned Larks are widespread songbirds of fields, deserts, and tundra, where they forage for seeds and insects, and sing a high, tinkling song. Though they are still common, they have undergone a sharp decline in the last half-century.
Horned Larks inhabit an extensive elevation range, from sea level to an altitude of 13,000 feet. Linnaeus named this bird Alauda alpestris: “lark of the mountains” (it has since been moved to the genus Eremophila).
Female Horned Larks often collect “pavings”—pebbles, clods, corncobs, dung—which they place beside their nests, covering soil excavated from the nest cavity. The “paved” area resembles a sort of walkway, though the birds don’t seem to use it that way. While nobody fully understands the function of these pavings, they may help prevent collected nesting material from blowing away while the nest is under construction.
When she is ready to mate, a female Horned Lark performs a courting display that looks very much as if she is taking a dust bath. In fact, potential mates seem prone to confusion on this score: a male catching a glimpse of a dust-bathing female may attempt to mate with her.
Photographed on the Bolivar Flats about three years ago
With rufous and gold markings on the head and wings, breeding adult Western Sandpipers are the most colorful of the tiny North American sandpipers known as “peeps.” This abundant shorebird gathers in flocks numbering in the hundreds of thousands in California and Alaska during spring migration. It’s among the continent’s great wildlife spectacles, particularly when they fly up and wheel about, exercising their wings (or fleeing from falcons on the hunt) before flying to remote nesting grounds in the Arctic.
Like many sandpiper species, Western Sandpiper females have longer bills than males and are generally larger. In the populations of Western Sandpipers that winter farthest south, females outnumber males, while the reverse is true in the northern parts of the winter range.
In migration, the Western Sandpiper stages in huge, spectacular flocks, particularly along the Pacific coast at San Francisco Bay and in the Copper River Delta in Alaska. Estimates suggest that nearly the whole breeding population passes through the Copper River Delta during just a few weeks each spring.
Many of the Western Sandpipers that winter in Central America remain there for the first summer of their lives, rather than migrating north to breed. By contrast, birds of the same age that winter in the United States or Mexico usually attempt to return to the breeding grounds in their first spring.
Western Sandpipers compete with many other sandpiper species when foraging. When larger Dunlin are absent, Western Sandpipers forage at the edge of the receding or advancing tide, where prey is easiest to catch. When Dunlin are present, Westerns often forage on drier areas of mud.
Photographed on the Bolivar Peninsular
A specialist hunter of fiddler crabs, the Wilson's Plover is a heavy-billed shorebird of sandy beaches in the southern United States and in coastal South America. It blends in well with its shell-strewn beach habitat, and its plaintive call is often the first clue to its presence. These sandy brown birds look like a small Killdeer or a larger, bigger-billed Semipalmated Plover, with a single, broad breast band. Wilson’s Plovers are vulnerable to beach disturbance and development, and are on the Yellow Watch List for species with restricted ranges.
Ornithologist George Ord named Wilson's Plover for his friend, Alexander Wilson, often called “the father of American ornithology.” Wilson collected the type specimen in May 1813 at Cape May, New Jersey, where this species is only a rare visitor. Read more about Alexander Wilson and the birds named after him.