What to See Now: Lark Buntings
In celebration of the Year of the Bird, we will highlight some of the birds and their behaviors that you can observe at certain times throughout the year.
This post is brought to you by the Fuzz Brothers, my dogs Digger and Jake. Digger, a large Airedale, and Jake, a surprisingly tough mix of every little foofy dog I always said I hated, are not fans of fireworks. Not one bit. As the days neared the Fourth of July, their anxiety levels steadily rose. Despite the fireworks ban and extremely dry conditions, my neighborhood sounded like the battle scenes from an Avengers’ movie played in Dolby Surround Sound. So, to alieveate the poor dogs’ stress on the loudest day of the year, I decided to take them on an Independence Day drive to one of the quietest places in Colorado — the Pawnee National Grasslands. My other Airedale, Mary, would historically go on trips like these, but she is now old and mostly deaf, and so the fireworks don’t even register. Anyway, she would rather nap.
The Pawnee wasn’t merely chosen because it is quiet and remote, I was told it is also one of the best places to see the state bird that most people in Colorado have never seen — the lark bunting. Until that day, I had only knowingly seen lark buntings in Wyoming, never in the state that I have spent almost 50 years in. It’s not for lack of trying: I am out in the boonies with a camera much more than the average Coloradan. I had even taken an earlier trip this spring to the Pawnee, and came away without crossing them off my life list.
But this trip was different. As I got about 10 miles from the grasslands, a black and white, sparrow-sized bird cruised over Highway 14. It took me a second to realize that I was witnessing the flight of my first lark bunting in Colorado, but it was far from the last. Once I entered the Grasslands they were everywhere — on yuccas, fences, powerlines, along the side of the road, squashed in the middle of the road — everywhere, but within the reach of my 500mm camera lens. Apparently, lark buntings have evolved to detect the action of autofocus lenses. At times I felt like I was playing a game of leap frog. I would drive within range, aim my camera, only to have the bird fly four or five fence posts ahead — I would drive forward, they would fly forward, repeat. The strobing, black-and-white wingbeats of the epileptic-fit-inducing flight of the bunting is something to behold, but if they are always flying away from your camera, it is frustrating. However, the law of averages was in my favor, and I finally got the photographic evidence that our state bird actually occurs in our state.
How did such a relatively rare sight become our state bird? Bruce Gill, in his story “The Beguiling Bunting” for the July/August 2017 issue of Colorado Outdoors wrote: “Occasionally the hauntingly beautiful trill of a western meadowlark’s love song interrupts the melodious, lyrical chorus of dapper black and white male lark buntings as they each compete for the attentions of cryptic brown females. Such sights and sounds greeted homesteaders near Keota, Colorado, in the late 1800s. After a long dreary winter of wind, snow and lackluster colors, they were a godsend.
“No wonder the lark bunting was a prime candidate when, in 1931, the state legislature considered the designation of a state bird. Four species were under consideration: the lark bunting, the western meadowlark, the black-billed magpie and the mountain bluebird. According to scant historical records, they were judged more or less on four criteria: popularity, symbolism, uniqueness and iconography. Each had a small army of supporters that lobbied hard for its favorite.
“Although the western meadowlark and the mountain bluebird were the most popular, they were not unique. Several other states had already chosen them as their state bird. Since colored photographs were not yet available, the state bird was required to present well on state documents. Outstanding black and white contrast favored the black-billed magpie and the lark bunting. In the end the choice came down to symbolism. The lark bunting epitomized the cheerful, positive, optimistic spirit of the state and its citizens. On April 29, 1931, the state legislature designated the lark bunting as the state bird of Colorado.” See the full article here: July-Aug-2017-lark-buntings.
Other than a late thunderstorm that both killed the “golden hour” light for photos and generated thunder that stressed the Fuzz Brothers almost as much as fireworks, the day was a success. I got my fill of larks — meadowlarks, horned larks, lark buntings — as well as burrowing owls, northern shrikes, nighthawks, photogenic cattle, pronghorn and much more. And, if you want a getaway, the Pawnee is one of the quietest, calmest and most eerily beautiful places in Colorado. In the four-plus hours I was there, I counted eight other vehicles. Eight. If you go to Rocky Mountain National Park, there will be groups of eight cars pulled over to photograph a chipmunk. In exchange for celebrating our nation’s birth with explosives, Digger, Jake and I shared the day with the land and the creatures that make the country great.
Wayne D. Lewis is the editor and art director of Colorado Outdoors magazine.