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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Watching my nemesis

Western Meadowlarks (Sturnella neglecta) are common winter residents in grasslands on Bodega Head.  Occasionally I've tried to photograph them, but they're quite wary, and I haven't had much luck.  Every time I almost get close enough for a picture, they take off and land just a little farther away and disappear among the vegetation.  When it comes to getting a good picture, they're a bit of a "nemesis bird" for me.  I just shake my head and sigh.

This weekend I was at work and I passed by a window to see a small group of meadowlarks very close by.  I wasn't sure how long they would stay in the area, or if it would be possible to photograph them through the window, but I decided to give it a try.  It was basically like being in a blind.

It was a fascinating experience.  I'd never watched meadowlarks feeding before!  The pictures aren't sharp because of the window and the fast movements of the meadowlarks, but they're still informative, so I'm excited to share them with you.

The meadowlarks would stride quickly across the ground.  I like this next picture because it emphasizes the strong and slightly curved bill.

They would use their bill to probe deeply into the vegetation or the ground.  The picture below also highlights the beautiful feather markings.

Sometimes they would open their mandibles and use their bill to flip over clumps of vegetation:

Digging with the bill was common.  In the image below, look for the soil being flung to the right side of the bird.  The meadowlarks were vigorous when digging, and now I understand how useful their strong bills are for this type of feeding behavior.

I saw them with food in their bills quite often, but it was difficult to identify the food items.  I feel fairly confident that this meadowlark found a large beetle larva (within blue circle in image below):

But the most common food item was mysterious at first.  While I was watching, all I could see were thin white squiggles in the meadowlarks' bills.  And then when I reviewed the pictures, I could see that sometimes there was something brown at the end of the white squiggle.  

Can you see the squiggles in the bills of the two birds in the pictures below?  And that the uppermost bird is holding onto a brown object at one end of the squiggle?  (You can click on the images for slightly larger versions.)

Close-up of the uppermost bird:


I know this is difficult because you don't have a lot to go on, but do you have any guesses about what the white squiggles might be?

The next day I went out and dug around myself to figure this out.  But I'll give you a chance to think about it, so I won't reveal the answer until tomorrow.

For now I'll leave you with two more pictures of meadowlarks — one stretching its wing and tail (showing the white outer tail feathers), and the other with a meadowlark in a crouched position (revealing that incredible yellow throat).

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