Lark Bunting

(This column was first published in the May 1, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    When I was seventeen and a World War II Navy seaman, I hitchhiked most of the way across the country alone, making my way in eight days from Great Falls, Montana to Rochester. It was a wonderful adventure. I was given rides by many families with sons my age serving in battle zones around the world and by a few who had already lost children: for a few miles I served as a stand-in for them.

    I was also picked up by truckers man-handling huge rigs, rough-looking men but every one of those I met on that 2500 mile trek intelligent and good humored. One, I recall, enjoyed very much a small restaurant with blackboard chalked menus on which he pointed out two variant spellings of the same word: "sandwitches" and "sandwhiches". I hadn't expected to meet an orthographer in the cab of an eighteen wheeler.

    But I also spent many hours mostly in Montana and Wyoming walking across vast open rangeland where hours sometimes passed between cars -- to say nothing of rides. It was like hiking across a vast moonscape bisected by the highway.

    To a boy raised in the suburbs some of the experiences were intimidating. For example, topping a rise I came upon a herd of perhaps a hundred long-horned cattle. Every one of them turned its white forehead toward me. All the time they were in sight I wondered if they might stampede, but looking back from the next hill I could see them still standing there looking at me.

    Over the miles I walked, however, more cheerful companions regularly accompanied me. They were lark buntings -- sparrow-sized birds, all black except for large white wing patches. I could sometimes see as many as six or eight at the same time, not in flocks but rather evenly distributed over the barren land. They were delightful songsters, their outpourings reminding me a little of song sparrows -- several clear notes at first, followed by a jumble of phrases.

    While they often sang from the bare ground or the tops of the few small bushes, they also occasionally flew up fifteen to twenty feet to pour out their notes as they coasted back down to earth. It seemed clear that this kind of territory defining display represented the best they could do without taller bushes and trees for perches.

    These pretty little songsters seemed to be outdoing each other for my benefit. The female birds for whom they were really displaying must have been sitting on nests as I never saw any of them.

    The memory of this experience was brought back to me vividly when I joined a number of birders just south of Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge last week. We were there looking for a reported lark bunting. It would be the first of this western species to visit this area since 1967.

    Sure enough, after about fifteen minutes of waiting in the early morning drizzle, we were rewarded. Out of the bushes popped the little black finch to perch atop a trash pile from which he proceeded to entertain us with his singing. A half dozen telescopes were immediately focussed on the bird, some with cameras attached. (A series of those photos are already posted on the web at Kevin McGowan's site.)

    Why this bird of the western prairies is here we can only guess. Most likely it was blown off course on its flight north from its wintering \grounds in Texas and Mexico. Whatever the reason, however, its visit has made a Genesee County farm a mecca for birders from all over the northeastern states.-- Gerry Rising