No species of bird or wildfowl is evenly distributed across Alberta. One bird that Elaine and I sought out in our pursuit of avian beauty was the western meadowlark.
Although the odd sighting had been reported in the Lakeland region, we weren’t fortunate enough to make such an identification. So it was, as we travelled east along Highway 9 heading to the magnificent badlands to visit the Tyrell Museum, the moment came. Sitting atop a power line, Elaine caught a glimpse of the lemon-yellow chest with black v-shaped crest of a western meadowlark. A moment of feathered ecstasy has arrived!
Though they are difficult to photograph at 95 kilometres per hour, we knew we were in meadowlark territory.
Roughly the size of a robin, there are two species of meadowlarks in Canada—the eastern and the western. Although similar in appearance, these meadowlarks rarely interbreed and in fact defend their respective territories. The Lakeland region is on the northern edge of the western meadowlark’s range. This handsome bird is essentially a grassland dweller, and finds more suitable habitat further south in our province to conduct spring romance.
Alberta is a breeding area for western meadowlarks. A bit of a playboy, the male will hook up with two females at the same time. The females will incubate and raise the young. A unique design is used in nesting: the roof of a meadowlark’s nest is partially covered with grass, and will have an entrance tunnel up to several feet in length.
Although meadowlarks will consume grain and weed seeds, it is their technique in the pursuit of insects that catches a birder’s attention. Meadowlarks “gape,” whereby they insert their bill into the soil, open the bill and essentially pry it open, revealing both seeds and insects they normally can’t reach. Aside from seeds and insects, meadowlarks may consume eggs of other grassland birds and if necessary, carrion from road kills in winter.
Seeing our second meadowlark on secondary highway 840, heading north to Rosebud, we thought a photo opportunity waited. We stopped the car and I walked slowly, thinking the meadowlark would ignore me. Not so! Taking a typical low altitude short flight, the bird added about 150 feet from my failed attempt.
Finally, after driving very slowly down the gravel road that led to the Frank Lake bird and wildfowl lookout, the god of meadowlarks smiled upon us. Standing upon a large stone, a glorious Western meadowlark, with beak wide open, sang the most melodious of notes one could imagine. Our shutters clicked. Any sourness of this search for the meadowlark had been truly sweetened in both sight and sound!
If you travel through the grassland regions of Alberta, take time to travel slowly with the windows rolled down, listening for the meadowlark’s song. Look too, at the top of each fence post and rail, or in some cases, insulated power lines. Nature’s bird of colored brilliance and song wait for you!