A wintertime country road in rural Ohio. Frigid temperatures, a landscape blanketed in snow, and brutal winds conspire to make this a habitat unfit for man or beast. But even such a seemingly stark environment does indeed have its beasts, even if overall biodiversity of living species can often be tallied on one hand.
I spent this morning searching backroads in Pickaway and Ross counties for Snowy Owls. Even though none of the big Arctic visitors put in an appearance, I saw scores of another bird species not put off by tough winter conditions. Horned Larks. These sleek Fox Sparrow-sized members of the Alaudidae share familial ties with the fabled Sky Lark of Eurasia, and are - in my estimation - just as special.
As I cruised roads similar to the above, small flocks of Horned Larks scurried mouselike along the verges of the lanes, seeking sustenance at the interface of gravel, blacktop and snow. When fields become smothered in the white stuff, the larks are forced to the roads to find feed, and an observer can get an idea of just how common they are. But what, in such a barren landscape, are they eating?
Anyway, it doesn't seem like there would be much of sustenance in the above shot. But there is, although few animals could successfully exploit such a niche. This Horned Lark, fat and all afluff, was feeding on the grasses springing from that crack in the asphalt between it and the snow. The aforementioned Sporobolus grasses had found a home in this fissure, and the lark was gobbling down their fruit.
In the relatively brief period that I watched these larks and their companions, scads of tiny seeds were plucked and consumed. Grass seed is tough stuff, and some of those grains are destined to run through the larks' digestive tracts intact. They'll be expelled somewhere else, maybe near, maybe far.
Horned Larks have been harvesting grass seed for eons, and play a valuable role in dispersing native plants.