There I go with my tabloid headline again! On June-16, 2017 a meadowlark showed up at Daniel’s Head, Cape Sable Island. Found by Clyde Stoddard, it showed to a handful of people before becoming unavailable. During the time it was on show I took a batch of photos, the main intention being to show the extent of white in the outer tail feather because, to put it simply 3+ = Eastern, under 3 = Western. I agree it is a very simplistic formula but one that works, to some extent. There are however variables to consider, either relating to plumage, song or call. You can read the original blog post here: https://capesablebirding.wordpress.com/2017/06/16/lark-flys-at-daniels-head/
At the time I was sure it was an Eastern Meadowlark. I took the tail requirements as set in stone and I relied on my not to great musical ability when assessing both call and song. There were some plumage anomalies but I glossed over them somewhat. At the time only Jim Edsall questioned the identification via Facebook but I stood my ground. Since then, whenever I’ve browsed my photo stock, as you do, I have felt nagged in rather the same way those yappy little dogs do, and it just won’t shut up. I was asked to write up the lark for Nova Scotia Bird Society bulletin, and here is where I allowed my inner sceptic to surface and seek more informed advice.
I chose the Facebook Advanced Bird Identification group, knowing that most of the brains in the group knew what they were talking about. There is no shame in asking opinions, neither is there shame in getting it wrong. If you think there is then you are a short-sighted fool. In writing this, and in no way meaning to undermine the NSBS bulletin which is the historical record, I thought to start with the events of the day.
The meadowlark showed to Clyde, Johnny and Sandra Nickerson, Mike MacDonald and me by flushing out of the inside vegetation at Daniel’s Head and landing in the open area we know as the trailer parking lot. It was around 80m away most of the time and against the light somewhat. I thought I heard it call “dzick” a couple of times but neither Clyde nor Mike remember hearing a call. I focussed on views and photos and, because the bird was very skittish, in-flight opportunities were frequently available. The bird then went missing; this coincided with the arrival of Paul Gould, Laurel Amirault and Ervin Olsen.
After some searching, I found the meadowlark over by the parking bays that project into the inside, roughly 250m from the other birders present, so I called Ervin and he passed on the word. In the interim I had intended to record its song, which it delivered very briefly from a small bush. It was again into the light and, by the time I’d made the call to Ervin it had shut up. I remember the song as sounding like the Eastern Meadowlarks I heard regularly in Quebec.
More photos were taken by all, including when it flew over a channel into short marsh and fed, before the bird scooted out of sight again. Sandra Dennis arrived and we had a couple of views before it again went absent. I stuck around after everyone had left, hoping for photos with some backlighting. I didn’t stomp around, instead hoping that it would land in a suitable spot for me to get my shots. At one point I saw it fly off over the salt marsh towards the fish plant on the end, but it came back and was feeding around the inlet edge when I left it.
So there you have it. The bird was not seen again that day despite searching. I didn’t see it again at all but Clyde said he flushed it twice on two separate days. Once home I looked at the photos and made my identification. I posted to the blog and to various Facebook groups with, as I said, only Jim asking questions.
The responses from the Advanced Bird ID group proved very informative (see the section after the links). Meadowlarks are not straightforward at all unless they are near text-book, a complication is that there is a zone where both populations exist and interbreed and each species is known to learn each-others song. The group also flagged plumage details that I wasn’t fully aware of as my contact with Western Meadowlark is fairly limited, just to a few trips out west and one bird in Quebec. Eastern is a different thing and I’ve seen them in many places including Costa Rica and Panama where they also look different from the standard eastern model.
All field guides stress the malar colour as differing between species, white on Eastern, yellow on Western. A ‘classic’ Eastern, and I am loathe to use such a term as often there is no such thing as a ‘classic’ when it comes to species with plumage ambiguities, has such and obvious white malar that there should be no doubt. Below is such an individual, taken in Quebec during May 2012 showing just that.
The bird in flight below is also from QC, May 2015. On the perched bird note the streaked, not spotted flanks. The well-marked head pattern and ‘cleaner’ cheeks. On the flying bird the outer tail feathers would seem to favour Western more but the malar is white and you can see the thick, dark bars on the upper tail. A feature of Eastern, see the links at the end for more visuals via skins..
The Daniel’s Head bird looked quite different. Here is a shot of it on the ground from distance. Note the malar colour. The flanks show more spotting than streaking. In this shot the head pattern is indeterminate.
The next shot is a side-by-side flight shot of an Eastern (top) and the Daniel’s Head bird. Note the overall washed out look of the DH bird.
As an example, here is a Western Meadowlark photographed near Reno, Nevada in March-2013, followed by the DH bird perched up in a bush. Not the flank pattern.
The DH bird above clearly shows a yellow malar. Below is another Western from near Reno, Nevada in March-2013. Not also the flank pattern of the DH bird, on this side at least!
Note the face pattern, overall washed-out look and the flank pattern. This from a Western well within range.
In flight the tail pattern of the DH bird can be better assessed. Unfortunately the shot isn’t great but you can clearly see the fine tail barring, said to be one of the diagnostic features of Western.
And one of the DH bird from the side.
Here is a photo to show the comparison between the birds in one shot. It goes, from left to right. Western, Eastern, DH bird, Western.
And now a shot showing the wing pattern of the DH bird more clearly.
In taking all plumage issues into account, there has to be some brief consideration given to the hybrid option. A hybrid may show mixed plumage characteristics although it is fair to say that they are poorly known and the hybrid option is too often the first resort when it comes to a confusing individual. To me at least, and based on the percentage of pro-Western plumage features, it seems far more likely that the Daniel’s Head bird is a Western Meadowlark and not a hybrid.
The song and call issue is one that cannot be satisfactorily resolved. I stick by my rendition of the call as “dzick” but as for the song, I cannot be sure that I could hear it all, I don’t get notes in the higher register these days and, in the absence of a recording there is nothing to assess.
One final discussion factor is Lilian’s Meadowlark. A putative species, it has features that resemble both species but is currently treated as a form of Eastern Meadowlark. In eBird there does not appear to be any extralimital records of lilianea away from their core range of west Texas through southern Arizona.
To summarise, the Daniel’s Head Meadowlark was more likely a Western based on the flanks pattern, head pattern, cheek pattern, overall paleness, malar colour and tail pattern. Anomalous features appear to be some (but not all) parts of the wing pattern. Indeterminate was the extent of white in the tail.
For a little further reading I recommend looking at these links. The one with the skins is very helpful, as is the write up of a Newfoundland bird (Eastern, surely). I have since re-submitted the bird to eBird as a Western. Other observers still have it as Eastern in eBird which, if they disagree with the Western case, they will need to explain their rationale.
Facebook comments below – unedited but anonymous.
‘The song is learned but the call note is diagnostic. We went through a similar thing in Alberta. A WEME was signing an Eastern song but was never heard doing the call notes’
‘The central tail feathers also look more Western-like, showing spaces between the dark bars. Along with the yellow malar and pale overall tone, a hybrid probably needs to be explored.’
‘Eastern x Western hybrids are few and far between, yet I’d say this bird is a decent candidate for one, with the three outer white rectrices and overall pale body. It also looks like the median coverts are darker than the greaters, primaries, and secondaries, which is slightly more fitting for Eastern.’
‘FWIW, I’d not look at this bird and think twice (about why it wasn’t a Western) in Illinois or Texas. Yeah, there is a little bit more white in the tail, but everything else looks fine’
‘Can anyone make out the pattern of the uppertail coverts? I can’t see it too well, but do they have the dark central shaft streaks typical of Eastern? Also, the post-ocular stripe looks rather drab for Eastern. The amount of white in the rectrices is rather interesting, however.’
‘If this was in Kansas, I’d call it a Western without hesitation based on the malar color, and Meadowlarks in particular are known to learn each other’s song.’
‘Since this is in June, doesn’t the malar field mark work? I thought this was seen only a few days ago, so I didn’t think the malar field mark could apply, being it Autumn and all. Everything about this bird (at least to my eyes) is Western: a rather faded and mottled head pattern, mottled uppertail coverts, and yellow extending into the malar. The only thing that seems off is the extent of white in the rectrices. Also, can anyone get a good consensus on the streaking along the flanks? I’m torn between saying it’s too much for Western, or too little for Eastern.’
‘The yellow malar and messy, dusky cheeks look like classic Western. If this is an Eastern Meadowlark then those two field marks are down the toilet…’
And finally an Eastern Meadowlark from the Pacific side of Panama! I think I’ll stick to empids!