The cold winter (it’s forecast to get down to -26 degrees C in Beijing on Christmas Eve), combined with the above average snowfall, has meant that many birds that are usually scarce winter visitors to the capital, are here in greater numbers. The Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) is a good example. These pretty birds are one of the most widespread of larks, breeding across much of North America, northernmost Europe and Asia and in the mountains of southeast Europe. There is even an isolated population on a plateau in Colombia. In summer the breeding males have tufts of feathers on each side of the head that resemble small ‘horns’ which gives rise to the English name.
There are two subspecies of Horned Lark on the Beijing list. The most common is the ssp brandti. According to Birds of the Western Palearctic (Vol 5) the distribution of brandti is ‘steppes of lower Volga river and northern Transcaspia, E through plains of Kazakhstan to N Mongolia and W Manchuria; Altai, Tarbagatay, and E Tian Shan’; it is a ‘partial migrant. Flocks regularly occur S of breeding range in winter (e.g. in Turkmeniya, Mongolia, N China)’.
The ssp brandti is striking due to its white face and complete lack of yellow markings.
Prior to Tuesday, all of the HORNED LARKS reported in Beijing this winter were of the ssp brandti. However, on Tuesday morning, Jesper Hornskov and I made a visit to Wild Duck Lake and, to our delight, we not only encountered several brandti HORNED LARKS but also four stunning yellow-faced birds. These are the less common ssp flava which breed much further north (across northern Europe, northern Asia, east to Chukotka). They showed spectacularly well, allowing us to capture some good images. Compare the brandti birds above with the flava below.
With a supporting cast of 10 Mongolian Larks, a handful of Eurasian Skylarks, 30+ Asian Short-toed Larks, over 900 Lapland Buntings, a single White-tailed Eagle, Upland and Rough-legged Buzzards and 2 Hen Harriers, it was a good day to be out, despite the -13 temperatures! Thanks to Jesper for the information from BWP included in this post.