Status: Abundant regular spring and fall migrant west and west-central, uncommon east-central, rare casual east. Common regular breeder west, uncommon west-central, rare casual elsewhere.
Documentation: Specimen: UNSM ZM12193, 30 May 1895 Lincoln, Lancaster Co.
Taxonomy: No subspecies are recognized (Pyle 1997).
Spring: Apr 4,4,6 <<<>>> summer
Migrants generally appear in late Apr and peak numbers occur in late May.
There have been spring records of Lark Bunting in the east in 17 of the 30 years during the period 1986-2015, 12 of those records in the period 1986-1993; this species tends to appear east of its usual summer range in dry years. The only records in the east since 1993 are 4 Apr 2007 York Co, 10 May 2009 Fillmore Co, three on 12 May 2018 in Cedar Co, 17 May 2013 Jefferson Co, 20 May 2014 Washington Co, 25 May 2006 Wayne Co, and 1 Jun 2018 York Co.
- High counts: “thousands” in Kimball Co 30 May 2011, 500 in Perkins Co 26 May 2013, 400 in Banner Co (350 in one flock) 21 May 2016, and 305 in Kimball Co 23 May 2012.
Summer: Breeding numbers are erratic, and their distribution is variable; Lark Buntings can be abundant in the Panhandle, with largest numbers occurring in dry years when birds may also be found further east. BBS data 2007-2015 reflect high densities in the west, declining into the central; the species is absent in the east. Lark Buntings have declined -1.85% (95% C.I.; -5.02, 1.20) in Nebraska during the period 1966-2015 (Sauer et al 2017). Mollhoff (2016) also showed a marked decline in the proportion of BBA blocks in which the species was reported between the first and second BBA projects, even though overall observer effort increased. Most of the decline appears to be along the eastern edge of the species range, which appears to have retreated west over time, although this conclusion is confounded by the erratic and variable distribution of the species during summer.
Even prior to the conversion of tall grass prairie to agriculture, Lark Bunting was rare in the east (Bruner et al 1904). Ducey (1988) cited nesting records in Madison, Cuming, Douglas, Gage, Lancaster, and Nemaha Cos prior to 1920, none for 1921-1960, but post-1960 Ducey (1988) cited records in Adams, Clay, Greeley, Hall, and Howard Cos. An additional record was in York Co (Bennett 1971). There are no eastern breeding records since the early 1970s even though there have been extended dry periods (e.g., early 2000s). Nesting occurred in northeast Cherry Co in 1982 (Brogie and Mossman 1983), a BBS route along the Rock-Brown Cos line yielded “several” 16 Jun 1995, and the most easterly confirmed breeding record shown in Mollhoff (2016) was in Hayes Co.
Occurrence of Lark Buntings further east during dry years was noted by Tout (1902) who stated that they become “rare in rainy or wet years and quite common during years of drouth” in York Co in the late 1800s. Jorgensen (2012) outlined the variation in summer occurrence in the Rainwater Basin, where the last cycle of multiple reports was 1965-1976; spring records (above) suggested another dry cycle 1986-1993. There are scattered breeding season reports in the east, without evidence of nesting; most are during the dry years of the 1980s. These are 4-20 Jun 1989 Douglas-Sarpy Cos, 8 Jun-24 Jul 1985 Polk Co, 10 Jun 1982 Sarpy Co (Williams 1982), 16 Jun 1989 Sarpy Co (Grzybowski 1989), 22 Jun 1989 Cedar Co, 26 Jun 2014 Knox Co, 30 Jun-4 Aug 1988 Lancaster Co, 30 Jun 1988 Adams Co, 8 Jul 1995 Franklin Co, and 11 Jul 2015 Richardson Co.
Lark Buntings occasionally nest in agriculture fields. Such was the case when “many” were nesting in milo stubble in Clay County In 1965 (Cortelyou 1966), and 30-40 were using a growing cornfield no-tilled into the previous year’s wheat stubble 28 Jun 2007 in Lincoln Co.
- Breeding phenology:
Eggs: 24 May-6 Jul
Nestlings: 20 Jun
Fledglings: 3 Aug
- High counts: 400 in Kimball Co 15 Jun 1997, 350 in Sioux Co 14 Jun 1997, and 315 in Garden Co 29 Jul 2006.
Fall: summer <<<>>> Oct 10,11,14
Most birds depart the state by mid-Sep, with later dates 2 Nov 1989 Dawes Co and 16 Nov 1987 Dawes Co. Post-breeding flocks form as early as late Jul; two flocks of 30 were seen in Scotts Bluff Co 27 Jul 2003.
Reports from the east are few: a reported “female” in Seward Co 4 Aug 2012, 18 Aug 2009 Hamilton Co, another reported female in Dodge Co 6 Sep 2012, 7 Sep 1985 Pierce Co, 18 Sep 2006 Adams Co, 23 Sep Clay Co, and 11 Oct 1975 Douglas-Sarpy Cos.
There are only two Nebraska records for Nov (above), even though wintering has become essentially annual, albeit cyclical, in southwest Kansas in recent years (Thompson et al 2011).
- High counts: 600 in Box Butte Co 12 Aug 1994, 300 in Dawes Co 8 Aug 2006, 300 at Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co 7 Sep 2009, and 266 in Kimball Co 4 Aug 2004.
BBA: Breeding Bird Atlas
BBS: Breeding Bird Survey
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum
Bennett, E.V. 1971. 1970 Nebraska nesting survey. NBR 39: 10-15.
Brogie, M.A., and M.J. Mossman. 1983. Spring and summer birds of the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska: An annotated checklist. NBR 51: 44-51.
Bruner, L., R.H. Wolcott, and M.H. Swenk. 1904. A preliminary review of the birds of Nebraska, with synopses. Klopp and Bartlett, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.
Cortelyou, R.G. 1966. Nesting Report, 1965. NBR 34: 41-43.
Ducey, J.E. 1988. Nebraska birds, breeding status and distribution. Simmons-Boardman Books, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.
Grzybowski, J.A. 1989. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 43: 1334-1336.
Jorgensen, J.G. 2012. Birds of the Rainwater Basin, Nebraska. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.
Mollhoff, W.J. 2016. The Second Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas. Bull. Univ. Nebraska State Museum Vol 29. University of Nebraska State Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.
Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I, Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.
Sauer, J.R., D.K. Niven, J.E. Hines, D.J. Ziolkowski, Jr, K.L. Pardieck, J.E. Fallon, and W.A. Link. 2017. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 – 2015 (Nebraska). Version 2.07. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, Maryland, USA.
Thompson, M.C., C.A. Ely, B. Gress, C. Otte, S.T. Patti, D. Seibel, and E.A. Young. 2011. Birds of Kansas. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, USA.
Tout, W. 1902. Ten years without a gun. Proceedings of Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union 3: 42-45.
Williams, F. 1982. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 36: 992-995.
Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen. 2018. Lark Bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys), Version 1.0. In Birds of Nebraska — Online. www.BirdsofNebraska.org