Snowbirds: ‘Tis the Season

When our winter wonderland settles in for the long haul, bringing bitter cold, bone-chilling winds and snow-covered fields, I start searching for snow scenes and snowbirds. We’re on the southern edge of the winter range of several species of birds that summer in the Arctic region and they seem to thrive in our harsh winter conditions. “Snowbirds” include Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, Pine Grosbeaks, Horned Larks and Snow Buntings. It’s the buntings that I see most often and have opportunities to photograph. And I can’t have this conversation without including a large predator in the mix: Snowy Owls.

Bright frosty mornings with clear blue skies are my favorite time to search, concentrating on open farm fields and fence rows. Waste grain and weed seeds are magnets for the songbirds. In a year of abundance, Snowy Owls irrupt southward out of Canada and large, windswept fields with available prey are preferred habitat.

On this morning it was 17 below zero (F) when I left the house, about 10 or 12 below when I arrived on site. Too cold for me and my gear – I used the heated truck as a blind and a padded, open window as a camera rest.

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The Common Crow is indeed common. On a slow day crows might be my only wildlife sighting in the frozen fields. I can’t resist the black, white and tan color scheme and use an opportunity like this to check camera settings and practice!

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Perfect! A large flock of Snow Buntings feeding on waste grain near the road. Snow Buntings are the winter equivalent of robins and red-wings in the spring: a sign of the season.

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“And over the snow-covered fields, Snow Buntings come swirling like leaves [some say like big snowflakes!] driven by the north wind. Snowbird season is here.” – from “Snowbird Season: An Irruption of Boreal Songbirds” by Marie Read, In “Living Bird Magazine”, Jan. 15, 2009 (pub. by The Cornell Lab – All About Birds) 

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The tiny songbirds fed aggressively for several minutes. Then, true to form, they burst into the air in a synchronized, swirling mass, seemingly without cause.

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The scene repeated itself over and over until we were photo-bombed by a huge flock of pigeons descending on the exposed waste grain.  Startled from my snowbird trance, I realized the morning was getting away from me and my mission was incomplete. A Snowy Owl would be icing on the cake. And it was!

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Photos by NB Hunter (Dec. 31, 2017 and Jan. 1, 2018). © All Rights Reserved.

9 thoughts on “Snowbirds: ‘Tis the Season

  1. Spectacular photos and flight action of the Snow Buntings! 🙂 This is one of the birds that I wish I could come upon to photograph. Adding icing to the cake with a Snowy Owl! You had one marvelous day, Nick!

    • Glad you liked this series Donna. Experiences like these are precious … but so much is lost if they aren’t shared and, more important, appreciated. The little buntings might very well be my favorite winter bird. I watched a mature bald eagle hunting this afternoon, with a beautiful blue sky as a backdrop. Had I been able to photograph it, the image would have taken a back seat to a good action shot of a swarm of buntings! Hope your wish comes true some day! Thanks.

    • That’s powerful feedback and I’m grateful! Even though the buntings are regular winter visitors in this area, few people know or appreciate them because they’re small, camouflaged and not apt to visit backyard feeders. Stopping the action with magnification gives me an opportunity to show everyone what they’re missing!

  2. Sounds like a thrilling, albeit frigid, day. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen snow buntings, but the way you describe their ‘swirling mass’ makes me think of the blizzard of snow geese we were fortunate enough to see at the Klamath Basin NWR. That had to be one of the most thrilling bird sightings I’ve experienced. That Snowy looks frozen solid. Brrrr…

    • Thanks Matthew. We have a minus 20 wind chill at the moment, with 8 inches of new powder. I’m reluctant to leave the wood stove but I know those little guys are out and about, working the weeds!

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