Arctic Birds, Large and Small

The Arctic weather in Central New York this month has led me to “go with the flow” when searching for nature photographs. Why not hunt for Arctic wildlife when frigid, windy conditions drive everything else to cover?!  And so I did. My subjects were Snowy Owls and Snow Buntings, birds that summer on the Arctic tundra of the far north and typically winter in Canada and northern U.S. I talked briefly about Snow Buntings in a post last February (“Winter Birds – Northern Visitors” 2/7/13) and Snowy Owls in two recent posts (“A Rare Northern Beauty” 12/20/13 and “A Snowy Christmas Eve” 12/24/13). However, I am mesmerized by these charming winter visitors and their amazing adaptations to harsh winter conditions – and must continue to post my experiences with them!

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A flock of over 100 Snow Buntings flying in a synchronized, undulating wave over an open, weedy field

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Part of a small flock of Snow Buntings that was foraging roadside, a common occurrence

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Snow Buntings feeding on weed seeds in an open, windswept field

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An unusual sighting: a solitary Snow Bunting foraging alone; typical of the species, it was walking, rather than flying, from one plant to another

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Snowy Owl on a utility pole surrounded by open, windswept farmland; a favorite perch for hunting and resting

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The low flight behavior and cryptic coloration characteristic of Snowy Owls

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Snowy Owl canvassing a field of corn stubble for prey, possibly a Meadow Vole

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Winter Birds: Northern Visitors

The winter of 2012 – 2013 has been exciting in terms of the number and variety of birds observed at our backyard feeders and in nearby natural areas. Of course there are the “regulars” at the feeders: dozens of mourning doves; hairy, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers; chickadees; several pairs of cardinals; juncos; gold finches; and tree sparrows, to name a few. Titmice are more common in recent years and evening grosbeaks are visiting sporadically this year – for the first time in maybe 15 years.

However, two species have really captured my interest, in part because, after nearly 30 years in central New York, this is the first winter that I’ve seen them in abundance. They’re visitors from the North: common redpolls and snow buntings. Both are small, seed-eating birds that spend the summer in tundra regions but range into the northern U.S. in winter. They tend to occur in flocks, which may actually be a swirling aggregation of several species (e.g. snow buntings, redpolls, tree sparrows, horned larks, and others).

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Redpoll perched near a feeder

My first sightings were in late December and early January – after real winter arrived! Redpolls, sometimes 30 or more, became daily visitors, preferring thistle seed, but also feeding on the mix of black oil sunflower seed and cracked corn scattered about at other sites. Their constant activity, dawn to dusk,  has given me plenty of photo opportunities, but also made me a regular at the local feed store!

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Redpolls fighting for position at a thistle seed feeder

Unfortunately, I have not seen snow buntings at my bird feeders. I discovered these lovely little northern birds while scouting nearby rural areas for photo opportunities. As with the redpolls, it was real winter: a blustery, cold, snowy day in late December.  I noticed a flock of small birds along the edge of a secondary road and stopped to investigate. I got a little too close and they flew, but luckily, not far.

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Part of a small flock of about 15 snow buntings swirling over an open field

I soon learned that the adjacent, windswept field, with scattered weed stalks poking up through a foot of snow, was preferred habitat! For the next hour I watched a flock of well over 100 birds, snow buntings, redpolls, and other species, feeding and swirling about, almost as one; an amazing show of synchronized movement. No wonder some call this bird the “Snowflake” – when the light was just so, the flock looked like a lake-effect snow storm, with giant flakes swirling in the wind!

Days later, after the stormy weather had passed, the birds too were gone – except for one. I watched, and photographed, as it plowed through the snow, moving from weed stalk to weed stalk, with the field all to itself.

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A solitary snow bunting feeding on weed stalks in an open field

Photos by NB Hunter, 2012/2013