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.

Birds in a Blizzard: Snow Buntings

I ventured forth during the tail end of the Blizzard of ’17, after the state of emergency and travel restrictions were lifted. Despite poor visibility and hazardous travel on country roads, I discovered a favorite winter bird: snow buntings!

The diminutive snow birds, 20 or 30 in all, were foraging on weed seeds protruding above the deep snow. Like their arctic neighbors, snowy owls, snow buntings thrive in winter conditions that force most animals to shelter in place: windswept, snow-covered fields with wicked cold temperatures and wind chills. I don’t ever recall seeing snow buntings when the weather was photographer-friendly, i.e. warm and sunny with blue skies!

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Snow buntings access seeds by walking, perching, jumping and fluttering. It’s a fascinating, sometimes comical scene of constant movement and occasional bickering.

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There are many things to love about these little songbirds, but what impacts me most is their journey, the way it connects me to another part of North America, the realization that the males will soon morph into breeding plumage and be staking out frozen tundra nesting territories in another month. I never cease to be amazed at the wonders of nature and, after this experience, am grateful for snowstorms and weeds.

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Photos by NB Hunter. 15March2017. ©All Rights Reserved.

Winter Visitors and Mixed Flocks

At a glance, the large flocks of Snow Buntings that I sometimes encounter on my winter travels appear to be just that: large flocks of Snow Buntings.

SnowBuntings14Jan15#190E2c3x5However, pure flocks are the exception rather than the rule. Many of our gregarious winter visitors from the far north – Snow Buntings, Common Redpolls, Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks – commonly occur in mixed flocks. I discovered this several years ago when Redpolls appeared in my cropped images of a flock of Snow Buntings.

Close examination of the images from my recent encounters with Snow Buntings revealed at least one additional species in the mix: Horned Larks.

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Mixed flock of Snow Buntings and Horned Larks

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Horned Lark and Snow Buntings

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Snow Buntings and ? arriving at a feeding site

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Living Snowflakes!

One of my favorite mid-winter scenes is a large flock of small, mostly white songbirds flying in tight formation over a weedy, snow-covered field. Their undulating, swirling flight, highlighted with a sprinkling of sunlight, is an amazing and beautiful sight.

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These are Snow Buntings on the southern portion of their winter range. Like Snowy Owls, they summer and breed in the Arctic and occupy open fields in the northern U.S. and Canada in winter. Weed seeds and waste grain sustain them at this time of year.

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All photos were cropped from a flock of nearly 100 birds; 14Jan2015

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Winter Birding and Fresh Manure!?

My recent post on Arctic birds (Arctic Birds, Large and Small – 28Jan2014) generated a lot of interest in Snow Buntings, so I decided to road hunt for a flock and create a follow-up post. I targeted open, snow-covered fields with scattered weed stalks and seed heads visible above the snow, habitat that isn’t all that common on intensively managed farms. I found nothing, and began cursing the effects of “clean” farming on wildlife habitat. Minutes later, I felt the need to apologize to the farming community for that thought. In the distance, a solitary American Crow was feeding in a 300-foot-long strip of freshly spread cow manure. Crows are intelligent creatures, and I like to think that this one felt sorry for me and was intentionally directing my gaze to the huge flock of Snow Buntings nearby, also foraging for seeds in the fresh manure!

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Fortunately, the strip of manure was perpendicular to the road and my truck blind. The buntings fed from the far end of the strip toward the road, at first looking more like a colony of army ants than a flock of songbirds. They fed until they ran out of manure, or until spooked by the noise of a passing vehicle. At that point the flock burst into flight and the wave-like mass either left for awhile or returned to the far end of the manure strip to begin the feeding process all over again.

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Many other species of birds have learned the value of manure as a source of food in winter – turkeys, doves, sparrows, gulls and blackbirds to name a few. “Winter Birding 101”: follow the manure spreader!

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.