December 24th – A White Christmas (and Cross-Country Check-up)

Early morning light at the bait site in Sawyerville.     -M-P LaPlante

Early morning light at the bait site in Sawyerville. -M-P LaPlante

As I write this, snow is falling (and has been falling for the past several hours) outisde my back window. Two inches of fresh snow coats the grass and blankets the trees – it will be a White Christmas. But beyond the yard I can see the Grand River and it is wide open. A week ago it was frozen over, something that hadn’t happened here for a couple of years. Forty years ago when we moved to York, a village between Caledonia and Cayuga, the river would freeze over early and solidly – to the point you could ski safely along it to Cayuga, 9 km downstream. But in more recent times you’d be as likely to be water skiing as snow skiing. So when it froze over I started thinking “old time Winter”.

But then the sleet storm hit dropping a mass of water, in various forms, all over southern Ontario. (Our power was out for only 8 hours – there’s still thousands of people in the province without it and might be without it until the weekend!) Two days ago my son, Geoff, and I took the dog for a walk along the River Trail at Ruthven. A solid sheet of ice covered the river. I went to the bank to check out the beaver lodge – beavers are making a comeback in southern Ontario and a pair has built a lodge against the bank and, in so doing, have transformed the river flats ecologically, gnawing down well over a hundred Black Walnuts ranging in diameter from a few centimeters to over 25. They had taken many branches and embedded them into the river bottom by their lodge – a readily available food source on cold Winter days. This food cache was quite extensive, extending at least 5 meters out from shore and was frozen into the ice.

And this is what drew my attention. Just before I reached the bank I heard a loud “crack” upstream. Before my eyes and very slowly, the ice-embedded food cache began to move downstream in an open lead of water that had miraculously appeared in a matter of seconds. The River was on the move!

The next hour was simply awesome as the power of water manifested itself right in front of me. The next sign that something was happening was a big push of ice up the far shore – huge plates of ice, 15-20 cm thick were forced against and up the bank, shattering like thin glass – but scouring the shore. Initially this was all in slow motion but with each minute the speed picked up. At first the action was along the shore but soon the whole mass of ice on the river began to move. This was accompanied by a deep, almost frightening sound; Geoff thought it was the wind picking up (but there was no evidence of any wind) while i likened it to the rumble of a passing train. The cause was a huge push of water forcing its way under and around the ice “obstacle”. Several more loud cracks, some upstream, some downstream, marked the increase in speed. And then there was a helter-skelter movement of ice, pushing up on itself and onto the banks, first on one side then on the other, scouring everything in its way. The beaver lodge was eliminated. Hopefully they were safe in a hole dug into the bank.

Suddenly the ice stopped moving but the water began to climb – over a foot in the matter of just a couple of minutes. And then….BANG!….downstream, whatever had stopped the movement (probably a jam against Slink Island) gave way and the train was underway again. Two hours later the river was ice-free from York down to Cayuga; the river had been swept clean.

It’s rare to witness a spectacle like this as it happens. Humbling actually. But it made me think: many years ago, a friend of mine, Terry Witt, and I lead a training canoe tripping course down the Missinabie and Moose Rivers in the second week of June. The river was a torrent, the ice having gone out only a couple of weeks before. There are big islands on the Moose, which carries the outflow of several large rivers – Missinabie, Mattagami, Abitibi – and many smaller ones. Against some of these islands, standing on end, several stories high, were sheets of ice 2-3 feet thick. I can’t even imagine the forces that did that.

The storm cleared out much of the snow in our area…and with it any chance of banding Snow Buntings. (On the plus side, it did bring a forlorn male Red-winged Blackbird to the backyard feeders.) But, as you will see below, there are places in the this big country where there are buntings….and people catching them (or hoping to).

Cross-country Snow Bunting Check-up

    Prairie Provinces

We’re seeing no SNBUs here this last while. Our Christmas bird count also found none in the immediate area. We did see some large flocks earlier in the winter, though.
…no redpolls or Pine Grosbeaks either this year.
Gotta keep hoping for a GGOW irruption to get through winter, I guess!
Harold Fisher
Prince Albert, SK

Hi Rick,
It’s officially sunrise, 0834h, -36.4C and about 250 SNBU are in the field. As every morning, there were over a hundred gleaning in the dark when I restocked the piles at 0715h. Deer clean everything up every night. After the morning feed they will continue to stream in from the woods in groups of 30-150 every few minutes until 1500h when they load up for the night. Conservative counts for this last feed are 600-800 (varies by day). During the day, they come in, grab some food and head back to shelter, then another group comes in, eats and leaves. They completely consume at least 28 quarts of white millet every day (four, almost full 2 1/2 gallon buckets/day). [That’s an amazing investment on your part, Bill!]
Josh is planning to start banding during the dawn feed, January 4th or 5th. I will start conditioning them to the presence of “trap-like” objects tomorrow. Josh will be bringing nets to use if he thinks they will work.
Best of the Season, always,
Bill Maciejko
Gimli, Manitoba

Slow typist: now 350+ feeding Buntings


None around Thunder Bay.
John Woodcock
Program Coordinator, Thunder Cape Bird Observatory

Hi rick snow bunting numbers are down but we have been able to get 100 birds coming to corn and yesterday at the height of the storm i managed to catch 16 which is the first i have banded to date. I am going to try again today once we dig out. We got 20 cm of snow while you folks were getting freezing rain. All of the big flocks we were seeing in November seem to have moved on. i just heard from the banding office that one of our snbu has shown up in quebec but i do not know where as I have not submitted my year en report yet. While trying to catch mouring doves yesterday we banded a song sparrow which is unheard of up here at this late date.
Bruce Murphy
Temiskaming Shores

Hi rick
I was able to band 35 snbu today all but 1 were males this brings our total to 57 snbu and 24 lalo so far. There are very few flocks in the area and none are very big we have not been able to attract many to a site that was very productive last year so we will have to be patient I get to band Christmas day this year which is a great present to me and I have high hopes of banding a fair bit over the holidays. thanks for all of the work you do on your blog and on this network all the best and hopefully a banded bunting arrives as a present for the newyear.
All the best [Bruce] Murph and Jo [Goddard]
Temiskaming Shores

Hi Rick – I was just going to make a report! I observed (through blowing snow) a large flock yesterday morning (Dec. 22), in a hayfield and taking grit from the road. And again this morning – over 100. The location is 46.079482 79.234133 (from google earth) 15 Km east of Powassan. I am going to expand my corn scattering area, and see if they find it.
The gentleman from Eau Claire has not had his usual 50 – 100 which he normally feeds for the winter show up yet, just 1-5 individuals. This is now the first snow cover greater than 2 or 3 inches, so perhaps he will be seeing them soon.
South of Powassan, the South River to Bracebridge area, has had greater depths of snow for some time. I cleared my driveway for the first time on Saturday, and the snow is still under 10 inches deep unless drifted.
Not sure if this large flock came with the snow or fled from the freezing rain in the south
Lori Andersen
North Bay

In our area, rain has washed away the snow and temps are above freezing.
We had none of the ice storm.
We keep hoping…but…
Bob Hall-Brooks Snow Bunting Bander
Holiday Beach Migration Observatory


More than 200 SNBU and 2 LALO are feeding on a daily base at my baiting site. I only have time to catch 14 (total for the winter = 14). I will give it a try tomorow morning. I will let you know what is going on here.
À bientôt,
Benoit Gendreau

[And when I got home tonight this was waiting for me:
I’m situated at Berthier-sur-Mer, 40 km east of Quebec city on south shore of st-lawrence river.
I have banded 34 today in 1.5 hour alone! Total for the year = 48
There is lot more!
Happy holiday,
Benoit Gendreau]

"...a small flock of 30....walked on, around and nearly in the trap all morning."    -M-P LaPlante

“…a small flock of 30….walked on, around and nearly in the trap all morning.” -M-P LaPlante

Hi Rick,
I came close to banding my first buntings today as a small flock of 30 at a baited site in Sawyerville walked on, around and nearly in the trap all morning. No luck. I’ll try again Friday.
Good night,
Marie-Pier LaPlante
Sawyerville QC

[I loved Marie-Pier’s description of bunting “trap shyness”. How often have we seen this frustrating behaviour!?]

    East Coast

I have actually seen a few flocks in Gros Morne over the past week – one of
12 at Cow Head and another of 25-30 at Shallow Bay (just a few kms away) on
the Christmas count on Saturday. These were in beach & dune habitat, which
is about the only place I see them in winter here and they are hard to find
here in winter so this may mean that they are here in higher than usual
numbers this December (?).
Darroch Whitaker

Hi Rick
We haven’t seen any yet, ourselves, but somebody got a flock of ~150 or so nearby on their CBC last weekend, and the farm where we had birds before has a few according to reports (we didn’t see any there on our CBC). However with this bad weather we will likely get more there & will check it out probably next weekend & let you know.
They were 1st reported from the Fredericton area at the beginning of November I believe. Sorry we haven’t been in touch, been crazy-busy indeed. [Tis the season…..]
Tony Diamond
(just outside) St. John NB


Hi Rick,
We’ve had a lot of snow this month—10-12 inches on the ground. (The most we’ve had since Dec. since 2000.) No sightings of SNBU or HOLA so far in any of the farm fields where at least the HOLA are usually seen. Will keep looking and go out searching this weekend. Will also query wisbirdnet for sightings to get an idea if others have been seeing them.
Vicki Piaskowski
Hartland, WI

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