December 25th – Connecting Snow Buntings and the North Atlantic

Northern Fulmar – at home in blustery north Atlantic Winter conditions.

It felt odd: looking out the porthole, the usual pitch dark was penetrated by a bank of distant lights. For the past ten days at sea, 200 miles north of St. John’s, the only lights at night were the low orange/red radiance of the dials and screens and chart table on the bridge and the bright lanterns of the rear deck – beyond these, in the dark, there was nothing. Occasionally a fulmar would flash into the bright, like an apparition, or a cresting wave would be briefly highlighted before returning to the blackness, but, otherwise, it was just black – a sea that you couldn’t see, just feel. We were almost “home” – taking one last set of water samples two miles outside the harbour.

As mentioned in the previous post, our main purpose in setting out was to sample the groundfish stock. I was just an add-on, a pimple on an elephant. From my little perch in the left corner of the bridge 12 meters above the sea, I searched for and counted seabirds in the swath of water, 300 meters wide, on the port side of the ship (of course, I noted birds on the starboard side and astern as well but they didn’t really “count”). And, as the migration was well over, there wasn’t much variety to see: Northern Fulmars, Iceland Gulls, Glaucous Gulls, Greater Black-backed Gulls (only a few), Black-legged Kittiwakes, Dovekies, and Thick-billed Murres.

I can’t comment much on the state of the fishery. But it was interesting to talk to the older members of the crew (and some not so old) who had made their living fishing these waters before the cod crash in 1994 closed the fishery. Of course, our trawl catches were quite small – we towed a net along the bottom for just 15 minutes – just enough to sample what is there. Nothing compared to the huge catches of bygone days. But I loved listening to their stories!!! Some of these guys had seen the best of times and the worst of times.

But, in the course of these stories, I learned that all of the crew could recount seeing small birds, passerines, as well as Peregrine Falcons, an Osprey, even a Snowy Owl land on the ship, while they were way out at sea. And then Manuel, chief mate, and Scott, 2nd mate dropped a bombshell: last November they had seen a small flock of Snow Buntings land on the ship at around 54-55 degrees north latitude and 55-56 degrees west longitude: this would put them many many miles off the coast of Labrador, east of Cartwright. While I was trying to follow up on this news, I discovered that Network member, Darroch Whitaker, in western Newfoundland, was doing the same thing, accessing data already available through the Eastern Canada Seabirds at Sea (ECSAS) database (the program I was working on).

Darroch has turned up some intriguing news:

Spring Snow Bunting sightings in the Northeast Atlantic. -D. Whitaker

Rick – interesting timing as we’re having a parallel discussion right now. The
start of this was a random thought that there may be SNBU observations in
the CWS ECSAS seabird survey dataset, so I sent a quick request to Karel
[CWS in Sackville, NS] and they sent back a pretty long list of observations. The spring
observations are plotted on the attached map and seem to suggest two
migration routes to Greenland – one from Newfoundland / southern Labrador
and another from Northern Labrador. However that’s a speculative
interpretation because the pattern may just have resulted from a patchy
survey design during spring (i.e. lack of effort in the area in between).
Getting at that will take a bit more work…

[Note: ECSAS and PIROP (the precursor to ECSAS) data were made available by Carina Gjerdrum, CWS Dartmouth, who does a great job overseeing seabird work on the east coast.]
[If you go back to posts in the Spring, you will recall that Darroch captured some SNBU’s with large fat loads and weights of over 60 g – pretty amazing considering that, normally, they weigh in around 35 g. This lead to speculation that, perhaps, some spring birds were flying directly (possibly non-stop) from Newfoundland to Greenland.]

Further discussion with Karel Allard points to the possibility that SNBU’s may be able to stop on the ice on their way to Greenland. This is suggested by the fact that mapping of Ivory Gulls, which are associated with floe ice, and SNBU’s indicate that they are in the same area in spring at the same time. Here is some of Karel’s commentary:

The IVGU observations in the area correspond to similar timing. In
fact, locations of satellite-tagged IVGU in April correspond very
closely to the [SNBU] cluster associated with the Davis Strait. I’d be curious
to examine whether this simply is a case of co-occurrence or could be
pointing to similar habitat or resource associations. Might the SNBU be
making stops on the ice as they make the trip northeast (i.e., geolocation
data)? Might the SNBU also somehow be benefitting from seal whelping or
other ice-associated prey resources (i.e., isotopes)? What about
co-occurrence of avian predators and their migration (i.e. risk:
Gyrfalcon, Peregrine Falcon) in those areas at that time (i.e., further
digging PIROP ECSAS, as well as sat and geolocation tag data)?

In any case, these SNBU clusters suggest two possible alternate
migration strategies (e.g., Garden Warbler?). In this case, SNBU can
cross the Labrador Sea non-stop or hop over the Davis Strait using
stopovers to rest and refuel? What about weather? Risks? Body condition?
Conversely, are these alternate strategies or rather different
populations (e.g. Willow Warbler, genetics).

Darroch came back with this:

Spring and Fall Snow Bunting sightings in the Northeast Atlantic. (Note:Spring-green; Fall-orange) -D. Whitaker

Some good thought Karel – I wish this was my real job not my hobby so I
could devote a bit more time to it right now 🙂

I just took a few minutes and dumped all your ECSAS observations into a
real GIS and produced the following map including both spring (green) and
fall (orange) observations. Unfortunately this map projection isn’t as good
as the one used by google Earth and the “stretching” of the map reduces the
separation between the two clusters of spring observations, but the
interesting thing is that the fall observations are scattered all over,
suggesting that at that time of year at least they just seem to just pick
up from wherever they are and take the shortest path back to North America.
I’ll work with our geomatics guy after the holidays to find a better map

One thing that is already known is that there are some interesting patterns
of migratory connectivity / segregation going on in Greenland; buntings
from NE Greenland migrate to northern Scandinavia and winter in the Asian
Steppes, while most of those in western and southern Greenland migrate to
North America and winter in southern Quebec / Ontario etc.. However there
is also some suggestion that a few winter in southern Greenland (brave
birds!) while some others probably migrate from south Greenland to the
United Kingdom to winter. There is even one record of one banded in the UK
one spring and recovered in Newfoundland the following spring!


PS – Merry Christmas everyone!

All of this was added to by a very interesting note from Alex Anctil in Rimouski:
Hi guys,
I just received news that a SNBU I banded on March 5th 2012 was recpatured on april 20th [2012] in Noddy Bay, Newfoundland by Shane Hedderson.
The bird was banded 1721-16387, an ASY male. Noddy Bay is roughly 1000km NE of Rimouski where I banded the bird.

AS for this, year, I have moved to another house during the summer and therefore, banding is not as easy as last year. We’ll see what happens later in the winter.

So there’s some very interesting work coming out of data being collected through the network (and network “associates”) on the Greenland population that spends the Winter in southern Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. But what are Canadian-breeding birds doing? Bruce Murphy at Hilliardton Marsh, near Temiskaming in northeastern Ontario, has started to catch birds there for the Winter. Where do “his” birds come from? Are they a separate population? And if so, from where? And how do they get there?

The Hilliardton Marsh folks are off to a great start! -B. Murphy

December 20th:
Hi Rick we finally had enough snow to get some buntings to find settle over corn we banded d 37 in about 2 hours we were so happy only 2 females in the group and most of the buntings were adult birds . There are some huge flocks in the area but there is so much natural seed for them they are not finding our corn. We had spilled corn around the traps but when I put mixed seed in the traps we caught the birds maybe it was the millet that really brought them in. I will report more as we continue we are anticipating 20 cm of snow which will change the landscape to winter. The flash made everything look dark it was 4 pm when this photo was taken

December 23nd:
Hi Rick we are in business here in the north we just had a decent dump of snow and today I banded 43 birds all snbu in a couple of hours of effort using 4 ground traps. I got all excited when I had a banded bird but it turned out to be one I banded last year which was still pretty neat. There have been some massive flocks of buntings seen. Joanne had one flock she figured might have been as many as 800 birds. there are definitely more birds around this year than there were last year. I retrapped 2 birds that I banded today I guess they don’t mind the traps too much. hoping to do a lot of banding over the holidays. Hopefully these birds will find their way south to southern traps soon. Happy holidays everyone.

Bruce Murphy
Hilliardton Marsh/Terra Instructor
Marsh location is 20 minutes North of Newliskeard
Banding station is accessed from Wool Mill road entrance off of hwy 569
lat long 474-0794

December 24th:
HI Rick we are up to 83 buntings no other species banded so far and out of these birds we have 6 retraps of this years birds one we have handled three times already!!! Guess it likes the corn. Happy holidays to everyone . Every bird we band we tell to go visit another bander. All the best to everyone. Murph

Joanne with one of the first of the year. -B. Murphy

It’s Christmas morning here in far southern Ontario as I finish off this (rather long) post. There is a dusting of snow on the ground but a promise of 5-10 cm to come in the next day or two. Hopefully it will bring some Snow Buntings with it – what a wonderful present that would be!

I hope you all have a wonderful Holiday Season…and lots of Snow Buntings.


2 thoughts on “December 25th – Connecting Snow Buntings and the North Atlantic

  1. Happy holidays to you all. One of our presents in Barnston-Ouest was the arrival (finally) of some snow just in time for a nice white Christmas and, with it, the first SNBU of the season….just three, but it’s a start! Not sure if you got her message or her photo, but a friend from Kuujjuaq photographed SNBU up there on December 1st!

  2. Hi Carl:
    Glad you got some birds!!!! Keep us informed.
    No, I didn’t get your friend’s photo – but please encourage her to send it along. Thanks

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