December 29th – Snow Buntings Have Arrived

Photo of a male Snow Bunting taken by George Hentsch in the Waterloo area in 2010.

Peter Mathiessen’s wonderful book The Wind Birds, a book about the life histories of shorebirds, conjures up vivid images to me of lonely, windswept shorelines and flocks of sandpipers swept along by a gale on their way to…..far off lonely, windswept shorelines. It’s also an image I have of Snow Buntings as they make their way to their wintering range. As we’re discovering, the snowbirds that we see here in southern Ontario are likely coming from nests on the west coast of Greenland. Think of the possible route!! Do they make a long over-water flight across the Davis Strait to Baffin Island which they traverse before making another long water crossing of the Hudson Strait to Labrador? Or do they make the jump from Greenland to Labrador in one long flight? They likely then follow the Labrador coast – ah the mystical (to me) Torngat Mountains – until they reach the St. Lawrence River. Then it’s a long run following the river to southern Ontario and, for some, even further westward to Michigan and Minnesota. Just take a moment to consider the things and the country they’ve seen and the physical strength and stamina required to make such a flight. And all by a bird that weighs between just 30 and 35 grams. To me it’s a wonder that any can make this flight successfully let alone the thousands that do so. How many must perish along the way?

Horned Larks picking up grit at the roadside.

The name Snow Bunting is well deserved. We don’t see them here until there is snow covering the ground in early winter. And in the late winter they can’t be found as soon as the sun begins to eat up the snow, leaving large bare patches. Needless to say, so far this has been a frustrating winter – so mild that the ground hasn’t frozen and any precipitation has been in the form of rain. But two nights ago the temperature dropped and a covering of snow fell. And right on cue, I found a flock of about 200 Snow Buntings along Regional Road 9, just north of the 4th Line. This flock, although mostly buntings, also contained a sprinkling of Horned Larks and a few Lapland Longspurs.

Every bunting I checked out was a female. This fits with our findings over the past two winters: we tend to get females here in the “deep south” while David Lamble, about 60 km north of us in the Fergus area, gets predominantly males. If the weather gets severe, the percentage of males we see increases; when it moderates, this percentage goes back down (and David gets more females). But right now, the birds are just arriving and it will take awhile before they settle down and confine themselves to a foraging area. (That being said, this area can be very large: we have “exchanged”, in the same winter, birds banded by Martin Wernhart near Port Rowan, David Lamble near Fergus, and Bill Read near Kitchener. That’s quite a foraging range!)

Wide-open fields with limited trees and low or no vegetation - a favourite of Snow Buntings and Horned Larks.

Right now, our main task is to get the birds coming to the bait site (we’re going to try to use the same one as last year). Yesterday I put out cut corn at the site. This morning when I checked it, it hadn’t been touched (and little wonder as the flock I saw was 7 km away). However, today Nancy Furber reports seeing a mixed flock of buntings and larks within 400 m of the site. So we need either a little luck and have some birds “stumble” upon it or we can hope that a bird banded by us last year remembers where the site is and returns to it, bringing her friends. This latter possibility is not far-fetched. Think of the long-distance flyers we’ve banded and subsequently recapture at Ruthven: Yellow Warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Baltimore Orioles returning from the tropics to breed in Spring and Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows returning from the far north to spend the cold months. Birds have wonderful spatial memory so it’s quite conceivable that any buntings that we banded could return. (In fact, their spatial memory is so acute that we’ve had birds, after a blizzard dropped 30 cm of snow, stand right above the bait site when there was just a huge white field in all directions with no markers to guide them.)

Our experience from past years suggests that the birds we’re seeing right now will be very “skittish” and hard to entice. Today I refound the flock near 4th Line and had a chance to watch it for some time. Unlike yesterday, it was way out in the field. So there were no vehicles going by to scare them up (given the uninhabited country they’ve been through, cars and trucks must be strange apparitions to them indeed). Even so, they were in constant motion – flying up, then alighting to quickly skitter around looking for seeds, before flying up again. These birds would not take the time to work out how to get into a trap to get a rich food source. Personally, I think these birds are still on the move – this isn’t their wintering range….yet. But it won’t be long now…we just need ONE bird to find that bait site. Keep your fingers crossed!

[If you’re interested in more news about Snow Buntings and the Canadian Snow Bunting Network, Google “canadian snow bunting network newsletter” and you can download a PDF of the 2012 newletter.]


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