We could identify the house we were looking for a half kilometre away – there were large flocks of Snow Buntings swirling around, alighting and then taking to the air again – like shorebirds. Even at this distance it was exciting; I’d never seen Snow Buntings in these sorts of numbers before: there had to be at least 1500.
Line Perras and her husband, Daniel, live on the remains of a small farm on the outskirts of Russell, a village about 30 km southeast of Ottawa. Line likes to feed birds (to which her 15 feeders attest). For a couple of years now she has been an enthusiastic contributor to Bird Studies Canada’s Feeder Watch program. And this is how I learned about her tremendous concentration of buntings. An old Arctic colleague, Andrew Coughlan, oversees BSC’s programs in Quebec and, as French is Line’s language of choice, she contacted him (quite enthusiastically evidently) about the Snow Buntings that were coming to her yard. And Andrew contacted Oliver Love and I to see if we might be interested in finding out more.
One of the aims of the Snow Bunting Project is to learn about the breeding biology of this bird throughout the country and we are looking to expand our data gathering to other parts of the province and of the country. So, yes, we were definitely interested. My wife, Marg, and I decided to go up to Line’s place over this past weekend to see the spectacle for ourselves and, hopefully, to band some of these birds as well as take feather and toenail clippings for stable isotope examination. I was, therefore, VERY excited to see the swirling masses of buntings.
After making Line’s and Daniel’s acquaintance we set out our traps and waited. And waited. And continued to wait. The birds were extremely skittish. They would fly in and alight, rush around the traps picking up any stray corn pieces they could grab and then, within seconds of alighting, would fly up again. And then they would be off and where there had been 500 birds a moment ago there would be none…..for twenty minutes at a time. What was going on!?
The front yard of Line’s house is home to her many feeders and she has a continuous stream of birds going back and forth between them and the trees close by. This activity was what probably brought the Snow Buntings initially (remember: feeding birds attract other birds that want to feed). This was the first year that Line had seen buntings at her place and she was quick to keep them coming by putting out piles of seed and cut corn. Smaller flocks quickly grew into larger flocks and these into huge ones. But there was a problem: some of the birds that were attracted by the feeding birds and wanted to feed themselves, wanted to feed on those feeding birds. Yes, raptors!! The place abounded with Accipiters; I saw at least 2 separate Sharp-shinned Hawks and 2 distinct Cooper’s Hawks actively hunting around her feeders. The site was well-suited for them: large concentrations of prey and lots of hiding options – house, outbuildings, trees/shrubs, a small river valley. It was interesting to watch them. They would come in fast and low along the river corridor or behind a building and then sweep in to try to take birds by surprise. Unfortunately, the bait piles that I had asked Line to put out and which we would cover with traps , were fairly close to a couple of the outbuildings. A hawk, flying in from behind one of the buildings, could be into the flock almost before they could react. No wonder the Snow Buntings were so nervous!!
For walk-in traps to be effective, birds have to have the time to examine them at their “leisure”. If they are forced to alight quickly, snatch whatever morsels they can grab, and then fly up to see if anything is coming, they will not have the time to examine the traps and figure out how to get at the bait inside.
In total, we caught and banded only 14 birds over the two days: 7 Snow Buntings, 6 Lapland Longspurs and 1 Horned Lark. Most of these were caught on the first day. The hawks soon learned to watch for birds in the traps and as soon as we had a couple they were there, hopping all over the top trying to find a way in. And scaring the hell out of the flock. The buntings and longspurs became ”trap-shy” and largely avoided them most of Sunday. Man it was frustrating!!! All those buntings…….
Still, we have 7 samples and if these prove to be significantly different from the birds we’re catching down here then next year (and I’m assuming they will be back next year) I’ll go after them again. Line and I talked over some strategy. If the piles were placed 100+ m away from the buildings and trees out in the huge surrounding fields, the buntings would have a much better chance of seeing raptors and might be more “comfortable” around the traps. Further, I would take a mistnet or two as I think we could get quite a few with these. Live and learn, I guess.