It was an inauspicious start….but still a start. Yesterday, Nancy Furber had spotted a mixed flock of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings in a wide-open field along Stoney Creek Road, right by the York Airport [yes, York actually has an airport…no international flights though…yet]. She had the good sense to put some bait (cut corn) piles down. Lo and behold, today there was a mixed flock of Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, and Lapland Longspurs feeding there when I arrived around 9:00. I had to whip back to Ruthven to get some ground traps but half an hour later I was ready to go. The birds however weren’t. The actual site seems to have been a loading area for the local farmer and there was a considerable amount of spilled corn on the ground that the birds were still able to find under the 2 centimeters of snow. So, while they showed interest in the piles of cut corn, they weren’t going to work out how to enter the traps to get it. There was enough food outside them.
After an hour or so, the falling snow began to obscure the spilled feed making the bait much more attractive. The first bird to get caught was a Lapland Longspur. I recall a blog entry from last Winter where I questioned whether longspurs were smarter or dumber than buntings and larks because they were often the first ones caught and were often retrapped (sometimes multiple times in a day). I think I came down on the side of their being smarter – they just “get” that there’s food in there and how to retrieve it.
We were there for 4 hours and ended up catching 7 birds: 5 Lapland Longspurs, 1 Horned Lark and 1 Snow Bunting. These numbers don’t nearly represent the birds that were present though. At one time I counted ~130 in the immediate vicinity (within 10 m) of the traps. But most were foraging on spilled feed. Much of that has now been consumed. At 3:30 I returned to replenish the piles and found close to 100 Snow Buntings finishing off what was left. The important thing is that the bait has been found. In our experience, feeding birds attract other birds that want to feed. And as long as there’s feed there, we should get these 3 species for the rest of the Winter (unless there’s a prolonged warm spell with considerable melt).
I went to Ruthven tonight to replenish the feeders. The sun had just gone down and through the trees the river looked aflame in the sunset. Shortly after, the first stars broke through: Aldebaran, a red star in the Hyades and Capella in Auriga. A wondrous evening. And, important for tomorrow, the temperature was going down – it’s supposed to drop to around -16 C. That will bring the birds to the feeding area at first light tomorrow. And I’ll be there…..