January 20th – Home on the Range

Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs, and Horned Larks require a different mindset than, say, Juncos and American Tree Sparrows. I’m used to the latter returning to Ruthven from one Winter to the next, even getting caught in the same net. For them, their Winter home is a couple of acres around the feeders and they return to it faithfully. I’m used to that.

Buntings and their ilk seem to return to a range rather than to a specific spot. Their Winter “home” seems to be measured in 100’s of square kilometres rather than a couple of acres. This was brought home to me last year when David Lamble, who bands Snow Buntings just north of Fergus, and I “exchanged” buntings; i.e., he recaptured one that I banded and vice versa, both birds having been banded and recaptured in the same Winter months. So the range of these birds was considerable.

There are not many records of banded Snow Buntings being recaptured in the same area from one year to the next. We were lucky enough to recatch a bunting about a week ago that we had banded on January 9th, 2010. This demonstrated that these birds likely return to the same wintering area – but it’s a big area. This bird was originally banded south of Highway 3 on the Sandusk road, at least 15-20 km from where we are currently banding. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that it looks like Snow Buntings return from one year to the next to the same general area but that area is quite large and within it they are mobile and widespread.

This makes capturing them an interesting (frustrating) experience. It would appear that in the last couple of days there has been a significant movement of buntings within the area. We had a big influx of ‘new’ birds yesterday, banding 81. There was a flock early in the morning of over 200 of them. They were coming to the bait intent to feed. When we took up the traps at the end of the day, we laid down a deal more so that they could feed uninhibited – with the expectation that they would show up again today. Well, today was pretty sparse – we banded only 13 in four hours. But it’s not because there weren’t buntings around – at times there were 100+ – it’s just that they were skittish around the traps, as if not sure what that yellow stuff in them was (cut corn). They would fly in, dance around the traps briefly and then fly up and off only to return again. It was very much like the behaviour we were seeing in December when the birds first returned to the area. This causes me to think that the birds we were seeing today were mostly birds that had shifted into the area from somewhere else and were checking things out.

We took up the traps today at noon. When I returned later around 2:30 there was a large flock of over 250 just starting to feed on the remains of the bait piles. So I replenished those piles as they weren’t going to last long under that onslaught. And then I returned at 5:30; the bait piles were gone except for some kernels that were frozen into the snow crust. Our experience is that after a good feed like that, the birds will return tomorrow morning for more…..unless they’re on the move to another part of their range. Tomorrow should be interesting….one way or the other.

January 19th: banded 81 Snow Buntings and 2 Lapland Longspurs

January 20: banded 13 Snow Buntings and 2 Lapland Longspurs


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