January 21st – A Real Winter Day

I had to run a volleyball practice at the highschool this morning so I was a little later getting to the trapping site. Fortunately, Nancy was able to get there about 8:30 and start things off. The strong winds were blowing the fresh snow that had fallen over night. Mixed with a temperature of -8, they produced a wind chill in the minus twenties. The 150 or so Snow Buntings didn’t seem to mind much. They were right after the bait and into the traps as soon as Nancy walked away from them. I arrived to take out the first 10. It was amazing how quickly the drifting snow was filling in the traps. By the time I arrived (~8:50) the tunnels, which are 3”/7 cm high, were filled with snow – no bird could get in or out. After taking out the first ten birds, I cleared the tunnels and uncovered the bait. The birds were back to the traps as soon as I turned my back – they were really hungry.

As soon as the ten were processed, we had to go back and take another 20 out of the traps. Again, the tunnels were filled in and the bait mostly covered. We were catching birds readily but, man, it was cold and the traps were simply acting as snow fences, collecting the drift and piling it up. So, after 39 buntings and a Horned Lark, we decided to pack it in. We left a good pile of cut corn for them (this was at 11:00). Nancy returned around 1:00 to put out more (she reported that most of the morning’s offering was gone) and I was out at 3:30 to replenish again (and again it was mostly gone). The strategy here is that the birds will identify the site with ‘easy’ food and will be back in droves tomorrow morning. I’m expecting a busy morning: the temperature overnight is supposed to go down to -17 and the wind is supposed to drop – ideal bunting-catching conditions.

One sort of surprising result today was the female to male ratio. Last year it was around 4 or 5 to females to every male for the whole Winter. Interestingly, it was about the exact opposite up north around Fergus where Bunting Team colleague David Lamble bands. This suggests a latitudinal stratification along sex lines; i.e., females winter further south than males. However, this year it has been slightly different, the female:male ratio standing currently at 2.2:1. But today, the scale was tipped in favour of males – 19 females banded to 20 males. Do harsher conditions push the males or the whole stratification further South?

Sometimes I wonder what these birds would be doing to get by if they weren’t being fed. At one point the corn was obscured by the drifting snow. The buntings wasted no time. They hopped over to the dried out goldenrod and Queen Anne’s Lace at the edge of the field (and within 10 m of the car) and started to pull seeds off any plants they could reach.


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