January 22nd – When Theory and Practice Come Together

I just love it when theory and practice come together. Yesterday we theorized that, if we kept the banding site well baited, with the cold winter conditions the buntings would be around in good numbers today and could be readily caught. Now, I must admit, sometimes my “theorizing” is more wishful thinking than anything else but, while I was hopeful about today’s catch, I also felt strongly that our strategy would work…..today.

It didn’t look like it initially. I arrived early and had the traps set out by 7:45, scaring up a big flock (200+) in doing so. The flock whirled around and returned to the trap area but did not go into the traps. Hmmm…let me qualify that: the buntings didn’t go into the traps but the longspurs did, especially the already-banded ones. Despite there being lots of birds around, in the first 2 hours I caught only 11 Snow Buntings but had 5 “new” Lapland Longspurs and 20 previously banded longspurs. But then the lid came off and the buntings just poured into the traps. I was so busy processing them that I didn’t even have time to drink some tea from my thermos. I’d take 30 out of the traps and within minutes the traps were full again – right through to 3:00 PM when I took up the traps. After 10:00 AM I reverted to a “ring and fling” methodology: you put the band on, determine the age and sex, and then let it go without taking any morphometric data. It was the only way I could keep up with the numbers. And of all the times, I was on my own today. I think the reason that the buntings are so slow to enter the traps is that they comb the area around them for every last piece of cut corn. When that’s used up, they don’t have a choice and, today, they just poured into the traps.

The tally for the day: 167 Snow Buntings banded along with 2 Horned Larks and 8 Lapland Longspurs.

I retrapped 22 Lapland Longspurs and 5 Snow Buntings (before I started letting them go – there just wasn’t enough time).

Now I was doing all of this out of my little Toyota Corolla. One thing about banding Arctic birds is that you have to be careful that they don’t overheat. To ensure this I don’t have the car idling and the heater going and I crack open a window. This keeps the birds safe but I am just now beginning to feel my feet…..

I witnessed an interesting act of predation: I heard a ruckus out by the traps and looked up to see a Red-tailed Hawk perched on one of the small ones. Before I could get out of the car to chase it off, it had opened the trap’s door, grabbed a hapless Lapland Longspur, and flown off with it. As a gesture of spite, it also left the door open and I saw half a dozen buntings make their getaway.


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