Bunting banding is carried out in my or Nancy’s vehicle parked on the shoulder of the road. Every now and again, on bringing a captured bird out of its bag, the car is filled with the smell of the barnyard – especially when handling Lapland Longspurs. It was notably strong this morning. I tried to figure out where this was coming from and when I took a sniff of the bird itself I discovered the earthy smell of….manure. Odd, I thought. But then it all came together: a local farmer has been spreading fresh manure in a corn stubble field about 300-400 m away. The longspurs must be feeding in it.
Feeding buntings are an agitated lot. They land, scamper about, peck away at anything that looks edible, and fly up for no discernible reason only to wheel about, realight and start all over again. When I’ve finished processing a bird I release it out of the car’s window. Almost invariably the bird gives its alarm call as it takes off. And, almost invariably, the birds milling about the traps fly up. I always feel kind of bad about this, disturbing their meal, and also a little frustrated that this happens. You’d think they’d learn that birds coming from the rock-like thing at the edge of the field, giving an alarm, call can be disregarded. But, as we’re finding out, a bunting’s life is precarious and disregarding an alarm call can be deadly.
My theory around attracting birds to the traps is that feeding birds attract other birds that want to feed. We’ve found this to be true: we put down bait piles in the vicinity of feeding birds; Horned Larks found them; their feeding attracted buntings and longspurs (as well as other larks); maintaining the bait piles brings birds back day after day (same as feeders in your backyard). But a corollary of this is that feeding birds attract other birds that want to feed…..on them. So far, we’ve seen 7 different avian predators come to the trap area: American Kestrel, Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Shrike, and, most recently, a Merlin. All but the Rough-legged have landed on the traps and we have seen kills by the Kestrel, Red-tail, and Merlin. The Merlin, in fact, showed up yesterday evening. It blasted through the site coming in low and picked off a Snow Bunting from the scattering flock. It was around again this morning, but the Kestrels beat it to breakfast with one picking off a bunting and one a longspur.
This increased hunting pressure may explain a couple of things:
• There’s a flurry of feeding activity by the buntings at first light and then their numbers thin out. This may occur so that the birds can get a good feed before the predators are up and about.
• The banding numbers have tailed off, especially after the first rush of birds this morning.
Yesterday, we had good numbers of birds around the trap but they were VERY reluctant to enter them – they seemed skittish….and for good reason. They were constantly flying up and away. And this morning we banded 13 buntings out of the first catch and then only 5 through the rest of the morning. I think we’ll scale back our operation a little to see if we can persuade the predators to move on.
We got some feedback on the 2 “foreign” birds we recently recaptured. Both birds were banded earlier this month by our colleague, David Lamble, who bands north of Fergus around the village of Metz. The straight line distance from our site to his is 102 km. That makes for a pretty big wintering range. If the birds did, in fact, move in a fairly straight line, they would have had to go through or around Guelph and just west of Hamilton to get here.
January 26th, banded: 54 Snow Buntings, 1 Horned Lark, 2 Lapland Longspurs [We have now banded over 1,000 Snow Buntings this Winter!]
January 27th, banded: 18 Snow Buntings, 1 Lapland Longspur