January 3rd – Snow Buntings…..At Last!!!

Great shot of Snow Buntings by Rob Mueller.

Nancy Furber and I have been combining our efforts to cover different parts of the local area for the past 3 weeks looking for flocks of returning Snow Buntings. And patience seems to have paid off….for Nancy anyway. I was able to find a flock of ~50 just outside York. And Nancy was able to find a flock of….1,000+ just outside Hagersville (and only about 1 km from where we caught 2800 two years ago).

A large flock of Snow Buntings checking out the bait site.

She noticed them yesterday and wisely (and quickly) set out bait piles of cut corn. The birds found them easily and, as she kept replenishing the piles, have been returning.

What a sight I found this morning as I drove down the old road (Duxbury Road) to join her, in order to set out traps and start banding. There were several flocks of >500 birds, in close proximity, busily feeding in “old” fields – fields that have not been laced with Roundup, killing any emergent “weeds”. When they took to the air you could hear the “whoosh”, like a train going by. [Nancy managed to take a video that we will try to send to Jeff MacLeod so he can put it on the blog.] It’s amazing to watch them in this context -very reminiscent of shorebirds in their nervous darting and flying up.

Just part of a 1000-bird flock in goldenrod field.

It was sobering though to scan the whole area. Acres and acres of flat, entirely snow-covered fields lay in all directions, very few of which had “weeds” sticking their heads above the white layer. The “weeds” were largely dried goldenrod and their seeds were supplying the birds with food. But flocks this size will quickly use up this small resource. And then what? So many fields treated with herbicides; so little food available. What must it have been like in the days before large-scale herbicide use? And what will the effect be on this wintering population as the food runs out? In Europe, this style of industrial agriculture has clearly been shown to have had a major effect on the diminishing of wintering populations of birds. It must be the same here. Wouldn’t it be great if farmers could be remunerated for letting strips of their fields produce goldenrod (or some other “weed”) for over-wintering bird species? Let’s hope we don’t leave it too late…..

As many of you who have come out to visit the Snow Bunting Mobile know, you don’t use the car’s heater – the birds would overheat. So we spent the better part of 5 hours either sitting in the cold banding or walking and crawling around the traps in the icey wind extracting. But there’s nothing like a handful of these amazing birds to keep the cold at bay. On the day we banded 110. Since we banded only 40 for the whole 2012 Winter season, this was pretty good. Tomorrow, if the wind drops, may be even better. Either way, it was a great start to the Winter bunting season!

Snow Buntings picking up grit on the road.

We had some more good news: Angie and Rob have been visiting Ruthven’s banding program for several years now. Their enthusiasm for birds has been infectious and Rob’s photos have greatly improved the visual impact of this blog many time. But their enthusiasm for each other was just as great – they got married on November 30th. Congratulations!!

Angie and Rob tied the proverbial knot on November 30th.

Foraging in the “weeds”. -R. Mueller

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