January 7th & 8th – The Quest for Snow Buntings

I must say that it has been a very frustrating Snow Bunting season so far. We were out and ready for them with the first snows in early December, setting out bait in an attempt to lure the early arrivers to a consistent spot and “hold” them there. We identified a couple of spots and, on some days, had 1,500 – 2,000 of them in the area (i.e., within half a km). They fed energetically on the bait piles (cut corn) but as soon as we put a trap over the piles…..nada. Their flocking behaviour was quite interesting: a flock would swoop in to the bait; the birds would peck and run skittishly; and then they would take off as one only to sweep around and land again. In this regard they were very much like shorebirds over a mudflat. They seemed either very nervous or very anxious to get going (Zugunruhe perhaps??). They also would fly up with each passing car, even when we moved the bait 100-150 m back from the road. And then the snow dissipated – everywhere else in southern Ontario seemed to be getting ample but not us. As soon as there is little or no snow the birds are gone. So, despite our best efforts, we had banded only 10 Snow Buntings for the month of December.
Finally, I just said @%!*^#*@ and we decided to wait patiently until we got some snow AND some cold temperatures. This happened just in the last couple of days. Nancy, who has the patience of Job, went out yesterday to the bait area. (Although we weren’t trying to trap any birds, we kept what we felt was the best site baited throughout the warm, snowless days.) She had pretty good success as the birds are running out of “natural” food (or it isn’t as accessible….being under snow) and they know where there is a steady, predictable supply. She ended up banding 5 Snow Buntings, 2 Horned Larks, and 17 Lapland Longspurs.

Today was my turn. I arrived early and had the traps out just before 8:00. There weren’t any birds present but they had been around as their prints in the newly fallen snow would attest. I set out 4 walk-in traps over the bait piles that we have had in place for a month now. Before long, small mixed flocks (buntings, larks and longspurs) began to fly in and check things out. They were hungry and the fresh snow, although not very deep, was enough to cover other resources. The first pass (2 longspurs) was impeded by an American Kestrel that bounced around on the top of the traps until I ran and chased it off. And…..unlike every other time, it did not return – the birds are very cautious when one is in the vicinity. Things picked up over the course of the morning but didn’t really get going until it began to snow again. Around 1:00 I got a big rush of Snow Buntings. I would have had more except for the interference of a Northern Shrike that, Kestrel-like, bounced around on the top of the traps trying to get at the birds inside. I had already chased this bird off a couple of times…..

I finally called it quits around 2:00. I like to give the birds unfettered access to the cut corn in the later afternoon to ensure that they get through the night OK and to reinforce the site as a good feeding area. On the last pass, I had to chase off a Cooper’s Hawk that was…..you got it….bouncing around on top of the traps. If only we had had a bal-chatri trap in place; we could do some raptor banding…..
Today I banded 30 Snow Buntings, 4 Horned Larks, and 14 Lapland Longspurs. It has been a good start. Let’s see what happens if it stays cold and the snow continues.

[I have been reluctant to extend an invitation to go “bunting banding” as we weren’t getting any. But things seem to be improving. So, if you’re interested, contact me and we’ll work out the logistics.]


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