My grandmother, a font of inspiring wisdom, used to admonish me (somewhat regularly) with: “patience is a virtue, professed by many, possessed by few”. Snow Bunting banding certainly requires it! Nancy and I have been waiting since the beginning of December for the weather conditions to turn “right” and bring the birds into our area of southern Ontario: they need cold temperatures and snow cover. Without one or the other “our” Snow Buntings disappear. Despite the unusually warm conditions through December and January, we continued to bait the bunting site on Duxbury Road. The field is nothing special, just an expansive agricultural field outside of Hagersville but we’ve had great success attracting buntings to it by putting out little piles of cut corn mornings and late afternoons. The burning question for me is how do these little birds find the spot – a tiny food resource in a massive array of agricultural country? But they do….
But up until yesterday they hadn’t.
We had a young person’s banding workshop yesterday morning at Ruthven (banded 14) and upon finishing Liam expressed an interest in seeing the site (which is about 12 km’s from the lab). So we went. Up until this point Nancy and/or I had seen only 2-4 buntings and a few Horned Larks but this day (8th), just as we arrived, a flock of about 15 Snow Buntings dropped down to the bait pile. I said, what the heck, let’s try for them and we set out 3 traps. Lo and behold 6 of the birds entered the traps in no time. Consequently Liam got a chance to band his first buntings – always a treat!
Now, in my experience, this was unusual behaviour on the part of the buntings. When the birds first arrive in an area they tend to be pretty “skittish” dropping down and then taking off, swirling around before dropping down again – very reminiscent of shorebirds. They often don’t even approach the traps let alone enter them. Once the birds have become used to the area they are much less nervous and will explore the bait. And banding will begin…..
After Liam and his folks left I stayed and watched a flock of about 70 birds come down to the traps and I was able to band another 26 before I, too, had to leave. It’s always a wonder to me, when I hold one in my hand, to contemplate the journey this bird had made to get here, either from the Canadian Arctic (maybe high Arctic) or even Greenland (one of our banded birds was recovered in Greenland!).
This morning (9th) I went out early with high hopes to set the traps and replenish the cut corn. Birds were few and far between all morning – only one flock, numbering about 15, dropped in; otherwise it was small groups of Horned Larks coming and going. Still Faye and I managed to band another 9 buntings (bringing our total to 41) and 3 Horned Larks. But, and here’s where the patience thing really comes into play, in the distance, maybe a kilometer away, I spied a “travelling flock” of Snow Buntings numbering at least 500 individuals. I refer to them as “travellers” because my sense is that these big groups are on the move and haven’t reached the area where they will settle and break out into smaller groups for more intensive foraging that they will carry out over time. What caught my eye from a distance was their shorebird-like behaviour: constant flying up and then resettling, like wind-blown snowflakes. Their biggest concern is avian predators – harriers, merlins, kestrels, accipiters, even the larger buteos (red-tails and rough-legs). It takes them awhile to check out a potential feeding area to locate these sources of destruction so they can keep an eye on them. I was hoping that the flock would move in the direction of the traps (which they didn’t) but was kind of glad they didn’t because they will try your patience to the limit. We have sat and watched large swirling flocks come to the traps only to spring into the air, do a couple of turns, and then drop in again….only to repeat the process over and over. We never caught any on them. It’s the smaller flocks that mean business. They seem to know the food is there (from earlier reconnoitering?) and fly right to the bait and into the traps.
I’m not sure how long these conditions will last…..but it’s a case of make hay while the sun shines (another of my grandmother’s adages) and we’ll keep at it until it doesn’t make sense to continue.
Faye came by to help this morning. She brings her grade 1-2 class out to the banding lab during the migration seasons with regularity, year after year. This year’s crop, inspired by the experience, and under the tutelage of a great classroom volunteer, Judy Hopkins, decided to make a unique contribution to the banding lab:
And on another note: