By David Hawke — It's November. It’s wet and cold outside. This, dear readers, is considered paradise to some of our wintertime visitors. They actually seem to revel in this stuff. But then again, they are birds.
The arrival of the first seasonal flock of snow buntings is a milestone event in the natural calendar. These small but robust birds have journeyed from their nesting grounds in the high Arctic to spend the winter months with us in the gloriously warm southlands. Okay, 'warm' is pushing it, but compared to the oft -45C up north, surely you can see what I'm trying to say.
Their arrival dates to our region are as varied as their numbers and locations, in that they may be common one year and all but absent the next; there may have been hundreds of them in a weedy field last year yet this year there's nary a one to be seen. Their overall population seems to be strong, but their rather nomadic lifestyle makes them hard to pin down as to a "when and where" prediction.
Considering that snow buntings nest farther north than any other land bird, it's quite a journey to come this far south. Perhaps our open, rolling farm fields are a close equal to the rolling Arctic tundra they call home. A few flocks will venture south of the international border, but the bulk of them seem content to overwinter in Simcoe County.
Observing snow buntings is both easy and difficult. Easy because they frequent sanded back roads and open fields, yet difficult as you may drive quite a distance, even in circles, and not find a flock. Therefore, when your travels do intersect with a group of these birds, consider it a lucky coincidence.
Flock size will vary from a half dozen to hundreds (sometimes thousands) of birds. It's been a while, but I have seen over 2,000 birds in one flock, looking for all the world like a ground level snow storm crossing a field. The rear most birds will fly up and ahead of the lead birds, land and begin foraging for weed seeds. The next birds that find themselves at the back of the flock then fly forward and so it continues, creating a visual effect of a rolling, swirling entity.
Their dapper plumage gives them a twinkling look as they fly, their white bodies a stark contrast to wing patches of blacks and browns. When flying between feeding sites, they have a slightly undulating flight pattern, again adding to the merry look of carefree birds.
Despite their liking of road sand, they remain somewhat timid of cars. Unlike pine grosbeaks and crossbills, which regularly get smacked by passing cars, the buntings seem to know that they have to get out of the way, that it's okay to leave now and come back later. And the ever-observant car driver gets to see a delightful scene as they rise up and flit over the nearby field.
Although they are seed eaters, it is very rare to have snow buntings come to a bird feeder. A few years ago (is 40 'a few'?) while attending a conference for outdoor educators, I saw a bird feeder set up a few feet outside the cafeteria window, totally windblown and the nearby landscape barren of any trees or shrubs. I thought, "Why would the staff put a feeder in such an unsheltered area?"
Ten minutes later I was scrambling to find my camera, as five snow buntings had arrived to pick at the seeds, hopping about in the snow less than five feet away. In all my years of birding this remains the very best view I've ever had of this species. Seems that the staff weren't so silly after all — it was me who had misjudged the purpose of this particular feeding station.
Their nickname of 'snowbirds' has been applied to both music and war machines. Canadian songwriter Gene MacLellan wrote of a heart-break situation and wished to fly away like the tiny snowbirds, the words later being sung by such notables as Anne Murray, Elvis Presley and Burl Ives. And, of course, the Tudor jets used by our Canadian Air Force give that twinkling appearance in the sky as they roll and dive like a flock of well-trained snow buntings.
When the buntings first arrive here from their migration from the high North, it's a seasonal signal for our local human residents to head even farther south until the snows melt in spring, hence their nickname of 'snowbirds'.
There are reports coming already that good-sized flocks of snow buntings are being observed from Barrie to Midland, from Carden to Elmvale, so they are here… now it's up to you to get outdoors and find them!
Dave’s Notebook: Good morning.... it looks like winter is finally going to push itself into autumn. Hope that you managed to get the garden put to bed and winter tires installed.
© 2021 David J. Hawke