As I passed an open field of grain stubble a few days ago, a swirling flock of small birds caught my eye. As the flock shifted from side to side, the birds flashed white and then almost disappeared into the background. No doubt about the identity of these new arrivals – the snow buntings have returned in anticipation of the coming winter.
As befits a species that is so widespread and so widely recognized, this bird is known by several names: often called a snowbird, or a snowflake. It also has names in many languages, for snow buntings are among the few species that are circumpolar, nesting on the tundra of arctic lands around the northern hemisphere. A few also nest on pockets of higher elevation as far south as Scotland and Cape Breton.
Snow buntings are the most northerly nesting songbird in the world. They are incredibly tough, arriving on their nesting grounds in April when temperatures often drop to minus 30 degrees. They look for rocky areas where they can find some shelter in crevices to locate their nests, where the females huddle to provide warmth to their eggs and young. The males bring a mix of insects and berries to allow their mates to stay close to their nests.
You might think that the warmer weather and earlier springs associated with climate change in the arctic would be a welcome development for snow buntings. However, recent studies have shown that the shifting climate in the last 40 years encourages this species to begin nesting earlier. Because of this change in timing, young in the nest may be too early for the very brief arctic summer when insects are abundant. So far, snow bunting populations are holding up well, but there are concerns that changes to the delicate balance of the arctic climate will cause future problems.
Snow bunting populations
are holding up well,
but there are concerns that
changes to the delicate balance
of the arctic climate will
cause future problems.
Well before winter officially starts in southern Ontario, the snowbirds have come together into large flocks and arrived for the season. They much prefer the open habitats of large fields, where they feed on weed seeds. A flock of snow buntings has a distinctive feeding pattern, with birds at the rear of the flock lifting up to fly to the front edge, creating a rolling pattern.
Winter snow buntings are white on the underparts and stripy on the back, creating a flashing pattern as they twist and turn in flight. In early winter, they keep their distance from observers, but in late winter you can sometimes find them foraging for seeds in melting snowbanks along quiet roads. Close up, you can see the patches and streaks of a rich caramel colour that sets off their pale plumage.
Snow buntings are always a favourite on the annual Christmas bird counts, offering the chance of adding big numbers to the tally. Flocks of a few hundred are fairly common, and on one memorable occasion we estimated a flock of over 2000 birds on the farmlands of Severn. What a winter treat!
Written by Ron Reid, Carden Coordinator.