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  • Merri-Lee M.

"Snow Birds" of February

The bitter days of late January and early February brought in large numbers of Winter visitors. At one time we estimated that there were 500 Snow Buntings circling, chatting among themselves, and eating large quantities of cracked corn.

Although the majority of Snow Buntings, Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs showed up in the afternoon, a small flock (mostly Snow Buntings) arrived at sunrise each day, expecting to find piles of fresh corn for their dining pleasure!

So pretty in the morning light....

At times, the hydro wires were completely filled with birds, and when they lifted off, the wires would bob up and down. Here is a lovely Male Snow Bunting landing beside a Female, with her brown patterning.

After sitting together for a few minutes, the birds began to eye the corn. Once a single bird dropped to the food, the rest were quick to follow.

A few Snow Buntings always chose to sit in the small Lilac trees instead of on the wires. Closer to the corn, maybe?

At other times, a flock would cover the silo roof or a large Birch tree.

A short mild spell meant that the Snow Birds all vanished for several days. With the return of cold temperatures and snow, flocks of 100 - 200 Snow Buntings returned to feed. Joining them were flocks of 20 - 30 Horned Larks, and a sprinkling of Lapland Longspurs.

There was a great deal of variation in the colouring of the Horned Larks. Some foreheads were yellow, some were white, and some were almost white with a light yellow wash. Throats were yellow or white. “Horns” on the Males were often raised, as the birds squabbled over corn.

It is always a treat to see a Lapland Longspur or two in a flock of Snow Buntings. The smaller, “browner” Longspurs are easily distinguishable from the Snow Buntings when they are feeding together, or sitting side by side on the hydro wires.

These Snow Buntings have each returned to the wire with a

“beakful” of corn, and the Longspur would like to share.....

All of the birds were constantly aware of predators that lurked in the trees. This Sharp-shinned Hawk, along with a Merlin, a Cooper’s Hawk, a Peregrine Falcon, and a Red-tailed Hawk regularly took turns harassing the smaller birds.

We banded 63 birds on February 8. Most were Snow Buntings. This is a well-marked Male:

In an article on the Cornell Lab website, Snow Buntings are referred to as “Toasted Marshmallow Birds”. In this detail of the back and wing, we can see the colouring that inspired the nickname!

Horned Larks have varying degrees of “pinkish wash” on their sides and backs.

We did not band this Horned Lark because of its bill deformity: the lower part of the bill is elongated.

And now the snow has almost disappeared, and the "Snow Birds” have headed north to find more suitable weather. If we find ourselves in the throes of winter once again, we may be treated to another visit from our Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, and Lapland Longspurs. At this time of year, it is possible that some of them will be dressed in their “Alternate” or “Breeding” plumages -- a real treat for us to see, if only for a few short days.

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