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  • Merri-Lee M.

A Winter Party -- All are Welcome!

Updated: Mar 11

"Winter is not a season, it's a celebration."

- Anamika Mishra


What better way to celebrate the long, cold days of Winter than by hosting a lively, lovely Snowbird Party?? All it takes is a little (okay a lot of) cracked corn on an open field, some icy winds, a good snowstorm or two, and the celebration begins in earnest!


The first guests to arrive, in all their fluttery, synchronized chaos, are usually the Snow Buntings. They arrive en masse, swooping and turning over the fields, landing and flying in formation.


They don't mind a storm, it seems, and are quite willing to hunt for food, or rest in the blowing snow, on days when the rest of us would rather stay inside! Survival...


If the sun appears briefly on a stormy day, icy little faces feed hungrily before the snow covers their corn again.


They do love their cracked corn!


On bright, clear days, the Snow Buntings often arrive later in the afternoon, and perch in a row on hydro wires. The whole process of finding a spot takes mere seconds from the time the birds appear above their perch.


Perfect landings!



They seem to float in the air for a split second before wrapping those long toes around the wire.



And once the landings are completed successfully, wings are relaxed, and it is time to check in with each other about the events of the day.


Such beautiful patterns on these little gems!



Sometimes, trees are the perches of choice. A small Tamarack can accommodate 20+ Snow Buntings comfortably.





A tiny Lilac tree is another favourite staging area for a handful of tired guests.


On a rainy afternoon, this Snow Bunting is taking refuge in some low brush. Such soft, fluffy breasts -- insulation, I suppose, against the elements.


An old Bluebird house is just the spot to rest near the end of another snowstorm.


It was really storming when I took this photo ... but you can see the bird on the left at the front, rubbing ice off her face on the rough wood.


In flight, when viewed from the top, we can see the differences between male and female Snow Buntings. Third from the top is a female, with the brown-gray wings and shoulders. Adult males are so clearly black and white. Some juveniles in here too, I think...


A couple of Lapland Longspurs, smaller and browner, join the mix on a few occasions, and they are always welcome party guests! In spite of their size, the Longspurs are feisty and assertive, often moving a Snow Bunting along the wire to make room for their little bird butts.


Sometimes they will even pose in just the right light against a lovely Winter background. (On a wire, and not very natural, but that is where they were sitting!)

Bunting, Longspur, Bunting...


I'm guessing this is a young female Longspur, but not sure...


Two cousins oblige by perching side by side so that we can compare size -- and "fluffiness". They did both inherit the family feet!



Never on the wires, Horned Larks feed and mingle with the other Snowbirds in the fields. They fly with the Buntings and Longspurs in formation, and land to feed and rest together.


I believe that the Horned Lark pictured below is one of the Northern subspecies*, with the dark yellow "unibrow", cheeks and chin. These birds come down from the North for a short time, then head back to their Arctic breeding grounds, making way for our Prairie Horned Larks to return to breed in our area. I think some of the locals stayed here this year too, though, as there was often a mixture in the flocks.


Great camouflage, guys!


In February, our resident Larks return, and this year there were large flocks seen in late February and early March. I counted 80+ in one flock here.

Prairie Males usually have a pale yellow/white stripe above the eye, and dark black facial markings. Females lack the intensity of colour, but do have a soft wash of yellow on the throat, and faint gray-black markings on the chest and face.


Love the furry little leggings these Snowbirds have to keep them warm!


We didn't have many Owls in this area in 2022, but there was one sighting of the rare "Horned Lark Owl"!


These boys are just so darn cute...."Where's the party?"


The Snowbird Party was short and intense this year, but busy and well-attended! With the exception of the resident Horned Larks, most of the birds have likely headed North for their breeding season. Of course, we may not have seen the last of them either; other years, some have returned if a spell of Winter weather occurs later in the season (as it did in April a few years ago). There is still leftover corn on the fields, just in case...


Plans are already in the works for next year's big bash. Here we have Madame Chairperson making a few announcements:


Looking forward to your return, Beautiful Birds!


 

I'm including one last photo, particularly poignant in these sad times, of some storm-weary Snow Buntings on a spent Winter Sunflower. As the national flower of Ukraine, the Sunflower has been adopted by the world as a symbol of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in (and escaping from) their war-ravaged country.


May there one day soon

be glimmers of hope and light and peace

among the ruined Sunflowers

of the Ukrainian nation.



-Merri-Lee





 

*This is a link to an article about subspecies of Horned Larks, which I have found fascinating and helpful in identifying the 3 subspecies that we might see in our area:

https://www.google.com/search?q=Jean+Iron+subspecies+of+horned+lark&oq=jean+iron+&aqs=chrome.2.0i512j69i57j69i59j0i512l3j0i22i30l4.5841j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

 

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