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  • Merri-Lee M.

"As Winter Wanes..."

Updated: Mar 17



Since mid-February, we have been inundated with Snow Buntings! On many days over the past weeks, there have been at least 150 swooping and feeding together; at times, the number climbed to over 300.


When late afternoon skies were clear, and birds were coming in from over the fields to land on the wires, the sky-dance was breathtaking. A veritable "Bunting Ballet"...



Snow Buntings are accurate indicators of wind direction! When they are facing South, as they are here, the wind is coming from the South.


When they fly straight toward our house, and sit facing us, there is a West wind.



Here we see a young male Snow Bunting (top) flying in, along with an adult male (below, with his glossy black feathers), and they are being "photobombed" by another male coming in from behind! How are they able to crowd together like this in the air without having accidents?


Another smooth landing...


The female Snow Bunting's wings are quite different from the wings of the males, and we can easily see the differences when they are flying with their backs visible. (See last blog post for better photos taken during banding.) We can see this female's gray shoulder patch, and the white that is visible in flight.


When there was a small flock of Snow Buntings, it was possible for each bird to leisurely fill its bill and belly with corn kernels...


When there were hundreds of birds trying to feed at once, it became necessary to take turns. Some of the Snow Buntings chose to wait in a nearby Tamarack tree until they felt that they could feed while maintaining appropriate physical distancing...


It seems that in every crowd, there are rule-followers, patiently waiting to engage in safe behaviour, knowing that they should space themselves at least a bird-length apart;



and then there are the ones who don't think the rules apply to them. No masks, no distancing, just crowd into the buffet and eat, eat, eat!


One afternoon in late February, I was thrilled to see our first Lapland Longspur of the season (top left), a little female.


Smaller, and browner overall than Snow Buntings, with very different markings, Lapland Longspurs have distinctive "C-marks" on the sides of their faces.



Lady Longspur is the calm one in the midst of Snow Bunting chaos!


Lapland Longspurs are often the first of the flock to venture in for food; this little female perched on a nearby bird house before dropping down for her share of corn, ahead of the Snow Buntings that were still on the wire.


On a few occasions, there were 2 male Lapland Longspurs in the Snow Bunting flocks.






And another female...


In mid/late February, Horned Larks joined the other Snow Birds. They never perch on the wires; rather, they rest on the ground, and spend their time in the fields and along the roadsides. We often see small groups of Horned Larks at this time of year, flying from the gravel when a car approaches. They appear to be nondescript flashes of brown when seen from a distance, but when viewed closely, are quite attractive with their masked faces and yellow throats.


Handsome boys, to be sure...


A female and male Horned Lark, likely paired for the season by now, fed together.


I am wondering if this is a Hoyt's Horned Lark, with the yellow strip below the bill.*

The Prairie Horned Lark, which is more commonly seen here in late Winter, has a solid yellow throat extending all the way to the black facial markings. There is interbreeding between the subspecies, though, and there are always variations, and I am not experienced enough to identify these guys!


This male Horned Lark has only a faint hint of yellow wash on the throat, so ... not sure about him either. His "horns" are visible, making him look very scary indeed.


2 Snow Buntings flew in with some Horned Larks on a late afternoon in early March. Hopefully they will head out soon and join the rest of their friends on the long journey North.


One of the Snow Buntings seemed to be a bit under the weather. However, it has since started feeding well, and looks somewhat more "perky", so perhaps it will rally and fly with the next crew of Snow Buntings that pass through.


Although the large flocks of Snow Buntings have moved on (and are making their way to Tundra breeding grounds), we will likely continue to see small groups stopping to feed from time to time until Spring truly arrives. After a few days of no/few Snow Buntings, I returned from a walk last week to a welcome sight on the wires along the lane:


This flock of Snow Buntings appeared late in the day for a quick meal and "wire-sit".



Along with the Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, and Lapland Longspurs, Common Redpolls and Snowy Owls have been seen in good numbers this Winter. Redpolls are still coming to the feeders regularly, and joining the American Goldfinches, Juncos and American Tree Sparrows.


By the time March arrived, however, we were no longer seeing Snowy Owls on our road. Have they moved on? They do often begin their journeys North in March, but here's hoping that humans weren't responsible for this Owl's decision to move on.


On one of the last days of February, our resident female sat for hours in the field across the road. I haven't seen her for a week or so now, and hope she is finding happy hunting grounds elsewhere.



In the late afternoon, on the 1st day of March, a non-avian guest showed up for dinner. March "came in like a Lion" in 2021, and this hungry Jack Rabbit was covered in ice and snow. Jacks have been nightly visitors to the corn piles, but this was the first daylight visit, and I was able to get a few photos through the window glass in the soft, blue, evening light.


A handful of Horned Larks approached the Rabbit, cautiously at first, and Jack (or Jill??) didn't quite know whether or not the corn should be shared...


but it didn't take long before everyone seemed to agree that there was enough for all,


and they settled in to enjoy a meal together.


All this togetherness may have bothered the Jack Rabbit a bit more than it did the Horned Larks....


or maybe not...


or maybe?? He/she kept looking toward the house as if to say,

"Um, these guys are getting awfully close!"


The Winter of 2020-21 has certainly been a "Nature-rich" one. And now we welcome the onset of Spring, even as we bid our cold-weather friends farewell, and send them off with our hopes for successful nesting seasons somewhere in the far North. We anticipate the arrival of a whole new population of migrants, and enjoy the short overlap of Spring Red-winged Blackbirds and Winter Redpolls at the feeders. The circle continues, and every season brings new wonders!


In the words of Thomas Berry,

"...the universe, by definition, is a single gorgeous celebratory event."

Amen.


* "Subspecies of the Horned Lark", by Ron Pittaway, is an excellent article explaining the differences between the 3 subspecies of Horned Larks found at various times in Ontario.


**Feel free to sign in and leave a comment (I think this feature is finally working!), use the contact page on this website, or contact me directly at ml@xplornet.ca.




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