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  • Merri-Lee M.

Winter (Sort of...) 2023

Updated: Apr 22, 2023



In early February, after a mild, wet, dreary January, there were a few "real" Winter days when the Snowbirds decided to stop by. Since April has offered up some snowy days as well, I thought it would be appropriate to showcase some of the special Winter guests that have been around this year. (I also didn't get around to doing this earlier!)


It's always exciting to see the first little visitors from the North; it seems that one minute, fields are bare and lifeless, and the next they are alive with the organized chaos of a flock of Snow Buntings!


They are like little torpedoes in the skies...


Snow Buntings are awe-inspiring when they arrive "en masse"; individuals are equally impressive. They don't sit still for very long (and they seem to be out in the worst possible weather conditions), but when a single Snow Bunting obligingly stops for a few seconds, it is always a thrill to be able to capture some of the details in a photo or two!







One day I counted about 70 Snow Buntings and 50 Horned Larks, feeding together. Synchronized in flight, the 2 flocks mingled in the air, then all landed far out in the field before coming closer for dinner.


Sometimes the Snow Buntings would fly in to the wires and sit,


(Love the fluffy leg warmers and "long spurs"!)




while their Horned Lark friends always rested on the ground.




The first of the next two photos is a "Prairie" Horned Lark -- one of our resident birds, returning to the area after spending the Winter months in the near South. (Some stick around here for the whole Winter too.)*


The bird on the right is likely a "Northern" Horned Lark, larger than its cousins, with much more dark yellow on the head. This Lark breeds in the North, and visits during the Winter months.


Male Prairie Horned Lark, complete with "horns"!



Although they can be difficult to distinguish from one another in a large flock at a distance, the Larks and Buntings are quite different when viewed together at close range.



I was admiring these Snow Buntings, as they posed at either end of a Spruce bough, when 2 Horned Larks hopped in from behind! Not quite in focus, but I thought the symmetry was kind of cool.


Both species had a bit of a "spring in their step"...


(This may be another example of the Northern subspecies of Horned Lark, with its yellow eyebrow, throat, and neck.)


Later in the season (during a mid-March snowstorm), several of the Snow Buntings that arrived were sporting their "almost-alternate" (breeding) plumages. Having lost most of the rust colouring, and some of the orange on their bills, they were getting ready to be pure white and black for the next season! I find it fascinating that Snow Buntings don't molt at this time of year; rather than shedding important flying/warming feathers, they remove the unwanted colour by rubbing it off on hard snow and ice.


He seems to be admiring the soft, insulating feathers on the tops of his legs.


"See my white head? I've had to do a lot of rubbing to get this look, but the ladies are going to love it!"



As of mid-April, most of the Snow Buntings have headed out along the St. Lawrence River, and North to their breeding grounds. Two of the Horned Lark subspecies (Hoyt's, which we rarely see, and Northern) have left for their nesting sites in the North as well, but we are privileged to host the Prairie subspecies for the Spring/Summer seasons. Little pairs can be seen along roadsides and in fields preparing for family-raising! (Female on left, male with white or cream line over the eyes, and yellow chin, on right.)


There were a few Lapland Longspurs mixed in with the flocks of Snow Buntings, but they only appeared briefly, and at a distance. I saw many more Horned Larks than usual this year, and fewer Snow Buntings.


 

Other Birds that were seen in the area over the course of the Winter season, mostly at FWR Dickson Conservation Area, included:


Northern Cardinal


Dark-eyed Junco


American Tree Sparrow



And one of my all-time favourites, the Tufted Titmouse...


Of course, wherever there are Birds feeding on seeds, there are also Guardians of the Seeds. They take their roles very seriously.


And now that we have had a few balmy days, with temperatures in the upper 20s,

and some much colder days, with a mid-April blanket of snow

(this photo was actually taken in March, but the look on his face says it all),


perhaps we are due for some normal Spring weather...

and some WARBLERS!


-Merri-Lee

 

*Information about subspecies of Horned Larks was taken from Ron Pittaway's article entitled "Subspecies of the Horned Lark".

 

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