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Snow Bunting

Plectrophenax nivalis

You know you better finish up all your outdoor chores around the house when you see the first flock of Snow Buntings in fall because winter is not far behind.

Rising from winter roadsides in a swirl of white and black, Snow Bunting flocks undulate over the barren landscape, flashing black and white, sometimes appearing to disappear. They descend on snowy fields where they scurry about feeding on weed seeds atop the snow, occasionally reaching up or hopping  to snatch a seed. In big foraging flocks, sometimes the rear guard flies up and lands just ahead of the rest. When snows are deep, they often feed along snow-free road shoulders and railroad tracks where foraging is easy and spilled grain from trains and trucks, and windblown seeds collect.

Description

Black-and-white winter visitor that forages in large flocks in open areas. Breeds in the High Arctic.

Length

6.75 inches

Other Names

Plectrophenax nivalis (Scientific), bruant des neiges (French Canadian), Snösparv (Swedish), Sneeuwgors (Dutch), Schneeammer (German), Snøspurv (Norwegian), Snjótittlingur (Icelandic), Pulmunen (Finnish), Qaulluqtaaq  (Inupiaq Eskimo), Kó-ka-noch (Yupik Eskimo)

Hot Spots

Winter—Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota, Aitkin County, Minnesota.

Summer—Churchill, Manitoba (until early June); Gambell, Barrow, Nome and Homer Spit (all in Alaska).

 

Description & ID Tips

The white body and black-marked wings is what first catches our eye of this winter visitor. Most often in flocks along roadways which scatter at our oncoming car revealing bold black and white markings. Yellow bill in winter, black on breeding grounds.

Song and Calls

We usually only hear their call tiriririt followed by clear pyu. In its Arctic breeding grounds the males often sing from the highest thing around, which is usually a boulder. Like other species in open country with few perches, they also have an aerial display and song. They rise to about 30 feet then start singing as they return to terra firma on stiff fluttering wings.

Habitat

Breeding—Bare rocky areas: scree, sea cliffs, tundra.

Winter—Anywhere snow cover is minimal and seeds can be found: roadsides, shoulders, railroad tracks and right-of-ways, farm fields, weedy meadows.

Range

Breeding—Nests farther north than any other passerine, mostly north of 68 degrees latitude. Circumpolar, ranging from Alaska east through the Canadian Arctic, Aleutians, Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, Scotland, northern Scandinavia, Siberia and Kamchatka.

Migration—Some populations migrate southeast while others move southwest, and the two groups may even cross paths. Birds from western Greenland winter in North America while those from the other side of the island head southeast to the Russian steppe or the British Isles.

Winter—Southern Canada to northern tier of states. Rarely seen south to Texas,  Arkansas, South Carolina. Males winter farther north than females.

Nest

Ground-nester that makes a moss, lichen and dry grass cup lined with fine grasses, hair, fur and feathers. Placement is usually in rock crevices (including holes in a wall or foundation, nook under a boulder or even the eave of a building). They occasionally re-use old nests. Sometimes communal with many pairs nesting in the same area. Four to six eggs.

Food

Seeds of grasses and weeds. Does not eat sunflower seeds at feeders.

Snow Roosting

Snow roosting is a well documented survival strategy for Ruffed Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse. At dusk the grouse burrow into deep snow and sleep about a foot below the surface where it may be up to 40 degrees warmer than the air temp.

I witnessed this flock of Snow Buntings hunker down in an open field in northern Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog one winter day. Upon closer inspection, several had  nestled deep in the snow so only half their body was exposed. They were not foraging and remained in this spot for awhile. This behavior is likely a method for retaining body heat and reducing exposure to cold winds. Though normally fine in the open, they are known to hide behind drifts and burrow into snow during extreme cold.

White or Black?

Most birds acquire breeding plumage through a spring molt, but not the Snow Bunting. Females and winter males show a fair amount of buff and brown plumage, but the male’s bold black and white plumage is only hidden. As you can see in the photo of the wind-blown bird below, the Snow Bunting’s “white” feathers are mostly black (50-70 percent). The black on it’s back only reveals itself as his feather tips wear off in late winter and spring. Adults actively attempt to abrade the buff and tan tips off their feathers by rubbing their head, breast, flanks, back and scapulars on the snow, and this is how they attain their beautiful snow-white-and-jet-black summer plumage.

Winged Blizzards

Winter flocks in the far northern U.S. are usually “pure bunting,” but a bit farther south they often host several guest Horned Larks or Lapland Longspurs. In the north-central U.S. this ratio may be reversed with Snow Buntings being in the minority.

T. S. Roberts, the pioneering Minnesota bird expert and author of The Birds of Minnesota, recorded some massive flocks of Snow Buntings. Squaw Lake in Itasca County hosted a group of 2,500 to 3,000 in late October 1925, which he labeled “a small snowstorm.” Some amazing spring migration counts north of the border dwarf these flocks. Over 18,000 were seen between Elm Creek and Oakville, Manitoba on April 30, 1996, and what can only be described as a winged blizzard occurred on April 19, 1993 when a staggering 50,000 were seen between Brunkild and Lowe Farm, Manitoba.

Falcons seem to create a mob mentality in these seemingly docile “snowflakes.” And I guess it makes sense, as Merlins, Prairie Falcons and even Gyrfalcons will gladly pluck a Snow Bunting snack from a winter flock. Five hundred Snow Buntings mobbed a Merlin near Seven Sisters Falls, Manitoba and another observer witnessed an estimated ONE THOUSAND pursue two Prairie Falcons near Stead, Manitoba on November 6, 1988. That would be quite a sight!

Nature Notes

Vagrants have wandered as far afield as the Canary Islands, Morocco, Bulgaria, Turkey, Bermuda, Florida, Texas and Hawaii. Buntings banded in Michigan have showed up in Yakutat, Alaska.

Most amazing is the eyewitness account of renowned Norwegian Arctic explorer Fridjof Nansen who reported Snow Buntings four times between 84 and 85 degrees North latitude in May and June of 1895. This is 200-plus miles north of the nearest known terra firma (Franz Josef Land) and the farthest north any songbird has ever been seen.

[Text excerpted from Winter Finches & Friends of North America by Sparky Stensaas (Stone Ridge Press; 2015)]

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