January 20th – (Abbreviated) Snow Bunting Report

Snow Flakes! -R. Mueller

We had a month of very cold temperatures with snow from about mid-December to mid-January. And we banded a lot of Snow Buntings (as well as good numbers of Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs). And then it got mild with some rain. The snow disappeared and, along with it, the Snow Buntings. The presence of snow cover seems to be the common denominator determining whether we will see/catch Snow Buntings or not. Temperatures can fluctuate and we’ll catch them. But snow cover can’t vary – no snow = no buntings. It’s interesting how this theme crops up time and time again (eg, see the delightful description below from Brainard Palmer-Ball in Kentucky. It was actually his email to Oliver Love and I that inspired this posting. I just didn’t associate Kentucky with Snow Buntings (hmmm…..although I had recently gone looking for them in the Bahamas….)

Just a small part of a (distant) flock of about 300 mostly female Snow Buntings further along Duxbury Road. One male sticks out on the far left.

In the middle of this past week the temperature dropped and we got a couple of centimeters of snow and…the Snow Buntings returned. On the 16th we banded 89 (along with single Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs) and on the 18th we got another 36 (giving us a January total of 522). But now we’ve just lost the snow cover and there isn’t a Snow Bunting to be seen.

All-male feeding frenzy. (It was -20 that day.) -L. Perras

January 20, 2018
Hey, “snow bunting” is a sensitive topic around here!! Since December I have sighted a few small flocks near the school- very inconsistently- one day they are around, then they vanish for a couple weeks, then back to tease us again. Finally, about a week ago, a small group of about 40 found the corn at school, then we had rain and lost most of our snow cover and they disappeared and haven’t come back. Our weather has been extremely cold with very warm and rainy temperature breaks. We have very little snow this year, with lots of bare ground showing in the fields. Luckily a flock of CORE and PIGR have found our classroom feeder so that has been keeping the kids and I occupied for now! The Blue Jays and very friendly Hairy Woodpecker have been welcomed distractions as well. Perhaps we will see a rush of SNBU in the spring which is typically when we catch most of our birds anyway.

Joanne Goddard
Kerns Public School
New Liskeard, ON

[If you can’t catch Snow Buntings, here’s some others that are just about as good:]

Blue Jay -J. Goddard

Female Common Redpoll. -J. Goddard

Male Common Redpoll -J. Goddard

Hairy Woodpecker -J. Goddard

If you can’t get Snow Buntings then Pine Grosbeaks (male left; female right) are a great alternative. -J. Goddard

January 19, 2018
Six inches of snow last night and 11 snow buntings sitting in the tree they always sit in, waiting to be fed, for the first time this morning.
[In response to my email reply: “How neat is that!?”]
Ranks right up there with the middle of May when the tree swallows come back to the tree swallow nest box that has been occupied for the last 15 years. Sat empty for years, but once taken, there has been birds in it every year since (although the box itself has been upgraded several times!), or the third week of May, when my male bobolink shows up one morning sitting in “his” bush down on the marsh singing his heart out…. and, with any luck at all, the pair of barn swallows that successfully fledged 4 out of my barn last year after a 25 year absence, come back this year. And, if they were a first year pair, which they might be looking for new territory, maybe as a more mature pair have two broods this year. I had a neighbor that had a pair that raised two broods a year for years… Unfortunately one year one of the pair was hit by a car and died. The other bird left and the nest hasn’t been used for the last 5 years.

What was neat about the buntings was there was only four for a couple hours. Then one lifted, and flew a big circle out over the river, chirping, intercepted another small flock of 7 and circled them back to land in “their” tree.. I wonder if they were coming anyway, but it sure looked like she went out to lead them in….

And I heard my barred owl last night..
Sorry. I ramble.
Barb McLaughlin
283 McKay Siding Rd, McKay Siding NS

Brilliant male Snow Bunting. -C. Millward

Male Snow Buntings at a seed pile. -L. Perras

January 19th, 2018
Oliver & Rick,
Attached and pasted below is an account for SNBU in KY. It is interesting … just about every year we get a report of a single bunting or small flock during what must be a fall migratory period; those are the early dates listed below; however, we normally seen none unless there is a pretty good snow to our north. First we will get an influx of more Horned Larks including northern race; then we often get some larger flocks of Lapland Longspurs, maybe with a bunting or two in the mix, but then in extraordinary cases, we will get pure or nearly pure flocks of Snow Buntings. ALWAYS with snow on the ground; never if not, unless maybe it’s ice (frz rain). And just like clockwork, as soon as the snow disappears, so do the flocks of Snow Buntings. I have always figured they just follow the snow line north and south.
I absolutely love them, of course; they are always treasured to see. I also love their calls; the mellow rattle and twisting metallic notes.
A great bird to work with!
This week we’ve finally gotten snow and there are a tiny number some distance north of us. I’ve had Horned Larks on my farm where I had the 800 Snow Buntings in 1982 the past few days. A couple of Laps showed up with them yesterday and they were back this morning; then late morning, a flock of 65-70 Laps showed up suddenly and stayed the rest of the day with the 50 or so larks. One more snow and maybe we’d have gotten Snow Buntings, but the snow will melt next few days …
Thanks for being an audience for my ramblings ….
Brainard Palmer-Ball
Kentucky, USA

I forgot to mention one thing … sex ratios … in the big flocks, we do see males, but they are usually well outnumbered by females. I haven’t ever looked up HY male plumage, but the ones I know are males are the ones with all the big block of white in the wing, and they are typically well outnumbered by the female-types. I don’t think I’ve ever seen something I thought was a male in the early flight, but I’ve only seen 4 or 5 of them in Oct or Nov over the years.


SNOW BUNTING Plectrophenax nivalis
Extremely rare to rare tran¬sient and winter visitant. Most older records originated at the Falls of the Ohio and more recently in open farmland near Louisville, but there are ¬now a number of widely scattered records from across the state, including at least two records from the Cum¬ber¬land Plateau (see Boyd and Elliott cos. below). This species is occasionally seen along open shores of the larger lakes and rivers, but more frequently in grain stubble fields with Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs. Usually encountered in small numbers of up to a dozen or so birds, but larger flocks of a hundred or more individuals have been observed on a few occasions.
County records:
Adair (R. Denton, 1996 notes; KW 85:53, 2009);
Boone (KW 70:37, 1994; KW 75:27, 1999; B. Palmer-Ball, 2000 notes; KW 80:48, 2004; KW 83:52, 2007; KW 84:71, 2008; KW 85:53, 2009; KW 90:54, 2014);
Bourbon (KW 90:54, 2014);
Boyd Co. (KW 35:10, 1959);
Bracken (KW 83:52, 2007);
Calloway (KW 86:47, 2010);
Campbell (Mengel:515; KW 75:27, 1999; KW 80:48, 2004);
Carroll (KW 67:9, 1991);
Christian (KW 59:9, 1983);
Daviess (KW 77:17, 2001);
Elliott Co. (Greene, KW 54:14, 1978; KW 85:53, 2009);
Fayette (KW 58:31, 1982; KW 85:53, 2009; KW 87:64, 2011; KW 90:54, 2014);
Franklin (A. Gilchrist, pers. comm.; fide A. Stamm notes; KW 85:53, 2009; KW 86:47, 2010);
Jefferson (numerous reports);
Gallatin (KW 83:52, 2007; KW 90:54, 2014);
Grant (Davis, KW 40:33, 1964);
Harrison (KW 90:54, 2014);
Henderson (KW 90:54, 2014);
Lewis (KW 86:47, 2010; KW 87:64, 2011);
Lincoln (KW 85:53, 2009);
Lyon (KW 85:53, 2009);
Marion (Webster, KW 37:18, 1961);
Marshall (Mengel:515 [location given as Kentucky Lake therein]; B. Palmer-Ball, 1995 notes; KW 77:17, 2001 [location given as Land Between the Lakes CBC therein]; KW 85:53, 2009);
Meade (KW 77:17, 2001);
Muhlenberg (KW 66:18/41, 1990);
Ohio (KW 79:49, 2003);
Oldham (numerous reports just outside of Louisville; KW 90:54, 2014);
Pulaski (KW 85:53, 2009);
Rowan (KW 78:13, 2002/L. Kornman, photograph; KW 83:52, 2007; KW 85:53, 2009; KW 89:53, 2013);
Russell (KW 85:53, 2009);
Shelby (KW 54:31, 1978; KW 60:11, 1984; KW 63:12, 1987; KW 65:12, 1989; KW 77:30, 2001; KW 87:64, 2011);
Spencer (KW 85:53, 2009);
Union (KW 91:13, 2015);
Warren (KW 75:27, 1999; D. Roemer, 2000 videotape/notes; KW 79:49, 2003)
Wayne (KW 85:53, 2009);
Woodford (KW 85:53, 2009).

Maximum counts: 750+ in one flock near Louisville, 10 Feb 1982 (B. Palmer-Ball, photo-graphs/notes¬¬¬ [number incorrectly published¬ as “400” in KW 58:31, 1982]); ca. 200 in Jefferson Co., 12 Dec 1977 (KW 54:31, 1978); 75-80 in ne. Jefferson Co., 1 Feb 2004 (KW 80:48, 2004); ca. 70 in Fayette Co, 5-6 Feb 2009 (KW 85:53, 2009); 60 in Boone Co., 19 Feb 2007 (KW 83:52, 2007); 51 in Jefferson Co., 28 Jan 2009 (KW 85:53, 2009).
Late spring date: 8 Mar 1978, Jefferson Co. (KW 54:47, 1978).
Early fall dates: 23 Oct 1977, Elliott Co. (Greene, KW 54:14, 1978); 24 Oct 2014, Union Co. (KW 91:13, 2015); 8 Nov 1975, Frankfort Fish Hatchery (A. Gilchrist, pers. comm.; fide A. Stamm, notes); 12 Nov 1944, Kentucky Lake area (Men¬gel:515); 12 Nov 2006, Falls of the Ohio (KW 83:20, 2007).
Unaccepted records: 4-9 Oct 1965, Ft. Knox (AFN 20:54, 1966; KW 52:64, 1976) [I cannot find any details of this observation and feel it best be listed here]; Mengel (p. 516) includes a few other vague historical references
Life History Pictures:

Female Snow Bunting sitting on a nest deep in a rock fissure just outside of Iqaluit.

Feed me!!!!!!!!

A juvenile Snow Bunting – smartly coiffed – in Svalbard. -C. Lassen

January 13 – Happy Returns

Snow Buntings feeding on millet. -B. Maciejko

Much of Canada has been experiencing a prolonged deep freeze, unusual in relation to the weather of the past decade or so. Here in southern Ontario the temperature plummeted in early December followed by bouts of snow and this lasted up until a couple of days ago. The Grand River froze over and my son and I were thinking about getting out on it with our skis – something we used to do in the “old days” pre global climate change. But suddenly the temperatures skyrocketed and, with the rain, ate up much of the snow.

Extracting buntings and larks is cold work in -20 weather. -IT

But during that month we had really good Snow Bunting conditions and we took advantage of them. By the time of the thaw we had banded 637 (as well as 136 Horned Larks and 28 Lapland Longspurs).

Jumbled ice pieces from the river opening up upstream, a product of the recent thaw and rain, jam up the river by the Cayuga dam.

Many of these ice slabs are 6″-8″ thick.

As soon as the snow disappeared, so did the buntings. However, yesterday the temperatures plunged again and we got a dusting of snow. We have been running two sites so we hurried out and put down bait. Within hours birds had returned although not in the large numbers we had been seeing. But if the weather stays cold and we get a little more snow then we should be back in business.

Around the time Snow Buntings were turning up at our bait sites in December, I got an email from Lise Balthazar who lives in Sheridan Rapids, Lanark County – not too far from Ottawa. Last February my wife and I had travelled up to her place to see if we could band some of the large flock of buntings she was attracting there. On one Sunday we banded 89. Lise wanted to tell me that two of the returning birds she had seen this year were sporting bands. I wonder how much of a role these birds may have played in guiding other flock members to this rich food source.

And within the first two weeks of banding in December we recovered 4 birds. Two were Snow Buntings; One had been banded in February of 2015 and the other in February of 2016. Interestingly (because we band many fewer of them) the other two were Horned Larks – banded in January and February, 2016.

Given all this Snow Bunting excitement, last week I put out a call to other members of the Canadian Snow Bunting Network to see what they had been experiencing. Here’s the results:


January 7, 2018
Not a single bird here in South East NB.
I’ve seen some around but none in the yard here. None taking feed.
Alain Clavette
Memramcook, NB

January 7, 2018
Nothing in Stewiacke Nova Scotia.
Barb McLaughlin

January 11, 2018
Rick and Oliver,
There is a flock of about 50 birds at the usual farm where I used to catch them. I also saw another flock of about 50 flying from a road I was driving on in that general area. I stopped catching them because I was getting too many blue jays and starlings in the traps. If I can find a better location are you still needing people to catch and band them? [Of course, Dorothy!!]

Depending on the cold weather I sometimes see them right here at my own house, and could trap them here if that is the case.
One was at our feeder last week, but only one.
Dorothy Diamond
Stanley area, NE of Fredericton, NB


January 7, 2018
Hi Rick
The SNBU in King City are not very cooperative. They are around. The strong winds have the fields partially blown bare. I have flocks of 25 to 150 but they will not stay at the bait very long if the traps are down. They circle around for five minutes and then leave – very frustrating. I have managed to catch 181, approximately 50% adults and 75% females, very different proportions from previous years.
Glenn Reed
King City, ON

January 7, 2018
Hi Rick – cold here too – Nipissing District just SE of North Bay.
I am still providing feed for SNBU, the flock was late to show up – a week into December, but this was certainly weather related – abundant natural food and warm temperatures to that point.
120 SNBU and 3 LALO are currently feeding. This is a high normal count for my feed station. Have not seen any banded birds – and I look!
Happy Banding,
Lori Anderson
North Bay, ON

January 12, 2017
I haven’t come across any around here although now that we are back in class, I haven’t had much time to do much else. Our semester has been extended until Monday. My idea was to throw some seed out on campus to see if I can get any to stick around. but there aren’t any good open areas nearby which means there are a lot of perches for shrikes, etc.
Darryl Edwards
Sudbury, ON

January 7, 2018
I hope you had a nice Holiday season. Over here, we have plenty of snow and frigid temperatures!
The Snow Buntings have been hanging around pretty much every day, but there is only about 40 to 60 of them, which is less than what we had last year.
They have been feeding mostly in the driveway, close to the house, so I’ve been able to examine them to see any leg bands. So far, I’ve only been able to spot 2 birds with a leg band. Mind you, they keep their legs covered most of the time and, of course, they don’t stay in place very long!

This morning, Sunday, more Buntings showed up and I have now about 100 of them.
Lise Balthazar
Sheridan Rapids
Lanark County, ON

Prairie Provinces
January 10, 2018
Hi Rick,
I’ve no idea what the banding situation is around here. My own observations, and the notices I’ve received from loyal observers on social media and seen on eBird are not all that promising. Some large flocks (200-300) were seen in the south Interlake region several weeks ago. Since then reports are of small drifts (a few individuals to a few dozen) but never in the same place twice. I followed up the large flock seen earlier and found them in adjoining sections of harvested and tilled grain fields. They were gleaning the bare ground with large numbers of Redpolls, but these fields will be pretty much snow covered and barren now.

Here at home (west of Camp Morton) I had none until two showed up on Christmas Eve. Four-six have been making brief appearances since, until today when the flock swelled to a whooping sixteen! They’ve found the bait and are taking it, so we’ll see what happens.
Bill Maciejko
Interlakes, Manitoba

[Bill is a great photographer and, even more important, a keen observer of the natural world around him. I always enjoy seeing his Facebook pages with their colourful photos and thoughtful commentary. He has kindly allowed me to pass on some of their Snow Bunting content…..]

Flock of male Snow Buntings. -B. Maciejko

Male Snow Buntings. -B. Maciejko

Snow Bunting flocks wintering in this area are overwhelmingly, often exclusively, comprised of adult (ASY=After Second Year, in bird-geek-speak) males. Twenty-three were present this morning, seventeen when this single burst was captured just before noon. The one and only immature (SY) male of the flock appears in every frame. If inclined, compare the wing colour/pattern to find him

Two older (ASY) males – the righthand 2 birds – and a young (SY) male. -B. Maciejko

Not staying long enough for a “roost,” at least Snow Buntings were perching in a roost tree today…a good indication they’re considering settling in for the season.

An unusual sight: Snow Buntings roosting in trees. -B. Maciejko

I’ve seen it hundreds of times, but only yesterday did it register with me that Snow Buntings utilize the depressions made by deer hooves as ready made snow shelters, the sides of the “divits” concentrating the sun’s warmth while trapping body heat.

Snow Buntings taking shelter in deer hoof prints. -B. Maciejko

January 13, 2017
Had just over 100 Snow Buntings briefly this morning, and many are hanging around the yard, roosting in the poplars 30-50 at a time for most of the day.
If this keeps up for a few days, I’ll get in touch with Emily and we might get the traps out. Who knows?
It’s now 1530h and sixty-three just landed at the bait. I’ll keep you posted.
All the best,
Bill Maciejko

Yukon, NWT, Nunavut

January 12, 2017
Hello Rick and Marie, Happy New Year. We have had very cold weather here in the Yukon and as expected very few buntings. One adult male was seen near Kluane Lake on December 28. and we have a small flock hanging around the community of Haines Junction utilizing the agricultural fields. The flock appears to like oats and they were seen for the local CBC. This flock of up to 13 has been in the area since early December.

I am really interested to see how 2018 spring banding goes here after the previous successful season. Do either of you know if Emily McKinnon is banding in Manitoba?
I am looking at applying for a master banding permit and would like to know if my banding information has been utilized? I am not sure if I could be considered a collaborator for the Snow Bunting network?

I have attached last years banding info for you both, at the end of the emails. [Julie would likely send you her results if you asked. Bottom line: she banded 1,173 SNBU’s and 2 Lapland Longspurs. Her heaviest bunting weighed in at 55.6 g with a ‘5’ fat score!!]
Julie Bauer

December 31st – Endings…..and Beginnings

A flurry of snow, Horned Larks and Snow Buntings. -KAP

Whew! It’s just sinking in that Ruthven Park’s 2017 banding season is officially done.


Our final tally: we banded 6,771 birds of 106 species.

Top Ten (for the Year):
Snow Bunting – 982
American Goldfinch – 861
Cedar Waxwing – 560
Myrtle Warbler – 353
White-throated Sparrow – 304
Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 274
Song Sparrow – 225
Dark-eyed Junco – 207
Golden-crowned Kinglet – 193
Common Yellowthroat – 146

We have been able to finish off the year with a strong Snow Bunting banding period in the second half of December (banded: 240 Snow Buntings, 128 Horned Larks and 27 Lapland Longspurs). The snow and very cold weather have brought the birds in fairly early and we’ve been able to take advantage of it. And it’s these cold, snowy conditions that are going to get the 2018 season off to a good start. An old farmer’s adage went: make hay while the sun shines. Snow Bunting banders, eschewing the discomfort of frozen digits, take advantage of the conditions we’ve been getting…..and so will we. You’re welcome to join it!


Aidan about to release a Snow Bunting. -KAP

A young Cowbird looking for a way to get into the corn. -MMG

Horned Larks have been common so far this Winter. -IT

Snow Bunting – denizen of cold, wide-open spaces. -IT

Tessa with her first Horned Lark. (The old guy beside her is not sleeping – note the pen is still in his hand – he’s scribing). -IT

Young male Snow Bunting. -IT

Adult male Snow Bunting. -IT

A somewhat confusing adult female Snow Bunting. -IT

Extracting buntings and larks is cold work in -20 weather. -IT

Callie with a nice male Horned Lark. -IT

Tessa feeds her thumb to a Lapland Longspur. -IT


December 27th – In Search of the Caribbean Snow Bunting.

The pages that inspired the quest – a “vagrant” Snow Bunting was recorded on Cat Island in the Bahamas.

I like going to sea. Maybe, in a previous life, I had been a mariner. But my wife Marg has a tendency toward sea sickness so, if we are going to go to sea then it has to be on a ship and in areas where sea sickness won’t be likely. Cruising in the Caribbean in December meets these requirements. The seas tend to be calm and the ships (huge ships!) are fitted with gear to keep them stable should heavier seas materialize.

Fort Lauderdale is a bustling cruise port. When we pulled out of the harbour we were just one of 5 ships leaving at the same time. Our ship, the Eurodamm, is exactly like the smaller, blue-hulled ship in the foreground – it holds well over 2,000 passengers.

But…..it’s also Snow Bunting banding season in southern Ontario. I hate missing out on Snow Buntings! But then, fortunately, I noticed in the Princeton guide, Birds of the West Indies, that Snow Buntings had been noted in the Bahamas (once….on Cat Island). What an opportunity to combine two of my favourite things! I looked around for grants to support my Snow Bunting research but they just weren’t forthcoming. Generally people thought it was simply an exercise of tilting at windmills. I’d have to support my own search.

There were 4 ships ahead of us when we pulled out of Fort Lauderdale (you can just see one in front of the blue-hulled vessel).

When you think of Caribbean cruises you think of endless tourquoise seas, exotic pristine beaches with palms waving in the Trade Winds. They have actually become just a huge business enterprise with brilliant packaging. Fort Lauderdale is one of the main cruise hubs for the Caribbean. The docks were busy, like bee hives. Five cruises set out within half an hour of each other! Two of the vessels (ours included) would hold just over 2,000 tourists (under capacity) and the other 3 had the capacity to carry over 5,000. [We talked to a woman on one of the other ships that was docked beside us on Grand Cayman Island and she said that her ship, if fully loaded, would carry over 11,000 people including guests and staff!!]

This vessel, the Allure of the Seas, was carrying over 11,000 people including tourists and crew. It was one of 3 of about the same size that we ran into regularly in various ports.

This must have an enormous impact on the islands that they touch at. At Grand Cayman there were 4 big cruise ships anchored offshore. Most of the tourists would be going ashore and any staff that had shore leave. So in this case I would suspect that well over 15,000 people got off their vessels. At each docking area a huge industry has sprung up to service and sell stuff to these folks. You are inundated with shops that sell everything from funky T-shirts to diamond rings and everything in-between. And because of the number of potential customers there are a large number of stores to cater to them – most selling the same stuff so the keen shopper can hunt out bargains.

Marg making an ID….it wasn’t a Snow Bunting.

It’s difficult to walk to the point where you run out of shops. So most birding is done in an “urban” environment. Of course, there’s always experiential tours you can sign up for. I tried a couple. Not only do they add significantly to the cost of the cruise but they tend to be highly regimented – there just wasn’t time to saunter along a trail to look for birds. You had a time limit and, in some cases, you were hustled along so you wouldn’t miss the next ruin. Yikes. So birding on land was tough slogging.

Young Magnificent Frigatebird.

Having spent a good number of weeks over the past few years doing seabird counts in the North Atlantic I was thinking that I might see some great seabirds while the ship was steaming between destinations. But…no. These are tropical waters (defined as having a surface temperature of 24 degrees or higher) and nutrient-poor. So there isn’t the food available in the ecosystem like there is in the North Atlantic. During 2 full days of steaming I didn’t see a single seabird. The only seabirds I did encounter were Magnificent Frigatebirds – but these were always over the conjunction of beach and ocean, never offshore. And, frankly, voyagers aren’t really encouraged to just watch the beauty of the sea. There are activities all day long you can get involved in if so inclined…..I wasn’t.

And I never found a Snow Bunting.

So that left me with mainly eating and drinking. I must say that the food was….spectacular! I’m paying for it now. Another New Year’s resolution that I’ll never keep.


Beautiful pink water lily in Jamaica.

Hunting for Caribbean Snow Buntings is hot work and one must be careful to stay hydrated. It is better to drink the beer than the river water I was told.

Greater Antillean Grackles were commonplace.

One of several species of Iguana we encountered among the islands.

An arboreal iguana. These must be a real threat to nesting birds.

Another iguana – at an archaeological site in Cozumel.

This Green Heron was nonplussed by the tourists wandering along “his” beach; walkers could pass within 5 meters without seeming to disturb it.

Yellow Warbler on Grand Cayman.

Ruddy Turnstones were the commonest birds we encountered on Grand Cayman Island.

Yellow-throated Warbler; saw one on a small Bahama island and another along the beach in Cozumel.

Tropical Kingbird – common in Cozumel.

One of the many alligators we saw in the Everglades (a side tour to eat up time until going to the airport).

Giant Soft Shell Turtle in the Everglades.


December 14th – And So It Begins!

Horned Lark (left), Lapland Longspur (centre), and Snow Bunting – 3 species that we often catch together.

For some people a steep drop in temperature down into the freezing range and snow marks the beginning of a long Winter which they will have to wait out and endure or escape with jaunts to the sunny south. But to Snow Bunting aficionados these conditions mark the beginning of a challenging and very enjoyable season as they bring Snow Buntings (and their travelling companions – Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs) into the area.

What excitement: birds around the traps! -K. Petrie

As soon as it got cold and snow was forecast, Nancy and I began to bait 2 sites: the one on Duxbury Road that we’ve used very successfully for the past couple of years and one on Stony Creek Road that we use with some success a few years ago. “Baiting” simply means putting down piles of cut corn in the hope that birds will find them. Birds began to show up at both sites yesterday and we headed out this morning (with Karen Petri and Marnie Gibson) to try and catch them in our ground traps so we could band them.

Karen and Marnie with the first catches of the season. They helped us get off to an early (and very good) start.

Usually when the buntings show up they frustratingly swirl around the trap area, land briefly, and then take off again to resume their flight. (In this regard they are very much like flocks of shorebirds.) First thing this morning we saw a couple of pretty large flocks but none in the traps. But then some Lapland Longspurs showed up and before you knew it we were in business. We’ve noticed this before on numerous occasions – longspurs seem to act as the catalyst: they are the first to find their way into the traps but are then quickly followed by the other species.

Male Lapland Longspur. -K. Petrie

After about 4 hours we packed it in and replenished the bait piles so that the birds would be able to get the nourishment they would need to get through the night and, in doing so, become regular customers as long as there was food there.

The “horns” on this male lark are very obvious. -K. Petrie

We ended up banding 37 birds:
17 Horned Larks
10 Lapland Longspurs
10 Snow Buntings

We also saw a variety of raptors: immature Bald Eagle, 3 Red-tailed Hawks, 2 Northern Harriers, 2 American Kestrels, and, just as we were getting ready to leave, a Snowy Owl.

An American Kestrel – a real party pooper. Birds checking out the traps disappear when this small avian predator shows up. -K. Petrie

Female Horned Lark. -K. Petrie

Female Lapland Longspur. -K. Petrie

The first Snow Buntings of the season descend on the traps. They may have come all the way from Greenland! -K. Petrie

A Horned Lark checking out his surroundings from a “lookout” on top of a dirt clod. -K. Petrie

Wing detail of an older female Snow Bunting. -K. Petrie

Just as we were getting set to leave this Snowy Owl showed up and landed about 300 metres away before flying off again. -K. Petrie

Marnie getting a crash course on buntings, larks and longspurs in the back of the Buntingmobile. -K. Petrie


November 26th – Hitchhickers

Myrtle Warbler 120 miles east of St. John’s.

Doing pelagic seabird counts can be extremely interesting…..or, at times, extremely tedious. One thing is a constant: you never know what you might see and where you might see it. Like the other day. Normally one would start looking for Sperm Whales in deep water, where the shelf drops off from a couple of hundred meters to thousands. They dive deep to find their favoured food – giant squid – which hang out in the extreme depths. But this big old bull was nonchalantly sleeping on the surface within 50 meters of the ship – and in only 200 meters of water. As we slipped by it at 10 knots its only reaction was to continue sleeping with occasional blows to mark its location.

Last Summer, off the coast of Nova Scotia swordfish began to jump, right in front of the vessel, clearing the water by as much as 3 meters. Fantastic! Or what about the 6 Leatherback Turtles off the north coast of Cape Breton!?

And this is especially true of birds. There are certain pelagic species you expect to see at any particular time but then there are the others: Great Skuas or South Polar Skuas, or adult Pomarine Jaegers with their unique tail streamers, Cory’s Shearwaters or Manx Shearwaters. You don’t see a lot of these but when you do it’s pretty special.

But then there’s the ones you definitely do not expect to see well out at sea – birds you associate with hard land. So when you see them, especially when you’re well offshore, you’re really surprised. For the most part these birds don’t want to be out where the ship is and they are probably in trouble. Maybe they have a faulty navigational system; maybe they ran into a storm with strong offshore winds. Whatever the reason they’re usually under duress and the ship is a welcome respite giving them a chance to regroup, rest, maybe even feed a little if there’s some insects around in the ship’s nooks and crannies. Some birds though simply come across the ship in the course of their migration – for example, birds travelling from Greenland to Baffin Island (Snow Buntings and Pipits) may stop to inspect the ship although most just keep on moving, hunkered down in a trough out of the wind.

Here’s a list of land species that I’ve seen on the ship over the course of the past few years:
– the most recent was a Common Snipe flying around the vessel for at least half an hour just 10 days ago and about 120 miles offshore. Occasionally it would land and rest up before taking off again.

Peregrine Falcon: I’ve seen two, both about 90 miles offshore; these birds will often make open water crossings. The ship acts as a feeding platform for the one pictured – with a storm-petrel. Another one used it as a hunting perch. The last time I saw it was when it had flown off in pursuit of a Red Phalarope and then itself was pursued by a Pomarine Jaeger.
Yellow Warbler: I saw a pair about 35 miles offshore from Nova Scotia and a single bird that we caught and tried to save; it was 110 miles out from Cape Chidley at the north end of Labrador! [We were unsuccessful in out attempts to preserve it – we simply ran out of insects.]
Cliff Swallow: two – both seen on separate days in mid-August; one 10 miles off the coast of Nova Scota, the other 20 miles off the SE coast of Labrador.

This Myrtle Warbler checked out all the nooks and crannies for insects.

Myrtle Warbler: we had a lovely male on the ship 120 miles out from St. John’s.
American Pipits and Snow Buntings: We ran into flocks of these birds (some mixed flocks, some monospecies) as we steamed south out of Baffin Bay through the Davis Strait. Small, continuous flights of these birds were seen on September 8th and 9th; they were heading due west – from their breeding grounds in Greenland to Baffin Island and thence down into southern Canada/northern U.S. for the Winter. Several groups checked out the ship and a few even landed for brief periods. [The crossing distance where I saw them was about 500 miles.]
Lapland Longspur: probably mixed in with the pipits and Snow Buntings, this bird was seen on Sept. 8th on the western side (but still well offshore) of Baffin Bay.
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher: one was on the ship about 5 miles out from St. John’s.
Red-breasted Nuthatch: several miles off the coast of Sable Island.
Bank Swallow: one seen on August 13th about 130 miles off the SE coast of Labrador.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow: 4 were seen on August 19th about 100 miles off the coast Labrador.
Dark-eyed Junco: one seen about 40 miles off the east coast of southern Baffin Island.

The sight of these slight landbirds far out at sea always amazes me and then gets me wondering: what happened that they’re here now and….will they/did they make it?

November 24th – Raising Junior

Junior waiting to be banded and measured before being returned to the nest.

Thick-billed Murres, like all other seabirds, spend the vast majority of their time at sea. But for about 2 to 2 1/2 months per year they are tied to the land to breed and raise young. Theirs is an interesting strategy.

A tight line of nesting Thick-billed Murres – difficult for a Glaucous Gull to plunder.

Tight grouping offers more protection from predation. Neighbours combine to jab at gulls and jaegers with their sharp bills.

This is not a good nesting situation for this murre (protecting a chick underneath it). It has no neighbours to help ward off marauding gulls.

The “nest” is no more than a bare spot on a rocky ledge most often on high cliffs directly above the sea. They tend to nest in close proximity to each other and for good reason. One of the main predators of their eggs and chicks is the Glaucous Gull. These rapacious birds hover on the wind over the murres looking for any opportunity or opening they can take advantage of to grab an egg or nestling. The murres band together and raise a defensive shield of sharp bills with which they will jab the gull if it gets too close. Usually this works and the gull drifts off looking for other opportunities. But one particular gull was an aggressive killer. Rather than hover and wait, this bird would fly up to the line of murres, grab one by the wing or tail and pull it off the ledge. The hapless murre, not a nimble flyer at the best of times, would have to fly off a good distance, turn, and pick up enough speed to get it back into place. In the meantime, the gull, taking full advantage of the disruption its actions had generated amongst the neighbours and its fine flying capabilities, would dart in and grab whatever was available and then make off. Interestingly, this seemed to be particular to just one gull, not the others – it was highly effective.

Always alert – a Glaucous Gull looks for an opening. Note the murre just below it with its bill raised and ready to jab.

Glaucous Gull looking for a meal being warded off by 3 vigilant murres.

Thick-billed Murres don’t start to breed until they’re 4 years old. Pair bonds seem to be long-standing, especially if the birds are successful. The single teal-coloured egg is sharply conical reducing the roll radius so that it is less likely to roll off the ledge should it be inadvertently bumped – it would roll in a tight circle. After about 30 days the egg hatches.

The eggs are sharply conical to reduce their roll radius – ledge space is sharply limited with little room for error.

The egg is just starting to hatch.

Especially in the first few days, before the chick can thermoregulate independently, they are highly dependent on their parents for protection, both from the elements and from predation.

Only a day or two old and very vulnerable to the elements and predation.

Recently hatched, this chick tries to work its way under the parent for warmth and protection.

The parents take turns staying at the nest to protect the chick and going out to sea to get food. [One parent takes the day shift at the nest and one the night shift…..but I can’t remember which does what.]
The chicks have voracious appetites and wolf down everything that is brought to them – no matter how long it sometimes seemed.

This fish was almost as long as the chick.

….and down it goes. No problem!

Most chicks are hatched with a day or two of each other but not all and at any one time you might see chicks that were as much as a week apart in age.

Two chicks about a eek apart in age.

The 4 birds on the left are all young ones; 3 of them have a more developed plumage and it won’t be long before they’re ready to leave the nest.

Fledging is an interesting process in this species. The young birds don’t wait until they are fully grown to leave the nest – they leave when they are about one quarter to one third the size of the adult. It is incredibly interesting to watch! The young bird begins to walk back and forth on its little patch of ledge uttering a unique call that is a signal to the father (always the parent that accompanies it) that is ready to go. Suddenly it dives off the ledge, wings (that are not fully developed yet and thus not capable of flight) beating like mad. The descent takes the shape of a ‘J’ with the chick, right at the last moment, curving outward to hit the water. All this time the father is right on its tail and lands in the water beside it.

The topmost chick is of a size that suggests it will leave the “nest” shortly.

This is a critical moment in the life of the chick and in the pair bond. If the parent is “smart” it will usher the young bird as quickly as possible away from the cliffs and out to sea, trying to get as much distance between them as it can. Because there are two serious potential threats: the first is Glaucous Gull predation. Quite often a gull will follow them down to the water and try to snatch the young one. But if the parent stays close and moves it quickly out to see the gull won’t likely be successful. The other is other murres!! Now this is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen and have not been able to figure it out from an evolutionary point of view but….often other adult murres will attack or mob the chick sometimes killing or drowning it. Again, if the parent stays close and fends them off aggressively, all the while moving the chick out to sea, then the chances of its surviving are greatly increased.

Junior has landed successfully and dad is quickly ushering it out to sea and away from the cliffs where the gulls are.

One memorable day we all sat in awe on the clifftops and watched as chick after chick after chick jumped off its perch and, flapping wildly, angled for the sea. Some of these chicks (and families) we’d known from the egg and (yes, I admit it!) we cheered with each successful landing. And exhorted the fathers to get them moving, get going!!! This experience underscored the reason they were so close in age – the sheer volume overwhelmed the predators and gave the young birds a better chance to survive.

But, sadly, they weren’t all happy stories. If a young bird hit a ledge on the way down it would likely survive that impact ok but would not make the water and would end up in the rocks below – easy pickings for waiting Arctic Foxes and gulls. Or they might still make the water but the momentary jog would separate it from its parent. the young bird could then be seen swimming back and forth parallel to the shore, peeping forlornly, but the parent would not recognize it as its own (and I have seen parents swim back within a few feet of their separated offspring and not recognize it). These “orphans” are doomed – just a matter of time before a gull would grab them and swallow them whole.

And, of course, watching other adult murres attacking a young one was hard to take. I just don’t get it….

But the happy stories greatly overshadow the sad ones and another generation of Thick-billed Murres was on its way – to return in 4 years to make it happen for themselves.