January 15th – X-Country (SNBU) Checkup

This feeding flock in Lanark seems to consist entirely of males.   -L. Balthazar

This feeding flock in Lanark seems to consist entirely of males. -L. Balthazar

You have to love the prose of early naturalists. Here’s Thomas Nuttall writing about the arrival of migrating Snow Buntings in December:
“Early in December they make their descent into the Northern States in whirling, roving flocks, either immediately before or soon after an inundating fall of snow. Amidst the drifts, and as they accumulate with the blast, flocks of these illwars fogel, or bad-weather birds, of the Swedes, like the spirits of the storm are to be seen flitting about in restless and hungry troops, at times resting on the wooden fences, though but for an instant, as, like the congenial Tartar hordes of their natal regions, they appear now to have no other object in view but an escape from famine and to carry on a general system of forage while they happen to stay in the vicinity.” [Birds of the United States, 1891]
A "restless" flock.    -L. Balthazar

A “restless” flock. -L. Balthazar

I’m not sure the birds Nancy and I were seeing in December were from the natal regions of the “congenial Tartar hordes” (in fact, it would appear that some of these birds have come from Greenland based on band recoveries), but the flocks are certainly hungry as they descend on the countryside and very restless –their ‘flightiness’ reminds me a great deal of flocks of migrating shorebirds.

One of the reasons for developing the Canadian Snow Bunting Network is to try to understand why this delightful bird’s numbers have dropped by about 64% in the last 40 years (according to the National Audubon Society). This information was in an article in the in-flight magazine that Oliver Love and I chanced upon while flying south from Iqaluit (ironically) after a month of catching and banding both Common Eiders and Snow Buntings. The article attributed this decrease to “global warming”. I’ve given this a lot of thought but am still hard-pressed to see a connection.

Personally I think there’s something else at work and it’s related to another piece of “old” writing, in this case by P.A. Taverner in his Birds of Eastern Canada, 1919:
“Winter visitors in southern Canada, feeding on the weed-tops that project from the snow in open fields and rarely perching in trees. A flock alights in the weed-spotted snow and gradually works across it, the rear of the flock rising up from time to time like a flurry of snow and pitching ahead, the process being repeated until the whole field is covered.”

Industrial farming has done away with fields with projecting weed-tops. When I survey the large area around our trapping area outside the town of Hagersville in southern Ontario, all I see is a vast expanse of snow-covered fields. The only projecting plants are in thin and very occasional hedgerows – which Snow Buntings tend to shy away from. Round-up ready cropping has created huge deserts as far as winter-foraging birds are concerned. This is where I think the problem lies.

Marie-Pier Laplante, a Master’s student at the University of Quebec at Rimouski, has put together another excellent Canadian Snow Bunting Network Report in which you’ll see up-to-date developments (and makes you appreciate that all those hours generating data out in the cold are worthwhile!!).
The report can be viewed here:

Yukon, NWT, Nunavut


Prairie Provinces

January 16, 2017
Good Morning Rick,
Here in NW Alberta it has warmed up and my bait pile that had birds coming to it have taken a leave of absence. I had a couple hundred or so SNBU’s coming to my bait pile last week with -30c temps and this week its currently +2c. I will report back if I have any luck, I’m having hard times catching Snowy Owls this winter too, with all the canola and wheat laying in the fields this year because of an early snowfall in mid-October there are plenty of voles and mice for them to eat. It’s been a hard season to catch any birds.
Mike Blom
Wildfire Ranger II
Peace River Forest Area
Forestry Division
Alberta Agriculture and Forestry

January 14, 2017
We have very few SNBUs in our area this year – once again!

Harold Fisher
Nisbet Banding Station,
Prince Albert, Saskatchewan
53-17-11N, 105-39-15W

January 15, 2017-01-15
[In response to my question: “Historically did SNBU’s winter in the area?”]
Yes, we see them every year in our travels around the countryside. For the most part, they seem to hang out in flocks of 50 to 200 birds, but it seems they are constantly on the move – seldom see them in the same place twice. The country here is so vast and there are so many fields of grain, especially this year where much of the crop remained unharvested, it would be nearly impossible to attract SNBUs to a specific area by baiting them.

…thought at one time that it would be possible to have them return to the site where I was feeding my horses, but they were there for a few days, then have not returned in years!

Harold Fisher
Prince Albert, SA


Kerns Elementary School's 6th School of Flock class - many with Snow Buntings that they're just banded.  -J. Goddard

Kerns Elementary School’s 6th School of Flock class – many with Snow Buntings that they’re just banded. -J. Goddard

January 15, 2017
Hi Rick, A few spread out flocks of SNBU around the area and it has only been in the past couple days that a flock of close to 100 have found the Kern’s site [Kern’s Elementary School]. We have only attempted two days of banding so far and have banded 32 Snbu two of which were female and 1 male Lalo. Hopefully it will pick up from now on. I know my students are looking for a good excuse to skip math class a few days a week!

Pictured here is the 6th School of Flock Class many holding snow buntings. Also Grade 6 student Cameron Aitchison who banded our first snow bunting of the year.

Cameron Aitchison, who banded the first Snow Bunting of the season.   -J. Goddard

Cameron Aitchison, who banded the first Snow Bunting of the season. -J. Goddard

Youthful bander and scribe in the Kerns Buntingmobile.   -J. Goddard.

Youthful bander and scribe in the Kerns Buntingmobile. -J. Goddard.

Joanne Goddard
New Liskeard, ON

January 15, 2017
Hello Rick and Bunting Enthusiasts,
It’s been a season of hungry Snow Buntings thus far, here at the farm – just southeast of North Bay, ON. They began to take feed once we had snow cover, a couple weeks before Christmas. Often I can count 200 at some point during the day – this is nearly double the number from previous seasons. An elderly gentleman had been feeding a flock for many years about 15 miles from here. He recently passed away – perhaps that flock moved to my feed.
We are thoroughly enjoying watching our Snow Bunting visitors – running on the fields, the roofs, the driveway and fluttering down from the sky like snowflakes.
May Snow Buntings be abundant for enthusiasts and banders this year.

Lori Anderson
North Bay (area), ON

A flock of Snow Buntings feeding busily.    -L. Balthazar

A flock of Snow Buntings feeding busily. -L. Balthazar

January 11, 2017
Good day!
I just wanted to send an update and pictures of the Snow Buntings on our property.
The numbers have been gradually increasing and we now have about 200 birds visiting and feeding every day.
I am still hoping you can find someone to come and band some of those birds!!!

Lise Balthazar
Sheridan Rapids
Lanark, Ontario

Always an oddity - Snow Buntings in the treetops.    -L. Balthazar

Always an oddity – Snow Buntings in the treetops. -L. Balthazar

January 12, 2017
Good morning,
It is really cold here this morning and the Buntings are loving it! They have been very active in the last couple of weeks; we have about 150 to 200 individuals.
Marie-Pier sent me a copy of the Snow Bunting Bulletin and I noticed something on the map showing banding stations: there are none between Montreal and Lake Ontario! Our property is located just a little bit South of Ottawa which would make it a perfect location.
At the risk of repeating myself (which I have been doing for several years now ), can we work on finding someone who could come and band some of the birds on our property? Or at least someone who could come and show me how to do it? I am more than willing to learn!
I really do believe that we could get some very valuable information from our Lanark Highlands flock, both from banding birds and from birds which have already been banded.
Let me know your thoughts.

Lise Balthazar
Sheridan Rapids Road
Lanark, Ontario

January 9, 2017
Hello Rick,
I had never seen or even heard of snow buntings before today. I’m obviously not an experienced birder!
Today, though, a huge flock of these birds (100+) came through our property just north of Goderich, Ontario. It took some detective work to figure out that they were snow buntings and that research led me to you and your banding efforts.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get any photos, but I wasn’t sure if the sighting report itself would be helpful. If they’re still around tomorrow, I’ll venture out with the camera.

Colin Carmichael
Goderich, ON

January 14, 2017
[In reponse to my question whether they were still around:] Sorry no. It seems they were just passing through. I haven’t seen them since Sunday.

Colin Carmichael
Goderich, ON

January 14, 2017
The lack of snow and warm temperates have caused the birds to disappear. .
….I am hoping Motus will give us an idea of where they go …. only banded around 200 … back to my preponderance of males… perhaps 90%

David Lamble
Fergus, ON

January 14, 2017
Hello Rick
Snow Buntings in King City are not very good at the moment we have banded 200 with one return and a foreign bird the same day . Every time it snows there is a flock of about 80 that come around but then it rains and they go away so we will hope for some more snow and no rain also there is very little snow on the ground at the trapping site.
Foreign Recovery 2641-34112 captured in King City January 1 2017 5LP MPL 108 WING FAT OF 2 WEIGHT 34.4

Regards Glenn (Reed) and Theresa (Mckenzie)
King City, ON

January 15, 2017
We got some warm weather and rain in early January and our birds disappeared. But around January 7th we got 2 cm of snow and the temperature dropped…..and the Snow Buntings returned. We banded 64 on the 8th; 70 on the 9th; and 16 on the10th. And then mild again……

Rick Ludkin & Nancy Furber
Ruthven Park Banding Station
Cayuga, ON



Maritime Provinces

January 14, 2017
Rick, nothing yet on McKay Siding Rd just north of Stewiacke in NS, although my husband saw a small flock of “my little white birds” two weeks ago on the NS shore of the Bay of Fundy west of Maitland.

Barb McLaughlin
Stewiacke, NS

January 14, 2017
Hi Rick and all
Here in south eastern New Brunswick, I have seen only a few birds and none came down on the seeds yet.
I am now teaching ornithology at Université de Moncton and would LOVE to ne able to band with my students so we will try hard to bait a flock in the next weeks
As for photos; I am not sure if you meant of birds THIS year or just photos of SNBU in general ? Cause I have some serious bank of images if you need them for education or for a publication for the network. I’ll be pleased to send you some
Merci beaucoup!

Alain Clavette
Memramcook, NewBrunswick




2 thoughts on “January 15th – X-Country (SNBU) Checkup

  1. Over the past three years, snow buntings have come to our bird feeding area. The first year, I noticed a small flock come to feed in the front yard after I had used the snow blower to clear near the feeding area and spreading seeds. Before long, the buntings would come around every time the snow blower was used. I began to feed them and the flock grew to over 50 the fist year, then 80, and over 100 last year. Early January this year there are well over 100, too many to count. They come to feed, rest in a lone birch tree and repeat. I love watching them. For a few days, they mingled with a flock of about 20 gross beaks which also came to feed.

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