Updated: Jan 3
"Oh! Look! Snow Buntings!", I shrieked as we drove drown a dirt road bordering a firebreak in the forest a couple of weekends ago. Snow Buntings are one of my favorite little winter birds. Most folks are familiar with the spring migrations when the robins, warblers and humming birds return. But there is a late fall/early winter migration that happens in the northern US and Canada as well and Snow Buntings are part of that.
These fast little sparrow sized birds are often seen in flocks on the side of roads bordering open fields. They spend all of the warmer months in the Artic Circle during their breeding season. They raise their young in rocky depressions and crags in the high open arctic tundra. Males provide food for females while they sit on their eggs. The females can't leave their nests much as the eggs are incubated while it is just about 32 degrees Fahrenheit. When the eggs do hatch, the chicks develop quickly and are flying within a few short weeks. In late fall, around October and November, the females leave the artic first and begin their southern migration. The males and juveniles follow within a couple of weeks. They travel mostly at night. So if you hear birds on a chilly October or November night, you might just be hearing the migration of a flock of Snow Buntings.
Snow Buntings spend most of the winter in the Northern US and Canada, eating seeds from flowering plants in fields. They prefer open spaces and are often found near water. They never seem to sit still so sighting them usually consists of a flock flying in an undulating pattern from space to space. They feed on and near the ground and are white, brown and black in color so they are quite hard to see in a snowy field. However, if you can spot them, getting close to them is even harder. As soon as they see you and they feel you've gotten too close, the whole flock will explosively rise from feeding and leave you standing there, looking after them.
They are a cheery winter sight, flitting from spot to spot on snow covered fields and calling to each other as they eat seeds and enjoy the cold weather.