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Birds' Eye View: Seeing snow buntings one benefit of winter

"When winter storms sweep across the land these birds blow in like true snowflakes and settle down on wind-blown hillsides and benchlands to feed upon the weed stalks that rise above the snow. They are usually found in large flocks which start up from the ground, as one bird, at the slightest noise."

- Chester A. Reed, on snow buntings in a 1951 field guide

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Several local birders have reported recent sightings of snow buntings and horned larks in and around Carroll County.

Because I've become a wimp to winter weather, I haven't had the opportunity to enjoy these rare sightings that inspire serious birdwatchers to endure the bitter cold to go out and find them. But since they are wintering in our community, I want to know something about them - especially the snow buntings. I wonder if they have followed the snowy owls on their southward journeys from the Arctic region.

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Kit and George Harrison in their book "The Birds of Winter," refer to snow buntings, Lapland longspurs, and horned larks as "the most stout-hearted birds of winter." Also included in their birds of winter list are the white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, junco, and the American tree sparrow.

Each of these species breeds in far northern regions and then moves southward to spend winters in southern Canada and the northern United States. Snow buntings may breed farther north than the others, and can withstand some of the most extreme cold temperatures during the winter months - as low as minus-50 degrees.

Sometimes they burrow into the snow at night to keep warm as the snow actually shelters them from wind and storms. All are seed eating birds, and weed seeds are their favored choice. Insects are included in the summer diet. They are ground-feeding birds that scratch the ground to find food.

The predominant color on a snow bunting is white. When standing underneath a flock in flight, they appear to be pure white - like snowflakes. The breeding plumage of the male is quite striking, but if you want to see it in person, you might consider planning a summer vacation to the North Pole. He is nearly white all over with black on his back. He has long black and white wings. His bill is black in breeding attire.

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During the breeding season, the female is white below and gray streaked with white on her back. Her head is grayish with subtle pale streaks. Her wings are white with brownish black markings.

Male and female look similar to one another in their winter garb although the colors in the male appear a bit brighter. This is the suit that they where when they are visiting our region. Underparts and head are white and each wears a cinnamon colored breast band. The head feathers have brown tips. The back feathers are streaked in black and brown, and there is black and brown streaking with white in the wings. Bills turn orange-yellow for the winter.

Snow buntings gather in flocks to feed-often in large open areas like beaches, fields, and tundra. Their long wings are designed to help them fly away quickly when danger threatens the feeding flock. Sometimes horned larks and Lapland longspurs join them when feeding. During the day, these birds can be seen perching together on utility wires and other high perches when they are not foraging for food.

I have read that snow buntings love to take snow baths. When I think about them fluttering about in the snow, I picture children, and also my cousin Laura who is a child at heart, making snow angels. Imagine how small snow bunting angels must be!

Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed watching the snow buntings and shared this story:

"One bleak March day ... a flock of snow buntings came ... Every few moments one of them would mount into the air, hovering about with quivering wings and warbling a loud, merry song with some very sweet notes. They were a most welcome little group of guests, and we were sorry when, after loitering around a day or two, they disappeared toward their breeding haunts."

I don't want to wish our snow buntings away for anyone who is enjoying their winter visit. But if their departure would take this cold winter weather with them, I sure would be pleased to welcome springtime any day now.

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