Birds of Snowy Fields


(This 771st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 8, 2006.)


I received a message recently from Tom O'Donnell, newly elected president of the Buffalo Ornithological Society. Tom told of seeing a thousand snow buntings along Marshall Road northwest of Lyndonville. That's a lot of birds. I suspect that few readers of this column have ever seen even one snow bunting. And I doubt that many have seen two other bird species that occasionally visit farm fields especially near the shore of Lake Ontario: horned lark and Lapland longspur. This column is devoted to those three species.


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Snow buntings and horned larks. Photo by Willie D'Anna


It is a winter thrill to see a flock of snow buntings flying. They look like an isolated snow shower, a small cloud of snowflakes wheeling and drifting over the fields.


Then if your luck holds, the flock will alight just a few yards away and you can watch them as them feed among the shorn stems of corn or wheat fields. They don't appear nearly as white when they are on the ground. Much of the white you see in flight is in their open wings.


On the ground they appear as sparrow-sized birds with white underparts, backs tan streaked with black, and heads tinged with tan as well. In March, just before the last ones depart for the north, the males molt into breeding plumage. At that time their tan backs become solid black, their heads entirely white. They then join the ranks of our most beautiful birds.


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Snow bunting in summer plumage. Photo by Dominic Sherony


Snow buntings are also among the most social birds. I don't recall seeing fewer than a dozen of them and more often I find fifty or more. But it's feast or famine: Even along the lake plains many winter months pass without my seeing any. (I have a similar experience with cedar waxwings.)


It is worth examining a flock of grounded snow buntings carefully for two reasons. First, it is simply a joy to watch the tiny birds feeding on what little they can find in those dead fields. As they walk about and occasionally peck at some tidbit, they carry on simple twittering conversations with their companions.


There is another value in looking closely, however. Those other two species are often found with them.


Horned larks are similar in size to the buntings but are easily distinguished from them. Their heads and upper breast are marked with black and they sport two small black cowlicks, the source of their name. Their bodies are indistinctly colored.


When I was young, horned larks of this region were separated into two full species: northern horned lark and prairie horned lark, but the two are now lumped into one. (Birdwatchers are not happy when this happens because their lists are reduced. They much prefer splits as when the cackling goose was separated recently from the Canada goose. Then they have an opportunity to add to their lists.) In any case, our eastern horned larks have yellow throats, the midwestern subspecies, often also seen here, white.


The lovely song of the horned lark is like a tinkling bell. It is often vocalized while flying.


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Lapland longspur in summer plumage. Photo by Dominic Sherony


The third species is rarer than the other two. Lapland longspurs appear very sparrow-like in their winter plumage. They have a rufous bar across their wings and the males have a dark breast band. Like the snow buntings, male longspurs become striking birds in late March. Then much of their cheeks, throat and breast is black, their bill and a line back from their eye bright yellow and their nape chestnut.


Snow buntings and Lapland longspurs nest about as far north as you can get, places like Baffin and Ellesmere Islands and Greenland. The buntings hide their simple grassy nests in rock fissures or under moss. During cold spells or storms the mother continues to brood her young until shortly before they leave the nest for good.


Longspurs nest more in the open but usually under tufts of grass. Another indication of their breeding range: some nests are lined with snowy owl feathers and caribou hair.


Although horned larks nest in the far north as well, they also nest here. They have, however, become increasingly rare here in summer.


Watch for these attractive birds when you drive past windswept fields this winter.-- Gerry Rising