Winter Field Birds


(This 1185th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 8, 2013.)


Northern Shrike, a winter predator on mice and field birds

Photo by Carl Carbone


This is the time of year when winter species begin to arrive. Among them are a number of interesting field birds. Although they may be found in any of the rural areas in western New York, they are more often encountered in the harvested croplands along Lake Ontario.


The most conspicuous of these birds are snow buntings. It is a wonderful experience to see a flock of hundreds of these birds flying low over a meadow, their white coloration making them appear like a local blizzard of snowflakes. While many pass through at this time, some remain here for the winter.


But once they land these buntings seem to disappear. Their brown and white colors camouflage them among the cut-off stalks remaining after the crops have been taken. You have to look closely to pick them out. Once you do, however, you will see them busy walking about and seeking remaining seeds.


After heavy snowfalls these birds are often also found feeding along plowed roadsides. Recall that birds have no teeth and they consume small gravel there that grinds their food. And I occasionally see them migrating over Lake Ontario flying parallel to the shore.


Experienced birders know to look for all kinds of field birds where manure has been spread recently. The birds can pick undigested seeds from the often still steaming offal. Unfortunately, many farmers are turning to a liquification process that apparently removes those seeds, because birds are less attracted to fields where that liquified fertilizer is spread.


Okay, now that you have found and identified snow buntings, you should begin to look for other species of similar size that are often mixed in with those flocks. 


One of those species you almost certainly know from your backyard feeder: the junco. They are tamer than the buntings and more often than them appear along roadsides, but these gray birds do associate with their brown and white cousins. Watch for the white outer tail feathers that they flash when they fly.


Another of these members of the Emberizid family of birds, which includes sparrows and sparrow-like species, is the tree sparrow. In winter this species replaces the similar-appearing chipping sparrow of our summer yards. At about the same time that chipping sparrows leave for the south, tree sparrows move in from the north. The markings of these two species are quite similar. Both have russet crowns. The best field mark distinguishing them is the black "stick-pin" spot in the middle of the tree sparrow's otherwise plain breast.


Although they belong to a very different family, the horned lark looks much like another sparrow in size and general coloration. If you look closely though, you will see the distinctive black and yellow markings on their heads and the tiny feathers that give them the horned of their names.


Late in the winter as their testosterone builds, horned larks begin to sing a series of beautiful tinkling notes usually while in flight. Sadly, as my hearing diminishes, I can rarely hear this song.


I have been listing these species in order of their common occurrence. I return to the emberizids for the Lapland longspur, an uncommon species that is most often found among the snow buntings. Richard Byron first introduced them to me. "When you watch a group of snow buntings in flight, look for a darker bird among them. It will often be a longspur. Follow that bird until it lands and you can identify it."


If you do this, you will find a rather drab little brown bird, streaked with brown. You can sometimes detect a bit of russet on the upper back of the males. This is their winter plumage. The males molt into striking appearance in spring with black heads and breasts. While most of this molt takes place after this species has left us for the far north, occasionally you will find a late migrant in this attractive plumage.


Any visit to bunting country will turn up many additional species. Mourning doves and crows often feed in the fields nearby or even with the buntings. Jays cry and a wintering bluebird may be heard calling. Red-tailed hawks and sometimes short-eared owls patrol. And, if you watch the tips of trees, you may see a northern shrike.-- Gerry Rising