A familiar friend from the snowbound countryside
You are driving over the river and through the woods for the holidays. Along the way, you traverse many miles of blacktop or gravel roads across a treeless, seemingly barren landscape. Little in the way of variation excites the senses. Suddenly, a cloud of mostly white birds bursts up from the roadside and off into a field. You realize after a time that this has happened many times during your trip. The birds you are seeing are Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis).
North Dakota is near the heart of the winter range of this Arctic nesting finch so its no surprise that a person can rarely take a drive of any significance and not see them. In fact, in terms of raw numbers, the Snow Bunting is likely the most numerous bird in the state outside of towns, where House Sparrows and European Starlings dominate.
I know no one personally who has seen this animal on its breeding grounds. Thats mainly because they nest farther north than any other songbird in the world. Places like Northern Greenland, Northern Quebec, and Northern Ellesmere Island are usually not desired destinations for vacationers, but that is where the Snow Bunting heads. The males arrive in early April to establish a territory with snow still covering the ground and temperatures still below zero. Females follow in four to six weeks. In the Arctic, the Snow Bunting is a study in black and white, literally. Their plumage, with the exception of a black back plus some on the wings and tail, is pure white and presents quite a stunning visual.
By the time the birds arrive here in late fall or early winter they have molted to variable amounts of brown on the body with a yellow bill. They still are white underneath however with much white in the wings. Its this distinctive feature that makes identifying Snow Buntings while traveling in your car pretty easy. Its really the only small bird that flashes so much white in the winter. That and the fact they are often seen in fairly large flocks numbering in the hundreds. Interestingly, the fall molt is the only one the Snow Bunting undertakes. It assumes its stark black-and-white summer breeding attire by wearing away the dusky tans of winter.
Dont bother looking for these birds in your yardyou wont find them. They are strictly an open country species of fields, pastures, and beaches. A relative phoned early this fall to report a Snow Bunting at her feeder in town. After a few, Are-you-sures? she insisted it was. Well, it wasnt. It was a bird attempting a good rendition of one however; it was a partial albino House Finch.
If you do get a chance to look closely at these birds you will notice a few things: They feed on seeds on the ground with short conical bills, often along roadsides; they are about six inches long; they can be surprisingly difficult to see if they arent moving; they run rather than hop; and around here, there is quite often a handful of interlopers in the flock, namely Horned Larks or Lapland Longspurs. Note, also, the rather distinctive calls this bird hasdescribed mostly as a musical twitter, and a whistled tew.
Seen from a distance in flight, Snow Buntings seem to roll along like windblown snow, with birds continuously switching positions inside the flock. That may be a reason this species is also known as Snowflake.
While the arrival of Snow Buntings heralds the approach of winter in North Dakota, their departure means spring is not far off. In the meantime, we may as well enjoy this Arctic visitor. After all, the short cold days of winter do regularly provide much in the way of visual stimulation. Especially on those long drives.