Snow Buntings are unusual in that their tarsi, or ankles, are covered in feathers, helping them to stay warm in their harsh, circumpolar habitats and allowing them to winter much further north than other songbirds. In fact, the only other passerine that can successfully overwinter as far north is the Common Raven. Male Snow Buntings usually return to their Arctic breeding grounds in early April, when temperatures may still be as low as -30°C.
Snow Buntings were once considered a part of the sparrow family and were grouped together with the Emberizidae (called buntings in the Old World and sparrows in the New World). Recent DNA analysis of McKay’s Buntings, Snow Buntings, and longspurs has revealed that they are not very closely related to the sparrow family at all. The 2008 phylogenetic study concluded that these birds are more closely related to the New World warblers, cardinals and tanagers than to the sparrows, though their exact relationships have not yet been established. In 2010, a new family, Calcariidae, was created for these birds.
Snow Buntings tend to migrate south in large flocks – it is rare just to see a single Snow Bunting on its own, which makes looking for these birds a little easier. Just watch for large flocks of small songbirds whirling up into the air in rural areas, their black and white wings making them look like flakes of salt and pepper or a small blizzard of snow. One colloquial name for this species is in fact “Snowflake”!
Once the river freezes up and any lingering waterfowl disappear, I start spending more time looking for birds of the open field. The agricultural areas south of Fallowfield Road are prime habitat for Snowy Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, and of course, Snow Buntings. Gray Partridges are sometimes found in the area, though I have only seen them once. I spent Saturday morning checking out the fields between Kanata and Richmond and was rewarded with two large flocks of Snow Buntings. The first was on Akins Road, where I found two flocks – one of about 20 and the other of about 80. The other was on Rushmore Road; there were at least 50 birds, though numbers were hard to estimate given that some of the flock remained in the corn field while others came to the road to feed on seed and corn kernels along the roadside.
The Snow Buntings on Rushmore Road seemed attracted to one particular spot. Although they flushed several times, they always returned. Several Horned Larks were with them, though I didn’t see any Lapland Longspurs among them. After realizing they were attracted to some seed on the ground, I spent 10 minutes carefully edging up to them in my car, moving only after they had flushed and stopping before they returned. Snow Buntings are skittish birds, and it’s hard to get close to them; however, by letting them get used to the car I was able to get some decent photos through the open window.
During the breeding season, the male Snow Buntings appear a striking black and white, having no brown or rust tones in their plumage. Despite the two very different appearances, Snow Buntings only undergo one molt each year, in the late summer. The tips of the new feathers brown; beneath the coloured tips, the rest of the back feathers are actually black, while the rest of the body feathers are white. Late in the winter, the males actively wear down all of the brown feather tips by rubbing them against the snow, so that only the crisp black and white feathers remain by spring. Perhaps this is why the individual below looks so pale and seems less brown compared to the others:
From there I drove to Trail Road to check the dump for activity. The large flock of gulls from my previous visits had vanished; however, several hundred crows remained. I did see two adult Great Black-backed Gulls and a couple of brownish juvenile gulls flying over, and that was it. A Red-tailed Hawk was being harassed by the crows when I arrived. It flew south across Trail Road, screaming as the crows followed in pursuit. To my surprise, another hawk was perched in a tree on the south side of the road. This one was an accipiter, a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk.
A group of Horned Larks, perhaps 10 or 12, flew over the mounds of garbage, calling as they flew. The only other passerine I noticed was an American Tree Sparrow feeding in the weedy area next to the fence. It landed on the fence before flying across the road.
Although it was a short outing, it was a good one – it was great to see the overwintering Snow Buntings and Horned Larks again. When I got home I learned I had an overwintering bird of my own, a lone Dark-eyed Junco feeding on the seeds beneath my feeder. It’s been a month since I’ve last seen one in my yard; it’s not surprising that I haven’t noticed it, for there isn’t any daylight left when I’m home during the week, and I don’t spend much time looking out the backyard during the weekends. It is certainly a nice bird to have hanging around in the winter!