Snowflakes are common in winter, but these ones deserve a closer look

Living the Wild Life

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Photos courtesy Bill Schiess

As my friend, Wylie Powell, and I traveled across a desert dirt road between the Sand Creek Road to the Red Road, two birds flew up flashing their white underwings.

“I think those are a couple of Snow buntings,” I said to my friend as we slowly followed them to where they lit again to peck at a patch of snow. “But it is way early for them to show up.”

The next day during some snow flurries on the Rexburg Bench east of Rexburg, I ran into a flock of about 30 with a few Horned Larks with them. Early indeed; they usually show up after snow covers the ground with a few of them mixed with a few Lapland long-spurs in flocks of hundreds of resident larks.

When they are in a mixed group of winter birds, they are fairly easy to recognize because their white underwings set them apart from the larks and long-spurs. When in a flock of mostly buntings, they are sometimes called “snowflakes” because their erratic flight resembles snowflakes swirling through the air in a blizzard.

Large flocks of these beautiful birds are not common, but in recent winters I have seen flocks east of Ririe Reservoir on the road to Tex Creek and southeast of Ashton in the Squirrel area. They are always fun to watch and an important bird to tick off on a birder’s yearly bird list.

They are long migrants as they nest above the Arctic Circle, leaving southeastern Idaho at the first sight of spring to head north. Most males and females migrate separately as the males get to their nesting grounds from three to six weeks earlier than the females. The males will also change their brownish back feathers for black ones as they take on their breeding plumage.

The males pick out the nest sites, usually in a cavity, and after the female picks her significant other, she will build the bulky nest of mostly dried grass and other soft material she can find like fur and feathers. Because they nest in a cold climate, the male will feed the female while she sits on the nest. The nestlings develop quickly and can leave the nest 10 to 17 days after hatching.

The fall migration is usually also a gender specific one. The females will usually start their migration in September or October, while the males will wait until November. The two generally winter in different areas with the females wintering further south than the males. Most of the buntings that we see in east Idaho are females as the males usually do not come this far south. But the flock I saw several years ago near Ashton was a flock of males. All those that I have seen this fall have appeared to be females.

As you go about your fall and early winter travels, take a little time to watch for flocks of winter birds picking at seeds at the side of the road. If you see one that appears to have white wings, you have found a Snow bunting. But if you see a large flock of “snowflake” birds swirling around, you have indeed seen a beautiful sight.

Wylie was right when he said, “Boy, are they beautiful when they fly.” Those two birds that we followed for half an hour almost made us late to watch election coverage, but, oh what beauty we saw.