The Arctic birds have arrived in eastern Idaho
One was appeared to be skating while the other appeared to be applauding the others tricks – two Snow buntings fresh from the Arctic Circle had found their way to Idaho. At Toomey Pond at Camas National Wildlife Refuge, my friend, Wylie and I watched as the two birds danced and skidded across the frozen surface as if they were practicing their skating moves.
It was a rare sighting for us but the weather forecast for storms and cold weather over Thanksgiving had me wondering when we might see the winter birds show up. Most of the time we see the Snow buntings show up as a tag-along with Horned larks and Lapland longspurs. On rare occasions we will observe groups of 10 to 20 buntings in the Ashton/Chester area during the winter; but never two of them alone.
Most often we see one or two buntings in large flocks of Horned larks as they fly up for feeding along the roads during the winter. A bird that appears white in the flock will be a bunting – a snowflake dotting a sea of dark birds. If a bird in the flock is much darker than the rest will probably be a Lapland longspur.
The buntings nest above the Arctic Circle with the males arriving there in March with the gals getting there after the weather warms up a bit, to at least a minus 20 degrees. Insulated nests are built in rock crevasses and the females are required to sit on the eggs and hatchlings almost 100 per cent of the time. This requires the males to feed the females every 15 to 20 minutes to allow her to keep her and the nest warm.
Most of these birds will start their migration in October and November to the lower Canadian provinces or northern states where they will spend the winter. Most of their food during the winter are seeds from weeds, corn or wheat. Snowplows will expose food along the sides of the roads where wintering songbirds can gather it to survive.
The Snow buntings’ bodies are equipped to survive the bitter temperatures. They have a very thick layer of feathers along with a layer of fat under their skin for insulation. They also have the ability to change food into high energy fat quickly and this is the reason that sometimes you can see small flocks still feeding during blizzards.
If the temperature gets too cold for them, they will fly into the soft fluffy snow and bury themselves deep enough to insulate them. Their body is not susceptible to hypothermia until the temperatures are from 30 to 40 degrees colder than for other songbirds.
In the fall and early winter, it is difficult to tell the two genders apart, but during the winter the male plumage will change. This is not done because of molting, but the males will rub the tips of their colored feathers off on the snow, turning themselves into a beautiful black and white bird.
If you want to try to find a Snow bunting, get someone else to drive and you study the flocks of birds that fly up from the side of the road. If you see a mostly white one it should be one. My favorite places to see them are on the Rexburg bench and the plowed roads in Fremont County from Chester to Ashton. You may even see a small flock of mostly buntings there.
Winter has arrived – you might as well enjoy it as the Snow buntings do. There will be other winter birds to enjoy – it is also time to put out your feeders to attract birds to your backyard.