Arctic summer birds return to eastern Idaho
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Hundreds of gray-crowned rosy finches flew from the roadside on the Rexburg Bench and landed in a patch of weeds where they squabbled over seeds. A mile further east of Walker Siding, I ran into a flock of about 50 Snow buntings with three Lapland longspurs mixed with them. I was there to see if I could find the large flocks of wintering birds that Darren Clark, a renowned birder, had told me about.
“Since the snow came two days ago, the Bench has tons of birds,” he told me as we were discussing the explosion of Blue jays in our area. “Yesterday I saw about 1500 Horned larks, 800 rosy finches and about 50 Snow buntings with some Lapland longspurs with them. The first snow always brings them in.”
As winter begins, snow limits the area where these seed-eating birds can find enough food to survive. The first snow covers most of the fields where they have been feeding, bringing the birds to the roads where snow plows expose wasted grain. When flushed by passing vehicles, birds will fly to patches where they fight over the weed seeds. Wind-exposed soil, softened by the sun is also a favorite place for these “Bench Beauties” can find some lunch.
On Thursday afternoon, I did not find the large flocks of Horned larks that Clark had found on Wednesday, but I found a few small flocks and some that had joined the other species. Larks are usually the most numerous winter birds that feed along the highways and roads during the winters. They nest locally on the desert and can be in flocks numbering in the thousands while rosy finches, buntings and longspurs are only here for the winter.
The Gray-crowned rosy finch spends their summer nesting and raising their young high in our mountains near ice field and glaciers. Summering above the tree line and moving down only when winter weather hits the high mountains covering their food supply. Once in the valley, they move to where food can be found. They love to find piles of grain that has been spilled near granaries and are often found where grain is being transported from.
Lapland longspurs nest above the Arctic Circle and most spend their winters in the mid-western states, sometimes found in flocks over a million birds. They are rare in our area but a few migrate with flocks of Snow buntings and join Horned larks to winter. On Thursday, I found three with a flock of buntings on the Rexburg Bench and two weeks ago, I saw two with a flock of larks near Henrys Lake.
One of the most beautiful of all winter birds in Southeastern Idaho is the Snow bunting. They also nest above the Arctic Circle and start their migration south during September, arriving here just before the first snow storm. They are very recognizable when they fly as most of their wings are white, much lighter than their wintering friends. When bird watchers see a flock of Horned larks, the buntings can be easily recognized.
In our area we rarely see them in the breeding colors (white and black) because in the late spring on their migration back, the males will use hard packed snow to rub off the brown tips of their feathers. During their stay here we see them as mostly tan and white with the black-tipped white wings.
With more snow predicted over the weekend, these migrants may not stay long on the Rexburg Bench. They will go where there is enough food for them to survive. In the meantime, these “Bench Beauties” will be fighting over the available food; often settling for weed seeds.
By the way, we are finding Blue jays all over including Howe, Ashton, Hibbard, St. Anthony, Idaho Falls, Rexburg, Rigby and Menan. If they start showing up in your yard, let us know as we are trying to document where they are.