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home : birding w/don reimer : birding w/don reimer
January 29, 2020

11/5/2009 10:12:00 AM
Northern species begin to arrive to spend winter in the midcoast -
A Snow Bunting in winter plumage photographed last  month at Beech Hill in Rockport  Photo by Don Reimer
A Snow Bunting in winter plumage photographed last month at Beech Hill in Rockport Photo by Don Reimer
by Don Reimer

The arrival of the fall season is a transitional time for bird migration in Maine. Most of the nesting warblers, swallows and thrushes have moved southward and many of the shorebird clan now reside in parts of South America and the Caribbean. By October, we begin to see some of the northern species that will settle into New England to spend the winter.

Mixed flocks of wandering Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs and American Pipits gather to roam Maine's barren landscapes, weedy fields and beachfronts in search of winter seeds and grains. As in the case of many migrants, availability of food is the primary factor in forcing these hardy birds southward. Accustomed to sub-zero temperatures and deep snow, buntings can easily withstand our local winter weather conditions. Snow Buntings breed in the high Arctic regions where they nest in rock crevices and under boulders to escape the harsh, windy elements. Each subterranean nest is lined with mosses, grasses, rootlets, and bits of fur and feathers. Molted ptarmigan feathers make an insulative addition to many nests. As the male buntings arrive on the nesting grounds in early April, temperatures average around -22 degrees Fahrenheit. Males feed their mates, who must constantly incubate the eggs to prevent them from chilling.

The whitest member of this suite of winter rovers, Snow Buntings are nicknamed "snowflakes," as they fly randomly about open fields in loose wavering flocks. A prominent white wing patch contributes to the drifting snowflake impression. The spring male's pure white and black breeding plumage and black bill are in notable contrast to the subtle shades of buffy brown and gray markings and the yellow bill seen on winter birds. The bunting's black-tipped wings are proportionally long in relation to the body size, a useful trait for a nomadic species that spends so much time on the wing.

One historical definition of the word bunting is "a plump, thickset person or creature." This term fits. These are stout, compact birds with a short conical bill that is suited for cracking seeds. Snow Buntings have the habit of jumping up to grab the ends of grass or weed stems, pulling them toward the ground for stripping. They also feed on the wild strand wheat that grows at the grassy margins of ocean beaches; the technique here is to walk along the stems and "ride" the nutritious wheat stalks down to the ground. Moving through low weeded sections, buntings have a characteristic shuffling gait.

Snow Buntings are vocal birds that use several types of calls to maintain contact within the swirling flocks. Their distinctive flight call is a buzzy, whistled "tew" that can be heard for a considerable distance.

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