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

3/18/2015 12:18:00 PM
A Farewell to Winter -
Clockwise from top left: Lapland Longspur, Winter Snow Bunting and Horned Lark (Photos by Don Reimer)
Clockwise from top left: Lapland Longspur, Winter Snow Bunting and Horned Lark (Photos by Don Reimer)
by Don Reimer

Following our long, snowy winter, we now peer eagerly into March and the prospects of the vernal equinox. Winter birding conditions were challenging this year, leading many folks to stay home and monitor their feeding stations. Feeder watching can pay deep dividends by providing extended opportunities to compare body shapes, relative sizes and behavioral characteristics of various species.

The perky little Black-Capped Chickadees that inhabit our yards make a worthy comparison model with other small birds. For example, is the Chickadee slightly larger or smaller than a Goldfinch? How about size differences with a White-Breasted Nuthatch or Tufted Titmouse? And how does that handsome Northern Cardinal compare in size with a Blue Jay or Mourning Dove?

Not all birds stop conveniently at feeders, however. By November, roaming flocks of Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks wander south from tundra nesting regions. Visual contacts with this trio of birds are made through chance encounters in areas of appropriate habitat. Except for periodic bursts of flight, these birds spend the bulk of time walking on the ground in search of seeds. Being short grass specialists, they are found in winter farm fields, open barrens and windswept lakeshores and beachfronts.

Known colloquially as "snowflakes," Snow Buntings have a circumpolar Arctic distribution spanning the northern hemisphere. In flight, the bunting's flashing white wing patches may remind one of a swirling snowstorm.

By early April, male Snow Buntings return to their snow-covered Arctic breeding grounds, where temperatures can dip to -22° F. The females return four to six weeks later. Spring plumage changes happen dramatically, as male buntings transition from a color palette of warm browns and beige to an immaculate white head and jet-black wings.

Snow Buntings nest in deep cracks or rock cavities, lining the nest with insulative fur and feathers. The incubating female remains constantly on the nest to keep the eggs and nestlings warm while her mate feeds her.

Lapland Longspurs are always a treat to see in Maine. Their common name refers to the long claw on the hind toe of each foot, a useful tool for walking (not hopping around like most small birds) and scratching up seeds.

Like the buntings, Longspurs undergo a summer metamorphosis as the male's distinctive bold black face, crown and throat and curving white brow-line emerge. That bright summer feathering is actually acquired during the fall molting period, but remains partially concealed until exterior feather surfaces are gradually worn away.

With their bright-yellow face and contrasting black mask, Horned Larks should be an easy bird to spot, right? In reality, the lark's brown body blends cryptically with surrounding ground covers. The "horns" of the Horned Lark are stiff tufts of feathers, visible only at close range.

Nesting on the ground, female Horned Larks excavate a nest cavity that is lined with fine grasses. An intriguing arrangement of pebbles, corncobs or clods of dung is placed next to the nest site. These "paved" areas resemble a sort of patio or walkway, although the birds don't seem to use them in that manner. These "pavings" may possibly help prevent nesting materials from blowing away while the nest is under construction.

If you happen to notice a flitting of small birds crossing a farm field, it may be worth a second look. These guys won't stay around much longer.

Reader Comments

Posted: Sunday, March 22, 2015
Article comment by: Marianne Williams

Don Reimer:
I would like to know if it is wise to feed old bread (of the best kind: heels of Ezekiel loaves, which I seem to find too compact to toast, and often will have a half dozen or so in the freezer) to wild birds?
If so, which ones....other than seagulls, which I would not want to have swarm around inland or in public walking area....along the shore in Belfast area?
Many thanks,

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