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Winter Visitors, part 3 – A Small White Tundra Bird.

February 16, 2013

Snow Bunting

There is a particular winter visitor that isn’t very common in central Ohio, though some years are better than others for their numbers depending on the weather conditions.  This particular winter they’ve been scarce.  So when I heard reports of 2 of these birds near the Hoover Reservoir dam, I had to go look for them.

An historical note is in order.  I remember seeing this bird for the first time as a young person in the aftermath of the infamous Blizzard of 1978 (I know, that was quite a while ago).  Very deep and drifting snow led some of these birds to my family’s backyard bird feeder, when normally they stay out in the fields, away from human habitation.  I enjoyed birding back then as well, and made sure there was plenty of seed to keep these birds going until they could fend for themselves once more.  Here’s a very small scan (why did I save it that small many years ago?) of a picture I took of them (on an old-fashioned camera that took film):

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OK, it’s an historic picture for me but there’s not a lot of detail there!  That blizzard was quite remarkable- I was delivering papers then, and we didn’t get daily paper dropoffs from Columbus for 3 days in my town because the roads were impassable.  70 mile an hour winds had piled up snowdrifts up to rooftops.  Crazy!  Incidentally, that storm had catastrophic effects on some wintering birds, such as Carolina Wrens (who took a couple of decades to recover their numbers) and Bobwhite quail (who haven’t recovered to this day).

Back to the present.  Last spring, I posted a day-tour of Hoover Reservoir, just northeast of Columbus.  I go there occasionally to look for interesting bird sightings, and this winter I’ve been out a few times to look for this or that bird.  The particular birds that I was hoping to see were spotted just north of the dam, along a small spit of land jutting out into the reservoir.

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You can see the spit of land in the above picture.  This was my eventual destination, though I was looking around the nearby area.

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There were some winter ducks on the reservoir behind the spit of land.

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Ring-Billed Gulls hung out on some ice.

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Mallards dabbled nearby.

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These ducks are Lesser Scaup- they were more shy than the Mallards.

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Quite the hairdoo on this Hooded Merganser!

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This Song Sparrow kept an eye on me as I walked around his or her area.

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I walked out onto the narrow land spit.  I hung out for a while, looking around the area.

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Suddenly, a pair of birds flew across the water- they sounded different, so I snapped a quick photo- could these be what I was looking for?

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The 2 birds landed in the tree at the very end of the spit.  Sure enough, they were what I was looking for!

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These birds were Snow Buntings, visitors from Canada, vacationing in the less-cold northern United States.  They breed in Alaska and in northern Canada, so these birds are no stranger to cold weather.

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These 2 birds were vacationing apart from flocks of their brethren here along Hoover Reservoir.  As of this writing, they’re still there- apparently spending all winter in this location.

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Snow Buntings look sparrow-like, with brown backs and a notched tail.  But the white breast and pink bill distinguish them from most other birds.

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These birds tolerated my presence- I stayed far enough away so that they weren’t disturbed by me.  I had no desire to bother them.  This is good birding etiquette as well as common sense.

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By April, the males will be staking out arctic nesting territories in anticipation of attracting a female, who arrive some weeks later.  Spring in the far north can be as cold as -20 degrees Fahrenheit, so the central Ohio winter weather probably feels balmy to them in comparison.

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Snow Buntings place their nests in crevices in rocks.  The rocks are quite cold, and even layers of fur and feathers lining the nest may not be enough to keep the eggs warm.  The female will mostly stay on the nest, adding her warmth to the eggs, while the male feeds her until the eggs hatch and the nestlings grow feathers.

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These birds are quite handsome.

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A few days ago, I returned to the same spot looking for other birds seen in the area, and I was glad to see the same 2 birds again in the exact same tree.  I’ll write about how birds tend to be ‘creatures of habit’ someday in the future, because I find it to be a fascinating topic.

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This was a sunnier day than my first visit, so the pictures were better.

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These birds would be well-camouflaged in snowy fields where they forage for food.  Perhaps they’ll be back next year!

28 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2013 10:56 pm

    These are fabulous photos! My husband and I really enjoy your writing!

  2. February 16, 2013 11:04 pm

    Your snow buntings are pretty little birds, how cool that you got to see them!

    • February 16, 2013 11:10 pm

      I was very happy to take their pictures, Patti! Much of the time you’d have to go out in snowy farm fields to see them, but this pair cooperated very nicely and weren’t camera-shy at all.

  3. February 16, 2013 11:10 pm

    Nice find! I didn’t think that they migrated that far south, and, I’ve never seen just a pair like that, they’re usually in flocks.

    • February 16, 2013 11:12 pm

      It is rather odd to see just the 2 of them without being in a flock. I’m sure they could tell an interesting story!

  4. February 16, 2013 11:13 pm

    Great post as always, liked the picture from the past.

  5. February 17, 2013 6:43 am

    Thank yo for this; great photos!

  6. February 17, 2013 2:00 pm

    Enjoyed your post!

  7. February 17, 2013 3:19 pm

    Makes me wonder if they are the same 2 Snow Buntings I saw with my friend a few weeks ago when we visited Hoover Reservoir?

    • February 17, 2013 8:12 pm

      I’m almost certain they were, Les- I saw them first in mid-January, then again a few days ago. All of the eBird reports indicate seeing just 2.

  8. February 17, 2013 3:27 pm

    Well caught.

  9. February 17, 2013 7:21 pm

    I’m glad you got to see exactly what you went looking for-it’s always great when that happens.(But it could happen more often!)

  10. February 17, 2013 8:31 pm

    Lovely as always. I got a real appreciation for your bird photos this weekend. Tried to get a few myself and they all flew off before I got anything–not even a blurred tail. You should give tips!

    • February 17, 2013 9:30 pm

      Inger, for every photo you see here, there are several bad pictures never seen, believe me! It’s tough getting birds to cooperate for photos, luck is involved…that’s a good idea though, I’ll do a post on photography one of these days. I’m still learning though.

  11. February 18, 2013 10:51 pm

    The Snow Buntings are very pretty birds! It was a treat to see your photos of a bird that I’ve never seen!

  12. February 19, 2013 10:39 am

    Beautiful! We have seen Snow Buntings too, in the Cairngorms. They are lovely little birds.

    • February 19, 2013 10:53 pm

      That’s great, Jo! Sometimes the Atlantic Ocean isn’t quite a large enough obstacle for our feathered friends.

  13. February 19, 2013 10:59 am

    I enjoyed seeing your lovely pictures of the visiting snow buntings – what a treat for winter-weary eyes!

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