Northland Nature: All hail the aptly named snow buntings of NovemberBreeding in the tundra, snow buntings are at home in open spaces. Here, despite the cold and wind often felt at such sites, these birds do quite well.
As usual, the month of November 2010 showed its two sides. We began with mild temperatures and, though the month is often called “gray November,” we marveled in the clear, dry days.
But then, as we approached mid-month and the latter days of November, we saw a different view of the month.
Whereas the first half of the month gave us an average reading of nearly 40 degrees, the second half dropped to the 20s.
And with the chill, we dealt with a significant snowfall and subsequent freezing of the ground. The bare ground of AutWin during the early days has become blanketed with snow as we exit the month. As well, icing is seen in ponds, swamps and lakes.
The continuing freeze-up gives a completely different look to the woods and wetlands than we saw 30 days ago.
Not only do we have a change in the weather, but I have noticed quite a variation with the migrants as well. The juncos, tree sparrows and fox sparrows that arrived earlier in the fall left us during the first week of November.
Their absence was quickly filled by a few more northern Canada birds that moved this way. About mid-month, I observed flocks of such winter birds — such as redpolls, Bohemian waxwings and pine grosbeaks — in the woods, while a scattering of rough-legged hawks began to appear along the roadsides.
Out in open water, goldeneyes swam, and, one evening at dusk, I heard and then saw a flock of about 50 tundra swans. (This is not unusual to see in spring, but a bit so in fall.)
But as we began the month of November, the most abundant southbound migrant was the snow buntings.
Another species of sparrows, snow buntings (pictured) appear to be appropriately named, as frequently they are seen in snowy scenes.
Breeding in the tundra, they are at home in open spaces. Here, despite the cold and wind often felt at such sites, they do quite well.
A typical viewing of these small birds (about 7 inches) is a flock flying up from the roadsides and field edges. Most of the groups that I saw this month were of 20 to 50 birds, but I have seen flocks that numbered in the hundreds as they feed on seeds out in the chilly fields of the Northland.
During summer, snow buntings are mostly white, but, by the time that we see them in fall, they have changed into an outfit of brown on the back and white below.
Scattered in the open fields, they are able to move and gather seeds without attracting much attention. When taking wing, they reveal large white wing patches that make them easy to see when in flight. We can see why they are sometimes called “snowflakes” or said to be drifting like “leaves in the wind.”
Recently as I walked a road, I observed a few of these snow birds at the edge. I thought I saw maybe five taking a meal, but, when scared up, I counted 20!
Their feathers camouflaged them so well in this field setting.
As the cold and snow moved in, many of these field birds move on; they mostly winter in open country south of here.
But I still see some flocks now — and usually snow buntings are with us through much of December.
And they will continue to impress us with how well they are able to cope with the bleak conditions of the fields.
Those leaving will stop by here again as they head north in the spring.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books that are available now, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.