Northland Nature: Early migrating snow buntings

It's mid-March and we are seeing some seasonal changes. Although the month began as a continuation of the cold of February, with below-zero temperatures the first five days, a south flow of winds on March 6 began a warming trend.

Snow buntings
An autumn-migrating flock of snow buntings takes flight. Note the white on the wings. (Larry Weber photo)

It’s mid-March and we are seeing some seasonal changes. Although the month began as a continuation of the cold of February, with below-zero temperatures the first five days, a south flow of winds on March 6 began a warming trend.
We are now at the time of nearly equal daylight and darkness. This, combined with the full moon, leads us to the vernal equinox, the first day of spring, March 20.
Although the season is beginning on the calendar, weather conditions don’t always reflect it. We will still see cold and snow. (Don’t expect another spring like last year when March and April gave us more than 75 five inches of snow. And don’t expect a repeat of March and April of 2010 when we received no snow!)
The snowpack plays the role of a blanket for some critters living beneath and it also serves as a reflector of the warming sunlight, helping to postpone the warmth of the new season.
But the lengthening days will prevail and we are starting to see some changes. The south winds at this time prove to be the winds of change, and some early migrants are starting to arrive.
Last week as I walked, I noticed the caws of crows. These flocks coming by may have been migrants. With crows, some stay throughout the winter, others go south.
But by the time we get to March, we are likely to notice some of these dark birds returning to the Northland.
Also, as I walked, I heard ravens giving hoarse calls as they flew over the woods while the early-morning barred owls hooted territorial notes of their own. Those sight and sounds, blended with woodpecker drumming, chickadee and nuthatch calls, all spoke of the new
But the best example of moving changes was an early migrating flock of about a dozen snow buntings that I saw in a roadside field as I drove by.
Snow buntings are a type of sparrow, though not carrying that label. They nest in the far north, in the tundra, beyond the growth of trees. Here in the open spaces, they spend the long sunlit summers.
Leaving their breeding range in fall, they are regular migrants in the Northland. We seem to see them more in the fall as they pass through, stopping to feed in any open space they find. These sites may be farm fields, sport fields, parks and even parking lots.
We may see them as a group of white birds that fly up as we drive by. If these places are covered with snow, they often congregate along roads for their seed meals. I suspect that they stay in the region until the snow cover is too difficult for them to find meals.
Usually snow buntings are still around to be counted as part of the Christmas Bird Count, but they move further south thereafter. They are an uncommon sight in January and early February, but with the longer days, they get restless and slowly begin their northing trek, stopping in our region as they fly north.
The flock that I saw was on the surface of the snow in a field. It may be hard to find food with the snowpack that we have, but enough plants reach through the snow cover to provide seeds for these birds.
Snow buntings are about only 6 inches long and mostly brown and white; the white is mostly on the undersides and wings, and is most likely seen as the birds fly.
We would not even see such small plain birds if not for the fact that they move about in flocks, making them much easier to see.
I don’t expect these snow bunting flocks to be here long. The restless birds will be heading north in coming weeks; but for now, they are a great sight to see, and a testimony of the coming spring migration.
Other changes are happening in the Northland now as well. Twigs of red osier dogwood are bright red, while those of willows are reds and yellows. Some small willows open up fluffy buds at this time, as do the buds of quaking aspens.
Melting of snow around the base of many deciduous trees also tells of the coming changes. Soon maple sap will be flowing.
Among all of these happenings in mid-March, I’m glad to see these early migrating snow buntings.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o .

Snow buntings
Two migrating snow buntings rest on the road. (Photo by Larry Weber)

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