Mike Jacobs: Snow Buntings Blow in the Red River Valley


Of course, there was no magic involved. Snow buntings are common in the Red River Valley, although their numbers vary from year to year. Buntings nest in the High Arctic, further north than any other land bird. They move, sometimes in droves, to the northern plains states to spend the winter. This places the Red River Valley directly on their migration path.


It is impossible to know if the snow buntings we saw were the vanguard of a marching migration, if they moved together or were, in fact, separate groups or if they will spend time here. or will leave.

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They may have been pinned to the ground by the strong southerly wind on Tuesday.

In many winters, they hang around. The important variable seems to be the nature of the snow cover. Deep snow doesn’t seem to deter them as much as ice-encrusted snow – the kind that began to develop last week, when the advancing sun turned the heavy, wet snow into a pack of ice. These conditions changed drastically with Tuesday’s thaw.

Snow buntings have a curious – but probably very convenient – method of moving around open areas. The rear of the flock lifts forward, creating the effect of a mass of birds rolling over the open fields.

These herds are sometimes visible from a distance, and at least once I imagined that a herd was a moving snow whirlpool – an unlikely weather event, as whirlpools usually form when the ground warms up.

Snow buntings are circumpolar birds that nest in the tundra along the arctic coast of North America, Europe and Asia and islands in the northern oceans. Immigrants to North America from Europe would have recognized the birds. They nest in northern Scandinavia, Finland and Russia, and in winter they occur as far south as northern Germany, Poland and Ukraine – homelands of immigrants who have settled there. in the plains of North America.

Snow buntings appear almost entirely white, but that’s an illusion. When viewed up close, they show lots of black in the wings and tail and some brown and marbled orange in the body plumage. In breeding plumage, males are black and white.

Lapland Buntings are sometimes present in groups of Snow Buntings, and vice versa. They can be distinguished at a glance. The buntings look dark. However, this does not guarantee the identification of individuals within a flock, as flocks move quickly and change direction suddenly, and it is impossible to track individual birds.

I felt the birds we were seeing were snow buntings, but there were enough dark shapes to convince me that at least some of the flocks were mixed buntings and buntings. It is also possible that some of them contain larks, a resident species with similar habits. I am much less convinced that was the case.

Snow buntings have more closely related relatives than either of these two species. The McKay’s Sparrow is an even whiter bird than the Snow Sparrow. Found only on two islands in the Bering Sea, McKay is one of North America’s rarest birds.

Other observations

Our trip to Grand Forks saw another arctic bird, a rough-legged hawk. I sometimes call the rough-legged hawk the “November hawk” because that’s when it usually appears here. This year, I spotted my first November falcon in October.

Like the snow bunting, this hawk nests in the Arctic and, like the snow bunting, it migrates across the Great Plains. In general, however, rough-legged hawks move farther south than snow buntings – although snow buntings have been observed on the Atlantic coast in northern Florida.

Reports of nocturnal grosbeaks continue, but they have slowed down, suggesting that we are not in a “year of irruption” unless we redefine the term to mean the reappearance of a small number of a species that was more regular and more numerous in winter here.

Dave Lambeth had one notable sighting, a short-eared owl over his driveway in southern Grand Forks. It was the 181st entry on his list of garden birds. Usually, these owls are open country birds unlikely to appear in the city, but not too many miles outside the city limits.

Another notable sighting concerned the so-called “sea ducks”, a reference to their usual habitat. They were kakawis and black scoters. Seth Owens reported them to the lagoons at Grand Forks Air Force Base, which have a reputation for attracting unexpected waterfowl.

Jacobs is a retired editor and editor of the Herald. Contact him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

Mike Jacobs

Mike Jacobs


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