A captivating flock of Snow Buntings foraging at the Eastern Point salt marsh, set to Debussy’s beautiful flute prelude. LOVE Snow Buntings and their mesmerizing flight pattern! Watch how beautifully they have evolved in their ability to find food in the snowy landscape.
See also a Horned Meadow Lark- I often see the larks foraging along with the Snow Buntings and there was one with the flock.
Royalty and copyright free music from the Internet Archives: Claude Debussy “Prélude À L’apres-midi D’un Faune.”
After Monday night’s unexpected snowstorm, I stopped by the Lighthouse the following morning and was delighted to find a large flock of gorgeous Snow Buntings foraging in the marsh. There are tons of wildflowers at Eastern Point, both native and nonnative species, and the Snow Buntings were feasting on the seeds. Snow Buntings are wonderfully fun to watch as they dive into the snow mounds, hop across the snow with snowshoe-like feet, take flight in unison, and get into tussles over plants particularly rife with seed heads.
I spent most of the time filming the snow birds but here is one photo. It’s the first and only time I have ever seen Snow Buntings at the Lighthouse. I stopped by this morning several times, but no sign of the little beauties, and most of the snow had already melted. Yesterday was a very fortunate few moments!
One of the most beautiful creatures of the snowy landscape has to be the Snow Bunting. Also known as Snowflakes, Snow Buntings light up winter scapes with swirls of flight and highly animated foraging habits.
During the breeding season in the high Arctic, Snow Buntings eat a protein rich insect diet but while here during the winter months in the relatively milder climate of Massachusetts, they forage on tiny grass seeds and must constantly eat. Although their feeding habits are highly entertaining to the human observer, it’s really a matter of life or death for these cold weather warriors.
Standing on tiptoes for breakfast
Snow Buntings have several methods for extracting seeds. Sometimes they vigorously shake a wildflower or stalk of grass at the base of the plant. Other times they alight on a single blade of dried beach grass and slide their beaks along, shredding the stalk and releasing teeny seeds. They may stay alit and eat their foraged treasure, but more often than not, they shake the blade while perched and release the seeds to the ground. The Snow Bunting’s fellow flock member will seize upon the shower of released seeds and try to gobble them up. Herein lies the the conflict and disputes occur non stop while a flock is feeding. Typically one will readily retreat while the other dines, but occasionally a nasty battle ensues.
The wonderfully rich beach grass habitat where the Snow Buntings flock was formerly a barren scape that persistently washed away after every storm. Beach grass was planted, temporary dune fencing installed, and small rocks were added. After only several seasons, this habitat restoration project began attracting butterflies, songbirds, and nesting shorebirds during the spring and summer months, along with glorious creatures such as the beautiful Snow Bunting during the winter months.
I plan to find out exactly what this species of beach grass is that the Snow Buntings find so appealing because there are several locations on Cape Ann where habitat restoration is badly needed and I think this precise species of grass would surely be at the top of the list for stabilizing shoreline conservation projects.
Beautiful Snow Buntings have returned to our shores! You can find them in sand dunes but mostly they can be observed in areas where wildflowers and grasses meet rocky outcroppings and the varying shades of their brown, rust, ivory, and black feathers camouflages perfectly with popples, boulders, and shoreline vegetation.
I have so loved filming and photographing Snow Buntings this winter, finding small and medium sized flocks from Sandy Point to Cape Ann, and further south, all along the coast of Massachusetts. The flocks I have been filming are becoming smaller; male Snow Buntings have already begun their long migration north. Don’t you find all migrating species of wildlife fascinating? Especially a tiny creature such as the Snow Bunting, which breeds the furthest north of any known land-based bird. From the shores of Massachusetts Snow Buntings migrate to the high Arctic where they nest in rocky crevices.
The range shown in orange is where Snow Buntings nest
What has been especially fun to observe is when the Snow Bunting uses its feet as snowshoes and belly like a sled when traversing snow covered beaches. Oftentimes that’s how you can find them, with their unique step-step-slide-tracks. Snow Buntings seem to forage nearly non-stop, perching while shredding grassy seed heads and leaves, and pecking on the ground for seeds caught between sand, stones, and snow. To get from one clump of vegetation to the next, they hop lightly over the surface, snowshoeing along, and then slide along on their bellies. Snow Buntings must gain 30 percent of their body weight before beginning their journey.
Snowshoeing and Sledding
Lively disagreements over food ensue, usually nothing more than a mild spat.
Males typically depart the northeast for their nesting grounds earlier than do the females, arriving three to six weeks ahead of the females. Snow Buntings migrate entirely at night, following the geomagnetic field of the Earth, independent of any type of visual clue!
Notice in several of the photos you can see their “feathered pantaloons,” providing extra protection against freezing temperatures.
Snow Bunting eggs and nest in rocky crevice, images courtesy Google image search
Nicknamed Snowflakes because of their ability to nest in snow!
This past week while photographing a Snow Bunting and several American Pipits, a friendly bird, not in the least skittish, caught my eye. It was acting sort of Pipit-like, similar size-wise and foraging in the sand, but had a striking black streak across its cheek and lemony yellow face. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at until returning home to look it up. I always take lots of photos when I am unsure of what it is I am photographing, just because you never know. I am so glad, because several of the photos gave a great clue. In the snapshots where the bird is looking dead on, you can actually see its tiny feathery “horns.” I think there were two Horned Larks with the small mixed flock, one slightly paler than the other.
‘Horns’ of the Horned Lark
The Snow Bunting was clearly the boss of the mini flock. If another approached too closely to where it was foraging, the bird gave a brief but aggressive hop and flutter toward the intruder.
In winter time, look for Horned Larks in fields, meadows, beaches, and dunes, in large and small mixed flocks. Interestingly, in Europe, the Horned Lark is called the Shore Lark and after the wonderful beach walk surprise, it’s easy to understand why.
At this time of year flocks of Snow Buntings small and large can be found at our local sandy beaches and rocky coastlines. I am finding them throughout my roaming range, from Plum Island to South Boston.
What is not to love about this sweetly charming tubby little songbird, including its name, Snow Bunting, and nickname Snowflake. I am often alerted to the Snow Buntings presence by their distinct and highly varied social chattering. More than once though I and it have been startled as one flutters away to avoid my footsteps. The alarmed Snow Bunting will call loudly, warning its flock mates of a human, and then they will all lift to the skies in a swirling unison of Snowflakes.
Snow Buntings especially love rocky crevices and outcroppings. They nest in rocky areas of the Arctic tundra and while resting and foraging along Massachusetts coastlines, Snow Buntings go largely undetected in the similarly colored rocks.
The conical -shaped bill of Snow Buntings tells us that they are are seed eaters and in autumn and winter, Massachusetts beaches provide a wealth of seed heads remaining on expired wildflowers and grasses. Beach stones, along with piles of beach debris, trap seeds and I have captured a number of photos where the foraging songbirds pop up between the rocks with a mouthful of seed.
Early morning invariably finds Snow Buntings sleeping amongst beach rocks. It is a joy to watch as they slowly awaken, stretching and floofing, before tumbling out in a burst of black, white, and rusty brown to forage for the day.
Remarkably, Snow Buntings are nocturnal migrants. They are able to detect the geomagnetic field of the Earth for guidance to their breeding and overwinter grounds. The orientation of the Snow Bunting during migration is independent of any visual cue.
The 40 plus year old annual Christmas Bird Count shows a 64 percent decline in the Snow Bunting population. Climate change and neonicotinoids (pesticides) are thought to be the main reason for the decline.
Sunday afternoon while walking along Brace Cove I by chance met up with my friend Michelle. I was showing her where to look for the Lark Sparrow when Michelle spotted a beautiful male Snow Bunting, and then we spotted a second! They were pecking at the sand looking for seeds caught between the granules.
Also called “Snowflakes,” their arrival on our shores seems appropriate enough for the pending snowstorm 🙂
An interesting note about Snow Buntings – Male Snow Buntings look very different in their breeding and non-breeding plumage. Not due to molting, but because they rub their bellies and heads in the snow, wearing down brown feather tips to reveal pure white feathers beneath.
Mostly when you see the pretty Snow Buntings at the beach, they are pecking at the sand, foraging for seeds caught between the granules. It was a joy to see one member in this small flock briefly alight on a stem of grass so I could catch a glimpse of its beautiful wing.
Snow Buntings are preparing to migrate to the Arctic. They have a circumpolar Arctic breeding range, which means they breed all around the globe within the range of the North Pole. Snow Buntings are the most northerly recorded passerine (songbird) in the world!
I don’t have a photo of what they look like in summer, when the male’s plumage is a striking black and white, and borrowed this batch from wiki commons media.
Not one, but two, Snowy boys were well camouflaged amidst the rocks. They were far apart from one another when one flew toward the other. The stationary fellow didn’t move an inch and barely opened his eyes, while the flying fellow hid himself expertly behind a clump of dry wildflowers. The two sleepily hung out together, positioned not twenty feet apart.
I wished I could have stayed to see if they would behave territorially, but frozen fingers chided me off the beach.
I see you little Snowy Boy!
A flock of Snow Buntings foraged in between the rocks and they too were well-camouflaged.
A fresh-faced and sleepy-eyed Miss Snowy Owl, a flock of Snow Buntings, and a gang of turkeys made for a beautiful morning ❤
The Snow Buntings were too far away to get a good snapshot, but it is wonderful to see their return to Massachusetts from summer nesting grounds in the high Arctic.
Stirring up the leaf litter with their feet.
A great gang of Wild Turkeys (approximately three dozen!), of mixed age, were foraging amongst the leaf litter, using their big feet to kick up the leaves. The first-hatch year poults stayed more to the center of the flock, while the older hens were foraging at the perimeter.
With early predictions of a Snowy Owl irruption heading our way and several sightings in Gloucester, I have been periodically popping over to Cranes Beach in Ipswich. Thanks to Bill Foley, Cranes Chief of Police (and Kate’s awesome Dad!), who showed me around and provided some great tips on locating the Snowies, I was able to find one second time out. The first day was a bust because a dog owner had allowed his dog off leash. I watched the dog chase the Snowy, who then headed far and away over the dunes. This made me so very sad for myriad reasons, but especially so at Cranes Beach because there is a fabulously huge area that dogs are allowed off leash. Anyhow, seeing the Snowy that first day, and knowing he was there, was all I needed to keep trying.
Dunlins, Sanderlings, Snow Buntings, and Horned Lark
That day, a flock of Dunlins was resting in the sand, with one lone Sanderling, and there was a small flock of Snow Buntings in the parking lot. Feeding amongst the flock was, what I believe to be, a female Horned Lark!
Second day out was wonderfully rewarding. Approaching the stairs to descend to the beach, I inadvertently startled a Snowy and he flew from the area, way, way down the beach, perching on one of the poles that mark the access to the Green Trail. Off I trudged in 15 degree weather, keeping my eyes peeled on where he was resting. He stayed for quite some time while I stood back at a great distance, not wanting to disrupt his hunting. Suddenly, and with what I thought, great bravery, he flew quite close and past me, heading over to the sandy beach. I wasn’t anticipating his flight and didn’t get much of a photo, but it was exquisite to see.
The temperature had climbed to twenty, but I was getting worried about exposed photo fingers and frostbite. After taking a few more photos and some footage of the Snowy in the sand, I very reluctantly headed home.
Today I didn’t see the Snowy Owl, but did find a scattering of Snowy feathers in the sand, in the same area where one had been hunting the previous week. I showed the ranger at the gate, Emily White, the feathers and she confirmed they were from a Snowy. She said that hawks and falcons will attack Snowies. I didn’t see any bones or body parts, so hopefully it wasn’t a fight to the death. Emily was super helpful and shared lots of useful information. This year’s Audubon Christmas Bird Count at Cranes was relatively uneventful, with fewer numbers counted than usual. Many more beautiful birds will be arriving to our shores in the coming weeks, foraging in the dunes and shrubby habitat, and hopefully, there will be lots more Snowy Owl sightings!
This sweet sparrow-sized bird caught my attention as it was feeding alongside a more subdued-hued Song Sparrow, both smack dab in the middle of the road. How could it not, with its strikingly patterned tail feathers, brilliant white underparts, and unusual hopping-walking-running habit.
Aptly named Snow Bunting, and colloquially called “Snowflake”, worldwide this little songbird travels furtherest north of any member of the passerine, breeding in the high Arctic tundra.
In Massachusetts, Snow Buntings are seen during the winter along the coastline and in small flocks, foraging on seeds and tiny crustaceans.
I hope more Snow Buntings join the lone Snowflake spotted on Eastern Point. If you see a Snow Bunting, please write and let us know. Thank you!
Snow Bunting in Arctic summer breeding plumage, photo courtesy BirdNote