A good remedy for seasonal affective disorder, or cabin fever, is to get outside and get some exercise. Volunteers for the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust were cutting box elders and buckthorn and burning brush at the Kelly Creek Preserve northeast of River Falls on Saturday, Jan. 23. It was a relatively balmy 20 degrees with a strong south wind that morning. It was easy to keep warm by hauling brush and stoking the fires.
While we were burning brush we noticed a moving blizzard of small birds landing in the prairie to forage. The birds were snow buntings on vacation down here for the winter far from their summer breeding range in the high arctic.
Snow buntings are small, sparrow-sized birds that are easy to identify. During their non-breeding season snow buntings are unmistakable with white bodies and dark streaks on their backs. The tail is white, bordering a black wedge. The wings are mostly white with black tips.
Snow buntings breed in rocky tundra areas in the high arctic around the world, farther north than any other species of land bird. They nest in rock cavities for protection from predators. They line their nests with feathers, moss and fur to provide insulation. The female incubates the eggs nearly continuously to keep them warm while the male brings food.
The young grow quickly being fed a rich diet of insects and spiders that are abundant in the arctic summer. Starting in September snow buntings migrate into southern Canada and the northern United States to spend the winter. During winter they occur in coastal areas, lakeshores, open fields and farmland. They are true snow birds that can burrow deep into the snow to survive minus-30 degree nights and they appear to enjoy bathing in the snow.
The grassland area of the Kelly Creek Preserve is a prairie restoration in progress. The area east of Kelly Creek was burned last spring by the River Falls Fire Department and was planted with native grasses and forbs by the DNR. The area grew up with foxtail, amaranth, ragweed, goosefoot, mullein, and goldenrod from seed that was in the soil. The native prairie flowers like coneflowers and the warm season grasses like big bluestem were just getting going this year. These plants provide abundant seeds that are available to birds like snow buntings and goldfinches in winter.
Snow buntings are social birds that fly in tight ‘rolling’ flocks with birds in the back overflying birds in the front. Unlike ducks, geese, cranes, swans and pelicans, snow bunting flocks don’t fly in formation or have leaders. Flying at about 40 miles per hour without much space between them, an entire flock of birds can make hairpin turns in an instant. High-speed photography and computer simulations have enabled biologists to simulate how flocks of birds and schools of fish can move in synchrony. That’s a good subject for another article.
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–Dan Wilcox, outdoor columnist