The scarcity of pine siskins reminds us that the appearance of many northern birds is unpredictable here. Some years, yes; some years, no or nearly so.
The snow buntings, however, seem to be with us each winter, so much so that they are an expected feature of the winter landscape.
Don’t expect snow buntings at backyard feeders. They are strictly open-country birds. I don’t think buntings have ever ventured to the feeders at our place west of Gilby, N.D.
This shyness seemed odd to me, since food is abundant there.
But the buntings prefer bare fields and roadsides. There they find a more familiar environment and ready stores of food.
Snow buntings are Arctic birds. Their nesting habitat is the windswept tundra. In my imagination, at least, this is similar to the vast fields of the Red River Valley, and I imagine the buntings think so, too.
The buntings are gleaners. They move along rural roads and through fields and weed patches picking up seeds. There they find food enough to sustain themselves, sometimes in flocks numbering hundreds, if not thousands, of birds.
The buntings must be proficient at picking seeds. Their flocks seem to roll along the ground, as birds in the rear of the flock rise up and move to the front. This creates an arresting effect, as if a wheel of birds is advancing across the land.
The effect is heightened by the appearance of the birds. They are mostly white, not too surprising given their choice of habitat, but with a mix of darker colors on the back. In winter, the white is offset by black on the wings and a rich ochre color highlighting the face and breast.
The birds are easily seen, yet they seem ephemeral. Their passage is phantomlike, evoking wildness, though not freedom. Snow bunting flocks are tightly knit. The birds are a close community. I wonder sometimes if the flock is the entity, not the individual.
Yet singleton snow buntings do occur, usually as outliers at either end of the winter season. This year, I saw my first snow buntings in early November, three of them, along the auto trail in Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, a 27,000-acre expanse of grass and wetlands in northwestern North Dakota. I’ve also seen snow buntings as late as the end of April, again only a few birds, sometimes a solitary individual.
Snow buntings are ground-loving birds. I have seen them perched above the ground only rarely. One memorable occasion was along a rural road northeast of East Grand Forks. Several hundred snow buntings had settled into brushy growth along a drainage ditch.
Usually, snow buntings are encountered along roads through open country. This can include the four-lane highways. Once while driving from Devils Lake to Grand Forks, I ran up a total of nearly 5,000 snow buntings in 40 flocks. That amounts to a flock of buntings every couple of miles, on average.
Of course, these figures are guesstimates. You can’t count birds effectively at highway speeds.
To me, the classic snow bunting appearance is along a gravel road, where a flock may spread out, creating the impression of variegated stones on the gray road surface. In flight, the birds suggest snow, even blowing snow.
This has prompted a nickname: snow birds. This name is applied to several other species, though, based more on the time of their appearance rather than their color.
Juncos, often called “snowbirds,” are gray, for example, and don’t look snowy at all. They are wanderers, like snow buntings, but they tend to appear en masse in early winter and depart in early spring. A few juncos sometimes hang on through the winter, but by and large, they are not birds of deep winter, as snow buntings are.
Snow buntings are remarkable for other reasons. They nest farther north than any other land-dwelling species, as far north as there is land. The Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a UND alumnus, reported seeing them on the new lands he discovered in the Canadian archipelago.
This is a harsh environment. For nesting, snow buntings choose cracks and fissures in rock outcroppings. These provide protection from predators.
Such sites are at a premium in the Arctic, and male buntings rush northward to claim and protect their nesting territory. They reach the Far North as early as April. Female buntings hang out farther south until mid-May.