Year Of The Bird Series: January – Snow Buntings

Editor’s Note: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Geographic, National Audubon Society, BirdLife International, and more than 100 other organizations have declared 2018 the “Year of the Bird.” 2018 Coincides with the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s ratification. Many bird organizations and enthusiasts are pledging to do 1 thing per month to help birds. Ruthven Park National Historic Site has a bird banding station in collaboration with the Haldimand Bird Observatory that is 1 of 27 sites that make up Bird Studies Canada’s Canadian Migration Monitoring Network. Our Bander-in-Charge Rick Ludkin has taken up the task of organizing one blog post per month on different birds to celebrate the Year of the Bird at Ruthven Park! Below, you will find the first installment in this 12-part series.

Article by Rick Ludkin, Ruthven Park National Historic Site Bird Banding Station Bander-in-Charge

What better way to start off a monthly series to commemorate the Year of the Bird than with the Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis). This bird is “circumpolar”; i.e., it is found around the world, breeding in the Arctic and spending the Winter in more temperate (but still cold!) areas. For example, birds that breed in the Canadian High Arctic spend their Winters in the southern Prairie Provinces and birds from Svalbard (500 N of Norway) winter in Kazakhstan – conditions in these areas can be pretty harsh. One of the intriguing things about the Snow Buntings that we see in southern Ontario is that they quite likely have come from Greenland – there are a number of reports of banded birds exchanged between us and Greenland – one of “our” birds (a bird that we banded), in fact, was recovered there.

I first became really aware of this hardy bird when I was working in a field camp on Devon Island at 78 degrees N. A pair had built a nest under a huge boulder, safe from Arctic Foxes and Polar Bears, but within 10 meters of the open water polyna with its relentless chilling wind. Despite the conditions, these birds raised a family of 8 young ones! And many of the other pairs in the area had large broods. 

One of the reasons for their success was that the hatching of their eggs coincided with an enormous emergence of midges in the small ponds at the bottom of the cliffs, nesting habitat for 9,000 Northern Fulmar pairs. Getting food for their young, the parents would snatch up insects at the rate of almost 2 per second; they would then fly off to the nest sporting a black fuzzy moustache. (Interestingly, in Svalbard where insects were very few, the adults fed mainly seeds and plant material to their young…but still seemed to have similar success.)

(tip: click on each photo above to enlarge it for a closer look)

Once the young have fledged both they and the adults go through a moult. They are then ready to head South. Very little is known about the travels of Canadian Snow Buntings. A few birds fitted with geolocators on Southampton Island showed that they flew to the west side of Hudson Bay where they stayed for about a month (probably to fatten up) before heading south to spend the Winter in southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Curiously, birds that had lived through the Summer no more than 200 meters from each other, separated by more than several hundred kilometers in the South. They flew the same route in reverse to return. Another bird that David Hussell and I fitted with a geolocator in Iqaluit also headed to the west side of Hudson Bay before wintering in the Prairie Provinces. But it took a big circle route to get back, flying up through the James Bay area and northern Quebec.

The most moving display of their southern migration I witnessed in mid-September going through Davis Strait on a research vessel – the “narrows” between Greenland and Baffin Island.. A strong north wind was pushing up big waves but in the troughs small flocks of Snow Buntings and American Pipits were winging their way West staying low to keep out of that wind. I would suggest that many of these birds likely spent the Winter in our local farm fields. Amazing!

Long distance migratory flights and extreme conditions must have an impact on the longevity of these little birds but…..we just received word from the Banding Office that a bird that we recovered just this January had originally been banded along the north shore of Lake Erie in February 2014. At that time it was at least in its 3rd year, making it 6 or more years old.