Connecticut Audubon Bird Finder for December 6, 2013: Snow Bunting
Where to find them:
Snow Buntings are commonly found in large flocks during fall migration at open coastal fields and parking lots, and in agricultural fields inland. The Connecticut Audubon Society’s Coastal Center at Milford Point is a good starting point, as is our Stratford Point coastal restoration site, across the Housatonic River. Just last week I was seeing a flock of more than 35 Snow Buntings on most days. Another reliable location is Long Beach in Stratford. I have seen this species numerous times about halfway down the beach, feeding in large open beach areas with sparse vegetation. For those with limited mobility, Hammonasett Beach State Park in Madison is another good spot to view these birds. They are often found there in the grassy parking lot near the Nature Center. Other coastal parks are worth checking too, such as Silver Sands State Park in Milford, or Sherwood Island State Park in Westport. Inland, Snow Buntings can be found occasionally at our 700-acre Grassland Conservation Center at Pomfret.
How to find them: More often than not I find this bird by looking at large flocks flying in the preferred habitat I described above. Look for large amounts of white in the primaries and secondaries. Also look for the white rump patch and the white in the outer rectrices (tail feathers). Snow Buntings have a small bit of undulation to their flight at the end of each wing beat. On beaches and in coastal grass locations you can see them feeding on the ground and they will stick out because of the amount of white in males and females. Aptly they are sometimes nicknamed snowflakes because of this.
What they look like: Snow Buntings are about the size of sparrows. Breeding males are primarily white and black; they have white upper bodies, white stomachs, and black backs. In the winter, males lose most of their overall white look, which becomes washed with brown. The face gets ginger patches on the cheek and a ginger cap. Non-breeding males and females look similar, but the males have more white on the underside while females have a more ginger look to them. The bill is short and yellow with a black tip. Another fun fact about this species is unlike most passerines they have feathers on their tarsus (lower leg). It is an evolutional adaptation to deal with the cold climates that they breed and winter in.
What if the bird isn’t there: If you can’t locate Snow Buntings there are several other species that share a similar habitat niche, including Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris), Lapland Longspur (Calcarius lapponicus ) and American Pipit (Anthus rubescens). All three can be found foraging in this habitat, often in mixed flocks.
Another species to keep an eye out for especially with the irruption going on now is Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). Coastal grassland habitat is one of the best places to spot them, and we have had Snowy Owls in recent days at Stratford Point and at Milford Point.
Conservation status: Snow Buntings are considered to be of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Photos by Twan Leenders/Copyright Connecticut Audubon Society.