Sunday, February 9, 2014

A tsunami of Snow Buntings

At first blush, this rural farmhouse may not appear to harbor what may be the most extraordinary bird feeding operation in Ohio. But indeed it does. If there is anything out there that rivals this in terms of sheer numbers, and the atypical "feeder" species involved, I am unaware of it.

I visited this Delaware County residence yesterday, after being tipped off to the amazing assemblage of birds by Dick Miller, whose sister and brother-in-law, Mike and Becky Jordan, reside in the home. Mike and Becky have been very gracious in extending their hospitality to visitors, including your narrator, which is much appreciated!

I'm not going to post their address on the Internet, but Mike and Becky do welcome birders who would like to witness the phenomenon that unfolds in the following photos. If you would like to visit, just send me an email at:, and I'll pass along the pertinent information.

I arrived at 8:30 yesterday morning, and this was the very first of over 2,200 images that I made during my 3.5 hour stay. Nearly all of the birds swirling about in the image are Snow Buntings! The large trees are silver maples, and dozens of buntings adorn the summits of the trees as well. As soon as I turned onto the Jordan's road, nearly a half-mile from their home, I saw the birds. Thousands of buntings, larks, and longspurs forming a great undulating mass.

It was a frosty 2 degrees F upon arrival, warming only to 16 F by my departure. Observing and photographing this spectacular flock of birds was well worth lying in the icy snow, and enduring the Arctic temperatures.

A blizzard of buntings nearly obscures the front of Mike and Becky's house. I found it impossible to get what I would feel confident was an accurate estimate of the number of birds visiting their yard. Even when the feeding areas were jammed with birds, scores and scores of others were out in the surrounding fields. Somewhere between 3,500 and 5,000 Snow Bunting, Horned Larks, and Lapland Longspurs would probably be a reasonable guesstimate.

Don't you wish your driveway looked like this! Well, if you are into birds, you probably would. Scattered flocks form where Mike has scattered his magical ingredient: cracked corn. Deep snow cover interlaced with ice has made for tough foraging in the fields, and the birds have found the corn an irresistible lure. Mike basically rings his house with corn scatterings: driveway, backyard, garden, front yard. The end result is an utterly unbelievable concentration of birds that one seldom gets to fawn over in such numbers, and at such close quarters.

This is the stuff of which clouds of buntings, larks and longspurs are made - finely ground cracked corn! If you think your feed bill is hefty, get a load of the following numbers. Mike puts out about 50 lbs. of this stuff A DAY. He'll purchase about a ton of cracked corn (which is specially ground to his standards) over the bunting/lark/longspur season. He's been doing this for about 20 years, too.

The birds now seem to recognize Mike, and when he heads out in the morning, grain bucket in hand, they begin swarming towards the house, filling the air with rattles and whistles.

I could not get enough of this spectacle. Tidal movements of birds ebbed and flowed, swirling in and covering the drive, then suddenly exploding aloft in a loud whir of wings at some threat, real or perceived. In an instant, they'd be back, but the flock was always wary and full of nervous energy. Not because of the primate admirers, I don't believe, but due to the ever-present threat of marauding raptors: Cooper's and Sharp-shinned hawks, Northern Harrier, and American Kestrel. No raptors bagged a treat while I was there, but at least two harriers coursed by, eying the flock.

The birds were tame enough that I was able to use my 70-200 mm lens, which is lightning fast and tack sharp but requires that the photographer be close to the subjects. One reason that I tripped the shutter some 2,200 times was that I fired off extended rapid-fire burst modes, hoping to freeze the beautiful birds in flight. Most shots were discards; a few, such as this one, were keepers.

The BIG THREE of midwinter open country feeding flocks are Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Buntings. All three species are in this image. The buntings are self-explanatory: brilliant white flashes adorn their wings and tail, hence one of their colloquial names, "Snowflakes". A dark-winged Horned Lark is bookended by Lapland Longspurs at the top of the image, and another lark is bottom left. Just to the right of the lower lark is another longspur, showing its white outer tail feathers.

A quartet of Snow Buntings feeds on Mike and Becky's cracked corn. These birds breed in the Arctic, and have come a long ways south to winter in Ohio. This species was easily the most numerous at the Jordan's feederscape, outnumbering each of the other species by a factor of 12, or more.

The earliest of these tough songbirds will begin to arrive at Arctic breeding locales in April, when winter still has a strong hold and conditions are harsh. One way in which they cope is to burrow into the snow at night, creating sheltered bivouacs. Mike and Becky have observed them doing just that in the adjacent fields, in order to survive subzero temperatures and brutal wind chills.

A male Lapland Longspur feasts in the front yard. The males are commencing molt from basic (winter) plumage to alternate (breeding plumage, and some were showing lots of chestnut and black. They'll brighten up considerably over the next few weeks. This is an enormously abundant bird across Arctic tundra regions. North American birds winter primarily in the Great Plains, and flocks estimated at a jaw-dropping four million birds have been reported there.

The name "longspur" stems from the greatly elongated hind claw, which can be seen in this photo.

Frequent flock mates: Lapland Longspur on the left, and a Horned Lark. These species typically walk, rather than hop, as does the bunting. That's a more efficient mode of locomotion for birds that habitually feed and otherwise spend the majority of their time on the ground. When at pause, these birds often hunch down and nearly sit on the ground. That posture is likely an adaptation to better warm their feet and legs in freezing temperatures.

Lit by the sun, a flock of Snow Buntings swirls about the tops of the big maples shown in the first two photos. Many more buntings are at rest in the upper boughs.

Treetop perching by Snow Buntings was not a behavior that I was familiar with. I've seen them tee up in scraggly saplings and bushes on occasion, but had not had the experience of watching them perch en masse in a tree 40-50 feet overhead. It did make for some neat photo ops. My car was parked under this tree, and I had left the driver's side window open. When I left, I noticed a bit of bunting guano adhering to the arm rest. I was honored, and may be one of few people who have had a Snow Bunting drop droppings INTO their car.


I will leave you with this brief video of birds swarming about the Jordan's drive. The action will probably remain strong as long as snow blankets the ground, but when it melts the birds will forsake the cracked corn donations and head back into the fields to forage.

Thanks again to Becky and Mike for their hospitality, and I'm sure that buntings/larks/longspurs thank them as well. Again, if you wish to visit, feel free to contact me for information.


denapple said...

Fantastic! We have a field in Louisville where we traditionally find these winter birds, and local birders have been "flocking" to see them here too!

Mary Huey said...

Oh, my gosh -- thanks for sharing this spectacular sight!

Anonymous said...

Holy snowflakes! Absolutely amazing! Glad you got to experience the spectacle Jim!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences at the farm as well as the stunning photos and video.


matterickson said...

I visited yesterday ... truly amazing.