Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Intriguing snow buntings the embodiment of winter

STACEY COLE February 22. 2013 10:56PM

I must confess that although I have spent some of my time observing birds along our Atlantic shore, truth to tell, most of my bird watching days there were during the warmer months. Thus, not being very knowledgeable about shore birds, a mid-January letter with photographs from an Exeter couple had me stumped. The letter read in part: "On Monday, January 14, we were walking along Ocean Boulevard in North Hampton, our favorite route, when we saw a swarm of small birds sunning themselves on the rocks along the shore. They were chirping away, enjoying a sunny, spring-like day as we were. All of a sudden they became airborne and flew in a swarm to the left (north) then abruptly turned to the right (south) a very short distance, then returned to the same rocks where they were originally. It was just a beautiful sight to behold!!

"The birds were small, with short legs, small bills with white bellies and grayish brown wings. There were hundreds of them and cute as could be. I think they were plovers - what do you think? I hope the small photos will help. We couldn't climb down on the rocks and get closer."

The individual birds in their photos were indeed, too small for me to identify them. However, my experience traveling along their same route, led me to believe that the birds may have been snowy plovers, sanderlings, or perhaps, least sandpipers in their winter dress. In any case they were probably a flock of shore birds that were frequently chased from place to place by the incoming waves.

In a phone conversation, I freely admitted to them that I could not identify the birds and suggested they speak to a biologist with N.H. Audubon. When they telephoned back, I was truly surprised to learn that the birds that had so intrigued them, turned out to be snow buntings, one of my favorite winter visitors from the north. It never occurred to me that they visited our rocky, Atlantic shoreline.

I recalled that several years ago, on the way to the barn on a cold, early winter's morning to do after-breakfast chores, something caught my eye along the far edge of a distant corn field. It was a blur of white that twisted and turned within the icy mist. At first I thought it was a patch of snow that had been caught up by a playful wind, whirled and tossed about, only to be quickly flung aside and left to fall. What I really saw was a flock of snow buntings that are often called "snowbirds" or "snowflakes." On a stormy winter's day I especially enjoy the erratic and sometimes whimsical behavior of these birds. On winter's arrival, I still watch each day, hopeful of seeing a flock of these delightful birds feeding at the weed stalks that stand above the snow along the unmowed edges of our open fields.

Edward Howe Forbush, in his "Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States," captured these birds perfectly when he wrote: "When winter really comes to New England, when icy blasts sweep down from the north and snow fills the air and whitens fields and pasture, these little birds ride down on wintry winds and whirl about the fields amid the driving snow. As they wheel and turn in concert, their brown backs and black-tipped wings veer and careen about amid the snowflakes until, with a sudden swing, they turn their under sides toward us and disappear in the snow-filled air, only to reappear as the next turn brings their backs to our view. Having swung back and forth and from side to side, and viewed their landfall from every vantage point, they glide toward the earth, alight in a patch of weeds or tall grass that projects above the snow, and running along from plant to plant, help themselves to the well-ripened seeds. While thus occupied they are always moving along over the surface of the snow, running rapidly, walking and ever hopping, or jumping occasionally, eagerly snatching, hulling and swallowing the winter offering of the weeds and grasses. They are not particularly shy, but any unusual sound or motion will send them all into the air at once."

Naturalist John Burroughs wrote: "This is the only one of our winter birds that really seems a part of winter - that seems born of the whirling snow, and happiest when storms drive thickest. Its calls, coming out of the white obscurity, are the sweetest and happiest of all winter bird notes. It is like the laughter of children. The fox hunter hears it on the snowy hills; the school boy hears it as he breaks through the drifts on his way to school; it is a voice of good cheer and contentment."

Old-timers considered the arrival of snow buntings as a harbinger of winter. Their appearance in large numbers was considered generally to indicate the approach of a hard winter, the snow bunting being forced southward when the deep snows cover much of its favorite food and the northern beaches are interred in ice.

Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey 03446.

Nature Talks

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