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An Irruption of Arctic Snowbirds

One morning, during the early part of February, while walking on trails at the nature centre we saw what looked like swirling snowflakes over one of the fields. We realized very quickly that it was a flock of Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis). We later learned that a group of Snow Buntings is called a "drift" and of course, their nickname is "snowflake".

They magically seem to appear, swirling over the fields, the buntings at the rear flying forward and landing ahead of the forerunners. They flurry about, foraging for food and then promptly take to the skies disappearing, only to return seemingly out of nowhere.

These winter visitors have a subtle beauty. They are mostly white with grayish-brown streaks which acts as effective camouflage in their open, snow-covered habitat. Prior to the breeding season, the males rub their bellies and heads on the snow which wears down the grayish-brown feather tips revealing beautiful white feathers underneath. Their breeding plumage is a snow-white body contrasted with black back, wingtips and central tail feathers.

Photo Credit: Kerstin Kramer

Their feathering covers their ankles and the base of their bills helping to keep them warm and insulated from the frigid cold. Body temperatures can dip 30-40% lower than other songbirds and they are able to adjust their metabolism turning food into insulating body fat. Snow buntings will also bury themselves in snowdrifts to stay warm.

Snow buntings begin their migration in the fall, leaving the Arctic tundra, flying to Southern parts of Canada, in search of open habitats like farm fields, meadows and along shorelines. Their arrival in our area is a sure sign that winter is here! The males return to just south of the Arctic Circle mid-March to early April, claiming and defending a suitable nesting site in a rocky crevice. The females follow approximately 3-4 weeks later. They breed on the frozen tundra in sub-zero temperatures.

The eggs are laid once the temperatures remain above 0 degrees Celsius. The female sits on the nest during most of the incubation period ensuring the eggs are protected from the cold while the male works to continuously feed the female.

These beautiful little creatures seldom stray from cold temperatures. It's a wonderful pastime watching these Snow Buntings land, forage for food, race across the ground, take off, tumble and swirl mostly in unison. They give us the gift of making our dark, wintery days come alive.

We found this Facebook page however we are not sure how active the members are. There are some wonderful photographs posted on the page of Snow Buntings.

Breeding Male

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