January 21st – Check Carefully

The central Snow Bunting has a band on its leg. Lise Balthazar picked it out when going through some old photos. Had to do some serious “cropping” to get to it. -NC

Two things prompted me to jot down this note: the above picture, sent to me by Lise Balthazar in Lanark County and a text yesterday from Bruce Murphy, a prolific bander in New Liskeard, to report that he had just recaptured a bird (one of 177 captured today) banded on April 12, 2020 in Riviere Saint Jean, Quebec. [So far this season, Bruce and the crew of students from Kern’s Public School of Flock have recaptured – this season alone – 14 Snow Buntings that they banded in other seasons/years and 2 “foreign birds – one from our banding site outside of Hagersville and the Riviere St. Jean bird.


Students from Kern’s Public “School of Flock” with Snow buntings that they’re helping to study.  -JG

The main reason that we band birds is to find out where they travel to (and from). So I would encourage you to look over the birds that you see VERY carefully. Some may be sporting a leg band. That in itself is interesting but doesn’t tell us the identity of the bird – we need to see the band to make that determination. But….several birds have been identified by photographers with REALLY good camera lenses. One bird that we banded outside of Hagersville was identified at a feeder in Greenland through photographs.

Bird, with an Ontario band, on a feeder in Nuuk, Greenland.

Banded bird on a feeder in Nuuk, Greenland.

This banded bunting was photographed in April in Labrador City, NL.

Casualty of an errant cat in Labrador City, NL – this bunting had been banded in southern Ontario.

Banded bunting on a Labrador City rooftop in April, 2011. -AP

Banded bunting in St. Lewis, Labrador, April, 2011. -EL


January 19th – Snow Bunting News


I received a couple of Snow Bunting news tidbits which go a long way to breaking up the tedium of living through a lockdown. I have been waiting anxiously for some “real” Canadian Winter weather to bring them into my neck of the woods but other than a couple of days a while back when cold and light snow cover produced a paltry flock I haven’t seen any – and it isn’t for a lack of trying.

Yesterday Bruce Murphy, who bands up in New Liskeard, (his partner, Joanne Goddard runs a wonderful banding program at the public school she teaches at there: “the School of Flock”.) contacted me to say that he’d recaptured one of “our” Snow Buntings: # 2791-56327. It was originally banded on January 3, 2019. At that time this male had just entered its second year, having hatched in the Summer of 2018. At the time it’s wing was 108 mm long; it weighed 35.1 g.; and was carrying no fat. I wonder where it spent this past Summer? And how did it get there?

And then today I got this lovely note from Lise Balthazar in Sheridan Rapids in Lanark County:


The number of Snow Buntings has increased just in the last few days. We
started with about 20 of them and now we’re up to about sixty! No doubt
the weather turning colder and all that fresh snow have something to do
with it, but I suspect that the word gets around when there’s a steady
supply of food somewhere!


This morning, as the snow was softly falling, the Buntings were flying
around, looking very much like snowflakes themselves. There is nothing
like standing in a snowy field on a bright sunny day, with a flock of
Snow Buntings flying overhead. Depending on their position in the sky,
they look like bright golden lights or as soon as they all turn -in
perfect synchronism- the black spots on their wing tips form a stunning
pattern on the blue sky. It’s a rare treat, for which I wait all year long.

Lise Balthazar
Sherdidan Rapids


Ya, I think word does get around….I also think that older, more experienced birds may lead the cohort to places where plentiful food has been found before – even in previous years. It’s just not chance alone…..


January 10th – Decluttering-SNBU’s

Recent additions to our Winter avifauna. This (and some of the following pictures) were sent to me by Lise and Nat in Lanark County. -NC

“Decluttering” – the spousally mandated act of getting rid of/throwing out accumulating piles of important stuff, often deemed to be “junk” by the uninitiated.

“SNBU” – the AOU (American Ornithological Union) alpha code for SNow BUnting.

Covid stay-at-home expectations have resulted, in my household, in cleaning binges that all too often have taken the form of pressuring me to sort out my “piles” to determine what is important (and, therefore, saveable) and what is dispensable. So I had to come up with a measuring stick to determine what is important. Thus I began to sift through my aggregations of “papers” – printouts of PDF articles – with a view to “will I EVER read or need the information in this paper again?” The trouble is: you just never know…..somehow my wife seems to know…or thinks she does.

Anyway….in sorting through a series of filing boxes filled with file folders I came upon one titled “SNBU’s”. Obviously this was a keeper. But, in adhering to the process, I had to go through it article by article – this is a process that just can’t be rushed. I’m glad I did as it contained my old field notes from July 2004 when I was at Cape Vera on the northwest corner or Devon Island at a latitude of 78 degrees. The main purpose for being there was to help in a study of Northern Fulmars but I was able to use whatever down time this afforded to begin to study Snow Buntings. And I was amazed. What a bird!


Up until then they were simply a bird that appeared periodically in southern Ontario during periods of cold and snow. As soon as the snow was gone, so were they. At that point they were a birding “tick”. After my experience there they have been a preoccupation.

Despite the weather conditions – temperatures in the low single digits, a July snow storm, bitter winds blowing in off the polynya – the Cape Vera birds were thriving. The area met the two basic nesting requirements for this species: lots of good nesting sites and plentiful food. Numerous nests were located in the rocky scree at the base of the 300 metre cliffs (which were home to the fulmars) and under large boulders that had tumbled from the cliffs and rolled onto the flat rocky “table” between the cliff bottom and the sea. This table was notable for another reason: melting snow gathered in shallow pools, some large some small. The water, draining from the cliffs above, were laced with nutrients from fulmar droppings and these nutrients enriched the area around the ponds. They were ringed with rich green vegetation – a colour rarely seen in the high Arctic. This lushness also provided food for midges – Chironomids. These flying tiny insects look like mosquitoes but don’t bite. For many bird species they are important flying fuzzy meatballs.

Clutch of 5 eggs in a nest wedged down a small fissure in the rock.

Now, when I first arrived at Cape Vera the males were vociferously setting out territories and the females were busy finding appropriate sites and building nests. At that time I wondered what they could be eating as my searches around the ponds turned up only the very occasional spider and plant seeds were rare. This didn’t seem to deter them in the least. The nests I was able to find and access (access was the difficult part as they were often deep in the scree or under boulders not even a polar bear could overturn) contained, on average 5 eggs (range 3-7). But what were the parents going to feed their young? Occasional spiders wouldn’t come close to providing the nutrients that would be required.

Not to worry. As if on cue, hatching occurred at the very time when Chironomids began to emerge from the ponds. And I have never seen anything like it! They were everywhere, in huge numbers. And, when they first wander out of the ponds that have housed their egg and larval stages, they are slow moving and usually just sit beside the ponds, warming up – by the thousands….no, hundreds of thousands. This provided a feeding bonanza for parent birds wanting to grow their young.

Whenever I got a chance I tried to observe the food-gathering adults. The capture rate was amazing: On average they “pecked” (captured a midge…I’m assuming) at the rate of 1.6 pecks per second. Unfortunately I didn’t time the feeding length but if they fed for a minute – and had a 100% successful capture rate – then they would have obtained 96 midges. Two minutes at 100% efficiency would have garnered 193. The parent birds, when they had captured as many as they could carry, would take off, sporting black fuzzy moustaches, and head back to the nest to pass the feast on to their young.

As soon as parent arrives, moths open.

It has generally been reported that females make more provisioning trips to the nest than males. But I found that males averaged (between different nests) the same number: 8.57 per bird per hour, so just over 17 trips per hour per pair. One account stated that the birds might travel as much as 250 meters between food site and nest but I followed one bird that went 600 meters. Also, due to 24-hour sunlight, it is often assumed that the birds will forage throughout the whole day. Dr. David Hussell, who did a lot of his early work on Devon Island, suggested that the birds took a “break” of about 5-6 hours during the “night”. I found this to be the case as well: between 11 in the evening and 5 the next morning there was little to no feeding activity – it appeared that the female brooded the young and the male sequestered himself in a sheltered nook close to the nest.

So let’s do the math:

At 100% capture efficiency for one minute, the 2 parents, averaging 17 feeding visits per hour and keeping this up for 18 hours in a day, would provide their young with 29,610 midges. With an average clutch of 5 young this would translate into 5,922 insects per nestling per day.

If they captured prey at 100% efficiency for 2 minutes this would result in 11,909 midges per nestling per day.

If every “peck” did not result in a capture – let’s say they were successful 80% of the time – this would still work out to 4,738 midges per nestling per day for 1 minute of foraging time and 9,257 for 2-minute bouts.

Almost ready to get out into the world it’s been observing for the last few days.

It’s easy to see why Snow Buntings have evolved to accommodate Arctic conditions and a long migration: plentiful food! But with global climate change, what happens if a mismatch develops between the hatching of Snow Bunting young and Chironomid emergence? If the buntings had hatched just 5 days earlier they would have missed out on a huge proportion of this food source….occasional spiders just wouldn’t cut it. The timing was impeccable. For the sake of discussion, are their subtle cues that birds sense that cause them when to begin nesting/egg laying? Cues that coincide with the conditions necessary for the eventual Chironomid emergence?




January 1st – Happy New Year!

Some American Robins are spending the Winter in the area feeding on fruity of non-native plants and taking advantage of the global warming that is taking place. -MMG

Synanthrope: an undomesticated organism and especially an animal (such as a mouse, pigeon, or raccoon) that lives in close association with people and benefits from their surroundings and activities  (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

synanthrope ……is a member of a species of wild animal or plant that lives near, and benefits from, an association with human beings and the somewhat artificial habitats that people create around themselves….. Such habitats include houses, gardens, farms, roadsides and rubbish dumps. (Wikipedia)

One of the positive spin-offs of the corona virus-induced shutdowns and travel bans is that I have been doing a lot more reading. Recently I came across this term while reading a book on bird ecology in the context of a progressively urbanizing world. I mulled it over as I was walking the Chippawa Trail from Caledonia to Albion Falls. Despite the long extent of seemingly wonderful bird habitat, I saw very few birds. This is what got me thinking. Where were they? I know that at the head of the trail in Caledonia if I had gone left (south) instead of right (north toward Hamilton) I would have run into a ton of them accessing the numerous feeders that local residents have put out. Ah ha! So this was synanthropism.

But there seem to be varying “levels” of synanthropism from the full synanthrope (species which have a major dependence – like Rock Pigeon), through casual synanthrope (birds exploit human ecology without becoming dependent), to the tangential variety (species occasionally exploit human ecology).

I think a major headache would be to put species into one class over another. Into which category would you place these species?

Common Redpolls, forced south due to natural food shortages in their usual northern homes, readily take advantage of feeders. -LB

  • Barn Swallows. Where would they nest if there weren’t man-made structures?
  • Tree Swallows. I’ve seen a couple in tree nesting holes but the vast majority make use of nesting boxes.
  • Purple Martins. Have never seen one not nesting in a man-made contrivance.
  • Peregrine Falcon numbers are growing as some have discovered that buildings are as good as cliff faces for nesting….and there’s a large food bonanza in the form of Rock Pigeons – a full synanthrope.
  • Man-generated clear-cutting of boreal forests has a similar impact as forest fires in terms of successional plant growth. Many warbler and some flycatcher species take full advantage of this.
  • Larus gull numbers have been climbing due to food available in garbage dumps.
  • What is the impact of feeders on wintering sparrows and finches and winter resident chickadees, woodpeckers, and nuthatches. they could survive on “natural” food well enough but would this food sustain the numbers of them that we see?
  • Along this idea, we more than doubled the number of Baltimore Orioles we were catching in the Spring when we started putting out grape jelly feeders.

And the list goes on. And each species exemplifies a different level of “dependence”. But maybe, and this is more likely, much of the behaviour we’re seeing is simply birds taking advantage of what they find in their environment – feeder food sources and nesting boxes being prime examples. At what point does the relationship between birds and man-made elements of the environment become symbiotic?


The Robin’s white eye colouration takes on a more forbidding aspect when seen face-on. _MMG

Man-induced warming has allowed Carolinian species – like this Carolina Wren – to move further north….and survive. -MMG

A Cooper’s Hawk mobbing a Great Horned Owl in an attempt to drive it off. -MMG

Point made – “I don’t like you being here!” – the hawk flies off. -MMG

Looking non-plussed by the Cooper’s Hawk’s razzing, a Great Horned Owl surveys his/her domain. -MMG

Two male downy Woodpeckers working over tree bark. -MMG

A Gray Jay, reportedly uncommon in Lanark County, cleans up scraps under a feeder. -LB

A Downy Woodpecker and a Gray Jay taking advantage of feeders. -LB

Male Pine Grosbeak foraging underneath a feeder. Feeders are a good source of nutrition for northern birds when their natural habitat fails to provide during “bad” years. -LB

Female Pine Grosbeak. -LB

An albino (or is it leucistic?) Red-tailed Hawk seen on December 28th on the Fisherville CBC. _MB