December 17th – Western Hopes

A problem we don’t have – moose going to the Snow Bunting bait site to vacuum up the cut corn. -DS

I first “met” Dick Stauffer, who lives in Olds Alberta about 60 km north of Calgary, when I chanced on the news that he made banding pliers. I ordered a pair, was VERY pleased with them, so I ordered more. In the course of talking birds, banding, and pliers I asked him if, first, he banded, and learning that he did, asked if he had ever banded Snow Buntings. Given his surprised “No”, I guess the thought had never entered his head. But…the proverbial lightbulb went off and he’s been busy since early November rounding up a team of fervent banders to catch and band them. This has the potential to be a very important step in learning about this hardy bird. Almost all the Snow Buntings that have been banded in Canada have been processed in Ontario and Quebec. It is looking like the birds we get here in Winter are coming from Greenland – there’s a definite and strong connection. But this leaves the question: where do the birds that nest in Arctic Canada spend the Winter? It makes intuitive sense that over millenia they would have evolved a pattern of behaviour that would bring them south to the grasslands of the prairies. But there’s been virtually no banding out west so it’s been impossible to connect wintering birds with nesting areas. One exciting development is the banding done by Julie Bauer in Haines Junction, Yukon. Every April she taps into a flow of birds heading north – she’s banded well over 8,000 to date and while she’s recaptured 54 birds they’ve all been “her” birds banded in previous years. So where did these birds spend the Winter?
The possibility of Dick’s group banding wintering Snow Buntings on the Prairies has the potential to dramatically expand our knowledge and understanding of this species!
But it hasn’t been an easy road for this group. They have snow; they have cold; and at times they’ve had sightings of flocks of Snow Buntings but….they haven’t been able to entice the birds to come to bait. Still, hope springs eternal…..On Fridays Dick sends out a note to his banding group outlining what has happened in the preceding week. He kindly agreed to let me publish his most recent missif so you can see what’s going on.

A roadside flock. -DS

Hi Y’all;
As my mother always used to say to me “Dickie it’s a poor day when you don’t learn something. Keep your mind open because there is always something to learn’”
Well, this week was a learning experience!!!!!

Sunday December 11
The newspaper want ad produced 5-6 sightings and at least one solid lead. A man phoned about SNBU’s feeding in his swath grazed field. Karen Farlander and I went to look at the site, -20 C and a 40-mile drive for me. Karen lives about 20 minutes away from the site. The site has a significant food source, oats in the swath.

Baiting a possible site. DS

The birds were not there when we arrived but have been there in numbers based on the number of tracks on the snow. The site is about .75 km off the road, over a hill, in a pasture field. You would never see the birds from the road. Future reference for this site (NEWSOME SITE)
Also interesting to me was that most of the sightings are west of highway 2A….makes me wonder if the western SNBU’s prefer the parkland area instead of the open prairie!
It could be that people are more active in the parkland (i.e. feeding cattle, etc) or it could be there are more food sources….Hmmmm

Karen & I baited the area with hopes that the birds would soon return.

Sign posted by a helpful property owner directing Dick to the right spot. DS

Monday December 12
I drove out to the site arriving at sunrise, fully expecting to see a flock of bunting feeding….well not so much….never saw a bird. I deployed a couple of game cameras, bait was undisturbed. I decided to check the site on Wednesday.
Tuesday December 13
Drove out to Dickson Dam to check a sighting in that area, never saw a bird!!!!

Wednesday December 14
Arrived at Newsome site about 11:00, had a trace of snow…..NOT A BIRD ANYWHERE… checked several other swaths and saw absolutely no Bunting tracks….surprised & disappointed.

Pulled the SD cards on the cameras

Great Horned Owl. Likely after rodents that have discovered a wonderful food source. -DS

Deer have also discovered the site….

Well, the birds did it again to me…they did what they wanted and not what I wanted LOL

I rebaited the area and will check again on Sunday.
I am thinking that if we get two active sites that’s going to be probably all that we can handle.

Earlier in the month I had a confirmed 10-20 birds feeding NW of Olds. I visited the site and the area (a ditch) had numerous tracks. Baited the site and checked it for the next 3 days…. No birds returned.
After thinking about this site for a week or two I decided I would go check it out with little more vigilance.

This time I paid particular attention to available food, what I noticed is that most of the grass had no seeds on the heads; my conclusion was that the SNBU’s had cleaned most of the seeds and that is why they never returned to this spot.
What is interesting is I spoke with a lady that has SNBUs feeding with her buffalo herd less than a Mile from this spot. I am going today (Friday) to see if there is a safe place to bait & possibly set traps. I will keep everyone up to speed
As BUGS BUNNY SAYS “THAT’S ALL FOLKS” ……most of you have never seen Bugs cartoons.

Till next week or something major

These are difficult times for new Snow Bunting banders – putting out bait to entice birds and not being successful. It takes a lot of patience. But from our experience here I can confidently say: it takes only ONE bird to find the bait pile. That bird will feed till it’s full and, if the food is there consistently, it will be back….and will bring others with it. Then you’ve got ’em. Not just then but for years to come. It’s uncanny to me that I get birds year after year coming to a most innocuous site in the middle of nowhere…like they know it’s there. And I’m sure that at least one does know it’s there having been there in seasons past. Their spatial memory is prodigious. So to Dick Stauffer and his compatriots: stay the course; it will happen; it’s just a matter of time. And think of the excitement when Julie reports she has caught one of your birds in the Yukon as it is passing through on its way to the Arctic!

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