Well…we finally got the weather we have been hoping for: cold and snowy…good Canadian weather. I have been religiously baiting my site at the York Airport for several weeks now, morning and mid-afternoon. I’ve been fairly successful in bringing in small flocks of Horned Larks but only the occasional Snow bunting. But I felt Sunday would be different as the two crucial factors had come together. I set the traps out and baited them early as I’ve found it’s pretty rewarding to bring the birds in after a cold night. I felt that this was going to be the day…As I was setting them out I could hear bunting alarm calls in the distance but couldn’t see them. I’m confident that they spent the night hunkered down in the field, burrowed in the snow to get out of the wind, and just waiting for the sun to start the day. To me it sounded like they were calling to their buddies: “Hey, breakfast is served!” Sure enough, I had no sooner baited the last trap when a flock of at least 80 Snow Buntings flew in, circled once or twice close to the traps seeing what I was serving and then….flew off and weren’t seen for the rest of the morning. What the heck!? All we got for 2 hours’ work was 2 Horned Larks – which Aliya was more than happy to band.
But, as my wonderful grandmother always said: “Patience is a virtue; professed by many possessed by few”. I would just have to wait. But I knew it was just a matter of time: conditions were right, birds were around, and they knew food was available.
And patience is beginning to pay off. Yesterday I banded 50 Snow Buntings and 2 Horned Larks and today was even better with 57 Snow Buntings and 5 Horned Larks. Not huge numbers but good ones; we’re getting into high gear and if these conditions stay we should do quite well. Both days started the same as Sunday: traps out early; birds registering my presence from somewhere out in the field; and then flying in even before I had left the immediate trap area. But now they weren’t flying off but staying to figure out how to get at the corn.
It’s interesting to watch (and try to figure out) the ebb and flow of birds at the site. We’ll start off with 15-20 and then they’ll fly off into the field or away altogether. 20 minutes later they fly back but this time there’s 25-30..ore even 50. They’ll check out the site and then fly off. Quite often you can see them sitting 200 meters away on the snow. Then they’ll fly back but….the number isn’t the same – they seem to be always fluctuating both in number and in species composition. Sometimes it’s straight buntings and the next time larks will be mixed in with them. These birds are nomadic and will range over a wide area in search of food. One “show stopper” that has been a factor in the last two days is an American Kestrel that has flown in around 10:00 to perch on a trap and figure out how to get at the bunting inside. The buntings and larks have got it figured out: pigeons flying in will unsettle them but not drive them off and, in a short while, they’ll be back at the traps. (Pigeons are a pain as they eat up everything they can reach around the traps; fortunately they can’t get in them. They do flush the birds initially though.) Kestrels on the other hand are a real threat and birds leave the immediate area as soon as one arrive – even if it is perched 200 meters away. Interestingly though, once it has left the area the birds quickly return. You can easily understand why buntings and larks like wide open areas – they can see these predators coming a long way out. [Interestingly, a Northern Harrier flew by yesterday within 150 meters. The buntings stopped and watched but didn’t fly off and, once they realized the hawk offered no threat, were quickly back to feeding.]
A big difference between yesterday and today was the sex composition of the birds we banded: yesterday the female:male ratio was 1.4:1; today it was 3.4:1. I don’t know how to account for this difference….