If you’ve been reading these posts long enough you will be aware that, if you want to catch Snow Buntings, it’s a good idea to attract Horned Larks. Larks that nest in the far north (well into the Arctic sometimes) spend the Winter in this area. They tend to arrive late in the Fall but then, if they find good food resources, will stay. They arrive before Snow Buntings as buntings down here don’t show up unless two conditions are met: snow cover and cold temperatures.
At least a week ago, well before we got any snow and the farm fields were mud and stubble which larks are very comfortable with, a flock of 50-60 Horned Larks showed up at my bait site. Some local farmers have been putting small gravel pads at the edges of their cash crop fields so that their vehicles don’t get mired in mud when loading grain/corn/soybeans from the combines. My bait site is such a pad, located just outside of York on Stoney Creek Road. I found it VERY interesting that this group of larks was on “my” gravel pad. Coincidence? Maybe….but I don’t think so. I know of at least 5 other gravel field-side patches within a 5-kilometer radius. I drove around to them and there was no sign of any larks. I’ll bet if I took the time I would find a lark with a band, one that it had received last year or earlier. Maybe not….but the fact that this large group of Horned Larks was on this pad in large numbers and not on other local ones is highly suggestive….to me at any rate. If you’re serious about wanting to attract Snow Buntings then you can’t fool around – I set out 4 small; piles of cut corn for the larks and started the regimen of replenishing them twice a day in order to hold the larks in place. Every day I would find Horned Larks at the site so I was pretty confident that they would be around as long as this rich food source was available.
And then two days ago we got some snow – just 2 centimeters but enough to cover the ground – and temperatures dropped into the minuses. I wasn’t really expecting to see Snow Buntings yet; there wasn’t that much snow, it wasn’t that cold, and I find it takes them awhile to work down into the area. So I was VERY surprised when I went to replenish the corn piles this morning to see a flock of around 25 fly up; they had been feeding on the corn. There’s something magical about the alarm calls and twittering that emanates from a flock of Snow Buntings as they swirl around you, like a flock of shorebirds. As is common at this time of year, when the flocks are just returning and checking out the countryside for potential food sources, the birds are very “skittish”. When I got out of the car they flew around me and then headed south across the field and I didn’t expect to see them again but….I put down some ground traps just in case.
Right away a group of larks showed up and I had one in the trap within 5 minutes. And then the Snow Buntings returned and, inspired by the lark, one entered the trap. Their banding signaled the official start of Winter. I didn’t see the buntings again (but they’ll be back – they know where the food is) but a large flock of Horned Larks flew in and I was able to band another 7 to bring the banding total for an hour up to 8 Horned Larks and 1 Snow Bunting. Christmas came early.