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Levin: The Snow Bunting

03/29/11 7:55AM By Ted Levin
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(HOST)  Naturalist and commentator Ted Levin says that this time of year, migration sometimes brings surprises at the bird feeder.

(LEVIN) Recently, a snow bunting appeared in my front yard, a chunky black and white songbird that hopped around the compost pile on short, black legs. It was a male and looked out of place all by itself, far from barren ground and tassel-headed marshes.
    
I grew up watching snow buntings along the outer beaches of Long Island. Their arrival each winter was as predicable as the dying of the light. And they never appeared alone, as this one did. They arrived in flocks of twenty, thirty or a hundred, maybe more, coursing along the outer banks, descending on reeds and grasses, black and white wings flicking, often in the company of horned larks and Lapland longspurs. In a colorless winter landscape, snow buntings elevate black and white to an art form.
   
The bird in my yard had a trace of reddish brown on the feather tips of his head and back. Snow buntings, unlike most other birds, only molt once a year, in the autumn. In due time, like the polishing of a silver vase, the constant rubbing against snow and ice wears away the fawn-colored tips and reveals the immaculate black and white of the breeding season, a bird of stark and stunning contrast.
   
I watched the snow bunting for some time. After hopping around the compost pile, he made his way to the cherry tree (I'd never seen a snow bunting in a tree), the stonewall, the roof of the garage (I'd never seen one on a garage either) and beneath each of our three feeders.  He scavenged seeds that had been scattered by blue jays, titmice, and chickadees. Of the three, the jays startled the snow bunting. He'd jump whenever one flew past - just pop up, not too high, but enough to show concern. Back home in the high Arctic, snow buntings are the target of peregrines and gyrfalcons, and Arctic foxes, which are all in short supply in my front yard.
   
No land bird nests farther north in North America than the snow bunting. They ring the crown of the Arctic right to the edge of the pack ice. Males arrive on the breeding ground in early April, six weeks ahead of the females, when temperatures are still well below zero.  Mating pairs nest in deep nooks in rock outcroppings, and the competition for these limited sites is severe. Fussy females will examine several before choosing a mate. Because snow buntings nest in the thermal equivalent of a meat locker, their nests are pockets of grasses and mosses - lined with fox fur and feathers. To provide constant warmth, the female stays in the nest twenty-four seven until the chicks fledge. Her mate feeds her throughout the nesting cycle, which is another reason she's so fussy when choosing a partner. His dowry perpetuates the species in an unforgiving terrain.
   
My lonely snow bunting is probably somewhere over central Quebec by now, and a lot is riding his safe return.
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