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It’s All in the i-Details - Winter Birding on Country Roads

If weather conditions permit, it’s a treat to get out on the rural roads to look for birds. Out into the visual freedom of big sky country. The traffic is generally lighter and you can pull over at a moment’s notice to scan an expanse of snowy field. (Mind those hidden ditches though!) Keep your eyes skyward if looking for hawks, but take note of a scattering of small birds right on the road ahead. If you accidentally flush them, pull over in a safe spot and wait to see if they will re-settle nearby. They might just move to a section of ground with some invisible food source, like spilled corn or weed seeds, and continue their foraging movements right alongside your open car window.

These winter flocks are usually a co-mingling of three bird species. Sometimes there are hundreds of birds in a group. Their plumages make them masters of camouflage, critical for survival since they are so exposed in the open, barren fields. I followed a bird in flight with my binoculars to a landing spot in the stubble and simply could not see it until it moved. Horned Lark is the largest of the three species but only by an inch or so. Snow Buntings are sparrow sized and Lapland Longspurs are a tiny bit smaller than buntings. Horned Larks are found in rural London landscape all year round, nesting in open agricultural areas bordered by weedy or low shrub habitat. I’ve even seen a lark family with a fledgling on the edge of a construction project in Byron! Lots of disturbed ground and weeds there. Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs nest much further north in the arctic tundra. Migration coincides with the official start of spring at the end of March for Snow Buntings and longspurs may delay their departure by a few more weeks into April when conditions in the arctic are favourable. Males are the first to head north to secure optimal nest territory.

It can be a challenge to get a photo of these birds because they are so twitchy and burst into flight at the slightest provocation. The challenge is how do you tell them apart in a brief opportunity of time? A male Snow Bunting in late winter is striking and unmistakable. He is almost all white with a jet black back, tail and wing tips. No brown tones as seen on youngsters and non-breeding buntings in the group. Black and white is the camo colour combo for blending into nest crevices in northern rocky tundra and caramel browns are superior for blending into corn stubble in SW Ontario. It’s thrilling to see a large, fluttery mass of Snow Buntings circling a field because they look like a swirl of big snowflakes with their flashing white wings tipped in black.

Distinguishing features on a Horned Lark are the black neck band, black mask or sideburns, a soft lemon yellow throat and the cute little “horns”, of course. Horns being feather tufts on either side of the head and more prominent on males than females. In flight, a good field mark to look for is the black underside of the tail. Listen for their lovely, musical tinkling song as they move around, either in flight or walking the ground in search of food.

Lapland Longspur looks the most like what we generally think of as a sparrow, even though it’s in a different bird family. Within the roadside flock, look for the smallest of the birds, wearing streaky warm brown tones on the head and back and streaking along the sides. A facial field mark is the thin, dark feather outline around the ear area (auricular) which contrasts against a buffy face and eyebrow. The nape can be a light chestnut colour which matches the row of feathers that cover the primaries on the wing. It lacks the broad white wing area of a Snow Bunting if seen briefly in flight.

Although Horned Larks are the more widespread species in the group and not currently considered a species of concern, they are ground nesters in open fields, which has been undergoing a general shrinking of land base in SW Ontario due to development pressures. Our agricultural areas are important grounds for their winter feeding and summer nesting. Another large open area to find them in London is around the airport.

Climate change however, will have a much more direct effect on the fate of Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs. Apart from the raven, no other songbird can winter as far north as the beautiful Snow Bunting. Using millions of bird observations and climate modelling, the Audubon online Guide to North American Birds has a created an interactive map showing how their breeding range will shrink by roughly 70% with a global increase of 3 degrees.

Other studies have verified that milder springs induce premature breeding behaviour in these northern birds, which becomes out-of-synch with their optimal food source for feeding hatchlings. Nest success is reduced. Warmer global temperatures will also allow other species to expand north into the arctic, then becoming competitors with the specialized buntings and longspurs. Arctic nesting birds use the long daylengths for uninterrupted feeding and breeding to raise a family in a short window of time.

With spring less than a month away, there are only a few weeks left to get out and search for these winter birds. Then it will be Country Roads, Take Me Home... : )

Photos from top: Snow Buntings with Horned Lark flying to right, Snow Buntings eating spilled corn on roadside, Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur foreground and Horned Lark behind, flock of Horned Lark with two Lapland Longspurs (centre and far right).

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