For the Birds Radio Program: Snow Bunting

Original Air Date: Nov. 17, 1995

Today Laura Erickson talks about a miserable day of birding and some brave migrant birds searching for the Great White Snow Bunting of the South. 4:09

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Last week I led a field trip for the Raptor Research Foundation. About 20 ornithologists from all over the world climbed on board a charter bus to head up the shore a ways in hopes of birds they couldn’t see at home.

Unfortunately, the day of the field trip was cold and cloudy, and even if foolish people were willing to stand out in the cold, sensible birds were staying home. Our first stop was Hawk Ridge, but all we saw in about 20 minutes of careful skywatching was sky until one lone eagle wandered past. A small flock of Pine Grosbeaks went over, and right after one birder from Ohio said that he wished he could see an Evening Grosbeak, a flock winged past, at high speed too far away for him to get his binoculars on them in time.

We headed down Seven Bridges Road, stopping at the Hawk Ridge pine plantation, where a few chickadees and a single Blue Jay took pity on us and showed themselves momentarily. Fortunately, neither of these species is found in Europe, but unfortunately the Europeans among us had seen many of them before in other places while in the United States. A Downy Woodpecker worked through a tree near the bus, and that was it till we got to the lake.

A few Common Mergansers winged between gray water and gray sky, and a lone Homed Grebe in winter plumage tried to find a fish in the frigid water, but no loons or ducks could be found anywhere . I showed the people the Lakewood Pumping Station, where I’ve counted over 96,000 birds in a single morning, but this day not even a crow was interested. The participants seemed skeptical that any bird would ever fly by that hill in the cold wind, so we quickly moved on.

Stoney Point turned out to be pretty good, all things considered. We had four or five more eagles, a blackish Rough-legged Hawk that triggered a debate about whether they needed to have dark rump feathers to be truly considered dark-phase birds, and a few more chickadees. A flock of redpolls flew over, too far for anyone to really enjoy. We were thinking that things were looking up as we headed on to Two Harbors, but the rest of the morning was downhill from there.

We saw a group of Snow Buntings coming into Two Harbors, but there were nothing but pigeons that we could find near the water–fortunately, people were satisfied to see the largest steam locomotive ever made in the world. And that was that.

People were becoming philosophical as we drove out of Two Harbors and again found the little flock of Snow Buntings. These tundra snowflakes had flown all the way from the Arctic, and we marveled at their tenacity. What had induced them to come here? Had their ancestors handed down folk tales of warmer times in the south, or more abundance? Was it strictly a matter of genetics? No, these birds had gathered in a place where there was little food and no warmth. But suddenly, at the end of this bleak bus trip, we made a breakthrough discovery about the mystery of migration, having a flash of insight about the real reason that Snow Buntings fly south. They migrate in search of neither food nor warmth, but rather, of the Great White Snow Bunting of the south.

And this day was apparently as bleak for this group of buntings as it was for us. For the birds we saw in that flock on Highway 61 in Two Harbors had been misled. There they were, fluttering all about around a great white bird. Unfortunately, what they had found at the end of their arduous journey was not the great White Snow Bunting of the South, but an enormous plastic statue of– a chicken.