The Birds of Winter, Part I
with Mike Lushington
I was driving across the MacNeish Road in back of home one day earlier this week when I suddenly flushed two small, brownish coloured birds. Sparrows, I thought, but almost immediately realized that they were larger and plumper than any of the commonly expected sparrows. However, they were not as large as Fox sparrow, and, when they flew down the road in front of me, I saw that their flight patterns were not those of goldfinches or, again, any of the sparrows. I was intrigued. I have a pair of binoculars with me at all times in the truck, so I stopped to retrieve them and then began to pursue them down the road. They would allow me to approach to within perhaps twenty or thirty meters and then they would flush again. However, they were staying on the road, although, it seemed, always in shadow. Then one turned a bit in the air and I caught a glimpse of white and black flashing on the top side of its wing. With that, I was pretty sure what I was looking at, but I stayed with my quest for several more stops, until I finally had enough of a look to satisfy me.
It turned out that my original guess of sparrow was actually a pretty good one: they were juvenile Snow buntings. relatives of sparrows. As such, they were a much darker shade of brown than are their parents, even in the latter's summer plumage, but they show that characteristic wing pattern right from the time they get their first set of feathers. Head and upper body markings, general size and shape, patterns of behaviour (including that characteristic uplifting, darting flight that they display even in large flocks) - all combined to confirm the identification.
I guess that what caught me a bit by surprise was that it seemed early in the season for Snow bunting, although I did reflect that it was, after all, the end of October and we had already had two snow falls of note. Suddenly I realized that the season really was marching along and that it was time to start looking for the birds of winter.
I have mentioned previously that I consider us to be lucky here in northern New Brunswick when it comes to the birds that visit us at one time of the year or another. We are often at the northern end of the range favoured by many species of birds, and at the southern end of others. The Bay of Chaleur, the mouth of the Restigouche, the proximity of that long arm of the continent called the Gaspe Peninsula, the Appalachians that run from northeast to southwest nearby - all conspire to create landscape features that attract different species of birds, particularly during migrations. For many of these birds that we are seeing now, this is a stopping over area, but for others it is, surprisingly enough, a wintertime destination. Whether my Snow buntings will stick around, and for how long, depends on the depth of the winter snows. These birds feed on grass and weed seeds, and will move on when those sources are no longer accessible. For others, though, the abundant Mountain ash crop will aft as a magnet throughout the winter (more on that in a future column). while, for others, the open waters of the Bay, especially around the Bon Ami Rocks, will prove to be attractive - the winter Bay is a great place to spot Iceland gull, Barrow's goldeneye, and a good selection of other visitors that range from rare to absent elsewhere in the Maritimes.
Over the next while, I shall feature some of these groups of birds in columns, and try, at the same time, to keep an open ear for reports of others that may well show up, perhaps unexpectedly. Fall migration is altogether a more leisurely affair than is its counterpart in the spring. Birds have been moving south from their summer homes for nearly four months already and will for another two or so. It is only with the hard cold of January that things finally seem to grind to a halt, so, even though it is often cold and raw out there, it remains a great time to get out to see what is on the move. You may well be surprised.