Snow Buntings are already being reported in the upper Great Plains, Great Lakes states, and the Northeast. Here’s where to look and what to look for to tell males from females.
Where to look for Snow Buntings
Snow Buntings that nest in the eastern North American arctic migrate southward (those in eastern Greenland migrate to Europe), but those from Alaska move southeastward, mostly to the upper Great Plains states.
The birds are common in winter along the coast of northeastern states but rare along the Pacific coast, where habitat is not suitable for them. The largest flocks, which may number in the thousands, tend to be reported in winter from the upper Great Plains states, where the birds are found in agricultural fields, particularly those rich with grain or scattered manure.
Flocks in the Northeast are typically smaller, and most tend to be found on coastal sand dunes, short grassy fields, and similar habitats. Truly birds of cold winter, Snow Buntings are rarely encountered in the southeastern states or south of Nebraska and Iowa. Wherever they occur in winter, they are often in the company of Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs.
When to look
Most buntings in North America leave their northern breeding areas toward the end of September, but Robert Montgomerie and Bruce Lyon write in The Birds of North America (No. 198) that small numbers may remain as late as November.
Watch for the birds to start arriving on northern wintering grounds in the third week of October, and on southern wintering areas a month later.
Don’t put off going to see any overwintering Snow Buntings you may hear about. Typically the first migrants to arrive in the Arctic in spring, males start arriving in the low Arctic in mid-March and in the High Arctic in early April. Females arrive four to six weeks later.
How to tell males from females
Both male and female Snow Buntings show noticeable white patches on their outstretched wings in winter, but males are whiter; the patch covers most of their inner wing, from leading to trailing edge. Only the primary feathers, near the tip, and the outermost secondary feathers are black. Females have dark upperwing and primary coverts, so their white patch is smaller.
Look also for the black alula, the tiny feathers on the so-called thumb of the wing. On males, it will appear as a tiny island of black in a sea of white.
You can read more about Snow Buntings in the December 2014 issue of BirdWatching. Subscribe.