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  • Writer's pictureGregg Severson

Sneaking in a Snow Bunting before the snowstorm

I have been on a remarkable run of new species in November! The weather cooperated - after an early cold snap, it got mild again. The lakes stopped freezing over (and some re-opened), the roads and bike paths were clear for biking, and the ground was clear of snow so that birds had an easier time finding food and didn't need to migrate further. I knew this situation wouldn't last long, and I was very happy to be adding a bunch of new species during this time.

One bird that was still on my target list was Snow Bunting. These are a cool little species that breeds in the far north. They pass through the area in the late fall and early winter, but are often hard to chase because they don't stick around in one area very much! I heard about a very approachable Snow Bunting at the southwest corner of Lake Harriet, but I only heard about it the day after it was seen. A little later, I heard about a flock of about a dozen Snow Buntings that were seen at the airport. I biked by the airport the next day on the way to work, but didn't see any sign of the Snow Buntings (or the Snowy Owl, either).

Early on the morning of the 26th of November, I noticed that someone had eBirded two Snow Buntings at Bde Maka Ska on the prior day. I decided that I would swing by the south end of Bde Maka Ska on my way to work to see if they might still be around. I didn't have high hopes that they would have stuck around, but it would be easy to get there since it is so close to my house! When I got down to the south end of the lake, I pulled my bike up onto the edge of the sand and then - whoa! - two Snow Buntings flew from the grasses near my feet into the sand a few feet away. Very cool - they were still here! I immediately posted to Facebook and texted a few friends, thinking they might want to chase. (Some people successfully saw these same two birds in the late afternoon - so they did stick around all day).

One of the interesting features of Snow Buntings is that it is often fairly easy to approach a single bird, but if you ever try to get close to a flock, that is nearly impossible. With two birds here, they were slightly wary of me, but were fine with me being within 20 feet or so of them without any problem. So I grabbed my camera and set about trying to get a good photo while I had the chance to be so close to some Snow Buntings!

One of the two Snow Buntings on Thomas Beach

Both of the Snow Buntings - I wish that I'd realized at the time that only one of them is in focus!

I like this image - somehow the few small leaves in the picture make it seem like the Snow Bunting is celebrating the fall season!

A fun fact about Snow Buntings is that they get their dramatic black-and-white breeding plumage by wearing away their feathers! Snow Buntings molt in late summer to a plumage that includes the browns and grays that you see on these birds. Then, in late winter, the males actively rub their feathers in the snow, which abrades away the tips of the feathers that have those brown and gray colors, and what are you left with is the striking black-and-white breeding plumage!

The evening after I saw them, a big snowstorm hit Minneapolis and dropped 9 inches of snow. This change in the weather meant it would be much harder for me to get around for the next while and it meant that the Snow Buntings might head for different areas - I was very glad to see them while they were here!

My route from home, over to Thomas Beach on Bde Maka Ska and then on to work.

Mile biked on this trip: 19.2

Miles biked during this time (since the last new bird species): 51.4

Miles biked year to date: 3,310.8

Species count (MN): 237

Species count (overall): 238

My bike birding eBird profile: (Please note that you need a free eBird account to see profiles in eBird)

Fundraising links for the two organizations I am supporting with this green big half year. These causes are really important and they could really use your dollars to do a lot of good!

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