Up the Creek: With Ken Blomberg
By Ken Blomberg
Happy New Year to you, 2019. Seems like yesterday, but 30 years ago, I was sharing with some of you well wishes in this column under a different masthead. It was 1989 and Wisconsin’s outdoors and weather were in different state of affairs – that’s for sure. But that’s a story for another time.
This past week I watched an overnight snowfall disappear as rain washed it away. A decade ago, I was watching snow buntings feeding and flying across the open fields in our township. They arrive most early winters on the wings of arctic blasts. This year, like snowmobilers, snow buntings are out of luck in central Wisconsin.
Flying in fluid synchronization, they prefer snow-covered fields to feed and rest. Then suddenly the flock lifts off, those in the back flying over the top of the others, little by little moving to the front of the assembly. This rolling effect bears a resemblance to drifting snow blowing across the field. Our visiting winter birds are called snow buntings – identified by black or brownish backs, wingtips, and tail feathers with strikingly contrasting white under sides and large white wing patches.
Experts tell us that these sparrow-sized birds breed across the Northern Hemisphere near and in the Arctic Circle. No other songbird can live or nest as far north. Never far from snow, and in fact, during the short Arctic summer and breeding seasons, a female snow bunting nests in cold rock crevices lined with tundra moss. There she incubates her eggs for about 2 weeks while the
male attentively keeps her fed. The young chicks leave the nest in another 2 weeks, forage for insects and by 4 weeks are on their own and flying. Towards the end of the breeding season snow buntings begin their slow drift south following the snowline.
A neighborhood flock of these snowbirds visit the prairie field behind our house during typical Januarys. From our kitchen window, our family is treated to their roller coaster aerial antics. Circling Vera’s pond, they fly to and fro across the field’s landscape – landing every so often to feed on windblown seeds. On occasion one could be seen jumping up to reach the prairie grass seed heads. Adapted to endure harsh environments and unlike most songbirds, the snow bunting has a feathered tarsi, or shank of the leg. No other songbird can survive conditions as far north in the Arctic – with the exception of the Common Raven.
Locating a flock of snow buntings in Central Wisconsin is not all that difficult. If true winter returns, a pair of binoculars and gas in the tank is all it will take. Following rural roadways that border snow covered grassy fields is your best bet to spot a “decoration” or “mural” of these buntings. They often land on the road, picking up grit and wind scattered seeds. I’ve driven up and down township roads unsuccessfully looking to photograph a flock this month. The only thing I was able to take pictures of were eagles along River Road. I spotted several below the dam and more downstream. With this winter’s mild temperatures, the main channel below the dam is open and flowing. But when temperatures dip below zero a thin layer of ice has formed from bank to bank downstream. Eagles hunt wherever there is open water. But the best spot to observe these majestic birds in winter months is by the fast-moving water spilling from the dam.
Alas, I fear our winter buntings have must have pulled stakes and headed north looking for the receding snow line. At least in our neck of the woods. Watch for their return after the next snow fall and arctic blast arrives out of the northwest.
Or perchance, is this a sign of an early spring? I’m not holding my breath. There’s still plenty of time for winter to knock on our doors.
Blomberg is the author of two books, UP THE CREEK, and WISCONSIN BIRD HUNTING TALES. Both are available at either amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com or arcadiapublishing.com. Autographed copies are available from the author at email@example.com.