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Snow Bunting

Birds Gathering Grit On Dirt Roads & Roadsides

Birds compensate for their lack of teeth with a two-parted stomach, the first of which (proventriculus) secretes digestive enzymes and the second of which (a muscular gizzard) grinds the food they’ve eaten into small digestible bits.  Birds that eat hard seeds and nuts tend to have thick, muscular gizzards, while those species that eat very easily-digested foods such as soft-bodied insects, soft fruits, or nectar often have very small and thin-walled gizzards.  Many birds whose diet consists of hard substances, including seed-eaters, swallow grit (often why you see them on dirt roads or the sides of plowed roads where dirt has been exposed) to enhance the gizzard’s ability to pulverize food.

At this time of year, American Goldfinches, Common Redpolls, Snow Buntings, Tree Sparrows and Eastern Bluebirds (among others) can be found swallowing roadside grit to help grind up the seeds that they consume.  (Photo:  While a majority of their summer diet is insects, Eastern Bluebirds consume many fruits (containing hard seeds) during the winter, a change in diet that allows them to remain in northern New England throughout the year.)

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Snow Buntings Feeding

Congratulations to Kathie Fiveash, the first NC reader to correctly identify the tracks and feeding sign in the latest Mystery Photo as those of Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis).  These birds began arriving in the northern half of the United States from their summer home on the northern tundra last fall and will remain here until March, when they begin migrating back to their breeding grounds.

In the winter, 97% of a Snow Bunting’s diet is weed seeds, including those of knotweed, ragweed, amaranth, aster, goldenrod, grasses and grains. These birds forage on the ground, collecting seeds from the protruding stems of tall weeds, occasionally reaching or leaping up to take seeds from taller stems, jumping against stems to scatter seeds or bending stems over by stepping on them. (Birds of the World, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology)

While foraging, Snow Bunting flocks are constantly restless, frequently flushing rapidly and low over the ground for short distances.  A flurry of birds, much like snowflakes, fills the air nearest the ground for a few seconds while they relocate to a new area. Birds at the back of the flock fly forward to the front, creating the impression that the flock is rolling along.

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Snow Buntings Starting To Head North

2-24-17-snow-buntings-on-ground-img_6743Flocks of Snow Buntings have been observed more frequently lately, perhaps because male buntings have begun their migration back to their nesting grounds on the tundra.  They are the first migrants to arrive in the Arctic in the spring (in early April), when it can be -20°F. Females arrive four to six weeks later, when days are warming and snow is beginning to melt.

It is thought that the males’ early return is related to the fact that, unlike most Arctic songbirds, buntings nest in rock cavities, for which there is great competition. Deep inside narrow cracks, nesting buntings can largely avoid nest predation, but their eggs are susceptible to freezing and require longer incubation than eggs laid in the open. As a result, females remain on the nest throughout much of the incubation period and are fed by the males. This arrangement shortens incubation time and provides the eggs with constant protection from freezing temperatures. (Photo:  can you find the lone Lapland Longspur?)

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Sedge Seeds

1-6-15  sedge fruit in winter 057Over 500 species of sedges in the genus Carex are found in the U.S. – over half of the world’s total. The great majority of these perennial, grass-like plants grow in the moist soil of meadows, marshes and bogs, as well as in high altitudes. Sedges are often distinguished from grasses by their stem, which is typically triangular in cross-section (“sedges have edges”). The flowers of sedges, each surrounded by a bottle-shaped bract, or modified leaf called a perigynium, are clustered on spikelets. The tips of these bracts persist after the seeds have formed, giving the spikelets a prickly appearance.

Because of their wide availability, the seeds are eaten by many kinds of wildlife, especially birds. Wild Turkeys, American Woodcock, Northern Cardinals, Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs, ducks, rails, sparrows, redpolls and finches relish them. In the Northeast, Carex seeds, along with insects, are the most regular items in the diet of Ruffed Grouse chicks. Moose also occasionally feed on sedge seeds. (Photo: Longhair or Bottlebrush Sedge, Carex comosa)

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Snow Buntings Headed Back to the Arctic

2-27-14 snow buntings2 091Whirling flocks of Snow Buntings have been observed more frequently lately, perhaps because male buntings have begun their migration back to their nesting grounds on the tundra. They are the first migrants to arrive in the Arctic in the spring (in early April), when it can be -20°F. Females arrive four to six weeks later, when days are warming and snow is beginning to melt. It is thought that the males’ early return is related to the fact that, unlike most Arctic songbirds, buntings nest in rock cavities, for which there is great competition. Deep inside narrow cracks, nesting buntings can largely avoid nest predation, but their eggs are susceptible to freezing and require longer incubation than eggs laid in the open. As a result, females remain on the nest throughout much of the incubation period and are fed by the males. This arrangement shortens incubation time and provides the eggs with constant protection from freezing temperatures. (Thanks to Liz and Clemens Steinrisser for photo op.)

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