From mid-December through mid-March is the time to visit the Arlington Empire Prairie area around Goose Pond Sanctuary to search for arctic winter birds.
Lapland longspurs, snowy owls, and snow buntings have common names that help birders know where they breed. Other tundra species like tundra swans and snow geese have moved south to open water.
In October, we had two snow buntings on Prairie Lane for scope day and a couple of visitors were able to photograph them at about 12 feet. Many of these arctic birds are not familiar with humans and so you can often get close to them. No snow buntings were found on our “mild weather” Christmas Bird Count. However, when snow arrived we saw a couple flocks of snow buntings near Goose Pond. Last week one bunting fed on millet and cracked corn on our drive where is it was joined by dozens of American tree sparrows that also spend their summers in the tundra.
Snow buntings, in the longspur family, are circumpolar in distribution and move as far south as central Illinois in winter. During winter, these six to seven inch long sparrow-sized birds have a brown crown and upper parts, duller under parts, but still show much white on the wings.
Snow buntings and other open country birds that can be found with them, such as Lapland longspurs and horned larks, are usually found in very open areas. Snow buntings are frequently seen in weedy fields, where manure is spread, and along roadsides where they feed on weed seeds such as foxtail.
Flocks of snow buntings are found on about 75% of the Poynette Christmas Bird Counts, which are conducted in late December. In 1996, the Poynette Count had a high of 8,040 buntings. It is a treat to see a flock of 2,000 snow buntings flying in a dense flock.
If snow becomes too deep, buntings will move south where food is more accessible and if there is no snow they may move north near the snowline. When searching for winter birds in the Goose Pond area, be careful of road conditions. Some days it may be a clear, beautiful day on the prairie. However, with fluffy snow and high winds there can be significant drifting making the roads impassible.
By Mark and Sue Foote-Martin, Resident Managers, Goose Pond Sanctuary