We walk through patches of snow across an unpaved parking lot that edges a salt marsh, peering out into the frozen marsh in hopes of finding a Snowy Owl. So far we've been unsuccessful at picking out a white owl from among the many drifts and clumps of snow that decorate the marsh. But as we walk quietly along the flattened grass, suddenly the snowy ground before us springs to life. A tight flock of white birds lifts into the air like a flurry of upward-falling snowflakes, and with tinkling calls swirls off into the marsh: Snow Buntings!
Before we can focus on the flock among the reeds, the birds fly up once more and return, landing even closer to us. For several minutes, as the small flock feeds at our feet, we enjoy long, close views of this sparrow-sized songbird. What looked mostly white in the air is really something more subtle and beautiful: white body and wings set off by jet-black wing tips and tail feathers, soft smudges of buffy brown on the crown, face, and back, and a more intricate pattern of brown and black on its back.
As the flock shuffles and shifts along the ground, birds seem to appear and disappear, perfectly camouflaged amid the drab grasses, gravel, and snow. Occasionally a bird flies up, tilting its body to flash a pure white belly, looking for all the world like a scrap of snow brought to life.
Eventually the flock wings off into the marsh, and we birders leave, as satisfied as if we had found that Snowy Owl. Like the charismatic owl, the buntings seem to embody the mystical spirit of the snowbound high Arctic. Both manage nesting in the harsh conditions of the Arctic's rocky high tundra; the Snow Bunting is one of the northernmost breeding songbirds in the Arctic. And both white birds grace our open spaces—the blueberry barrens, wide farm fields, beaches, and rocky shores of northern New England—with random winter visitations, disappearing with the snow come spring.
While a Snowy Owl can perch for hours with seeming serenity, poised like an avian Buddha in a snowy field or on a seaside rooftop, Snow Buntings—almost always in the plural—are in constant motion. The flock seems to be ever active, feeding on the ground, then scattering into the air, over and over, the embodiment of a wind-swept snowstorm. American naturalist and early conservationist John Burroughs (1837 - 1921) praised the Snow Bunting as "the only one of our winter birds that really seems a part of winter—that seems born of the whirling snow, and happiest when storms drive thickest." Contemporary ornithologist Pete Dunne described them as "crazed snowflakes."
The bunting visits Maine more regularly and in greater numbers than the Snowy Owl, but its smaller size and tendency to move around a lot can make it almost as much of a challenge to find. It's not a species you look for so much as come across. At the winter beach, you might wait, Zen-like and frozen, for the little birds to reveal themselves, to suddenly separate themselves from the rocks at your feet with a flash of white.
One day earlier this winter, in hopes of finding my first Snow Buntings of the season, I grabbed my binos and scanned the Rockland breakwater beach from the snow-crusted edge of the Samoset golf course. No luck. But as I stood there idly watching sea ducks bob offshore, I heard a chiming, bell-like call, and a single Snow Bunting suddenly landed in the snow not ten feet in front of me. I'm sure the rest of its flock was hiding in plain sight right in front of me down on the beach, but I was grateful that at least one chose to appear.
Burroughs waxed poetic when he described the call of the Snow Bunting as the "sweetest and happiest of all winter bird notes," saying, "It is like the laughter of children. The fox hunter hears it on the snowy hills; the school boy hears it as he breaks through the drifts on his way to school; it is a voice of good cheer and contentment."
Snow Buntings were apparently much more common (and school buses less so) in Burroughs's time. Well into the late 1800s, "enormous hordes" of them wintered in New England, according to Edward Howe Forbush in his BIRDS OF MASSACHUSETTS AND OTHER NEW ENGLAND STATES (1929). Forbush blamed the decline in numbers on excessive market hunting. While this may seem surprising to us now, many species of songbirds we wouldn't dream of eating today were hunted for mass market food prior to passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
These lively little birds leave us in early spring, often well before the last snow has fallen here. They've got a long trek north ahead of them, across most of Canada. Male buntings reach their chilly tundra breeding grounds about a month ahead of the females. Right about the time we celebrate the arrival of robins and phoebes as harbingers of spring, the Koyukon people of Alaska start looking for their traditional harbinger of spring: the Snow Bunting. Some scatter crumbs around their cabins in hopes of attracting the bird during its brief passage through southern Alaska to the high Arctic.
If you're longing for spring here in Maine, a flock of Snow Buntings might be an unwanted reminder that winter persists. This can be a tough time of year for many. But perhaps this little white bird with its "voice of good cheer and contentment" might encourage you to ponder instead the beauty, the living energy, of swirling snowflakes and fresh snow.
Kristen Lindquist is an amateur naturalist and published poet who lives in her hometown of Camden.