Grays Harbor Birds - Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)


The Snow Bunting is described as a “common but irregular” visitor to our area, so irregular that we rarely see this bird. We may have had one last year out on Damon Point or it may have been the McKay’s Bunting mistaken for a Snow Bunting. At any rate, if we see Snowy Owls, I start looking for Snow Buntings. They are both from the Arctic tundra and the owls hunt and eat the buntings, but we won’t go there. Both are white with striking markings, and both have the ability to endure extreme cold. The Snow Bunting is one of only two passerines to winter as far north as they do; the other is the Raven.

The Snow Buntings we see here on the Harbor are in winter plumage, so they are mostly white below the line of their wings, but their upper bodies are colored to blend in with the sand, dirt, and grasses of their environment. The head has a dark rust-colored cap, and their backs are mostly a mottled rusty brown with black streaks running top to bottom. When seen in flight their wings have large white patches from the body out to past mid wing, with black wingtips. They are usually found on the ground, foraging for seeds. In other parts of the country, they are found in mixed flocks of Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs, but we seldom find more than one out here on the Harbor.

Some of the facts about this bird:

Size: 6.75 inches tall, with a wingspan of up to 12.5 inches, weighing 1 to 1.75 oz.

Habitat: On the ground on sandy coasts, in fields, and in dune grass.

Diet: The Snow Bunting is a seed eater, especially in winter, but will eat insects if they can be found.

Nesting: Males arrive on the breeding grounds up to six weeks before females. The right sort of rocky piles for nesting are hard to come by and limited, so the competition is fierce. The nest is usually built in protected crevices in the rocks, in a burrow, or on man-made structures. The male courtship display is interesting to observe; he stands upright, facing away from the female, tail widely spread, with his wings spread low and backward, and runs from her, then returns and repeats. He also has a flight song as he rises 15 to 20 ft overhead, wings held high or parallel, then flutters slowly to the ground, singing his song during the descent and after landing. The nest itself is built by the female. It is thick-walled and constructed of grass, lichen, moss, and roots, and lined with fine grass, rootlets, plant down, hair, feathers, and fur. She incubates 3 to 9 eggs for 10 to 16 days. Because it is so cold in the rocks, the male feeds her so she doesn’t have to leave the nest. Both parents feed the young, which leave the nest at 10 to 17 days, then continue to feed the young for 8 to 12 days after they leave the nest. The young can catch some of their own food within 3 to 5 days, but stay close to their parents.

Migration Status: Snow Buntings migrate in small, loose flocks, leaving their breeding grounds in the fall and arriving in central and eastern Washington in mid-October. The males return to their breeding grounds in early April, with the females following in May.

Conservation Status: Snow Buntings do not appear to be in any trouble, although pesticide use and Arctic habitat destruction may affect them in the future.

Where to Find on the Harbor: Open dunes and grassy areas along the coast.

Dianna Moore | Grays Harbor Audubon