- Written by Clyde McMillan-Gamber Clyde McMillan-Gamber
During February, some years ago, while driving through snow-covered farmland in Lancaster County, I saw a flock of over a hundred small birds “bounding” low in flight, down to snowdrifts in a large field.
The birds showed much white feathering as they swerved into the wind, landed on the snow, and promptly disappeared. I knew they were snow buntings, down from the Arctic tundra where they nest.
I stopped the car and used binoculars to look at the spot where they landed. And there those beautiful birds were, walking over the snow and eating seeds that blew in on top of that snow.
Snow buntings are one of four sparrow-sized species of birds — including horned larks, snow buntings, Lapland longspurs, and American pipits — that winter on southeastern Pennsylvania cropland and other open habitats across the United States.
There they all feed on seeds and bits of corn kernels, except for the pipits, which consume small invertebrates. And there they all hunker down among clods of soil or snowdrifts during long, cold winter nights.
These lovely birds are never noticed by most people because they are small and well camouflaged in their featureless habitats of little or no cover. And they usually are not seen by birders until those little birds sweep up and swiftly away on the cold wind.
Horned larks raise young on southeastern Pennsylvania farmland and similar habitats across North America. And thousands of them, both residents and migrants from farther north, annually winter in this part of Pennsylvania. They are, by far, the most numerous and regular of these small birds, down from nesting on the tundra to winter here.
Horned larks are mostly brown on top, which blends them into their bare ground and winter stubble habitats. But they also have attractive black-and-yellow face patterns and two black feather tufts, sticking up like tiny horns, which help us identify them. Those face patterns are valuable during their early-spring courtships.
Big flocks of snow buntings, not often this far south, are a rarity here. Some winters, however, a few of them join groups of horned larks. Snow buntings “stand out” in lark gatherings because of their striking white-and-brown feathering that camouflages them in harvested fields and other open habitats.
Lapland longspurs have sparrow-like feathering, mostly brown with darker streaking, all in the name of blending into bare-ground environments. Never in flocks of their own here, they are either alone in winter fields or in groups of horned larks.
American pipits are brown and lightly streaked. Flocks of them walk over bare-ground fields, bobbing their tails and ingesting invertebrates.
When the ground is snow-covered, many pipits migrate south, but some retreat to local, running brooks in pastures where they find invertebrates. The value of their tail-pumping is evident. It resembles debris bouncing in waterway currents: a mimicry, a form of blending-in to avoid hawks and other predators.
When snow piles on fields, larks, buntings, and longspurs ingest weed and grass seeds from roadsides that were plowed, baring the soil there. And they consume bits of chewed, but undigested, corn in livestock manure spread on the snow.
These interesting birds, and other kinds, including geese, pigeons, and crows, scratch corn bits from manure and consume them when other seeds are buried in snow.
It is interesting to know that some birds adapted to open habitats with little shelter. Life is durable and can survive in harsh conditions.
Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.