Sunday, January 4, 2015

Snow Bunting Memories

A few weeks ago a flock of Snow Buntings and a pair of Lapland Longspurs were seen near our house as part of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. But it is a 5 mile round trip to the end of the beach where they were seen and with the holidays and Christmas travel coming up, my wife and I didn't get a chance to go out and find them. But then just before New Years I received an email from my uncle that he was coming up to the area for his bird club's trip to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and wanted to meet up for dinner, and if the birds were still around, a trip out to see the Buntings and Longspurs. We were back in town and ready to make an attempt.
Pair of Snow Buntings
As Friday got closer the forecast temperature also continued to increase. The beach in on the Chesapeake Bay and it can get quite cold and windy out there (relative to the southern Virginia winter balminess). Dick drove up and we had lunch and then headed out in early afternoon. The winds and water were remarkably calm and the water level was very low, even for low tide, so there was plenty of beach to walk on.
On the way out we saw a good selection of bay ducks: Scoters, Buffleheads, Loons. At the end of the beach the city has recently built up the dunes with a handful of small jetties and lots of grasses. This is to help reduce flooding of the Back River and hopefully helps protect our house. The target birds had been seen flying around the grasses and rocks. At the first cove we found at least 25 Savannah Sparrows. The most I have ever seen (probably in total; definitely at once). As we are scoping them for good views we see the white and black flashes of the Snow Buntings over the dune. We had heard from a photographer that we passed on the way in that they keep flying around and landing every couple of minutes. We made out way around to the next cover and through a pass in the dunes to where there were several hundred shore birds on the flats. And then the flash of white and black again. This time landing close to us allowing for some nice views. As they moved around we could see that two were slightly smaller and darker. And when the flock landed, they often landed off to the side. But often hidden behind grasses from out vantage point. After some patience and luck we could clearly see they were they two Lapland Longspurs. The longspurs were a life-bird for my wife and I while the Snow Buntings were a lifer for my uncle.
Snow Bunting

Lapland Longspur
Our first Snow Bunting is a pretty funny story. Every fall a group of friends rent a house for a ling weekend down on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It is usually early November before we get down there and our stay often coincides with the Wings Over Water festival so Sharon and I try to get in a guided trip. Probably four or five years ago our trip was out to Alligator River NWR. One of the hoped-for birds was a Snow Bunting that had been seen there with a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds. We found a flock with a albino Blackbird but no Snow Bunting. The following year there was a coastal storm brewing as we headed down. We stayed in Rodanthe just south of Pea Island NWR. Our trip was to the south pond at Pea Island; an area usually closed to the public.
We arrived early Friday morning to the designated meeting spot, the maintenance shed at Pea Island, to howling winds and heavy waves. As we huddled in the leeward side of the building several people were on their phones. Finally the trip leader came over and said they were likely going to close the Oregon Inlet bridge due to flooding before our trip was scheduled to end. That would trap everyone on Pea Island. That wasn't a big deal for us since the rental was just a couple miles south and we didn't have to cross the bridge. But everyone else was staying north of the bridge. So they decided to move the trip to the north side of the inlet to Bodie Island. We obviously didn't want to be trapped up there so we stayed behind. The leader said it would be fine for us to walk around the south pond.
So off we headed into the cold November wind. I'm not sure we headed around the right direction and we weren't seeing many birds. So after an hour and a half or so we decided to call it quits and go get something warm to drink at the house.
But as we approached the road we could see waves topping over the dunes and the water collecting at the base of the driveway down from the parking lot. The waves were coming every several seconds and there was a steady stream of water running down the back side; our side. It was clear that we had only minutes, not even tens of minutes, before the road at the bottom of the driveway would be flooded and trap us.  So Sharon called out over the deafening wind "throw everything in the back seat and drive!" We would put stuff away once back at the house. So up we ran towards our car. As we could start seeing the parking lot we could see that it was good that we were among the late-comers as the side where everyone had parked was now under water and there were only a few dry spots.
Snow Buntings in Flight
Ours was among the high and dry. But then thirty feet short of the car Sharon yelled "STOP! What's that???" This small, mainly white and black sparrow-sized bird was on the edge of the driveway about 15 ft away. Up came the binoculars. A quick scan convinced us both that it could be nothing but a Snow Bunting. A life-bird for both of us. But the flood waits for no bird, no matter how new and interesting. We both called out "Snow Bunting. Yeah! Run!" I quickly unlocked the doors, I still had manual locks so it had to wait for me to actually get there and binoculars, scope, everything was tossed in. Seat belts could wait until we were on dry road. The water was already encroaching on the driveway below. And off we went skirting the water and off on dry land. At least for a few minutes. The water and wind was pushing the dune across the road as we reached the edge of Rodanthe and we had to wait for the "snow" plow to push aside some sand before we could pass. But we finally made it home safely with just a fleeting glance of a Snow Bunting.
The following year another big storm came through and finally tore an inlet through the island right where that shed and parking lot stood.

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