Snow Buntings

Look for snow buntings every winter, across the windswept fields of Dufferin, Wellington and other open country settings in southern Ontario.

February 7, 2014 | | Notes from the Wild

David Lamble (featured in Local Heroes, In the Hills Winter 2012) can be found most winter days banding snow buntings east of Arthur. The buntings, migrants from the high Arctic, are able to survive frigid temperatures with equanimity.

David, on the other hand, is merely human – a tropical animal decidedly ill-adapted to this consummately un-tropical region. Regardless, David demonstrates a laudable hardiness, trapping and banding birds in conditions that keep others huddling by the hearth.

Lamble, a retired chemistry teacher, has banded about 35,000 snow buntings over 35 years, an impressive tally of a bird little known outside of the birding community. Snow buntings though, are with us every winter, whirling in rollicking flocks across the windswept fields of Dufferin, Wellington and other open country settings in southern Ontario.

One of the fascinating fruits of David’s herculean effort was the discovery of where “our” buntings spend the summer. The answer is astonishing. Recaptured birds reveal that they breed in Greenland!

But the exotic summer destination of the buntings is only one striking facet of their cold-adapted lives. Their metabolism, for example, is extraordinary. To keep warm they can burn fully 50% of their weight overnight.

You can imagine the urgency of these birds to refuel during the day. They feed voraciously on weed seeds and grains to recoup their body fat. Then, at day’s end, they shelter not in trees, but under a layer of snow, allowing them to preserve valuable energy.

This behaviour has David Lamble worried. He fears that some of this winter’s buntings lie dead, entombed by December’s ice storm.

David Lamble and his buntings share uncommon habits and an uncommon hardiness. The birds are remarkable, so too is the man who bands them.

Snow bunting admirer. Photo by Fiona Reid. snow bunting flock. Photo by Fiona Reid. snow bunting in the hand. Photo by Fiona Reid. Snow buntings being recovered by David Lamble. Photo by Fiona Reid. Trapped snow buntings. Two hardy creatures - snow bunting and David Lamble. Photo by Fiona Reid. determining fat reserves under the breast feathers
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Two hardy creatures - snow bunting and David Lamble. Photo by Fiona Reid.

About the Author More by Don Scallen

Don Scallen enjoys sharing his love of nature through his writing and presentations. Check out his blog "Notes from the Wild".

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