YAKIMA, Wash. — The snow bunting is a true “Snowbird.” It is a species related to sparrows that nests in rocky arctic regions all around the Northern Hemisphere, and comes south to Central Washington in winter and then only rarely. It breeds across northern Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia. Everywhere in this vast circumpolar range it goes south only far enough to escape deep snow in order to find food. In villages and small towns almost throughout the world’s arctic regions, one of the first harbingers of spring is the return from the south of snow buntings.
Residents of these remote outposts are excited each March to welcome this beautiful bird though bitter cold, ceaseless winds, and snow still hold a firm grip on the landscape. At least the long arctic night is ending, so residents know spring will eventually come.
Where and when to look: These hardy creatures seek bleak terrain resembling the tundra. Most snow buntings in North America spend the winter in open landscapes east of the Rocky Mountains. Favored habitats include the northern prairies, farmlands with grain stubble, weedy fields, and beaches along the Atlantic coast. Only small numbers drift west of the Rockies to the Pacific states.
Around Yakima, a few birds are noted in some winters on wheat fields in the Horse Heaven Hills south of Mabton. Other good areas are the various high ridges of the Yakima Fold Belt that surround Yakima such as those on the Yakima Training Center, where today's photo was taken. In winters with lots of snow, these birds may be forced lower in elevation to the Black Rock Valley east of Moxee, where they consort with swirling flocks of horned larks. Elsewhere in Washington, larger numbers can sometimes be found on the Waterville Plateau east of Wenatchee and in wheat lands elsewhere in northeast parts of the state. A tiny number are noted along the outer coast along beaches, as on the Atlantic side of our continent.
How to spot one: These birds are pretty darn distinctive. This photo is of a male in winter. Spring males are more strikingly black and white. Females are dressed in warm tones of buff and light browns. In flight, all ages sport very conspicuous patches of white on their wings, which flash distinctively as they fly.
Chow time: Seeds form the bulk of their diet including those of grasses, weeds, and sedges. Waste grain is sought by many in winter. Insects are important in the warm season, particularly so for young birds still in the nest. Along Arctic shores, they also take tiny marine crustaceans.
Home life: Males arrive from their wintering grounds about a month before the females to claim the prime breeding territories. The males perform impressive courtship flights above their treeless rocky landscape, singing a delightfully loud warbling tune, then glide gracefully downwards still singing. On the ground, the male performs a ritualistic display by spreading his wings and flashing his contrasting black-and-white patterns.
The nest, built by the female, is usually in a protected crevice among large rocks, and is a bulky cup of grass and moss, lined by feathers. She lays four to six eggs and incubates these for about nine to 15 days. Both parents also bring food to the young, at first mostly insect fare. The young leave the nest after a little more than two weeks.
• Wildlife Moment, focusing on native wildlife, typically runs in Outdoors on the first Thursday of the month, with the cooperation of the Yakima Valley Aububon Society.