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Otto: Time to bundle up? Snow buntings are here

Published: Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, Jan. 21, 2013 4:58 p.m. CDT

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Call it an omen, call it what you will, but Wednesday on my way to work I saw [insert your favorite dramatic crescendo] ... snow buntings.

There I was, sitting in the left, westbound lane at Randall and Route 38, minding my own business – and contemplating that of others, namely, what circumstances may have led someone to let go of the plastic Meijer bag that was floating in the breeze – when the light turned green. I watched as the white bag sailed toward the Fifth Third Bank lot; then, hoping it soon would get picked up and disposed of properly, took my foot off the brake and proceeded through the intersection.

The next light, which serves the Route 38 entrance to Meijer and the St. Charles Moose Lodge, was green, so I gave the car a little gas. A flutter of white caught my eye, and just as I had begun to think, “Aw nuts, not another plastic bag,” a light bulb went off in my head: Snow buntings!

Now, the crazy thing about that thought is that, until Wednesday, I had never seen snow buntings in real life. These smallish birds, bigger than sparrows but not quite the size of, say, robins, are sporadic winter visitors in Kane County. The sightings I’ve heard about usually are at Fermilab – which at 6,800 acres is the largest chunk of publicly accessible open space in the county – or farther west toward DeKalb, where farm fields stretch far and wide. Alas, I’ve never made it to either site in time after a reported sighting, and the snow bunting box on my List O’ Birds has gone unchecked.

But even though I have no field experience with the species, what was working in my favor Wednesday is what I like to refer to as a Usual Suspect List – those birds known to occur in our area at a given time. In winter, or actually any season, we don’t have flocks of smallish, predominantly white (with a little brown) birds other than snow buntings here.

Sure, we see pigeons, which can have lots of white, but these birds were smaller. And yes, we can have birds displaying aberrant coloration, but not a whole bunch flying together.

I watched as the birds, a flock of about 15 or so, headed toward the open field east of the Judicial Center, and continued on my way to work.

To be sure of what I’d seen, I checked in with our co-worker Denis Kania after I arrived at Hickory Knolls. His official title at the park district is natural areas manager, but birders in our area recognize him as one of the region’s leading authorities on bird identification. I asked him if snow buntings at the corner of 38 and Moose Lodge were a possibility, and he first replied with the question, “Were they white?” When I said yes, so did he.

With the ID established, you’d think I could just go merrily about the rest of my week. But no. Now that I’d gotten to see a bird I previously only read about, I wanted to learn as much as I could about its habits and life cycle.

And that’s where the omen part comes in.

Snow buntings spend their summers up north, but not the Wisconsin, Michigan or Canada kind of “up north” to which Illinoisans often refer. Nope. Snow buntings make their nests and raise their offspring w-a-a-a-y up north, as in Arctic – at and above the Arctic Circle.

When the males return to their breeding grounds in April, nighttime low temperatures may reach 30 below zero. In June, when females are incubating eggs, the average daily highs are near 50 degrees. That far north, there are no trees, so nests are situated among rocks on the ground. To insulate the eggs and eventual nestlings from those cold rocks, nests are bulky and can contain not only typical materials such as dry grasses, mosses and lichens but also feathers and fur scavenged from the snow buntings’ neighbors – white ptarmigans, jaegers snowy owls, Arctic foxes, lemmings and, depending on location, the occasional musk ox.

Weather forecasters in Illinois are fond of referring to worst-case scenarios. These past couple of days I’ve heard numerous references to the “coldest temperatures we’ve had in two years” that are to arrive Monday. I’ve also heard the terms “frigid” and “bitter cold” bandied about.

Are snow buntings really portents of the coming cold weather? Nah. But their appearance just ahead of an Arctic blast may serve as an important reminder to bundle up over the next few days.

With their downy insulation, feathery tarsi (think long underwear for birds) and several unique physiological adaptations, snow buntings are well equipped to handle cold temperatures. They do just fine in it, and I bet you will, too.

• Pam Otto, who’s noticed that the predicted high for Thursday was 40 – a summerlike temp for snow buntings – is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org.

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