When you arrange to meet Bruce Murphy on the back roads of the Little Clay Belt you are startled as he rolls down the window of his half-ton, out darts a bird, much like the characterization of a magician pulling the white dove out of a black top hat.
The sleight of hand bird is the snow bunting. They are sometimes called "snowflakes," and flocks of them seem like a flurry, swirling through the air before settling on the ground.
He is a ‘bird bander” extraordinaire and the snow buntings are on the move.
We think of snow buntings as a bellwether of winter approaching but it is also the same as a harbinger of spring being just around the corner. It is because snow buntings migrate great distances.
A retired high school teacher, he is the Research and Education Coordinator at the Hilliardton Marsh.
He has bird banding conservation in his veins. He is now a Director of the continental Eastern Bird Banding Association, which encompasses eastern Northern America. They just banded a record-setting two-thousandth bunting exceeding the 1,650 record of 2013, Hilliardton Marsh banding started in 2011.
Bruce says unless you are travelling to the Arctic look for them in crop stubble on the fields of northeastern Ontario,
"When they forage they tend to crouch down and blend in extremely well with the ground; even if you don't think you see anything, give the ground a scan and look for movement," Murphy said. "Snow buntings are also restless during the winter and fly to a new spot every 10 minutes or so. Look for a flurry of black-and-white as they dash off to a new foraging spot.”
If you are a “birder” or not, the Hilliardton Marsh, just north of Temiskaming Shores (New Liskeard) is an interesting place. It comprises 728 hectares (1798 acres) and is designated as a provincially significant wetland.
It is also the home of the Hilliardton Marsh Bird & Wetland Research & Education Centre. The centre has banded more than 100,000 birds since 1996.
The property was restored to a wetland by Ducks Unlimited. Prior to the restoration of the marsh, the agricultural landscape was dry and provided virtually no habitat for waterfowl or other wetland-dependent species. The wetlands had lost 85 per cent of its original wetland habitat but the centre now has five engineered cells with elevated berms just off of the Blanche River, the source of the diverted water.
There are approximately 11 km of trails for bird and wildlife viewing and the berms provide great vantage points for viewing and photography.
“This is where I get most of my thrills as we continue to connect people to birds and a love for the planet,” Murphy said.
But it is the fields of the Little Clay Belt surrounding the centre that are important to this late April and May banding program.
"Buntings are a flock-oriented bird that is incredibly cold hardy and adapted to the cold. They are a calm bird in the hand and are easily found as they look for food in open field farm areas," said Murphy.
Snow buntings are larger than a dark-eyed junco, smaller than an American robin.
“They are attracted to corn and other grains places in piles on top of the snow,” Murphy said.
They have several plumages, but they always show white inner wings with black wingtips and a black-and-white tail. Breeding males are sharp white with a black back. Breeding females are whitish overall with a brown, streaky back and a dusky head.
These birds flock up by the hundreds in winter, scattering across Canada and the United States. Snow buntings breed in the high Arctic among rocky crevices where their crisp white plumage blends in with the snowy landscape.
In the winter they acquire rusty tones that help them blend in with their winter homes of bare ground and crop stubble. They have feathered tarsi, (the part of a bird's leg between what appears to be a backward-facing knee and what appears to be an ankle) an adaptation to its harsh environment. You can see this in the photos.
Bruce tells us why snow buntings are important, “About 12 years ago it was discovered snow bunting numbers had declined by over 40 per cent in Canada. Rick Ludkin a bander and Dr. Oliver Love from the University of Windsor decided to form the Canadian Snow Bunting Network. They enlisted as many banders as they could do band snow bunting to help with their research.
"Buntings travel in large flocks and are fairly easy to capture and band. They are dependent on snow for food visibility on top of the snow and for the insulating nature of snow to survive cold nights. As climate change continues the range is becoming more restricted in the southern part of the range and more research into their migration patterns becomes increasingly important."
Migration patterns are still being revealed by banding.
It was originally thought southern birds and northern birds were separate. Southern birds would migrate east along the St Lawrence River and into Labrador and Newfoundland then migrate to either Nunavut or Greenland.
“Northern birds would breed in the Arctic and come as far south as the Temiskaming Shores area to then turn around to migrate back north to breed. This held up until the students at Kerns Public School, west of New Liskeard disproved the academic theory," Murphy said.
"They started catching birds banded in southern Ontario and then a lot of their birds were captured in Quebec migrating east. The more birds that are banded the more we will learn.”
There also seems to be a different migration for males and females. Most females migrate to Southern Ontario and most males stay in the north. This is reinforced by banding data where the majority of snow buntings banded in the south are female while less than 5 per cent of birds banded in the north are female.
“I hope to travel to Labrador next winter to train local volunteers to band more buntings as currently there is no one banding in Labrador and only one bander in Newfoundland,” said Murphy.
He said a snow bunting banded here was found near Anticosti Island near the Gulf of St. Lawrence and four other banded birds migrated north and were then found in Southern Ontario.
“In addition, we have had more than 30 birds re-trapped from past years’ migration showing a great affinity to return to areas that they have found food in the winter.”
Spring migration banding begins May 6 at Hilliardton Marsh Bird & Wetland Research & Education Centre. It is 180 km north of North Bay, 15 km southeast of Englehart.
From the south turn east on Highway 569 and travel 11.9 km (over the bridge at Hilliardton) to Wool Mill Rd. It is located in the scenic Belle Vallée, take a back roads drive through the Little Clay Belt, a rural farming area with an expansive view.
Owls and hummingbirds will be banded. Contact the centre as they are always looking for volunteers. I was glad to see the snow buntings, with their white plumage and a black back. But now open water paddling is something to migrate towards on the back roads, spring will be magical.