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Snowflakes with feathers Fly in NY Harbor

With winter at its worst this year amid icy blasts of arctic air and piles of snow around Lower New York Bay, there has been at least one bird species worth getting outside to see. Flocks of Snow Buntings have been flying, swirling, and even softly singing on nearby beaches with the snowflakes. The birds are beloved winter visitors from their breeding grounds in the high Arctic.

Snow Buntings have sometimes been called “snowflakes.” A name befitting for a bird that always seems to be found in cold weather conditions. With their whitish feathers, they also look like large snowflakes wandering in the wind when flying.

Snow Buntings are hardy songbirds that breed farther north than any other songbird in the world. They are tailored-made for the cold. Snow Buntings nest and raise their young in the summer on chilly, northern tundra  where winds blow strong on the northernmost islands in Canada and in the mountains of Greenland.

Even in the winter, while many birds fly south to the tropics, Snow Buntings do not get a break from the cold. They fly south to over-winter on local beaches  and grassy areas during the cold months of the year in southern Canada and the northern United States, including in and around Lower New York Bay.

Additionally, male Snow Buntings will often return to the high Arctic in early April, several weeks before females, to stake out nesting sites when temperatures can get as cold as minus 30 degrees  F, and with a good deal of snow covering the ground. The birds will flock up and burrow into loose gravel to wait for snow to melt away. No doubt, these birds are well-suited for life in the cold and snow.

Every winter I scan the dunes at Sandy Hook and Breezy Point to see if any Snow Buntings have arrived. They usually start to fly in towards the end of October, after cold kills many plants up north. The buntings will fly south to find food. There are usually always a few that show up every year. Huge flocks, however, seem to be observed during times of severe winters or when there is little food for them to the north.

The birds eat mostly seeds from plants, grasses, and sedges during the winter. They can often be seen foraging on the ground and on snow covered grassy areas looking for windblown seeds and grains. The birds have extremely finely tuned eyesight to locate small seeds among bits of soil and grains of sand.

Flocks of Snow Buntings have been spotted all around Lower New York Bay this year, including Sandy Hook Bay and Raritan Bay. They have been seen, among other places, at Great Kills Park in Staten Island, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens, Port Monmouth in Monmouth County, and at both beaches at the entrance to New York Harbor: Breezy Point and Sandy Hook.

The buntings are not always easy to see. They are about the size of a sparrow and very well camouflaged with the winter landscape. The birds have largely cinnamon feathers above and white feathers below with a short yellowish bill and a tawny cap. It is a colorful combination.

Many people  probably walk right past them without a thought. At a quick glance, the Snow Buntings look to the average person like an ordinary sparrow, since they move as flocks, but these are not your everyday urban-suburban birds. The buntings fly in from the Arctic to spend the winter around Lower New York Bay to feed and relax before the busy breeding season up north begins come spring. If you miss seeing them this year, you will have to wait a whole year before another opportunity may arise.

So why wait. The buntings are lovely, little beautiful birds with stylish markings. If you’re near some dunes either on the bayside or oceanside, keep your eyes and ears open for signs of Snow Buntings. They are fast moving and quick flying birds. Sometimes offering a quick soft tweet  as they fly over in search of a place to feed.  Maybe even a bit of faint chatter when they land.

Snow Buntings are a joy to observe. It’s worth getting outside in the cold to look over the snow carefully for the cherry sight of flying snowflakes, welcome visitors from the Arctic.

For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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