Chasing snowflakes

Mon, 12/26/2011 - 2:04pm

For a scant two hours on the morning of December 18 the quiet Block Island air was adrift with lightly tumbling snowflakes; the season’s first – and hopefully not only – snow flurry. In the shadows and shelters of north-facing objects one could find a few unmelted flakes wedged between still-green grass blades late in the day. For the most part, however, the snowflakes vanished as quickly as they appeared, a pattern known well to the island’s bird watchers.

In 1931, Elizabeth Dickens recorded in her journal the results of that year’s Christmas Bird Census (CBC) on December 26: “31 species, 1,648 individuals, Christmas census made by…” (a listing of 17 people). It has been 80 years since Elizabeth Dickens hand wrote that list, and it is fascinating to compare it to expectations for the upcoming Christmas Community Bird Census. From oldsquaw (8 were seen that year) and kittiwake (7) to horned lark (13), meadowlark (193) and song sparrow (18), it is the horned lark and prairie horned lark that is most likely not to be seen in 2011. It is also interesting that only one individual of the following species were seen in 1931: great-blue heron, robin, northern shrike, myrtle and pine warblers, snowflake.

Also known as snow bunting, a snowflake is a true winter bird with some amazing biology. The snow bunting spends most of the year in the high Arctic. Only in winter does the snowflake visit Canada and the northern United States. The snowflake is listed in most years of Elizabeth Dickens' Christmas Bird Census, but nowadays it is usually just a passing late fall migrant. Recently observed in the fields south of Sachem Pond, this cheerful little bunting seems the ideal target to chase during this year’s CBC.

Haunts and Habits: …When winter really comes to New England, when icy blasts seep down from the north and snow fills the air and whitens field and pasture, these little birds ride down on wintry winds and whirl about the fields amid the driving show. As they wheel and turn in concert, their brown backs and black-tipped wings veer and careen about amid the snowflakes until, with a sudden swing, they turn their white undersides toward us and disappear in the snow-filled air, only to reappear as the next turn brings their backs to our view. Having swung back and forth and from side to side, and viewed their landfall from every vantage point, they glide toward the earth, alight in a patch of weeds or tall grass that projects above the snow, and running along from plant to plant , help themselves to the well-ripened seeds.

John Burroughs says that this is the only one of our winter birds that really seems a part of winter – that seems born of the whirling snow, and happiest when storms drive thickest. Its calls, coming out of the white obscurity, are the sweetest and happiest of the winter bird notes. “It is,” he says, “like the laughter of children. The fox hunter hears it on the snowy hills; the school boy hears it as he breaks through the drifts on his way to school; it is a voice of good cheer and contentment.”

-Birds of Massachusetts and other New England States, 1929, Edward Howe Forbush

If beauty and merriment are not reason enough to focus on capturing a view of snow buntings, then considerate it a tribute and a nod to Frank Chapman. In 1900 Chapman proposed replacing the traditional Christmas day competitive bird hunt with the now widely-practiced non-lethal Christmas Bird Census, in which killing birds is replaced by counting birds.

Chapman (a self-taught ornithologist who started at the American Museum of Natural History in 1888 and served as Curator of Birds form 1908 to 1942) wrote an article for the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History in 1896 describing how the dramatic change of plumage of snowflakes – from mostly white and brown in winter, to mostly black and white in summer – is the result of feather wear, not molting and growing new feathers.

So, join the Ocean View Foundation in saluting Frank M. Chapman, and honoring the tradition of Elizabeth Dickens as we take to the field with a sense of good cheer and contentment, chasing snowflakes.

To learn more about snow buntings a.k.a. snowflakes of the feathery kind, go to



Community Bird Census is an annual Ocean View Foundation event held on December 26, traditionally the day that Elizabeth Dickens led the Christmas Bird Counts. This event encourages all who are interested in birds and enjoying the beauty of the island to spend part of the day keeping track of the birds they see. The short-term result of the day’s observations is the compilation of an island-wide bird list comprised of the sightings of many citizen scientists. In the long term these annual bird counts continue the work of Elizabeth Dickens and contribute to a much larger body of information.

All levels of participation are encouraged, from watching your bird feeder to traipsing the island.

11th annual Community Bird Census • Monday, December 26

Feel free to participate as much or as little as you would like.

1. Meet at 9 a.m. at Sachem Pond where a spotting scope will be available for some early morning duck watching, and to join with others to make a plan for a day of birding.

2. Bird Walk led by Kim Gaffett at a location to be based on wind and weather.

3. During the middle of the day, participants will employ whatever means desirable to make a list of birds seen that day. The options for making these observations range from taking one or more walks, to watching your bird feeder from the warmth of your house.

4. At 4:30 p.m. we will meet at the Rescue Barn to compile the list, enjoy some hot cider and revel in the stories of the day. Anyone wishing to call in his or her Block Island observations may call Kim Gaffett at 466-2224. (To reach Kim “in the field” call 595-7055.)