A Toasted Marshmallow in the Snow

Lately, I have been severely deprived of opportunities to bird. Not that I am complaining — working on the fall musical at my school has been an amazingly fun ride, and I have made many new friends! But the itch to get out and find some feathered friends grew ever stronger as my separation grew longer. Finally, this past Sunday morning, I got the chance to flex my birding muscles.

Every November for the last few years, a few Snow Buntings have shown up on the lawn and trail at West Point in Discovery Park, the Seattle park system’s crown jewel. Two falls in a row now, a single individual Snow Bunting has put on an especially confiding show, feeding along the side of the walking trail with barely a care in the world for people passing by. I was partly drawn by a desire to add this species to my yearlist and stay ahead in my competition with a friend, but mostly by the excitement of getting to observe and photograph such an adorable species up close.

Snow Buntings are small, plump sparrow-like birds closely related to longspurs. Indeed, Snow Buntings possess the same extended hind claw that gives the longspurs their name. These buntings are delicately marked affairs of black and toasty brown on a white background. It is this latter color trait that leads me to believe that they are truly the embodiment of toasted marshmallows in bird form. Their blunt orange bill, perfect for mashing up seeds in snowy fields and insects in the tundra, combine with their deer-in-the-headlights facial expression to create the impression of a sweet little creature that is almost too pure for this world.

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This fella spent just enough time warming up over the flames of a campfire

When I arrived at West Point, the weather seemed quite apt for my quest to see a snow bird: flurries of snowflakes blew past in a strong marine wind. In a bizarre meteorological twist, Seattle is currently plunged in a pocket of very cold weather, which has brought along with it some remarkably early snow! Though the cold air was biting, I braced the icy gusts and walked down the trail to the specific intersection that the bunting frequented. It did not take long for me to spot my friend Joshua Rudolph hanging about with his camera lens trained to the ground. The Snow Bunting was an easy spot soon after!

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What a babe

Snow Buntings are not usually so trusting – as a nomadic, gregarious songbird of wintry fields frequented by various birds of prey, they are often wise to stay on high alert at all times. However, this bunting obviously did not feel very threatened by any nearby predators, not even the Peregrine Falcon circling above periodically. When pedestrians and their dogs did pass by, the bunting preferred to run quickly across the gravel to escape.

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One of the silliest, cutest bird bills you’ll find

Now that the weekend has almost returned, I look forward to my next birding outing; until then, I can treasure the sharp frame-filling photos I was able to get of the toasted marshmallow bird in Discovery Park. With several different irruptions going on right now, from Snowy Owls to winter finches to Blue Jays to even Mountain Chickadees, this winter is sure to have more surprises coming along the way! Until then, 9 to 5 is calling my name. What a way to make a living!

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In this photo, you can see the Snow Bunting’s long, fluffy pantaloons, well-suited for the cold climates in which they spend the winter. In addition, you can see the long hind claw — the feature which gives this species its binomial name, Plectrophenax nivalis: the snowy false-plektron. A plektron is a long, claw-like tool used to pluck the strings of a lyre, and since this long claw is a part of a bird’s foot and not part of an instrument, it’s a false one!

 

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