Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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[Mystery bird] Snow Bunting, Plectrophenax nivali, photographed in Minnehaha County, South Dakota. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]

Image: Terry Sohl, 19 January 2009 [larger view].

Photo taken with Canon 50D, 400 5.6L lens.

Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.

Rick Wright, Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:

The angled commissure of emberizid buntings always makes them look like they’re smiling, don’t you think? The bright white plumage, pale bill, and terrestrial habit make this Snow Bunting easy to identify.

This January bird’s feathers are 5 to 7 months old, the product of a pre-basic molt undergone in July, August, or September; this species does not have a pre-alternate molt, assuming its natty black and white breeding “plumage” through abrasion: the dull tips of the feathers wear off over the course of the winter to reveal the contrasty colors beneath. We can actually see the worn state of the scapulars in this photo.

I believe that the bright white greater coverts visible here sex the bird as a male. I’ve never really been able to figure out how to age Snow Buntings in the field — pointers appreciated!

Review all mystery birds to date.


  1. #1 Red Dragon
    March 31, 2009

    Snow Bunting, 1st Winter Male. Buff colored crown, and grey-black primaries. But darker than the adult winter plumage.

  2. #2 TEO
    March 31, 2009

    As Red Dragon failed to notice the cuteness of this little fluffy buddy 😉
    I´m gonna say it: AAAAWWWWWWWW

    And yes, it looks like a Snow Bunting…

  3. #3 The Ridger
    March 31, 2009

    Totally KEWT snow bunting.

  4. #4 pk1154
    April 1, 2009

    Lovely little snow bunting.

    Sadly, the open field where I last saw a flock of snow buntings swirling about in a whirl of snow has long since been turned into a mega-strip-mall/movie theater complex.

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