Snow Bunting

Plectrophenax nivalis
Range Map

Typically, this bird keeps to the far north, breeding in the Arctic zones of the northern hemispheres of both the new and old worlds. The winter range normally extends into the middle latitudes of North American or Eurasian continents.

At a significant cost energetically, male Snow Buntings arrive on their breeding grounds in the high Arctic four to six weeks before the females, when temperatures might be -30°F. The reasons for this early arrival is to secure proper nesting locations. These birds nest, not on the open tundra, but along rocky outcrops at higher elevations, where they use deep crevices for nesting to avoid predators. Such sites come at a premium, so the early bird gets the rocks.

Modern science recognises four subspecies of Snow Bunting:

  • P. n. nivalis breeds in Arctic Alaska and Canada, Greenland, islands in the North Sea, and from Norway east through Sweden and Finland to the border of Russia. They spend winters in southern Canada and the northern USA. We have found some wayward birds south to southern California, Texas, and Florida. In Europe, there are records south to the Mediterranean Sea and Asia Minor.
  • P. n. vlasowae breeds across northern Russia, to the Bering Sea and the Kamchatka Peninsula. They spend winters south to northern China, the Korean Peninsula, and northern Japan.
  • P. n. townsendi is resident on islands in the Bering Sea, and the Aleutians.
  • P. n. insulae is resident in Iceland, and believed to live on other islands in the North Sea.

The only Snow Bunting I’ve photographed must have lost its way by traveling too far south and finding itself in San Diego. One day, I hope to meet these birds on their breeding grounds, where their plumage is much different. As the 500th bird species recorded in San Diego County, it generated a lot of excitement among the local birding community, and I heard folks from Los Angeles and northern California drove down to see her.

1 Photos

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