Speaking of Snow Birds

My last blog post was a response to the appearance of a Snowy Owl at Sandy Point in Whatcom County.  On Tuesday I joined 5 others from Pilchuck Audubon on a trip to Reifel Refuge in British Columbia.  It was a very windy and often rainy day and the birding was just OK but the company was excellent.  After Reifel Refuge, we went to a VERY windy and wet Boundary Bay hoping to see Snowy Owls.  As I wrote in that earlier blog, Boundary Bay was home to as many as 20 Snowy Owls in the last irruption year.  This year two have been reported.  In a driving wet wind, our group was fortunate to find one – hunkered down and distant.

Boundary Bay Snowy Owl – November 14, 2017

Snowy Owl Boundary Bay

And if you think that owl was hunkered down, look at the next photo.  We decided to go for a Snowy Owl two-fer and stop at Sandy Point on our return trip to see if we could find Snowy Owls in two countries on the same day,  It was there – but in the heavy wind, it was almost impossible to find.  Look closely.

Sandy Point Snowy Owl – November 14, 2017

Snowy Owl Sandy Point

We did not find any Snow Buntings on this visit – probably just too windy.  But the two Snowy Owls  were not the only “Snow Birds” we saw in both countries as Snow Geese were observed in both countries as well.  Earlier today I was thinking about trips still ahead for 2017 and wondered about snow levels in the Okanogan as that trip is best when there is lots of snow.  That coupled with doing checklists for the visits to B.C. and Sandy Point led me to this blog post about more Snow Birds.

In the ABA Area, there are 5 species with “snow” in their names:  Snowy Owls, Snowy Plovers, Snow Buntings, Snowy Egrets and Himalayan Snowcocks.  Native to the Himalayan region of southern Asia, the latter was introduced as a game bird in the Ruby Mountains of northern Nevada beginning in 1963.  I do not expect to ever see one (or look for one) even though they are quite striking.   I guess they are as valid a countable species as other non-native introduced game birds like Ring Necked Pheasants, Gray Partridge and Chukars, but they seem even more exotic.  The other Snow Birds are very countable and appealing.  While all of these birds are “snow colored”, only Snowy Owls and Snow Buntings are very much associated with snow itself.  Snow Geese are generally seen in “the Lower 48” in the winter but not necessarily with any snow.  The “snow” in Snowy Plovers and Snowy Egrets is from their very snow white color.

Himalayan Snowcock – Picture from Internet

Himalayan Snowcock

I saw my first Snow Bunting at Magnuson Park in Seattle in January 1974.  No photos from those days but I have seen many more in Washington since them including single birds at many spots and flocks of over 100 birds in the Okanogan (in snow fields).  The first photo is of one from a flock of 120 birds seen on Cameron Lake Road in the Okanogan in March 2012.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting 1

That bird is in winter non-breeding plumage.  My photo of one in Nome Alaska in June 2016, shows a much more contrasted Snow Bunting in full breeding plumage – very snowy looking indeed.

Snow Bunting – Breeding Plumage – Alaska June 2016

Snow Bunting

I saw my first Snow Goose in 1972 at the San Luis NWR in California in January 1972.  Since then I have seen thousands and thousands of them – mostly in the Skagit area but also in huge flocks  elsewhere in the State – sometimes in flocks of between 5000-10,000.  Feeding in the fields or in the familiar skeins in flight, they are a welcome sign that winter is on the way or already present.

Snow Goose


Snow Goose Landing


Snow Goose Flock

Snow Goose Flock

Snow Geese usually first appear in October and are usually gone by April.  In the Skagit area they may share fields with Trumpeter and Tundra Swans – turning fields white in their great numbers.  In the Midwestern United States, they are often in the Blue Form but it is the same species.  This form is very rare in Washington.

Snow Goose – Blue Form

Blue Goose

Especially when it is from non-birders, what I most often hear when I show Snowy Plover photos is “They are so cute!!”  Pretty hard to disagree.  They are found on sandy beaches along the coast and on salt flats – often in protected areas as they are declining.  I have seen them in California and Colorado in addition to many times in Washington.  Often I see just one but have seen as many as 12 scampering on the sand near Midway Beach.

Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover

Banded Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover with Band

A close relative of the Snowy Plover is the Piping Plover.  I have seen this cousin in Maryland and Maine.  There is a single record for Washington – Medicine Lake near Spokane in 1990.  Miraculously one was seen in Boundary Bay (yes that same Boundary Bay with the Snowy Owls) in August this year.  Who knows – maybe someday in Washington again!!

Piping Plover Maine 2015

Piping Plover

I have seen Snowy Egrets in eight states.  My first observation was in California in 1973 where they are very common.  They are not common in Washington although observations seem to be increasing.  I finally found my first one in the state on Lower River Road in Clark County in December 2015.   A distant terrible photo then.  A much better look was on July 30 last year of the one originally found by Bruce Labar in Fife.

Snowy Egret – Fife Pond – July 30, 2017

2016-07-30 15.03.31

The picture below was taken in California and shows the incredible feathers – plumes that were once popular additions to women’s hats – and which threatened the species.

Snowy Egret – Bolsa Chica, California

Snowy Egret

That’s it for the Snow Birds in the ABA area.  I have one more Snow Bird on my world list, however.  But it is about as different from these Snow Birds as you can imagine.  It is the Snowy Crowned Robin Chat which I saw at the Kakamega Forest NR in Kenya where it is resident almost exactly 10 years ago.  I doubt that there has been any snow in the Kakamega forest in hundreds or maybe even thousands of years.  I did not get a photo of that species but do have ones of two closely related cousins from a trip to South Africa in 2014.

Snowy Capped Robin Chat

Snowy Capped Robin Chat

White Browed Robin Chat

White Browed Robin Chat

White Throated Robin Chat

White Throated Robin Chat Display

I think I should have stayed with the true Snow Birds instead of straying – but they are nice looking birds.  Just to close properly, however, a final photo of a Snowy Owl – after all this guy started it all.  It is appropriately on the snow – a small patch surrounded by clear fields in the Waterville Plateau.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl2

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