Saturday, February 1, 2014

“Away goes the great wheeling, rambling flock”

“I see a large flock of snow buntings on the railroad causeway. Their wings are white above next the body, but black or dark beyond and on the back. This produces that regular black and white effect when they fly past you.”
—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), February 1, 1857.

Thoreau wrote about snow buntings elsewhere in his Journal; see excerpts below. His descriptions of their colors and  flight (offered below) are exactly correct, as you can see in these photos and videos, which I made several days ago in my meadow.

All of the text that follows is from Thoreau's Journal:

December 29, 1853: I see the first flock of arctic snowbirds (Emberiza nivalis) near the depot, white and black, with a sharp, whistle-like note. … 

Of the snow bunting, [organizational Alexander] Wilson says that they appear in the northern parts of the United States “early in December, or with the first heavy snow, particularly if drifted by high winds.” … He adds that “they are … universally considered as the harbingers of severe cold weather.” They come down from the extreme north and are common to the two continents; [Wilson] quotes Pennant as saying that they “inhabit not only Greenland but even the dreadful climate of Spitzbergen, where vegetation is nearly extinct, and scarcely any but cryptogamous plants are found. It therefore excites wonder, how birds, which are graminivorous in every other than those frost-bound regions, subsist: yet are there found in great flocks both on the land and ice of Spitzbergen.” P. also says that they inhabit in summer “the most naked Lapland Alps,” and “descend in rigorous seasons into Sweden, and fill the roads and fields: on which account” the Uplanders call them “hardwarsfogel,” hard-weather birds. 

Also P. says “they overflow [in winter] the more southern countries in amazing multitudes.” W. says their colors are very variable, “and the whiteness of their plumage is observed to be greatest towards the depth of winter.” Also W. says truly that they seldom sit long, “being a roving restless bird.” Peabody says that in summer they are “pure white and black,” but are not seen of that color here. Those I saw to-day were of that color, behind A. Wheeler’s. He says they are white and rusty brown here. These are the true winter birds for you, these winged snowballs. I could hardly see them, the air was so full of driving snow. What hardy creatures! Where do they spend the night?

[video taken through windshield]

December 12, 1858: Up river on ice to Fair Haven Hill. I see an immense flock of snow buntings, I think the largest I ever saw. There must be a thousand or two, at least. There is but three inches at most of crusted and dry frozen snow, and they are running amid the weeds that rise above it. 

Their cryptic coloring conceals them among the corn stubble.
There are dozens of Snow Buntings in this photo.

Here they are, in their cryptic winter plumage.

They are very restless, and continually changing their ground. They will suddenly rise again a few seconds after they have alighted, as if alarmed, but after a short wheel, settle close by. As they fly from you in some positions, you see only or chiefly the black part of their bodies, and then as they wheel, the white comes into view, contrasted prettily with the former, and in all together at the same time. 

Seen flying higher against a cloudy sky, they look like snowflakes.
Seen flying higher against a cloudy sky, they look like snowflakes. 

They rise all together, their note is like the rattling of nuts in a bag, as if a whole bin-full were rolled from side to side. They also utter from time to time, that is, individuals do, a clear rippling note, perhaps an alarm or call. It is remarkable that their note, above described, should resemble the lesser red-polls’. 

Away goes the great wheeling, rambling flock, rolling through the air, and you cannot easily tell where they will settle. Suddenly the pioneers, or a part not foremost, will change their course, when in full career, and, when at length they know it, the rushing flock on the other side will be fetched about, as it were, with an undulating jerk, as in the boys’ game of snap-the whip, and those that occupy the place of the snapper are gradually off after their leaders on the new track. 

Like a snowstorm, they come rushing down from the north. They are unusually abundant now. I should like to know where all these snowbirds will roost to-night, for they will probably roost together. What havoc an owl might make among them!

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