Luke's Birding Pages


Snow Bunting, Plectrophenax nivalis

February 29, 2004

Clifton Court Forebay, Byron, Contra Costa County, California



Circumstances.  This bird was first found by Akira So on February 27, and I got a chance to chase it Sunday, February 29.  I arrived about noon.  Dave Quady and a few other birders were already looking for it when I arrived, and after several other birders found it, Dave and I were able to get on it for nice scope views as it foraged in the rip-rap at the edge of the forebay, occasionally near an American Pipit.  Scott, Linda and Ryan Terrill arrived and also got nice views before it flew back along the dike and we couldn't immediately refind it.  I was able to watch it over about a ten-minute period, both on the ground and several times in flight.




Description.  A chunky, mostly white bunting, about as long as but much plumper than a nearby American Pipit with which it sometimes appeared to be associating.  Head was white with rufous wash on crown, split by several white lateral crown stripes; rufous wash in auriculars, dark (black?) eye and yellow bill (see Fig. 1, Fig. 2).  White nape with slight rufous wash.  Throat, breast and belly white, with rufous wash around upper breast (see Fig. 2).  Mantle mostly black with white feather edges (see Fig. 1 and Fig. 5), then white in lower back and rump with rufous wash on rump (or middle of lower back?), see Fig. 5.  White outer retrices, black inner retrices with white tips (Fig. 4 and Fig. 5).  Black legs and feet.  Black outer primaries, some white primaries, white primary coverts with black tips and black greater coverts fringed with white (Fig. 1 and Fig. 3).  Figure 5 doesnt show it well, but the tertials were tipped with rufous.



Discussion.  Clearly a Snow Bunting.  The only other possibility, McKay's Bunting, Plectrophenax hyperboreus, would never show as much black in the retrices (particularly R3, which is black in this bird, see Fig. 4 and Fig. 5), and if it showed this much black in the mantle would not have any rufous.  I am reluctant to hazard a guess at the age and sex as Snow Buntings are notoriously difficult.  I had initially thought that the pattern in the outer rectrices appeared more adult than first year, but that was based on my misreading of Byers, Curson & Olsson (1995), Sparrows and Buntings; Byers et al. were referring to juvenile birds, which this is clearly not.  Thanks to Ron Melcer for steering me back on course.


I asked Peter Pyle to comment on this bird based on the photos here and on Akira So's site (below).  Here's Peter's analysis:


By amounts of white and dark coloration it's either an SY (first-year) male or an ASY (adult) female and I'm pretty happy that it is the former. The outer secondaries (s1-s3) may have a bit of black at the tip but appear mostly white, more male-like. Also the bases of the primary coverts appear to be a bit dingy (=juvenal feathers) rather than snow white as would occur on adults. Finally, in one of the shots on the second site [this page -- LWC], the primaries look brownish and worn, again indicating juvenal feathers. Everything looks good for SY male.


There are exactly 100 accepted records of Snow Bunting in California.  If accepted by the California Bird Records Committee, this would be the first accepted record for Contra Costa County.


Another excellent photo by Akira So, the initial finder of the bird, is here.  Joe Morlan has a detailed write-up and several crisp photos here.


Photographs Luke W. Cole

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