Snow Buntings

29 January 2014. Haldimand ON. You know how you hear about extreme sports and how (other) people push the limits of endurance and safety purely for fun?  I think I understand why they do it, at least until they reach the point of foolhardy, life-endangering participation.  Well, today I think maybe we pushed the rational limits on birding, and for a while I wondered just how serious my resulting frostbite might be.  But I’m typing this and all digits are working fine; but still…

I joined a couple of other bird observatory friends to band a few Snow Buntings.  Consider the setting: we work in an unheated mini-van, minus 17 Celsius outside (1.4 deg. F), flat open farmland and a buffeting westerly wind blowing spumes of ice-crystals off the tops of snow-banks.  We had three ground traps baited with cracked corn (ground traps work like a lobster trap, the birds walk in and but can’t find their way out).  Clouds of Snow Buntings, in hundreds, whirled around drawn by the corn, some of it scattered around, but most of it inside the traps. They were hungry, and when Matt and I arrived on site Nancy had just collected thirty or so birds and popped them into cloth bags.  We took them to the van for banding, ageing, sexing, weighing and release.

Snow Buntings at the ground traps

Snow Buntings at the ground traps

With our first batch processed and released, we struggled out of the van and back through the snow drifts to the traps which had filled once again.  My gloves were too clumsy so I pulled them off and started gathering and bagging buntings. Within thirty seconds my hands were very cold, at sixty seconds almost numb but still functioning, and shortly after that screaming in pain.  By then I had my bag limit, I could hardly feel anything but managed to pull my gloves back on, then plunged back through the drifts and to the van.  As I closed the door, Matt climbed in behind me exclaiming that his hands seemed to have vanished.  I don’t think we’d been out for more than four minutes, yet examining my hands I could see the top of at least one finger was bone-white, I knew I’d been frostbitten.  It took some ten minutes of hot breathing and arm-pit incubation to get any feeling back.  It was a signal lesson in not removing gloves and how quickly extremities will freeze; it was also very painful.

Still in three hours we banded 80 Snow Buntings and two days from now I’m going again; that’s what extreme sports nuts do I think.  I should have new photos then, these are from 2011

Snow Buntings coming for food

Snow Buntings coming for food

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