Questions and answers:
I’ve had several questions recently about this bird (some had accompanying pictures), they all went a little like:
Q: I have a black and white bird coming to my feeders, my friend says it’s a Snow Bunting but it doesn’t look quite like the one in my book. Is it a Snow Bunting or something else?
A: In the cases, where the bird (or picture) almost fit the image of the Snow Bunting in the field guide, it was indeed what we were looking at. Snow Buntings only have one molt per year, the summer plumage is brownish and instead of molting into a breeding plumage, the tips of the feathers wear off leaving the males black and white by the time breeding begins. Males will even rub on snow to speed up the wear. A hardy little bird though, when he returns to the high Arctic breeding grounds with these worn down feathers, the temperature could still be -30 degrees.
So if the bird or picture you’re looking at isn’t in the same stage of wear as the picture in your field guide, it wouldn’t look exactly the same. Some guides show more plumages than others, even then there will always sightings of birds with plumage in between. If you search on line you’ll usually come up with a picture that matches and chances are if it’s dated it will coincide loosely with the time of year your bird was spotted.
Snow Bunting tend to like open fields, I’ve only had them in my yard twice in 19 years, but when I lived in PEI, there were thousands in grain fields and roadside for grit. Many took advantage of my fathers ground feed, I took them for granted but now I’d be very excited to have even a pair in my yard.
Q: I have a small pair of binoculars, 12x25’s, I’d like to be able to get better looks at the birds I see. Should my next step be a spotting scope or should I get a camera with a telephoto lens?
A: It depends on your budget and what you want to achieve. If you want to learn more about birds, how to identify them and their behavior, I’d go for the scope. If you want to get high quality pictures, then you’ll need a high end camera. If you just want a photo for the record and aren’t planning on blowing it up or having a calendar printed you might be happy with a point and shoot digital and a spotting scope to play around with digiscoping.
Before I made any hasty decisions that are bound to be expensive, I’d try out a good pair of 8x42 binoculars. Whether you choose a camera or a scope your birding skill will increase greatly if you can more easily locate and observe birds doing what they do. Then if you want to get a really close look or take a picture that’s great, but sometimes you don’t have a lot of time to observe the bird and note the various field marks, if you spend it trying to take a picture, you may have missed out. Trying to identify birds from one or two pictures can range from frustrating to impossible, noting as much as you can while the bird is moving around in front of you is more important than the picture, if you’re trying to learn.
I have some friends who subscribe to the “shoot first and ask questions later” philosophy, but they aren’t progressing in their identification skills as fast as others who are content to sit and observe. For every picture they show me that can identified, there are a dozen blurred shots that even they don’t know the species. The really good bird photographers I know, were good birders first.
Some specialty stores will have demo binoculars that you’d be allowed to take out into the field and give them a really good test, take you own pair along to compare. Don’t go on the brightest part of the day, good binoculars really shine in low light conditions. Compare the field of view, brightness, clarity, even close focusing with your 12x25 pair, for birding I’d guarantee an 8x42 (or 8x40) will make you much happier and give you the views you’re looking for.
I have a friend with a steady hand who can take a picture with her digital camera held up to one barrel on her binoculars. The pictures aren’t going to make the cover of Birdwatchers Digest (Mechanics Illustrated maybe) but she has an identifiable picture and a record for her yard list.