The snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) is a rare visitor to Shenandoah National Park, but now is the time to be on the lookout for this arctic migrant.
This species breeds farther north than any other songbird, nesting on the open tundra of the high arctic, from Greenland to Alaska to Russia. Males stake out their territories in March, when the ground is still covered with snow and temperatures can dip to -22 degrees F. Females arrive 3 to 4 weeks later and nest deep in rock crevices, out of sight of predators.
Snow buntings migrate hundreds of miles south during winter, sometimes arriving at Shenandoah in late October or November. They can easily be distinguished from other chunky, sparrow-sized birds by the large amount of white coloring, mixed with light and dark brown. In spring, the breeding plumage of males changes to mostly white. This is not due to molting, however. The birds rub their bellies and heads in the snow and actually wear away the brown colors!
In addition to the Big Meadows area, snow buntings have been seen in the past along high-elevation overlooks, rock walls, and gravel fire roads, picking around for seeds.