Dallas-area Snow Bunting and Little Gull

2007 January 13
by David J. Ringer

DUNCANVILLE, TEXAS — I don’t consider myself a twitcher. I won’t generally make long trips to tick the latest megararity; I don’t maintain state or even an ABA-area list.

However, if there’s a really great bird hanging around in my own backyard (metaphorically speaking), well … there’s no sense just ignoring it, is there? Of course not!

I’d been keeping an eye on Texbirds while I was in Missouri for Christmas, and that’s how I found out about the Snow Bunting Keith Lockhart discovered Dec. 26. I kept hoping it would stick around into the new year, but I hadn’t actually expected that it would. Reports kept coming in, though, and I decided to go for it just as soon as I could.

And so, I got up early last Saturday morning and made it north to Lewisville without major difficulties, despite road construction that necessitated an emergency detour in a part of the Metroplex I was totally unfamiliar with.

At the Lewisville Lake Park tollbooth shortly after 8 a.m., I choked a bit on the $10 entry fee but paid it anyway. After all, we’re talking about a Snow Bunting! There are fewer than 10 records of the species for the entire state of Texas.

Driving through the park, I kept an eye out for birds, or birders. I finally found a man scanning a field with his scope, and I stopped. The bird hadn’t been spotted yet that morning, he said. That was fine with me, actually, for I wanted to take part in the hunt rather than just arriving and having the bird immediately pointed out by a small army of birders.

So, I took out my scope and decided to walk along the lakeshore, where the bunting had been seen on several occasions. For my efforts, I accumulated a couple of pounds of mud on my boots, and I got very cold. The dark clouds overhead and stiff, chilly wind coming off the lake made me think that the bunting would be feeling right at home. If he was still here.

Leaving the water, I started to scan the field the other birders were scoping. The flock of Killdeer did not seem to have a Snow Bunting among them, but I kept looking. Then … what was that?

There was a loud, clear call note, and I was sure I’d never heard it before. I looked up into the sky and saw … a songbird descending … locate … focus … with huge white patches in its wings! Snow Bunting!

He landed on the short grass among the Killdeer and began to feed on seedheads, taking off every few moments and landing again, sometimes closer, sometimes farther away. In flight, he looked like a fluttering white handkerchief; on the ground, he looked much more colorful than I had expected.

The bird had been called a first-year male, and I tried to see the field marks supporting this identification. This turned out to be difficult, in part because the field marks themselves are tricky and variable but also because of the distance. Immature males should show more black in certain feathers on the wing than adult males do. I was able to see that the white panel in the folded wing was almost totally surrounded by black feathers, which I took to mean that the primary coverts were dark. I was not able to see the bird well enough in flight to pick out dark spots on the secondaries, but they are there, as you can see in these Snow Bunting photos that Gus Stangeland took on the same day that I saw the bird.

To see more of the little bird, check out the news segment that aired at least twice last week: Lone Star Adventure: Snow Bunting. (Unfortunately, the news station not only said that we were “flocking” to see the bird but also spelled “birders” with a “u”!)

After I left the bunting, I headed for Dallas’ White Rock Lake to look for the reported Little Gull. My heart sank a little when I got to the lake and discovered many hundreds of birds on the water — Ring-billed and Bonaparte’s gulls, cormorants, and pelicans, mostly. I couldn’t get the “needle in a haystack” cliche to leave my head as I scanned, and scanned, and scanned.

I found four Cackling Geese, a Forster’s Tern, and a couple of Horned Grebes, but did not catch even a glimpse of anything like a Little Gull. I might not have seen the bird at all had it not been for a birder from Stephenville who showed it to me in her scope. The bird was at the limits of visual perception, but I could just barely make out a dusky cap when it rested on the water and dark underwings when it took off.

Thanking her, I drove around to the west side of the lake, hoping to get a closer look. I saw the Monk Parakeets there, wings flashing deep blue in flight. But picking through the Bonaparte’s Gulls was turning up nothing, until an erratic, swooping dive caught my eye.

There, so suddenly, were those inky black underwings, trimmed with a glowing white edge. I watched the bird until my arms ached, and then kept watching. It had taken three hours to find, and I didn’t want to let it go.

Finally, I let it slip away into the throng of bonies.

The Little Gull is still being seen by some who visit the lake. The Snow Bunting wasn’t located today, and it remains to be seen whether he’s just playing hard to get, or whether he’s well and truly gone.

Related posts:

  1. Brown Pelicans in Dallas County!
  2. Avocets, Indigo Bunting surprise during cold snap
  3. Wildflowers, warblers, and snow
  4. (Almost) birdless Dallas
  5. Snow day!
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