Of Stars and Storms And the Other Snow Birds
At Fort Kent chere Rosee, so petite,
Would sleep in a tent with one sheet,
But when it would snow
And go fifty below,
She'd head for Miami, toot sweet.
It does not drop to 50 below every day at Fort Kent, and often the summers will be fairly mild, but it is true that a high number of folks in Fort Kent have places in Florida where they assemble in flocks to wait out the "heated term" to assemble again in northern Maine for the brisk days of sugar on snow and ice racing on the St. John River. Summer in Fort Kent is a happy moment. If you want to see the Bateese Menard, or perhaps Dominique Jalbert, between Labor Day and the Fourth of July, don't go to Fort Kent, Maine, the stronghold of Acadian
culture, but seek these snow birds in Boca Raton or Vero Beach.
The snow bunting is a bird indeed. It is classed as a songbird, but I've never
heard one sing. This is because I've seen them only on the edge of a drifting winter snowstorm, and that is never an occasion for song. They are not a small bird, as songbirds go, but a bit over six inches. They always look white, except some show brownish when they run about. When a snow bunting flies, he shows wing patches of snowy white, and here in Maine we generally see them on the wing. They come with a heavy northeast snowstorm, sometimes in considerable flocks, and they are infrequent enough to cause our full attention when we see them. We know them to be buntings, but we call them snow birds.
An honest State o' Maine snowstorm does, or should, follow its pattern. Morning will give us a high sky, sufficiently cold, and the sun, although lavish, will gat no heat. It is a lull, a weather breeder, and often ominous. As you step to the barn to chore up (some still do!) your heels creak on the old snow, and you feel in your bones that before long there'll be new snow. As the day advances, the sky fills in, and we know a lallapaloosa is on the make. Such a coastal snowstorm gathers in the southwest and works "back" into the northeast, and if it means business it will cast its first flake of snow on the instant of the afternoon high tide. You can count on it.
Along in the afternoon there comes that rustle of wind that tells the tide has turned, and if you look up you'll see the storm begin. And the chances are that if you're by a field, you'll see the snow buntings arrive.
You perhaps haven't seen one yet, even though the bird book says they winter south to the Carolinas. They don't, however, appear like the chickadees and the other feeder faithfuls, so must frequent the deeper woods. I don't know, but they will suddenly be with us, flitting ghost-like among the early flakes of a northeaster, and they will swarm over a field, probably gleaning some grass seeds, or looking for other food. They flit and stay, flit and stay, the flock keeping its company, but each white wraith separate and alone.
It is easy to see how the Indians invented tales about these buntings, some direful, others not. The Great Spirit also moved in mysterious ways. To us, as childers looking from a window in a warm house, the white birds were just something we saw when it was starting a winter storm.
The buntings would work our front field, examining every blade of tall grass showing above the old snow, and then move on down the hill to look at other fields. They would be lost in the gathering snow, white against white, and be gone. If night didn't descend, we might see the flock again, reworking the grasses of our meadow. We wouldn't see another snow bunting until the next winter storm settled over us and they came in on a bitter wind.
The bird book says they nest in the hospitable sub-Arctic, and that they sing. They certainly are a suburban bird when they come to Maine, and I've seen them only in open fields. City folks tell me they never saw a snow bunting. They have dark top-knots and backs, but show only white in flight, and Fielding says they seem like snowflakes drifting over a field in large flocks. They are an illusive is-you-ain't-you fantasy, here, there, and gone.
If the bird book is right, they don't go to Florida, as do so many humans. So they aren't really snowbirds. The Carolinas don't count.
ONE year, many years ago now, I bought the big Audubon book for our nestlings of incipient bird watchers, and I got two boxes of paste-on stars. A gold and a silver. They were to put their respective star on each bird when it was spied and identified, and it was fun to see the progress. I found one bird in the book that had a footnote, saying Audubon was either incorrect or he was playing a joke, because nobody else had ever seen this bird. Not so; both our children saw it, and their stars are there to prove it to this day.
The snow bunting, too, has a gold star and a silver star, and because the silver star is at the top of the page it means she saw the bunting before he did. And that was so. It had made up a northeast snowstorm, and the bus brought them home early from school.
We had a short half-hour of winter daylight left to look out the window and see how things went. We had looked at the tide calendar, and the hour would be right. We awaited that first petulant flake of snow. And she said, "There's one!" And then two, and then a handful, and the wind increased, and then a flock of snow buntings went by the window. She said, "Wow! Them's some big snowflakes there!" Then they got the book and pasted in their stars.