Fat Boys: McKay’s Buntings, Sarichef Island, Alaska. The whitest song bird in North America, McKay’s Buntings primarily nest on just two remote islands in the Bering Sea, St. Mathews and Hall. In wintertime, they visit other islands as well as a few locations on Alaska’s mainland. Their total population is just a few thousand birds.
Happy the Man
Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.
John Dryden – Happy the Man, 1685
So great was John Dryden’s (1631-1700) influence that England’s Restoration Period has been called The Age of Dryden. In 1668 he was named England’s first Poet Laureate.
Feathers puffed against the cold, a female McKay’s bunting warms herself in the radiant heat from a rock. Daily highs are reaching the teens and even the twenties now, and today’s sunshine stretched from sunrise at 7:00 AM to sunset at 11:13 PM. The midnight sun is back, and so are the birds!
Gripped in the heart of winter, an Arctic landscape can be one of the quietest places on earth. Save for a few hardy ravens that manage to make a living off dumpsters and the local garbage facility, most birds head for warmer climes. There are no tree branches for the wind to whistle through, no dry grass to rustle, and on the coldest nights, even the village dogs huddle up and stay mum. Dark settles in, and the waiting begins.
For the past couple of weeks, we’ve increasingly been hearing the welcome twitters and chirps of flocks of the snow birds of the north, snow buntings and McKay’s buntings. It’s been weeks since the last windstorm, and these days we can feel the warmth of the sun on our faces. It feels… wonderful.
I’ve always admired passerines – songbirds. These snow buntings have become some of my favorites.
My hat’s off to great bird photographers. Birds are difficult subjects. Watching us intently with expressive little faces, these fat McKay’s Buntings tolerated us getting within about 25 feet before flying away. Their feathers were fluffed up for warmth, making them look roly poly. Today was a gorgeous day to try and capture them: icy clear skies and 6 degrees above zero.