by Frank Keim
When I first began teaching in Hooper Bay in 1979, my winters were made more enjoyable by cross-country skiing daily out to the edge of the Bering Sea coast, which was only a mile to the west of the village. It was in November when I first began to notice snow buntings that looked whiter than usual. After checking my bird book, I learned they were what the book called McKay’s buntings, named in honor of Charles McKay, a young naturalist who lived in the mid-1800’s.
Yup’ik elders in Hooper Bay told me that the bird had many names, including those used to describe its more numerous cousin, the common Snow bunting. But the names most often used to describe it were Kanguruaq and Kanguyagaq, because of its mostly white color that resembles the color of the Snow goose, Kanguq. I also saw this little bunting when I taught in Scammon Bay, but there they referred to it with the same name as the one they used to describe the Snow bunting, Uksullaraq or Uksurtaq, both of which mean “small winter bird.”
My bird book also said that, since the McKay’s buntings nested mostly only on the two remote Bering Sea Islands of St. Matthew and Hall, its summer habits were “shrouded in mystery!” That was in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but since then, scientists have learned more about its life history. They now know that it actually spends its winter entirely on coastal beaches and low tundra near the shore of the west coast of Alaska, foraging in small flocks on the ground for grass seeds and wildflower seeds. During this period, the birds range from the Kotzebue area south to the Alaska Peninsula, and it is one of the few Alaska species that migrates like this – from a warmer summer breeding habitat to a cold wintering ground.
From March to April, most male McKay’s buntings head back to St. Matthew and Hall Islands several weeks before the females to begin preparing for mating and nesting (although a few may also nest on St. Lawrence Island and the Pribilof Islands). After arriving, they search for a suitable breeding territory, and in early May earnestly begin to attract a female. They do this by flying slowly in a wide circle while singing in a broken twittering warble, which sounds much like the mating songs of its cousins, the Snow bunting and Lapland longspur.
By June the female has made her choice, and she finds a deep cavity in a hollow drift log or a crevice in a rocky slope narrow enough to protect her and her brood from foxes, then builds a shallow cup-shaped nest of sedges, grass and moss lined with finer materials like plant down, feathers and hair. She then lays about 5 pale green eggs with light brown dots, and incubates them herself for about two weeks until they hatch. The young are fed by both parents and fledge about two weeks after hatching. Then under the watchful eye of the adults for a few days, they mimic their feeding strategies, eating mostly insects, spiders, grass and wildflower seeds, and tiny crustaceans or other marine life along shorelines.
McKay’s buntings leave their breeding grounds in early October for a short stopover at Nunivak Island, then continue on to the Alaska mainland. After that, they disperse south and north along the coast, and the cycle starts all over again.
Since both McKay’s and Snow buntings are very closely related, they may hybridize. Then the challenge of positively identifying them is as tricky as it is with Common and Hoary redpolls.
Although McKay’s buntings are considered to be a “rare” species, their numbers are presently estimated to be between 20-23,000 mature birds. This number may be increasing, but now with the invasion of predators such as rats and weasels on St. Matthew and Hall Islands, they find themselves threatened. It is also unknown how climate change will affect their population.
Their scientific name, Plectrophenax hyperboreus, is a combination of Greek and Latin words. Plektron is a claw-like tool for playing a musical instrument named a lyre, and refers to the bird’s long straight hind claw. Phenax is Greek for false, since the bird’s claw isn’t really used to play the lyre. Hyperboreus is from the Latin, meaning “in the extreme north.”