Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Snow Bunting - Plectrophenax nivalis
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General Comments The Snow Bunting breeding range and abundance is remarkably similar to that of the Lapland Longspur, as both nest in the high Arctic in huge numbers, and both winter in large flocks in the northern half of the country and southern Canada. In North Carolina, however, it is seen mainly along the immediate coast, in low dunes and on sand flats. As with the longspur, it does not winter anywhere regularly in the state, but a few reports are normal in a given winter. Farther inland, it is seldom seen in plowed fields, but they turn up on very rare occasions in "rocky" places or bare ground, such as along drawdown shores of lakes, along dams, around the edges of paved parking lots, and even on high elevation grassy balds in the depth of winter! Every few years, beginners report "Snow Buntings" from feeders; these are essentially always partial albino sparrows or juncos. In addition, high counts from the Piedmont and mountains were made by persons who seldom if ever contributed other records of notable birds; thus, these are open to question.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank SZ
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Winter visitor, mainly coastally; declining in numbers in the past several decades, though an upturn in the winter of 2023-24. Rare though nearly annual in winter along the northern coast, south to Cape Hattaras; very rare to rare farther south along the coast. Casual to very rare in Tidewater and farther inland (only about 11 such records); no records from most counties. Primarily late Oct or early Nov through Feb, peaking in Nov. Outside of the normal time frame, singles were seen in Fayetteville (Cumberland), 20-27 Apr 1963; just west of Cape Hatteras Point, 1 May 2016; and at Oregon Inlet, 6-9 May 2004 [Chat 68:123-24 link]. Numbers are quite variable from winter to winter, and the species goes un-reported once or twice a decade. Also, numbers seem to have declined in the past 10-20 years, and flocks over 20 birds are seldom reported now. A count of 12 at Currituck NWR (Currituck) on 17 Dec 2019 was possibly a first state report in double digits in 10-15 years. However, 20 were tallied at the northern end of Pea Island in late Nov 2023, continuing into winter; the peak count there was 33 birds on 30 Jan 2024. A few were also reported in winter 2023-24 at Cape Hatteras Point, Ocracoke Island (Hyde), and Bird Island (Brunswick). Peak counts: 150, Kitty Hawk (Dare), 25 Jan 1937; 90, Pea Island, late Nov 1980.
Piedmont Very sparse winter visitor. Casual to very rare; barely 15 reports for the province. Mainly late Oct to early Jan, but there are also four reports of apparent spring migrants, between 24 Mar and 29 Apr. The last record (29 Apr, from Pittsboro), is open to question and highly unlikely. Peak counts: 1, on many occasions. Reports of 4 (above, at Pittsboro) and 3 at a Tryon hotel are suspicious.
Mountains Very sparse winter visitor. Casual to very rare; about 18-19 records. Has occurred on a handful of occasions on the highest elevation grass balds, mainly at Roan Mountain, as well as in valleys. Mainly mid-Nov to late Jan. There are also two spring reports: one photographed at Turkey Pen Gap (Transylvania - Henderson border) on 30 Apr 1996 [Chat 61:67 link]; and one at Snake Mountain (Watauga) on 8 Mar 2009 [Chat 73:129 link]. Peak counts: 10, Etowah (Henderson), 10 Jan 1997 (hopefully correct).
Finding Tips If you spend a lot of time walking or driving beaches in the winter, you might find a few each year. Your best best is to look for them at Cape Hatteras Point, or possibly at Cape Lookout (much more difficult to access). They can be very difficult to find away from dunes and sand flats. Numbers have declined in recent winters, and the former * to ** tips code has been moved now to * -- quite difficult to find nowadays.
Attribution LeGrand[2024-05-14], LeGrand[2024-02-11], LeGrand[2023-05-19]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
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