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Usually, shape is a great help in identifying birds. Even here, when the bird is facing away, we can still tell that this is some kind of passerine. In this case, it's a rather chunky one with a fairly short tail but long wings. Yet, sometimes there are other clues that are so distinctive that we simply have to use them, such as the broad white patches in the wings. From what we can see, the bird has white on the flanks and a black and white tail (with buff uppertail coverts). This all contrasts with the generally grayish-brown upperparts, with buff-rust highlights to the crown, auriculars and tertials.
This combination simply doesn't leave us with a lot of options. The pattern of the mantle may suggest something like a Brewer's Sparrow, but the white wing patches don't fit that species or any sparrow. The same is true for Horned Lark, any pipit, longspur or finch. Lark Bunting has white wing patches, but these patches are mostly confined to the greater wing coverts. Further, Lark Bunting would have a longer and darker tail, with black or brown sides to the tail. In fact, only two species regularly show white wing patches that extend from the secondaries, which are just visible below the tertials, all the way up to the top of the wing: Snow Bunting and McKay's Bunting.
The head, mantle and rump are too heavily marked for even a young female McKay's Bunting (first-year female McKay's Buntings are the most heavily marked). One should always be cautious of birds with white and/or pale plumage, as in many instances these white or pale feathers may be albino or leucistic. In this case, everything else is perfect for Snow Bunting, so we don't need to worry.
I photographed this Snow Bunting in late October 2004 at Grand Marais, Cook County, Minnesota—arguably the state's finest vagrant trap with records of seemingly everything from Fieldfare to Rock Ptarmigan!
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the November Bird Photo Quiz—Snow Bunting:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Chris Wood.