Mystery Bunting: Possible McKay's?


Original image of very pale Snow-type Bunting photographed at Seven Devlls Wayside, Coos Co., Oregon 25 November 2011. (Photo by Karen Olsen). 

I just received an e-mail from Washington state eBird reviewer Charlie Wright that included this photo. This bunting was photographed at Seven Devils Wayside in Coos County, OR on 25 November 2011 by Karen Olsen. She sent it to Charlie requesting help identifying it. I've seen just one McKay's Bunting--30 years ago here in Oregon--and I don't see Snow Buntings but once every few years, so I'm hardly an expert on the variability shown by Snow Buntings. 

The constrained black in the tail and the very pale rump and mostly white upperparts caused Charlie to wonder if this might be a McKay's and I can't see much on this bird that dissuades me from that same question. 

I will be posting notes about this bird to ID-Frontiers and other listservs that might bring forth some folks who can offer expert opinions on this bird. Please post any commentary you have about this bird to BirdFellow so that we can have an archive of comments that accompanies this photo. 


Here is a slightly adjusted image of the probable McKay's Bunting. I backed off the exposure and enhanced the color saturation to see if there was much color lost due to overexposure in the original. This does not seem to have much affect on the pattern evident in the original image.


My first reaction is that this is too pale for a Snow Bunting, but I have never seen a McKay’s. Also, the Aleutian subspecies of Snow, townsendi, is said to be paler than the mainland nominate subspecies. Birds of the Aleutians notes that townsendi moves up to a thousand miles (banded bird) within the chain, so it is not completely sedentary. I would be interested in what Dan Gibson, Luke DeCicco, Dave Sonneborn, Rich Hoyer or others who have spent time with these in Alaska think. The photo is slightly overexposed; you might darken it and see if any additional “dark” features magically appear. I think Dave Lauten saw a solitary Snow in the same area recently, yes? Maybe he has more photos.


Dave Lauten did see a single “Snow” Bunting at the same location in the last few days. Hard to imagine it was a different bird given that any Plectrophenax bunting is unusual on this section of the Oregon coast.


I think we can get to McKay’s by looking at the extensive white into what appears to be R3, the broad white tips on the primaries and an (apparently) immaculate white rump. All of which are given as diagnostic field marks in my references. Tail illustrations in Byers et al. (1995) are particularly helpful and are spot on for McKay’s.


Yes, photo does seem to be overexpose and rump area is not fully shown. However, I think the tip of the tail and very pale back points to McKays.

Figure 2 and Figure 8 of this article may be applicable The information in this article is very interesting and may shed some light.


As chance would have it, Jon Dunn was in Portland tonight on his way to Washington for some Western Field Ornithologist business. Several of us joined him for dinner and asked his opinion on this bird. He saw no reason to think it isn’t a McKay’s. Similarly, Alan Contreras sent Dan Gibson (from Alaska) the photo and who also agreed that it fits McKay’s. Alan also reminded me of the Jason Rogers ID article in Birding (at link in Khanh Tran’s comment), which shows a female photographed at Richmond, B.C. in 2004 that looks very similar to the Seven Devils bird.

This would be Oregon’s third record of this species if accepted by the Oregon Bird Records Committee.


As one of the observers, I saw it fly, and while I passed it off as a Snow, I can tell you that I was taken aback by how much the back, rump, and wings were white. Yes, I did not have binoculars, but I saw the bird from 20 or less feet away. I was not birding at the time, so I was not in the frame of mind to take notes, nor look at the bird very carefully.


I’m willing to tentatively identify this bird as a female McKay’s Bunting. It’s often helpful to sex these birds before attempting to make an identification to species. Looking at the scapulars, I see very little dark and a suggestion of sharply-pointed feather centers, indicating a female. It’s difficult to discern how many tail feathers we’re seeing or the pattern on each. The apparently unmarked feather(s) beyond R1 and R2 may not correspond to R3, but rather may be an outer feather because of its shortness. This still supports McKay’s however, since females with one or more pairs of white tail feathers are likely McKay’s. Another character supporting McKay’s is the minimal dark on the secondaries of this bird. At most, there appears to be one or maybe two feathers with a short, subterminal mark. The apparently unmarked back-to-uppertail-coverts region may not be inconsistent with McKay’s, but have a look at this region on a Snow Bunting at this time of year and you may be hard-pressed to find any black on it either. The greater and primary coverts are probably too washed out in this photo and potentially covered by scapulars and/or side feathers to be useful to us. If there are additional photos of this bird, regardless of their quality, I would appreciate receiving copies of them.


We believe we have photos of a similar bird that has been to our feeder this week. How do we submit photos, etc.


I forgot to mention in the message above that we are located on Forest Grove, OR. The bird we are seeing has VERY similar markings, but a light beak and feet.


Sue, You can create a BirdFellow account (it’s free), then load a jpg. of the image via “My Photos.” This will put the image into our “Community Photos” area, where it can be viewed by me and others. You can “tag” the image as “mystery bird” if you are not sure of its identity.

Dave Irons
Content Editor


Are there other photos available? (As Jason Rogers says, even if they are of poor quality, they may still be very helpful!) I’m no expert on these species, but because the photo is a bit overexposed with sun glare, I don’t think this bird is in reality any paler than the bird currently at PDX airport. The tail looks promising, but because we can’t really see any but the two central feathers well, I don’t see how we could call this a McKay’s with any certainty. … And if anyone can enlighten me on just what the pale townsendi race of Snow Bunting actually looks like, that would be very helpful. I wonder what their population size is, relative to the McKay’s population?


We finally got some better photos today when the sun was out for two minutes. They are poor quality for what your are looking for but hopefully will add some information. We will post tomorrow when we are “fresher”. I sure would like to know who/what this guy is!


There have been at least 4 pairs of McKay’s Buntings here in Nome,AK in the past 2 weeks. They are not Snow Buntings.


Ab fab my golody man.


Check out my blog and see some of the photos taken here in Ocean Shores!


A friend just photographed this bird in Ocean Shores.
Here is a link to the site


We sighted 3 McKay’s Buntings in the Adirondacks of Northern New York State on January 8, 9, 20013.


While driving in northern Wi, three small white birds flew up from the side of the road, with a startled reaction from us. A bird we’ve never seen before. When talking to several people later, we mentioned seeing these white birds. Three others excitedly said the had seen the white birds in nearby areas and could not identify ANY small white birds that should or could be in Wisconsin. By searching all N American birds, only the McKay’s Bunting could be what we have seen. We are in the “northwoods” of Wi, an area of state and national forests, dotted with hundreds of lakes. Sightings were late Oct, first week of Nov,2013.


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