As the light was becoming dim at the end of the day, we encountered a large flock of Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis).
Snow Buntings breed on the high arctic tundra and generally winter across the central plains. On the East Coast, the southern limit of their winter range extends to the Mid-Atlantic states; on the West Coast, the regular winter range extends to Washington. They occasionally make it to California, and with a quick scan of the Rare Birds of California, it appears that there are about 6-7 records for Sonoma County.
The birds we encountered on Duxbury Beach were very active and challenging to photograph. In fact, I didn't really end up with any good quality images. But this is another species that I miss since moving to California and a few of the pictures are interesting.
Here's a close-up where you can focus on identifying males and females. Note that the white wing patch in males is very broad, while in females it is much more restricted. The black wing tips in males are also more distinct. (There's a male and a female side-by-side in the very center of the photograph.)
And you know how much I'm intrigued by the challenge of counting flocks. Unfortunately, this flock was restless and it didn't really give us a chance to make a satisfactory count in the field before it took off again and disappeared into the distance. But I took a few quick photos for the record.
Here's one image that doesn't capture the entire flock, but comes fairly close (below). It's fun to take a quick look at the image and to come up with a guess about the number of birds...and then to do a real count. Want to try? (Remember you can click on the image for a larger version.)
When my mother and I saw this flock in the field, we both agreed that there were more than 100 birds. When using the picture above, two different counters came up with 171 and 172 individual Snow Buntings. How many did you count?
Two more pictures, highlighting those black-and-white flashes and the sense of restlessness:
P.S. Because there is so much white in their plumage and they often occur in tight active flocks, to some people Snow Buntings can look like snowflakes swirling around in the air.