Saturday, 4 January 2014

Arctic adventurers: the snow bunting

Ed Parnell, Norfolk Wildlife Trust

As well as the thousands of Arctic ducks, geese, wading birds and seabirds that spend each winter around the Norfolk coastline, the county also becomes a second home for the world’s most northerly songbird: the snow bunting.

Snow bunting, photo by Steve Bond
Barely bigger than a sparrow and with predominantly white plumage, mixed with patches of warm brown and chestnut, the snow bunting is an attractive bird. Despite this, the species can be hard to pick out as it feeds among the shingle – its plumage makes perfect camouflage, moulding into the Norfolk winter landscape. Only when disturbed into a dazzle of whirling black and white wings, accompanied by a soft, trilling chatter, does the flock reveal its whereabouts.

Snow buntings visit the UK’s coastline in small numbers each winter, with around a thousand individuals settling on the beaches of Norfolk between November and March. In summer they return north to their breeding grounds – the species is found right around the top of the globe including Greenland, Iceland, Arctic Scandinavia, Svalbard, Siberia and North America: remarkably a single bird was even observed at the North Pole in 1987, one of only three bird species to ever be recorded on that barren sea of ice. All this highlights the species’ hardiness and why it seems so at home on the windswept, tundra-like shingle of the Norfolk Coast. Not all snow buntings breed quite so far north however. Each year a few pairs nest in the Scottish Cairngorms, where they become even more striking in appearance as the males lose all traces of brown from their plumage and turn completely black and white.

Snow bunting, photo by Dave Kilbey
So where are the best places in the county to catch up with this charismatic little bird? The beaches around Caister, Winterton and Holkham can be good, as well as NWT Cley Marshes, where lots of other avian Arctic visitors will be in residence. However, arguably the easiest site is the shingle of NWT Salthouse Marshes, just east of the beach car park. Here a small flock of snow buntings is present most winters – usually along with a small flock of birdwatchers! Photographers at the site sometimes put down seed to attract the birds closer, meaning that fantastic views can often be had. If you are lucky enough to get a good look at one of these sociable little birds, you might notice a tiny coloured plastic ring around its leg – for a number of years ornithologists have been catching the birds and marking them to study where they go each summer – it transpires our intrepid Norfolk snow buntings are a mixture of Scandinavian, Greenland and Icelandic birds.

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