Some birds are simply more compelling than others. Think bullfinches and barn owls, peregrines and storm petrels, gannets and golden eagles. The snow bunting is certainly high in the charisma stakes.
I first saw them in 1973, swirling around a shingle beach in Norfolk, caught in a biting wind like flurries of snow. Since then I’ve watched them on their breeding grounds in Iceland, where they are the commonest of the very few “garden birds” found in that northerly land.
Once, I even saw one singing in the car park at Reykjavik airport. And I’ve often come across them in the Cairngorms, where they feed on the crumbs left by passing skiers. But we don’t often get snow buntings in Somerset. So when I heard that one was spending the winter on my local patch alongside the River Parrett, I headed down there as soon as I could.
Local birder Jeff Hazell, who’d found the bird, had given me excellent instructions. Walk along the sea wall until just north of a squat, black chimney, and it would be on the damp, grassy area just above the tideline, close to a fisherman’s discarded canvas bag.
He was right. Ironically, this bird was so tame that I almost trod on it before I realised it was there. I must have been within three or four metres when it spotted me and started to run forward, giving me feather-sharp views.
It must be said that this individual – probably a young bird, born last spring – wasn’t quite as attractive as the stunning white males I’ve seen before. A passing dog-walker might easily dismiss it as a sparrow, given its rather drab appearance: pale browns, chestnuts and buffs, with only a hint of white in the wings and the tail.
Then it flew, finally revealing the white flashes in the wings that give the species its name.
For this snow bunting, the Somerset coast is the equivalent of us spending a holiday in the Med. It’s probably the furthest south they ever get, for this is a bird of the High Arctic. It’s one of only three species to have been recorded at the North Pole – the other two, in case you’re interested, are the kittiwake and fulmar. Even so, in the winter drizzle of a Sunday morning it looked a little sorry for itself.
In winter, snow buntings are usually quite sociable birds. Maybe it was craving some company. Flocks of linnets, skylarks and meadow pipits fed close by, along the foreshore, yet the bunting had decided to keep its distance for some reason. I wonder if it will stay put. If so, it may develop into a slightly brighter plumage before it departs north again in early spring.
For me, this was a special bird in more ways than one. It was the hundredth species I’ve seen on my coastal patch in the two years or so that I’ve been watching here. A fine bird to mark such a milestone.
Then it was back to the usual chores of a winter Sunday at home.
Snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) Photograph: Sandra Standbridge/Getty Images