Snow bunting

The Guardian - - WEATHER - @StephenMoss_TV Stephen Moss

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

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