One of the joys of going birding in Norfolk during the winter is the very good chance of encountering a flock of Snow Buntings. Until the great tidal surge and storm that hit the North Norfolk coast a couple of years ago a favourite place to see them was the car park that lay at the end of the small access road off the A149 near Salthouse, but the car park has been virtually obliterated and is now, thanks to the formidable power of the sea, hidden forever under tonnes of pebbles and gravel.
Prior to the storm birders and photographers alike would make a pilgrimage to the car park and distribute seed amongst the large area of stones adjacent to the car park which would entice the Snow Buntings to remain faithful to this site for as long as there was seed available.
A mixture of adult male, adult female and first year Snow Buntings
Snow Bunting flocks can be very mobile in winter as it is in their nature to roam along shorelines looking for suitable areas of seeding plants on which to feed. When on the ground their marbled winter plumage blends into the multi coloured pebbles so well that at times they become almost indiscernible as they feed amongst the expanse of pebbles and shingle.
There are 21 Snow Buntings in this picture
The flock in and around the car park could contain quite a number of individuals if the food supply was good, due no doubt to the fact that passing individuals or small groups became aware of the seed distributed for them and swelled the numbers of those already there. Usually groups are smaller, being anything from five to twenty birds. The most I have ever seen together was in Norfolk and highly unusually the flock, totalling around eighty birds, was feeding in a fallow field a few miles inland from the coast at a place called Choseley. This large flock was also probably the result of random smaller flocks finding a good food source.
Snow Buntings are very attractive in their winter plumage, especially the adult males which show a lot of white and clearly stand out from the browner plumaged females and juveniles. One of the delights of these excitable flocks is when they take to the air and the broad white wing markings of the adult males become immediately obvious and prominent amongst the general overall darker colours of the rest of the flock. Incidentally the name snowflake came from the fact that the whiter males look just like snowflakes as the flock whirls and twists before returning to the ground.
Male Snow Buntings in winter plumage
Female Snow Buntings in winter plumage
Snow Buntings, to quote Desmond Nethersole Thompson who wrote the book on Snow Buntings are possibly the most romantic and elusive breeding bird in the British Isles and almost certainly the hardiest small bird in the world. They nest further north than any other land bird in the world, in countries whose very names conjour images of extreme cold such as Alaska, Ellesmere Island, Spitzbergen, Siberia, Novaya Zemlya, Greenland and Iceland. The habitat they favour on the North Norfolk coast is also often wild and bleak but nowhere near in the league of the countries they breed in, so is perfectly acceptable to their constitution and they happily spend their winter in the comparatively milder climate of the Norfolk coastline.
I often stand and just look at them in winter, busily feeding and shuffling along on bent black legs picking up seeds and wonder at the course of their lives throughout a year, spent almost entirely roving in and across an emptiness of barren lands of rocks and snow fields in summer and stones, coastal dunes and shingle in winter, in both seasons generally cold and at times inhospitable. At night on the Norfolk coastline they must have to huddle down in depressions in the pebbles or dunes to roost, relying on the combined vigilance of their companions through the long night to raise the alert to any predator, with the constant wind and sound of the sea as a soundtrack to their very different existence.
Often Snow Buntings can appear tame and confiding, probably because they see very few human beings in their remote breeding areas. I can recall a recent visit, high up on the inhospitable, barren, boulder strewn top of Cairngorm, watching one of the few pairs that breed in Scotland and noting how confiding they were.
The plumage of the males makes a remarkable transformation from winter to summer. In winter they are intricately patterned with an appealing combination of white, buff orange, grey, black and brown, with a golden yellow, stubby bill. In summer plumage they become a piebald black and white and to my mind are not quite so attractive. The female plumage in summer is not that much different to winter appearing drab grey brown and almost sparrow like.
Male Snow Bunting in winter plumage
Female Snow Bunting in summer plumage
Although primarily preferring coastlines, sometimes Snow Buntings can penetrate far inland and I have encountered occasional birds turning up on passage at Farmoor, my local inland reservoir in Oxfordshire and many years ago I caught and ringed a male bird at Hersham Sewage Farm deep in suburban Surrey.