Tuesday 9 November 2021

Snow Bunting: Third Time Lucky 9th November 2021

Lately there has been a noticeable influx into Britain of that most delightful of birds, the Snow Bunting. Small numbers have arrived in their traditional winter haunts on the coast but others have been found in less usual areas inland and none more so than a ridiculously confiding individual near Cheltenham in Gloucestershire.

Snow Buntings are always exciting to encounter. Charismatic, they are the most northerly breeding songbirds in the world, usually very confiding and as the late Martin Garner said 'It is like having the Arctic Wilderness arrive on your doorstep' when you come across them.

I do not consider my birding year complete unless I get to see one or more Snow Buntings and duly set about remedying the situation this weekend, taking advantage of the recent influx. I had noticed that there was a confiding Snow Bunting on the beach at Warsash in Hampshire and drove there last Sunday morning. I should have known better, as on getting there I found the beach inundated with the dreaded dog walkers and, not unreasonably, no sign of the Snow Bunting that had been so obliging earlier in the week. I gave it forty five minutes but there really would be no chance of seeing the bird, as more and more people and dogs arrived to take advantage of a pleasant sunny morning by the  sea. No matter, there had been another three reported this morning at Hayling Island, just over the border in West Sussex. I made my way there but now it was late morning and the place was thronged with people and I found it impossible to pin down exactly where the buntings were to be found. 

By lunchtime, with no success in finding the birds, I gave up and drove back to Oxfordshire somewhat chastened and went to watch some Red Kites, which at least co-operated and performed as well as expected, thus saving a very frustrating day from being a complete disaster.

Yesterday another Snow Bunting was found in the unlikely habitat of a bridleway at Prestbury, north east  of Cheltenham and which is not far from my home, in fact only a thirty minute drive.The images I saw showed it too was very confiding, as they often are and had found a verge by the muddy bridleway to its liking.

I resolved to try to see the bunting the next day if it was present and when, this morning it was reported as still there and 'showing well' I needed no further incentive.

At 8am I set a course for Cheltenham on a mild morning of still air and gentle sunshine. A last sigh of autumn as the countryside slips towards winter. My course  took me across the Cotswolds from east to west, driving  through a golden autumn landscape, the trees, standing sentry on the roadsides, ablaze in colours of rust orange and deep yellow while Wild Clematis spilled a profusion of grey fluffed seedheads over bushes it had chosen to smother, enacting its colloquial name of Old Man's Beard. 

I arrived at Prestbury, now almost a part of Cheltenham but still managing to retain a vestige of individuality. Turning up a quiet lane I parked my car under some beech trees and made a short walk up another narrow lane that brought me to a junction with the bridleway. This was where the Snow Bunting had decided to spend yesterday and the early part of today.

There was no problem in ascertaining if this was the correct place as another birder was just packing up his camera and, pointing to the further edge of the bridleway, there was the Snow Bunting, shuffling amongst the leaves, twigs and grass, picking at seeds it found there.

Snow Buntings in winter plumage are a lovely mixture of ginger brown, buff, grey, white and black, the cumulative effect serving to break up its profile and camouflage it, and here amongst the mosaic of fallen brown oak leaves in the grass it was highy effective. If you knew not that the bird was here you could overlook it entirely. Such was its tameness, it would allow approach to within six feet, possibly closer but I did not push my luck.

As I watched, it stretched its wing and this gave me an opportunity to record the action with my camera and when back home use the image in consultation with the late Martin Garner's book 'Birding Frontiers - Winter' in which he goes into some depth on ageing, sexing and even racially identifying Snow Buntings. Here is not the place to go into all the minutiae that I consulted on ageing and sexing this bird but from what I  could ascertain from the images and text in Martin's book I would suggest this bird was a first calendar year male.  As to its race, I cannot say with certainty but most birds that arrive in Britain are of the nominate race Plectrophenax nivalis nivalis which breeds in Arctic Scandinavia, Canada and Greenland.

For ten glorious minutes I had the bird all to myself but I was soon made aware that this was a popular spot for dog walkers although thankfully there were to be no unfortunate incidents as the dogs were kept on leads and the Snow Bunting carried on feeding happily. For fifteen minutes I papped away, recording this winter visitor from a far distant land and seeming so very much out of place in this pastoral landscape. Another birder had, by now, joined me and we watched it for another five minutes before the local postman arrived in his red van and unfortunately had to drive up the bridleway to deliver a parcel.

The Snow Bunting, up to now so confiding, took exception to the van coming close to it and flew, not very far, circling above us, its wings flashing black and white and looking like it would come back to its favourite verge but at the last minute rose upwards and flew off across the fields and that was the last anyone saw of it.

So I was lucky on two counts.Third time lucky in an attempt to see a Snow Bunting this year and lucky to arrive when I did today, as otherwise it would have been another disappointment.

1 comment:

  1. Phew!!! They ARE gorgeous aren't they! Saw a few when Jane & I were in Norfolk the other week, but not such brilliant views this time.... (A lifer for Jane though!) x