Tuesday 30 November 2021

A Snowflake on Cleeve Hill 29th November 2021

Snow fell on Saturday, turning the countryside around my home to an all enveloping white as if something or someone had thrown a newly laundered sheet across the land, muting the rich tints of autumn that have made these last few weeks so colourful. It was also freezing which meant the snow remained into today.

Monday was the first opportunity I had to travel to see a Snow Bunting or, to give it its older vernacular name, Snowflake, that had chosen to spend some time around a dewpond at the very top of Cleeve Hill, which lies near to the town of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire. It had been there for well over a week and appeared to be having no trouble coping with the recent arrival of snow and freezing temperatures. I suppose that is to be expected of a bird that breeds in Arctic Canada and Greenland, further north than any other passerine bird on this planet and which often returns to its breeding grounds when they are still snowbound.

Snow Buntings are, without exaggeration amazingly hardy birds.They nest in some of the most desolate and cold areas of the world. and make extraordinary migrations. They have been recorded by Russian research stations, based on drifting ice, flying far out over the Arctic Ocean and one has been seen very near the North Pole itself, so a night or two on snowbound Cleeve Hill would hardly be any trouble to a Snowflake.

I set off with some trepidation from my home, on roads that remained icy and treacherous, crossing The Cotswolds, heading southwest. The hawthorns lining the deserted rural roads were relinquishing their berries to hundreds of Fieldfares and Redwings, yet to be weakened by the inclement weather and still retaining vigilence and energy enough to flee at the sound of my approaching car. The birds exploding from the bushes like seeds from a pod.

Cleeve Hill at 330m is the highest point in The Cotswolds and  consequently was still firmly in the icy, snow bound grip of this early onset of hard weather. I was more than a little concerned about getting my car stuck on the narrow lane leading up to the small car park at the summit of the hill. Discretion being the better part of valour I parked on an area of firm ground before the top where I felt I was less likely to become marooned. 

Walking up the final stretch of road, my boots slipping on ice, I reached the gate granting access to the hilltop and entered a world of white, the rolling contours of the snowbound land becoming at distance an unsure horizon, indivisible from the sky. 

The dewpond lay a couple of hundred metres out in the whiteness with the winter clad outlines of a few birders standing by the fence that encircled it. 

As I approached I could see the Snow Bunting shuffling on the ground, tossing snow over its shoulder with some vigour as it dug with a corn yellow bill, seeking the grass seeds below.

The tiny bird looked totally incongruous and out of place in this inhospitable habitat which every other bird shunned but it was obviously finding enough sustenance to feel no need to move on. Out here on the very top of the hill it was cold, any warmth from the hazy sunshine slowly reducing as broken grey cloud slid like a veil across the sky.

I joined the other birders and proceeded to add to the chorus of camera clicks recording the Snow Bunting's every move. I realised from the bird's plumage that this was the same confiding individual that I had travelled to see at nearby Prestbury earlier in the month (9th November). It had flown off that morning and never returned so the minor mystery of where it had gone was now resolved..

The bunting shuffled around for ten or so minutes on the ground but obviously replete it flew onto a wire and then hopped onto a snow capped wooden post where it spent some time eating the snow it perched on. 

Presumably with the dew pond frozen solid the snow it pecked at acted as a substitute for water. Its thirst satisfied it then sat in repose or preened for fifteen or so minutes, delving into feathers so fluffed against the cold it had become rotund, its eyes reduced to pinpricks of boot button black. A laconic series of wing stretches heralded a return to ground level and a resumption of the quest for sustenance.

There is not much more I can find to say about this lovely bird for fear of repeating myself.The time I spent in its company brought the usual sense of fulfilment and uplift of spirit and after an hour I was content to leave it at that.

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