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 Snow Bunting - Fact File
Snow Bunting
Plectrophenax nivalis
A few pairs breed on high mountain tops in Scotland, but mostly known as a winter visitor (from Greenland and Scandinavia) to coastal areas (mainly Scotland and eastern England).
Breeds on high mountain tops. Winters largely on sandy and shingle coasts, salt marsh and rough coastal fields.
Plumage variable but always shows considerable white, especially in wings. Breeding male is smart white and black. In winter, all birds show varying amounts of buff. Feeds on ground in flocks.
16 - 17cm (6.5")

Snow Bunting

For many years, throughout the short winter days, large flocks of snow buntings were a feature in the Yarmouth area.

The birds, wanderers from Iceland and even Greenland, were attracted to the beaches and denes, to Breydon estuary wall and saltings and to the surrounding marshes inland as far as the Halvergate/Stracey Arms marsh road.

Sadly, numbers have steadily declined during the past two decades. One wonders why.

Flying, snow buntings live up to their name, for they look almost pure white. Flight has been described as dancing, the flocks resembling drifting snowflakes — especially against a sombre grey background.

I recall my very first snow buntings when walking the north Breydon wall. It was a dull October day, complete with rain-filled sky and a chill north-east wind. Then, passing Lockgate windmill, there rose from the wall slope a cloud of what appeared to be hovering snowflakes.

With shrill twittering, the birds tumbled earthward, suddenly landing among the flint-stones. Since that memorable occasion I have enjoyed watching snow buntings around Breydon on so many occasions.

Snow bunting in flightThe most I ever found totalling 350 on a newly-ploughed marsh between the estuary and the Bure. Each occasion a large gull or carrion crow passed overhead, the buntings took all wing, providing a most impressive spectacle.

A couple of years later and, as described in The Birds of Great Yarmouth, a remarkable gathering of 650 'snowflakes' reached Berney Marshes. What a sight!

The almost forgotten Cley Bird Observatory was often successful in ringing snow buntings. One winter over 140 were trapped.

When the birds first began building up in numbers during November they fed on the shingle beach. This was impossible terrain for siting nets, but by the next month the buntings had exhausted food supplies on the beach and began alternating between a salicornia-covered mud-flat and ploughed land.

By mid-January the flock reached a peak of 400 birds and trapping continued steadily.

Even as late as March the birds showed little suspicion of the nets. A maddening sparrowhawk, however, kept them in a state of tension, taking a regular toll — usually when the buntings were approaching the nets en masse after a long wait.

On one occasion the hawk forced a bunting into the sea, not even troubling to retrieve it.

By Michael J. Seago

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.