Snow Bunting

So I survived. Turbulence was much less of an issue than I had anticipated. Tedium was the order of the day – intolerable, interminable tedium. Obviously I passed the time the only way I know how: bird listing. So here is my patented, never before compiled ‘List of species I saw from the windows of a British Airways 767 jet between London Heathrow and Baltimore Washington International’:

  1. Black Headed Gull

Not bad, huh?

Now, I find myself checking and rechecking the pre-Christmas weather forecast. I like seasons to be themselves – it’s December, and I demand cold. Last winter, right where I am now there were piles and piles of snow. That’s what I want for Christmas. Because I absolutely adore snow. I stare wistfully out the window at it. I go out and generally tramp in it, even though snowmelt is soaking my boots and cold penetrating the depths of my joints. I love the way it transforms a landscape, lightening the mood of fellow snow lovers as it brightly reflects sunlight into our retinas. Any bird named after snow or connected with it in any way must therefore be excellent (I shall be looking for snow geese over the next week).

That’s one reason I’ve always wanted to see a snow bunting. That and because I feel like I should have done by now, on the Hampshire coast at some point, or in Norfolk last October. And also because I’m quite partial to buntings – reed buntings, corn buntings, yellowhammers, Lapland buntings, splendid creatures all. Well marked and very personable, cheerful little birds. I’d actually hoped for a British bunting full house on this year’s list, but never quite made it down to Devon to see the very few cirl buntings we have left in the country (they are doing quite well, though, thanks to targeted agri-environmental ‘stuff’).

After dismally failing to see one on Hoopoe-day (so it didn’t particularly matter at the time), stumbling across unwelcome naked male flesh instead, I was delighted to see a snow bunting had turned up somewhat off the normal beaten bunting track in the New Forest, just two days before a planned birdy outing. Even more delighted when it was reported again the next day, and extremely delighted to actually see the bird, easy as you like, by the side of a small pool the following morning at the start of our expedition. It was really that easy. Drive half an hour or so to small nondescript pond, see snow bunting on gravelly banks, retire to car for coffee and to nurse frigid hands, on with the day.

Was it worth the wait? Well, their winter selves are something of a birder’s bird for being, in essence, little brown jobs. Albeit quite endearing ones with decent splashes of white in the wing, and some pleasantly delicate pastel orange and buff brown shades. Little brown and orange and beige and fawn jobs, perhaps. I expect a flock would be charming indeed. And for once, I got pictures of my own so you, dear reader, can witness the same individual as I did. Very blurry, badly framed ‘hand-held digiscoped’ pictures (i.e. I pointed my camera down the eyepiece and attempted to focus on a narrow circle of light), but recognisable as a snow bunting and I will share them with you nonetheless:

The bird seemed quite fond of its temporary solitary resting place, odd and out of the way for the species as it was, and hopped back and forth industriously feeding along the pond shore. Some of the choicest seeds were evidently just above head height, but being so content as to not want to bother flying, she (my best gender guess – males should have more white and be more colourful) strained to reach them from the ground, neck craning with predictable comic effect.

Most pleasing. You can’t beat starting with a lifer, as it takes the pressure off everything else you do that day: you can simply enjoy what comes as it comes knowing that the day’s triumph is complete. And rarely is a lifer quite so hoped for or as agreeable for me as a snow bunting. I’m at that stage as a birder where I’ve been in this game long enough to see most of the ‘easy-ish’ species in Britain, but by no means all, and birds in that category still give me greater pleasure than the ludicrously rare. Anything too vagrant and I feel like I’m getting ahead of myself – the equivalent of, say, Oriental before regular turtle dove would feel distinctly like cheating, as would Ortolan before snow bunting, etc.  So I wish snow buntings upon all of you this Christmas season, or whatever the equivalent might be for you in your birding world, and plenty of real snow to boot. An entirely apt species of the week, I think.

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