The beautiful bird that winters on the Norfolk shingle

PUBLISHED: 10:18 27 November 2017

A male snow bunting male feeding amid the shingle of an East Anglian beach.

A male snow bunting male feeding amid the shingle of an East Anglian beach.

(c) copyright

In the countryside: Mike Toms gets a ringside seat to some Scottish winter visitors to Norfolk, the beautiful snow bunting.

In places the shingle ridge is topped by little outcrops of rock and sand, each marooned like an island amid a sea of pebbles. These outcrops hold thin and dry soils that support a small number of coastal plants and invertebrates that find the shingle an otherwise harsh substrate from which to eke out a living. During the winter months the margins of these outcrops become a favourite feeding site for the small flocks of snow buntings that winter here on Norfolk’s north coast, many hundreds of miles from their breeding grounds in the Cairngorms of the Scottish Highlands.

With patience, the buntings can be approached to within a dozen feet or so. Today I find a group of five individuals foraging on the leeward side of one of the outcrops; sheltered from the bitter wind, I too hunker down low and wait for the birds to settle in my presence. It is not long before they are feeding just in front of me, foraging through the remaining green growth of coastal plants to take fallen seeds.

At this distance I can take in the subtleties of their plumage, the large expanse of white on the wings of the male birds and the soft browns and ochres that are shared by both sexes. The birds forage in silence, picking their way through the vegetation and across the shingle. It is difficult to see what they are taking, but one bird picks up the dried seed head of sea-campion, a common plant on this stretch of coast that seems to favour the more stable substrate that the outcrops deliver. The bird manipulates the seed head in its bill with some difficulty, perhaps attempting to release the seeds contained within. The seed head is dropped and the bird shuffles forwards.

The snow buntings are not the only winter visitors to the coastal shingle. They are joined by small numbers of twite – a species of finch that breeds in the uplands of northern Britain – and by Lapland buntings, which arrive from Scandinavia and Greenland during late autumn. At times it is possible to see these different species feeding alongside one another, but today I am happy with these beautiful snow buntings.

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