Photo: © Granchinho

In this month’s column, it’s time for Jarrod Cotter to study the Arctic specialist known as the snow bunting, which is the most northerly recorded passerine in the world.

SNOW buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) are large for a bird of this family, with a striking plumage. Males in summer have all-white heads and underparts, contrasting with a black mantle and wing tips. Females are a more mottled buff above. In autumn and winter, birds develop a sandy/buff wash to their plumage and males have more mottled upperparts.

Globally, they breed around the Arctic from Scandinavia to Alaska, Canada and Greenland. They migrate south in winter. (Yet no other passerine of its size can winter as far north as the hardy snow bunting.) It is a rare breeding species in the UK, in Scotland, where this Amber List species has a population of roughly 60 pairs. Birds are more widespread in winter on coastal regions in the north and east of Scotland and England, when migrants join residents and the seasonal population reaches 10,000-15,000.

Breeding habitats in the barren tundra of the Arctic are rock piles and boulder outcrops. Males arrive in this high Arctic breeding ground as much as four to six weeks ahead of the females – usually the beginning of April when the temperatures can reach 30° below zero (-22°F).

The male selects a nesting site and begins defending the territory around it. They will flock together with other buntings to forage for food and often roost in large groups. When the female arrives, she constructs a thick nest made of grass, lichen and moss, finishing the interior of the cupped nest with fine grasses, feathers and hair. Nests are located in rock crevices and cavities protected from predators and the freezing winds. The usual staple diet of seeds will be supplemented with insects during the breeding season.

Snow buntings are scarce in captivity though they have made the occasional welcome appearance on the show bench. Dave Coles’s UK First Breeding Register credits G.T. Kay with the breakthrough success, back in 1942.

The primary feathers are black, narrowly edged and tipped with white or buffish-white, with white bases. The inner primaries have only the distal quarter black.

The secondaries are white, with varying black marks at the tip. These increasingly range from just a small spot on the outer web, to a near complete band on both webs. Tertials are black with long white or buff tips and fringes. On the feathers of a male in breeding plumage the fringes are white, whereas on a female they are buff.

The two central pairs of tail feathers are black, fringed white or buff. The next pair is black and white and the outer three pairs are white with varyingly black tips. (Feathers illustrated here are from a male in breeding plumage and so have white edges, not buff.)

Please note: The author has ensured that no birds have been deliberately harmed or distressed in the collecting of any feathers featured in this series and has acted legally in accordance with all the relevant general Government licences. Feathers have been collected as naturally moulted examples, from historic taxidermy mounts or bird of prey kill sites etc.