The summer plumage of the male Snow Bunting is the most distinctive, being all black and white, with a little black bill (leading to it being described once, by a non-birder, as “a penguin the size of a sparrow”) but in the winter they are still mostly whitish…

This is the time of year when most people might prefer to stay tucked up warm at home, perhaps curled up with a good book or playing board games with the family. However, many birdwatchers, of which I am one, will choose instead to head out to windswept coastal spots, such as South Gare, a man-made peninsula at the mouth of the River Tees, near Redcar. Why do we do this? The answer is that these are the best places to see some of our most hardy bird species, which at warmer times of year can only be found in the far north, on the Arctic tundra, or at the top of mountains.

The Snow Bunting is one of these. It is a small songbird, about the size of a House Sparrow and a similar shape, but very different looking. The predominant colours are black and white although it varies depending on the sex and age of the bird and the time of year. The breeding (summer) plumage of the male is the most distinctive, being all black and white, with a little black bill (leading to it being described once, by a non-birder, as “a penguin the size of a sparrow”). In the winter they are still mostly whitish, especially when seen perched, but with streaky brown on the back and buffy smudges on the head and breast. Also, somewhat unusually, the bill changes colour in winter, from black to a dull yellow.

Snow Buntings have what is called a ‘circumpolar breeding distribution’, meaning that they can be found in the summer right across the arctic regions of Europe, Asia and North America. In the UK a small number nest at the very top of high mountains in Scotland (where, sadly, they may not last much longer if climate change continues at its current rate). In most of the country, however they can only be seen in winter, and mostly on the coasts in the northern parts of Britain and Ireland.

On Teesside, South Gare is one of the best places to see Snow Buntings with about 30-40 birds regularly being seen there from November to March most years. They can show up almost anywhere on the coast though, such as on the beach in Redcar, and even inland – I saw two sitting in the middle of a road on the North York Moors on New Year’s Day a few years ago.

So far this winter South Gare is the only place I have seen them, and only on one occasion. It was a chilly Christmas Eve morning, on the rocky breakwater just east of the road at the tip of the promontory. I’d had some nice views of Purple Sandpiper and a few other wading birds, but no Snow Buntings or Twite (another coast-loving winter visitor to Teesside) and I was on the verge of giving up and going home, when I heard several low trilling calls overhead and a flock of about 35 birds dropped down about 20 feet away from me. Despite being so close, they were very hard to find among the boulders of the breakwaters and it took me a few minutes to get a good view, and prove beyond doubt what I was already 90% certain of (from the call) – they were Snow Buntings. They didn’t stay long (possibly my presence spooked them) and they flew off after a few minutes, still trilling and showing nice big patches of white in their wings. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get any pictures this time, so the photos here are ones that I took last winter.

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All photos taken at South Gare on the 11th of January, 2019, by Colin Conroy


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