The wintry breeze sliced through everything like a knife of ice, making even the bright rays from the sun seem cold. Three squat little figures were shuffling along with their heads down, hugging the ground in their search for morsels of food along the strandline. Their warm-buff, brown and black garb blended them into the dark colours of seaweed, mud and stone that lined the seawall. Only, when they turned, a flash of white in the wing and under their breasts, as well as a clementine-coloured bill, gave them away as not just more bits of washed-up flotsam – but visitors from the north which arrived with the frosts; Snow Buntings.
These are beautiful, joyful birds which would quite happily live inside of a refrigerator; they are never found anywhere warm, in winter or summer, as they breed in the Arctic regions – including Scottish mountains. In the breeding season males are pure black and white monochrome birds, in winter they all put on a warmer plumage with golden-buff patches on their heads and breasts, yet they still have enough white that they look like they fell from the clouds with the snow.
In the winter months these snowflakes of birds can turn up around Britain, usually on the coasts and more commonly in the north and east. I had never previously seen Snow Buntings; the south coast not being the best place to come across them, but I have long dreamed of encountering these magical birds. So, to say I was pleased when I was watching three of these birds at very close range (they are famously tame) on the north Kent coast last week, would be something of an understatement. They are truly stunning creatures and well worth a trip to find them.
It was actually quite a successful days birding beside the Snow Buntings. We (being me and my friends, John and Jean) had traveled to a promising looking site near the village of Conyer in Kent, which sits on the south side of the swale in the Thames estuary. The land here is a mixture of estuary, grazing marsh, farmland and orchards with some flooded clay pits at one end which is now a local nature reserve. We spent most of the day walking a circular route around the area and in total managed to see a decent 70 species of birds. The clear and obvious highlight was the aforementioned Snow Buntings, which we found feeding on the seawall close to where they had been reported by other birders recently. The best of the rest are listed below.
- Green Woodpecker – I was impressed by how many individuals of this common bird we saw in a relatively small area, with at least five Yaffles spread around our walk. The preponderance of good feeding habitat – short-cropped grazing meadows – may explain it.
- Kingfisher – Only I saw the first of these brilliant blue birds as it shot past us like a missile, but the second was enjoyed by all as it sat in clear view atop a pole sticking out of a muddy creek, that is until a Starling rudely kicked it off to take its place.
- Marsh Harrier – We saw two of these graceful hunters, both female-type birds, which are doing fairly well in recent years following historical declines. They are not as regular in Sussex yet so it is always exciting to see one.
- Avocet – Sometimes I find it hard to believe that a bird like the Avocet exists; their stark black and white plumage and elegant form and that long, up-curved bill just seem impossibly perfect. We didn’t see any close-up, but there was a large, distant flock roosting on an island in the swale – a shimmering line of glowing white patched with solid black.
- Goldeneye – Once we had reached the large lagoons that form the Little Murston nature reserve we found them brimming with ducks, herons and cormorants. Among the Pintail, Shoveler, Gadwall, Pochard, Tufted duck, Mallard and Coot there was a pair of distant but dramatically attractive Goldeneye, a male and female. Always a treat to see these duck, which are winter visitors only to the south of England.
- Yellowhammer – Another bunting! I do love buntings as a group and the Yellowhammer is one of the best – we saw several of them hopping around in a stubble field alongside a host of Skylarks, Rooks and Lapwings. The males were such a wonderfully bright yellow colour that it almost looked as though someone had stuck some legs on a lemon.
- Fieldfare – These smart-plumaged thrushes are fairly common in the country in the winter, but it was still great to see such large numbers of them in an apple orchard that we passed. They were feeding on the vast amount of fallen apples that had been left on the grass and we were able to get close views of some of them as they perched on the close-cropped branches of the trees.
- Golden Plover – It’s rather worrying how few of these I see in the countryside these days, considering it was once commonplace in my grandparent’s time to see flocks of these gold-spangled waders in every other field during the winter months – I have to travel to large estuaries to get a chance of seeing any. Which is why it was great when we came across a field containing around 146 Golden Plover, standing upright and alert as they do and running forward to peck at the grass every now and again.
I should also mention the other birds we saw out on the estuary; including Curlews, Dunlin, Grey Plover, Redshank, Black-tailed Godwits, Little Grebes and further out we also saw a truly huge flock of Wigeon and Shelduck sitting on the water which was possibly several thousand birds strong. It is in part good, productive days birding like this that I do enjoy winter as much as the other seasons – there’s plenty to see and experience, as long as you can put up with the weather!