If the robin is the ‘Christmas bird’, then the snow bunting is the ‘white-Christmas’ one; its arrival here each winter is as irregular and unpredictable as snow during the festive season.
The glamorous little male is snowy-white, apart from black patterns on the wings and a brownish-yellow crown. The feathers turn creamy in the autumn and brown patches develop. The bill is stubby and the tail slightly forked. Females, as is usual in bunting species, are less brightly coloured.
As with another Nordic winter visitor, the waxing, there are ‘snow bunting years’ in which larger numbers arrive. When in Ireland, snow buntings tend to remain in small flocks on the coast; they seem to like sandy shores dunes and stone piers. There are reports of at least one on Dun Laoghaire pier as I write. Inland sightings are rare.
The world’s most northerly-nesting songbird has an evocative name with broad vowels and sharp consonants. ‘To bunt’ meant to push one’s belly out like a sail, hence the nautical term ‘bunting’, denoting material hung from rigging.
Folklore expert Francesca Greenoak thinks the term referred originally to the corn bunting, a fat little farmland bird which used to be common. The name was applied subsequently to a stocky person. Infants, being short and plump, inspired the ‘Bye bye bunting’ nursery rhyme.
The corn bunting, alas, became extinct in Ireland during the late 1990s. Its cousins, the yellowhammer and reed bunting, carry on the family tradition here.
In summer, snow-buntings frequent areas of short open vegetation in Siberia Greenland Canada and Scandinavia as far north as Santa’s homeland. All, except for some Icelandic ones, move southwards as winter approaches.
An isolated breeding population, the most southerly in the world, survives high in the Cairngorms where reindeer, introduced in 1952, keep it company. This breeding pocket is a relict of ice-age times.
The winter flocks here are easily approached; snow buntings encounter few humans in the Arctic regions where they breed, so they haven’t evolved a fear of people.
Some even nest in walls or inside buildings, although clefts in rock faces, or under boulders, are the usual breeding sites. According to the authoritative Birds of the Western Pale arctic, a nest was discovered inside a human corpse.
We don’t really know where our buntings come from. The Cairngorm ones have been intensively studied, with many adult and young birds ringed. There is some local dispersal, with nesting recorded on other Scottish mountains (a pair first bred on Ben Nevis in 1954).
Otherwise, the highland buntings appear to be sedentary, the farthest distance travelled by a ringed one being only 108km. It’s unlikely, therefore, that our wintering birds are Scottish.
A few stragglers may come from Norway, or even from Greenland, but Iceland is the most likely country of origin.
With temperatures rising decade-on-decade, will snow buntings continue to visit Ireland? More and more Icelandic ones are staying at home for the winter. There is no clear evidence of a decline in numbers here as yet, although snow buntings, being erratic and nomadic, are very hard to census.
The Scottish population seems to be holding its own. A survey in 2011 found at least 79 possible territories’ there, about 80% of them in the Cairngorms (Bird Atlas 2007-11).