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Sunday, 3 December 2017

There's no bunting like a Snow Bunting

Six Snow Buntings, Kilshannig, 3rd December 2017 (M.O'Clery).

The flock at Kilshannig has now grown to six individuals.

Male Snow Bunting, Kilshannig, 3rd December 2017 (M.O'Clery).

There were two males and four female-type Snow Buntings on 3rd December, though three males were present out of the flock of five there last week (see post below), so though the flock has grown by one, there are actually two new female recruits.

Male nivalis Snow Bunting, Kilshannig, 3rd December 2017 (M.O'Clery).

The strong contrast between the cold, greyish mantle and warm brown wing coverts, along with the ginger-fringed rump feathers would make this a Snow Bunting of the Scandinavian or Greenland race, nivalis.

The same male nivalis (left) and female Snow Buntings, Kilshannig, 3rd December 2017 (M.O'Clery).

 Two female Snow Buntings, Kilshannig, 3rd December 2017 (M.O'Clery).

Male insulae Snow Bunting, Kilshannig, 3rd December 2017 (M.O'Clery).

With a rump this dark this second male must surely be an Icelandic race Snow Bunting insulae. The lack of a cold, grey mantle adds weight to that, as do the (mostly) all-dark outer primary coverts. 

Seriously though, I've just pored over ringer's guides and online detailed references about Snow Buntings and read up on Martin Garner's excellent Winter Challenge Series write-up on Snow Buntiings and I can barely figure out the age/race of the males, and seem to get brain-freeze when trying to figure out the females/first-winters. Looking at the above photo, which isn't bad, is the longest primary covert black, or almost all black? Is the outer greater covert mostly black? Is there a moult contrast on the innermost greater coverts, making it a first-winter male? If it is an Icelandic race bird, how come the ninth primary (the long outermost primary is primary 2 (P2) so count inwards towards the body to P9) looks to be only about 25% black at the tip, when the ringer's guides tell me it should be more than 60% if it is to be Icelandic race? Is the info out there completely contradictory or not taking individual variation into account, or am I just being an idiot? Ok, don't answer that. 

Feck, but Snow Buntings were supposed to be easy. Maybe I suffer from In-The-Hand Blindness (ITHB). "It's a real disease with doctors and everything." For example, years ago I picked up a freshly dead warbler, in Downpatrick, Co. Down. I quickly realised it was a phylloscopus warbler, either a Willow Warbler, or a Chiffchaff. For the life of me, with it sat there, well, lying dead there, lifeless in the palm of my hand, I couldn't figure out which it was. It looked so different up close and still. Until the logical side of my brain gave me a slap and shouted, "Cop on man! Leg colour! Wing length!..". Oh yes, a Willow Warbler. I could have told it at a glance if I had seen it alive in a bush nearby. Highly detailed digital photos sometimes also have that effect on me.

Anyway, I finally pieced it all together. After all my research and reading, all the online picture searches, all the careful research into moult, geographic variation and the delicate art of feather tract interpretation, I have finally cobbled together all the accumulated knowledge on ageing and sexing Snow Buntings, and assigning them to race with 100% certainty. This plate below is now the only reference you will ever need. Print it out. Keep it in your wallet, manbag or purse. Share it online, Facebook it, Tweet it. This kind of knowledge needs to be out there.

You're welcome.

Snow Bunting (M.O'Clery).