Scilly Snow Bunting

October 04, 2015  •  1 Comment

We've just returned home from a fantastic week on the Isles of Scilly. Spending the last week in September on a small archipelago in the Atlantic was a bit of a gamble with the ever present threat of low pressure systems sweeping in but we hit the jackpot with wall-to-wall sunshine every day. We really couldn't have asked for better weather and it really made exploring the various islands an amazing experience. With white sands and turquoise seas it was often hard to believe we were just 28 miles from Lands End. Our week away was a holiday though and with my partner having little interest in birding, I was limited to early morning forays before breakfast. Those sessions weren't particularly productive with the most frequently seen birds being the local Oystercatchers and Turnstones. We did see plenty of Wheatears, Stonechats and a very fine Whinchat whilst out and about but it was a chance encounter that really was a highlight for me and is the subject of this blog post.

Little Porth beach, situated on the Northern tip of St Mary's took our breath away when we first discovered it during a walk around the coastal path. Pure white sands, crystal clear waters and a fine view over to neighbouring St Martins made it a real site to behold. Our dog absolutely loved it too, running around chasing flies and anything else that happened to move. We spent most of our days exploring but decided we'd have a lazy day and really unwind and opted on a return visit to Little Porth. The walk there was very pleasant but when we got to the beach the easterly wind was really up so we found a sheltered spot at the top of the beach, nestled just under the dunes behind us. This gave us a great view and offered just enough protection from the stiff breeze for us to sit comfortably. On the way here, I'd explained to my partner that I'd felt a little unlucky having not seen any really good birds since we'd arrived, despite looking high and low. We'd missed the Red-Eyed Vireo on St Agnes during our day there, with it deciding to go into stealth mode. Still, we were surrounded by stunning views so I ceased complaining.

Back on the beach, we'd been sat down for about five minutes when the dog went bounding off after yet another bit of seaweed blowing across the beach. Or so I thought. I said "what's she after this time" and was told "that little bird". "What bird?", I replied. "That one just there on the sand". As soon as I set eyes on it my heart skipped a beat. Right there in front of us on this deserted beach sat my very first Snow Bunting. My excitement wasn't at all contained and I was later told I was a like a kid seeing his presents on Christmas Day. My partner said she'd seen the bird come in from the East and land where it was now resting, so it's possible that this was the first land it had seen for some time. Thankfully, our dog has no interest in getting too close to anything 'new' so she backed off almost immediately when the bunting had arrived. We watched it for a few minutes and it remained stock-still. I'd been taking my camera gear everywhere we'd been in case of such an eventuality and today was no exception so I got set up in record time. I'd read previously that Snow Buntings can be very confiding and I prayed to the bird Gods that this one followed suit. I took a very slow, cautious approach, belly crawling through the fine sand and patchy grass. The bird didn't budge so I took a few shots, moved a bit closer, took some more and decided to stop when I was about 10 feet away. I was conscious that this wonderful little creature may have been tired after a long flight and I really didn't want to risk alarming it. So there I led, for a good 10 minutes, enjoying some quality time with a beautiful little bird. It didn't move much, only tilting its head as other birds called nearby. I checked the back of he camera to check how things were looking and was buzzing. The sand behind was completely free of clutter so my obliging subject was completely isolated - just the way I like it! I moved around slightly to get a better angle and even then there was no reaction. I've no doubt I could've got closer but there was no point as I was more than close enough for some near frame-filling shots. 

Snow BuntingSnow Bunting Snow BuntingSnow Bunting

Snow BuntingSnow Bunting Snow BuntingSnow Bunting Eventually the Snow Bunting made a slow turn and then moved up and began feeding amongst the detritris left by a recent high tide. At this point I slowly backed away, leaving it in peace. For the next two hours, it remained where it was, hopping along slowly and occasionally looking around between feeding, all whilst we sat nearby and relaxed in the sun.

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Snow BuntingSnow Bunting Snow BuntingSnow Bunting

This was in my view one of those moments that shows that wildlife photography can be greatly aided by a little bit of luck. I'd love to know what the odds of a new bird for me arriving on a deserted beach on a tiny island and it landing metres away were. This made it all the more memorable and I'll never forget the circumstances of this close encounter with a wonderful little bird. It's times like these that make all of the hard work and fruitless searches worthwhile. Just when you start to think it's all for nothing something magical happens. Incidentally, a little later in the afternoon, from the same spot, I found a stunning but distant Red-Throated Diver still sporting its summer plummage, bobbing up and down out at sea. This was later seen really close-in at Porthcressa, just along from where we'd been staying, though sadly we'd set sail for the mainland by then. As we approached Penzance we watched the sun set behind Lands End, drawing to a close a truly fantastic week featuring one of my all time favourite wildlife encounters.


Bob Philpott(non-registered)
Nice bird and not enough of them seen in Wilts / Glos. Very photogenic as well. Nice angle and clean photos.
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