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Order Song birds/Passeriformes, Family Buntings/Emberizidae

Snow Bunting/Plectrophenax nivalis - Winter

L 15½-18 cm. Breeds in high-alpine habitat in boulder zone of bare mountains, but also along northern rocky coasts and on open, treeless high moors and tundra. Predominantly passage and winter visitor in Britain & Ireland (mostly mid Sep-Apr), mainly from Scandinavia and Greenland, but small numbers breed in Scotland. In winter, often seen in large, dense flocks, mostly along seashores, some on moors and open coastal pasture. Quite confiding, but restless and mobile, continually on the move.
IDENTIFICATION: Large white panels on inner wing and white at tailbase, flash in flight. Can be confused only with Snowfinch of S Europe, but that species stays in its breeding mountains and does not descend to the lowlands where Snow Bunting winters (records of Snow Finch below 500 m exceptional), is bigger, has more white on tail etc. - male summer: Unmistakable, with all-white head and breast and all-black back. - female summer: Diffusely spotted grey on crown, cheeks and breast-sides; back is not solid black. - Juvenile: Very different: grey head, and breast diffusely soiled grey. (This plumage not seen away from breeding sites.) - Autumn: All plumages similar, with rusty yellow-brown tone on breast-side, cheek, crown/nape and shoulders; back yellow-brown and streaked black. Bill yellowish with black tip. male has more white on wing and on primary coverts (latter often white with black tips, forming isolated black spot on white wing-edge) and blacker wing-tip than female. - Variation: Compared with Fenno-Scandian birds (ssp. nivalis), Icelandic birds (insulae), of which some resident in Iceland and some winter in British Isles and Netherlands, have slightly darker plumage with darker primary coverts (often brown on male, too).
VOICE: Calls, which often reveal birds overhead, are a rippling, Crested Titlike ‘per’r’r’rit’, and a soft but emphatic whistle, ‘pyüu’, much as Little Ringed Plover; the whistle is given mostly by lone birds. When irritated (e.g. overcrowding in larger flocks, territorial disputes), gives a hoarse ‘bersch’. Song a brief twitter with clear voice (almost like Rustic Bunting, but somewhat harder) and desolate ring (as Lapland Longspur), e.g. ‘switosüvee- vitüta-süveh’.

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