Snow buntings are a rare bird in the UK, breeding in the highest peaks of Scotland and, until now, no-one knew how many there were.


In June 2011, scientists and volunteers from the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage climbed mountains in the Cairngorms and the Highlands, including Ben Nevis and Ben Alder, to search for singing male snow buntings.

“Fieldwork in the UK doesn’t come much more challenging than surveying snow buntings up some of the highest peaks in Scotland,” says Dr Daniel Hayhow, a RSPB conservation scientist. “During the survey the team were climbing 3000ft mountains each day while battling the extreme weather conditions that can be found at the peaks.”

58 sites covering 120 km2 were searched, based on previous records of snow buntings since 1970, and scientists calculated that the national population was 60 pairs.

The harsh and remote habitats of this species meant that there had never been a survey of all the sites in the same year.

“Now we have an estimate of the national breeding population we’ll be able to use these findings to detect any change in their numbers allowing us to better understand how changes to their montane environment might be impacting them,” says Dr Hayhow.

Although the snow bunting is a scarce species in the UK, it breeds across arctic region including Scandinavia, Iceland, Alaska and Canada.

Read the paper in Bird Study.


Main image: A male snow bunting in summer plumage. © Mark Eaton


Megan ShersbyEditorial and digital co-ordinator, BBC Wildlife

Naturalist and writer