National snow bunting population revealed for the first time

Harry Bellew

Wednesday 4 April 2018

After scaling some of the nation’s highest peaks scientists have for the first time revealed the breeding population of snow buntings in the UK.

Weighing no more than a golf ball, this small graceful bird with its striking ‘snowy’ plumage is one of the rarest breeding birds in the UK. Globally, they breed around the arctic from Scandinavia to Alaska, Canada and Greenland but a small breeding population can be found up the highest peaks of Scotland. 

During June 2011, a team of scientists and volunteers led by the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage scaled mountains in the Cairngorms and the Highlands, such as Ben Nevis and Ben Alder, to listen out for singing males. The survey involved searching 58 sites covering an impressive 12,000ha - the equivalent of more than 14,800 football pitches – and analyses published this month show that the first estimate for the national snow bunting population was 60 pairs. 

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

During the summer, snow buntings can only be found on our highest peaks in Scotland, where they breed near the mountain tops in corries and often feed close to any retained patches of snow.

Dr Hayhow added: “There has always been an element of mystery surrounding the number of snow buntings in the UK dating back to the 1930s as never before have all sites been surveyed in a single 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.”

For a scarce species occupying some of the harshest more remote habitats in the UK, dedicated surveys such as this are the only way to monitor their population effectively. In the future, this survey will allow scientists to monitor any changes in the snow bunting population, which is key to understanding how they’re responding to the changes in their montane environment. 

The first UK survey and population estimate of breeding snow bunting was jointly funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and published in Bird Study. For a full round up of the results visit, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00063657.2018.1443057 

For further information and to arrange an interview, please contact:

Harry Bellew, Media Officer: 01767 693418 / Harry-jay.Bellew@rspb.org.uk

Last Updated: Tuesday 28 August 2018

Tagged with: Country: Scotland Country: UK Topic: Birds and wildlife Topic: Conservation Topic: Science Topic: Species conservation