The Norfolk Coast – A monthly wildlife guide by Oli Reville

Despite the unusually warmer weather it is still a good time for seeing Norfolk’s wintering species, including a few which you wouldn’t expect. As the month in general is a continuation of October in terms of bird movements I thought I would focus on two species which arrive in Norfolk from November and spend the winter here. They are both highly popular species and often easy to see.

The first is the Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis). Snow Bunting are one of the most popular winter visitors to Norfolk and often attract quite a crowd of birdwatchers. Snow Buntings can arrive as early as late September but with the mild Autumn they are only arriving now to spend the winter on the Norfolk coast.

As Buntings go they are on the large side. In summer plumage the Males are a striking and bold black and white colouration. But in winter these colours change and both male and females look similar with a sandy/buff wash to the plumage, males do have more colouring on the back and wings though. They are often seen in flocks and in some years up to 100 birds together is common. The best sites in Norfolk to find them are the Cley and Salthouse area and the east coast near Winterton and Sea Palling.

Despite their snowy appearance suggesting they are a northern species Snow Bunting do breed in the UK made up of a small population of just 60 pairs in the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland. In winter these numbers increase massively to around 10000-15000 birds in the UK and Ireland. They arrive from a huge breeding area located around the arctic regions of Scandinavia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland.

The second species is an absolute favourite of pretty much all birdwatchers. The Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulous) is one of just three Waxwing species found in the world, the others being Japanese and Cedar. These starling sized birds are striking in appearance and have a unique call which makes them easy to detect. They can often be very confiding and allow for good views when they arrive for the winter in the UK. Like Snow Buntings they form flocks, sometimes in the hundreds, and can be seen pretty much anywhere, even in urban areas.
Like the Snow Bunting they are also a breeding species of northern latitudes. The Waxwings which arrive in the UK breed in the north of Sweden, Norway and Finland but their range spreads across Russia to Scandinavia, there is also populations which breed in Canada and Alaska. In winter they move south and the birds from populations which winter in the UK can also spend the winter across Europe and into Asia Minor, China, the Koreas and Japan.

UK winter populations vary massively depending on how good the breeding season was that year. If there are too many birds for the breeding areas to support many will move south, known as an irruption. When this happens there can be as many as 11,000 Waxwing in the UK, as was the case a couple of years ago. Depending on how the winter and spring weather is in the UK they can stay as late as April but tend to move back to the breeding grounds in the North in March.

Both Snow Bunting and Waxwing are species associated with winter in Norfolk. You do have to go to some effort to see Snow Bunting but if an irruption occurs then Waxwing could even be in your garden.

Oli Reville