Snow Bunting races or species?

Tame birds and Origins

Like the Lapland Bunting I think it’s often assumed that most Snow Buntings arrive in Britain from Scandinavia. Sure that’s what I used to think. However detailed ringing studies and analysis of trapped individuals has shown that 3 populations of 2 races reach Britain. Nominate nivalis from Greenland (and west), nominate nivalis from Scandinavia (and east) and ssp. insulae from Iceland. In fact the last form, the Icelandic Snow Bunting seems to be the commoner form. It has also been mooted as a ‘split’ to be classified as a full species.

Enough of that scary stuff now! Here two 1st winter males. They seem to me to be pretty obvious examples of the 2 different races. One of the form insulae, one of the form nivalis. Both at Spurn. The Icelandic male, a real show-off, stayed for a day right in front of my caravan. Even patrolling the roof of Ian Smith’s car.

Birding is full of surprises! Maybe Snow Buntings hold a few more. The Siberian race ssp. vlasowae is supposed to have occurred or been reported at least 6 times in Western Europe. Be good to get more details on these…

First set of photos below- 1st winter male Icelandic Snow Bunting (ssp. insulae). Late September, outside my caravan, Spurn, east Yorkshire, by Ian Smith. Then a couple great photos at end of same age/stage nominate race bird.

Check me out – walking over the car roof!

Look, I can slide! all the above -ssp insulae.

2 shots of a nominate 1st winter male below, to compare.

Above 2 photos: 1st winter male Snow Bunting , nominate nivalis, Sammy’s Point, Spurn,  October 2009, Glyn Sellors

3 thoughts on “Snow Bunting races or species?

  1. MikeP

    Hi Martin,

    I think in Scotland it is better known that our Snow Buntings come from mainly from the NW. I learnt about it in the 1980s with a friend of mine, Rik Smith, who worked on the Cairngorms population (summer and winter) and discovered that most of the breeding birds are insulae (with a few pale-rumped ones which fit nivalis but might not be nivalis). At about the same time, Highland RG in Caithness found that most of their wintering birds were insulae. It is pretty well-covered in BS3 where the breeding pops of insulae and nivalis are given as 50 and less than 10 respectively, and various figures given show that the wintering population is usually less than 25% nivalis, sometimes much less. In Shetland, our early arrivals at least are nearly always in NW winds, often with Laps, which I am convinced come mainly from the NW in Shetland.

    1. Martin Garner

      Mr P!

      Thanks very much for the comprehensive reply that fills in lots of details. I think the the proportion of nivalis is higher in places like East Norfolk, but hoping to try and get the kind f figures and details you have provided. Ringing often produces the kind of fascinating detail that’s missed by us non -ringers

      Have a good Christmas


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