Finding And Photographing The Snow Bunting

Written by Gina Stephens

Small but tough: The snow bunting is perfectly adapted to life in snow and ice as the northernmost breeding songbird in the world.


With a length of approximately 17 cm, the snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) is about as large as house sparrow. The adult males wear a conspicuous black and white dress from the end of March to the end of July. Bottom and head are completely white, the coat is black, wings and tail are black and white. The older the male (the life expectancy of the snow bunting is about 6 years), the more pronounced the contrast between the black and white parts is. During its first two years, the plumage of the male also remains rather brownish than bright white in summer. The short, conical beak of the male is black in summer, yellow-brown in winter.

The females are always more uniformly coloured during summer than their male counterparts. The plumage on the chest and underside is pure white. Head, breasts and back are brown-lined. They bear a yellow-brown beak all year round.


The snow bunting is exclusively found in the northern latitudes and breeds especially in the cold landscape of Scandinavia and Scotland. It can be observed in Iceland and Central Norway all year round. The fact that snow buntings breed regularly and in large numbers on Spitsbergen makes them the northernmost songbird in the world.
They are perfectly adapted to life in the far north. In winter they leave their breeding grounds to the south, but remain on the coasts of the North Sea and Baltic Sea.
Due to their large distribution area and the quite stable number of breeding pairs in the respective breeding areas, snow buntings are classified as not endangered. The chances of being able to observe the small cold specialist in the winter on the coasts are therefore good.

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Behaviour and knowledge

The adults mainly eat various small seeds – the nestlings on the other hand are only fed with insects. This extremely protein-rich diet gives the young enough strength to overcome the adverse weather conditions and also ensures a fairly rapid development. The female incubates the eggs for 14 days while being fed by the male. After 12 days, the young already leave the nest.

The singing of the snow bunting, which can be heard almost exclusively in the northern breeding grounds, consists of vocalizations that are unique to each individual. Rumours say that they even develop something like regional dialects, where native inhabitants of an area could help each other finding their way in dense fog. In the areas north of the Polar circle, where the sun does not go down in the summer, they have developed a strategy to get enough sleep. They do not fall into complete sleep, but sleep between their vocal lines for a few seconds.

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About the author

Gina Stephens

Gina is a photography enthusiast and drone lover who loves to fly drones, capture images and have fun cherishing them with family and friends.

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