By Charlotte Owen
Mention the beach in December and most people will think you’re off on holiday in search of winter sun. But the Sussex coast has a lot to offer at this time of year, and for many species this is their dream location.
We may need to wrap up warm but even our frostiest mornings are mild compared to the icy cold of the Arctic Circle. This is the domain of the Snow Bunting, the planet’s toughest songbird. Nature has equipped them better than any polar explorer, with a dense coat of downy feathers that extends to their ankles and even the base of their bill. Underneath, layers of insulating fat allow them to survive temperatures that would kill any other songbird their size, and when the weather gets really bad they will bury themselves in snowdrifts to keep warm. But not even this plucky passerine can survive an Arctic winter, when temperatures plummet and the land is plunged into a lengthy polar night. At the North Pole the sun disappears below the horizon in October and won’t rise again until March, with temperatures dropping to -40˚C. Our winter conditions may not be tropical but for a bird that loves the cold, they’re just right.
Snow Buntings swap their snow-white breeding plumage for sandy-coloured winter beachwear, perfect for blending in with the pebbles on our shingle shore. They may have flown thousands of miles to get here but they arrive to familiar territory: a wide, open expanse with sparse vegetation and a few rocky outcrops, not too dissimilar to the barren Arctic tundra. Given the lack of substantial vegetation there, snow buntings nest on the ground, sometimes in rock piles but preferentially in deep crevices where the nest will be safe from the elements and hidden from predators. Competition is fierce so they are strongly territorial during the breeding season but will often feed in flocks during the winter. Here in Sussex, most sightings are of individual birds but they’re often very obliging. Buntings have already been spotted in Chidham, Sompting, Shoreham and Seaford so if you do visit the beach this winter, look out for snow.