Early Winter Snows

The  wind drives the Swale into a muddy broth. Small flocks of Brent geese career down the coast on the wind and then turn and hang before alighting on the barren shore. Oystercatchers flock on the tideline with curlews, redshanks, grey plovers and a handful of turnstones. There has been a recent passage of scoters and skuas all around the north Kent coast; autumn turns to winter on a hard-edged northerly.

The walk to Shellness at the eastern end of the Isle of Sheppey is lit by bright sun and then a passage of dark cloud. At the very end of the spit, the rolling banks of cockle shells that give Shellness its name curve to a neat tip.

An old birdwatcher in our small group walks the top of the shell ridge and a flock of four snow buntings fly up and away to the tip; they then turn, as if tied to a piece of elastic, and bounce all the way back and land at our feet. With small yellow bills, they feed on the seeds of the shingle plants, keeping low, effortlessly disappearing on the beach of shells in their mottled plumage.

sheppey-snowbies-8
Three snow buntings on Shellness

Small numbers of snow buntings breed high in corries and screes in the highest of Scottish Highlands, with large populations in similar habitats right around the Arctic. In the UK, birds scatter to the coast and turn up, often with shore larks on weed-strewn beaches. Their plumage appears thick and warm. One nestles in a scoop of shells whilst a trio feed without a care a few metres from us.

On the way back, there is no sign of a single shore lark reported earlier; a weasel runs across the path and disappears into the beachhead grasses and a stonechat defies the wind and perches on a wooden post. The dark grey band of cloud moves across the sky and the rain begins to pelt.

 

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