Sunday, 13 January 2013

Birds of East Kent: Snow Bunting

Latest in an occasional series of posts discussing the different birds that can be found in East Kent and how easy (or not) it is to get a decent picture of them.

Snow Bunting
Palm Bay, Margate, March 2012

The Snow Bunting is a regular winter visitor to Kentish shores, albeit never in huge numbers. They can pop up just about anywhere along the East Kent coastline, but the most reliable place to find them is along the shingle beaches at Reculver, foraging amongst the pebbles.

I like to think of this smart little bird as the "photographer's friend" because not only is it very photogenic, it can also be very approachable. But of course, a flock of birds is only as brave as its least brave member, and so the closest you get to a larger group of Snow Buntings (known collectively as a "drift") may be when they fly over your head to the other end of the beach - half an hour's walk in the direction you just came from. However, if you're fortunate enough to find a Snow Bunting by itself (no easy task, since they usually blend in very well with the pebbles) and don't make any sudden movements, it may allow you to get within a few feet. The bird pictured below was so confiding I had to back away just to keep it in focus.

Portrait of a Snow Bunting
Kingsgate Bay, Broadstairs, April 2011

In summer, when they return to their breeding grounds in the high Arctic, the Snow Buntings undergo a dramatic change, with the males turning almost completely white. Here in Kent, they're invariably gone before we see them reach this phase, but if you're lucky enough to catch a straggler you might see the white plumage starting to come through. Compare the difference between the one above (photographed in early spring) with the one below (taken in late autumn).

Snow Bunting
Reculver, November 2009

So the next time you go for a walk along the coast on a bracing winter's day, keep your eyes open for these charming little birds. They may be closer than you think.

See also:
More of my Snow Bunting photos on Flickr
Snow Bunting (RSPB)
Snow Bunting (Birdforum)

Monday, 7 January 2013

Sir Patrick Moore - A Belated Tribute

The final edition of The Sky at Night to feature Sir Patrick Moore aired last night on BBC 1 (and will be showing again as an extended episode on BBC 4 later in the week), so this seems like a timely moment to share a few thoughts I originally posted on the Sky at Night Flickr group a few weeks ago.

Many moons ago, my mum wrote to Sir Patrick, asking him for advice on what telescope to buy her astronomy-obsessed son, and he very kindly sent one of his famous hand-typed letters in reply, offering his usual brand of no-nonsense wisdom.

Years later, after going on to study astronomy at university, I was fortunate enough to attend one of Sir Patrick's BAA lectures at the University of Kent, in which he spoke about Mars for an hour (without notes). It was the period straight after lunch (a tough time to give a lecture), but he kept the whole audience captivated with his energy and boundless enthusiasm.

And just last month, I was watching The Sky at Night on BBC 4 when I was pleasantly surprised to see one of my photos featured in an item about the planet Mercury.

RIP Sir Patrick, and thanks for everything. You will be missed.

See also:
The Sky at Night on BBC iPlayer (available until Sunday 13 January)
The Sky at Night programme page
BBC Stargazing LIVE (starts Tuesday 7 January)
BBC Sky at Night and Stargazing LIVE Flickr page