Friday, January 11, 2013

the search for the snow bunting

When the proposal to search for Snow Buntings on Serra da Estrela came up, I did not hesitate to say yes. Have you ever seen a Snow Bunting? I hadn't in person, but that little upturned curve in its beak—which makes it look like it's smiling— and the pretty white plumage mixed with rust and umber was enough to make me actually hop up and down. I was warned that it might not be easy; the mountain was capped in snow and the birds are easily camouflaged. At 1,993 metres, Serra da Estrela is the highest peak in mainland Portugal, and often the only place which receives snow.

We drove up the long, winding road to the top, past stunning landscapes of rolling nothingness— I have a space in my heart for such places, where man made objects are either nonexistent, or few and far between. It's as though the absence of man makes room for mental wandering— of course, we were on a road, and my imagination was pulled back to earth with every passing car. Stepping out at the top, which had a tiny ski slope teeming with Portuguese and Spanish families, I was thankful for my down jacket and mittens. We hung our binoculars around our necks and secured our scarves from the biting wind, crunching satisfyingly through the patchy snow. Not a bird in sight.

Suddenly small flock of about 25 little birds appeared— could it be? The light was harsh, and it was difficult to see anything but silhouettes, but when we looked though the binoculars... Alpine Accentors. Taking note of these delightful birds, we watched them until they took off, and continued our search.

We walked until we couldn't see a soul but each other—nothing. We walked back up to the old observatory at the top of the mountain— nothing. We walked back down the road to a little reservoir— nothing. About to give up on our search, we decided to check the left side of the parking lot before hopping back in the car, and just as soon as we headed in that direction, four little birds flew past, and landed on the roof of a barn.

"BUNTINGS!" Pedro exclaimed.

Running discreetly is not an easy thing to do, especially on icy road. We were afraid they would fly away, so we wanted to get there quickly, but we were worried our movement would make them fly away. Eventually (and I am sure quite comically), we shuffled close enough to take a very distant and blurry photo— then they flew. Fortunately for us, they landed in the patchy grass below, inspecting the earth for something to eat. We moved in.

Just to give you an idea of how well camouflaged these little guys are, three of the four Snow Buntings are in the photo below. Can you spot them?

What a fine little bird!

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