Tag Archives: cirl bunting

A songbird makes a welcome return

The Cirl Bunting is an attractive songbird once found throughout the southern half of the UK.  Its numbers declined precipitously in the second half of the 20th century following changes in farming practice and, by the late 1980s, it was confined to coastal farmland in south Devon and might have become nationally extinct.  The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) recognised the problem and worked with farmers to support the bird resulting in a dramatic increase in its numbers. In a recent expansion of its range the bird has established itself in East Devon at Stantyway Farm near Otterton having been absent for more than 30 years.  I wanted to find out more so I went to Stantyway to see for myself.

Male cirl bunting (photo generously given by David R White)
Female cirl bunting (photo generously given by David R White)

The Cirl Bunting was first reported in the UK by Montagu in the winter of 1800 near Kingsbridge in south Devon in the west of the country.  It is roughly sparrow-sized and the male, in particular, is very distinctive with its black and yellow striped head and olive-green breast band.  The bird gradually spread across the southern half of the UK, its numbers peaking in the early years of the 20th century.  Since then it has declined and by the late 1980s only 118 pairs remained, confined to coastal farmland between Plymouth and Exeter.

With the Cirl Bunting facing national extinction, the RSPB identified changes in farming practice linked to agricultural intensification as responsible for the precipitous decline.  In the winter, the bird forages for insects and spilt grain in weedy stubble fields.  In the summer, it nests in hedges or scrub and forages on unimproved grassland rich in invertebrates with grasshoppers being important food for chicks.  With agricultural intensification, there was a shift from spring-sown cereals to autumn sowing so that far fewer arable fields were left as winter stubble; grubbing out of hedges took away nest sites and loss of the hay meadows and increased use of pesticides reduced invertebrate numbers and summer food for the bird.

Once the cause of the decline had been identified, the RSPB worked with farmers in south Devon to support the birds by reinstating some traditional agricultural practices, supported by government agrienvironment schemes.  The effect was spectacular and by 2016, numbers of Cirl Buntings had increased to over 1000 pairs. Most of the increase occurred in the bird’s core range but there was some spread along the coast and inland where habitat was suitable.   This was a major conservation success, also benefitting other species.

The coast of south Devon showing the core range of the cirl bunting and the location of Stantyway Farm across the Exe estuary in East Devon (from British Birds).

The bird has a reputation for being sedentary and it had been assumed that the estuary of the river Exe would be a barrier to further eastwards expansion of its range.   So, it was a surprise when, around the end of 2010, a single Cirl Bunting was seen at Stantyway Farm near Otterton in East Devon followed by several more sightings early in 2011.  Since then, the numbers at Stantyway have increased suggesting that the local conditions suit the birds and from 2015 it was clear that a breeding population existed.

Stantyway Farm is owned by Clinton Devon Estates and when the tenant, Mr Williams, retired in 2014, the farm was taken back into Clinton’s own Farm Partnership.   Clinton Devon Estates were keen to support Cirl Buntings and other species on their arable farm at Stantyway so they took advice from the RSPB and applied for agrienvironment support.  This was awarded in 2016 and supports planting hedges to provide more nest sites, leaving wildlife margins around fields to provide invertebrates as summer food, and planting spring cereal crops that are harvested in the autumn leaving weedy winter stubbles with seed as food.  These are all activities shown to be critical in supporting these birds in south Devon.  The farm was also put into organic conversion in 2016; organic farming by its nature supports wildlife and increases invertebrates.  Cirl Bunting numbers at Stantyway gradually increased across this time.

In 2017, Clinton Estates advertised for a new tenant farmer at Stantyway and Sam Walker was appointed.  Although the farm is still mainly arable, Sam keeps 52 cows whose calves are raised and sold on to beef finishers.  About a third of the land is now devoted to grass for silage production for winter animal feed.  Sam has, however, embraced the existing philosophy of the farm in supporting wildlife: he has maintained the organic status and intends to apply for further agrienvironment support when the current scheme runs out in 2021.

I wanted to see the farm for myself so, on a mild early April day, I went to Stantyway.  I left the car on the rough ground across from Stantyway Farmhouse and stood for a few moments enjoying the sunshine.  The air was filled with the endlessly inventive song of the skylark and occasionally a buzzard mewed as it circled lazily overhead.  Sometimes a low buzz cut through all of this and when I looked, I realised this was from all the insects about.

I walked away from the farm along the gentle downhill slope of Stantyway Road with views developing over rolling East Devon countryside on one side and to the hazy mid-blue sea on the other. The lane descended between wide grassy verges backed by luxuriant hedges. Spring flowers grew through the thick grass including stitchwort, celandine, dandelions, violets and white dead nettle.  The dominant flowering plant was, however, alexanders, with its fleshy green stems, copious shiny dark green foliage and pale mop head flowers.  This was proving very popular with many kinds of fly and a selection of solitary mining bees, some collecting large lumps of white pollen on their back legs.

My walk included a long section of the coast path skirting the edge of Stantyway fields.  Thick scrubby hedges, mainly flowering blackthorn, lined the cliff edge along with more alexanders. The occasional hedge break afforded spectacular views along the red cliffs of the Jurassic Coast towards Ladram bay with its crumbling stacks, past the white elegance of Sidmouth and finishing in the chalk of Beer Head (see picture at the top).   Again, there were many solitary mining bees taking advantage of the flowers.    I did not see any Cirl Buntings on my walk but, on two occasions I heard their distinctive, rattling, metallic trill telling me the birds were about.

It’s a beautiful place made all the better by glorious early April weather and I was surprised to see so many insects along the paths.  Perhaps this reflects the methods used at Stantyway, showing that productive farming and wildlife can coexist and prosper. Around the farm, each field gate has an information board giving the crop and some other useful information.  An Honesty Café has been installed near the farmhouse providing continuous hot water for tea or coffee and homemade cakes that I can strongly recommend.  All of this suggests an outward looking, open approach to farming.  When I met Sam Walker, the farmer, he explained that, in addition to the provisions of the agrienvironment scheme, he has put skylark plots in cereal fields, created wild bird seed corridors and put up swift boxes to support wildlife.  I came away feeling that at Stantyway, Cirl Buntings were getting the best support they could.  His methods have already benefitted other farmland birds with numbers of skylarks and reed buntings doubling over the past year and in a further twist to the Cirl Bunting story, some of the birds have now been seen to the east of Sidmouth.

I should like to thank Sam Walker, Doug and Joan Cullen, Kate Ponting and David White for generous help in preparing this article which appeared in the May edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

 

sign
One of the farm gate signs

 

Alexanders and blackthorn
Alexanders (greenish-yellow) and blackthorn (white) along the coast path. The cliff edge is behind the hedge!

 

Solitary mining bee on Blackthorn
A solitary mining bee (probably Andrena flavipes) feeding from blackthorn.

 

Solitary mining bee on Alexanders
A solitary mining bee (probably Andrena nitida) feeding from Alexanders

 

Honesty Cafe
The Honesty Cafe at Stantyway Farm

 

Looking for the Long-horned Bee in South Devon

The coast path in this part of South Devon traces the edge of the low crumbly cliffs as they meander around inlets and headlands, keeping the sea at bay. For several miles eastwards beyond Prawle Point, the path is mostly flat so this is easy walking but not without interest. The sea is an ever-changing canvas of colours and seals sometimes swim near the shore. On the landward side of the path a succession of gently sloping arable fields is backed by steeply rising cliffs with rocky outcrops, giving the walker the illusion of being watched from above, if only by birds of prey.

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Looking across Horseley Cove to the coastal fields.  The coast path runs between the coastal fields and the low cliffs. The steeply rising hills with rocky outcrops can be seen behind the fields.

These coastal fields have been cultivated for centuries but for the last twenty years or more, management of the land has been directed towards supporting the nationally rare cirl bunting. This is a pretty songbird that, until the mid 20th century, was found in much of the southern half of the UK. Changes in farming practices, affecting the bird’s food sources and nesting habitat, led to a decline in the cirl bunting population and by 1989 there were only 118 pairs, confined to coastal South Devon. Since then, agri-environmental schemes have been promoted to support the bird. Spring barley has been sown on coastal fields and stubble left in the winter to provide food for these birds. Wide, uncultivated field margins allow tussocky grass to grow and insects to thrive, providing summer food. Nearby hedges are maintained as nesting sites. By 2009 the population had increased to 862 breeding pairs, a conservation success.

Male Cirl Bunting (from the RSPB)

 

The cirl bunting is only one of several rare species found here and many scarce insects find nesting sites along this stretch of the coast. I recently went to look for the long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis), a nationally rare, solitary mining bee that is reported to be found here.

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Just over two weeks ago, I drove to this remote part of South Devon and found my way down the very narrow lane to the National Trust Car Park at Prawle Point. The mid-morning sky was an overcast grey but, with only a light breeze, the air felt warm and humid. The car park is next to a nature reserve and one of the local residents, a lesser whitethroat, sang from a nearby tree as if to welcome me.

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Descending from the car park

A short stroll down hill took me to the coast path and I headed eastwards along the low cliffs. With the lack of sunshine, contrast was low and colours were muted, but there was still much to see. Unusually, I paid scant attention to the sea; I was more interested in the plants growing nearby. The seaward side of the path is marked by a distinct band of vegetation along the cliff edge. Sometimes this is a fringe of low grass with self supporting flowering plants: pinkish-white umbrellas of wild carrot; scrambling legumes including common vetch with its feathery leaves and pink flowers and the tiny white-flowered hairy tare. Further along, growth is more substantial with tall bracken and bushes, sometimes so dense as to obscure the cliff edge. This barrier supports climbing legumes including tufted vetch and, where the blackthorn is well established, provides good nesting for the cirl buntings.

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Commmon Vetch

 

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Hairy Tare

 

The landward side of the path follows the edge of the arable fields and their wide, uncultivated margins. The luxuriously green spring barley fretted in the light wind and, in the field margins, rough grass prospered together with more wild carrot and many leguminous plants including more common vetch. I also saw large mats of kidney vetch sporting a mixture of lemon yellow flowers and feathery- cushioned white seed heads.

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Kidney Vetch

 

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The coast path showing the spring barley, the wide uncultivated field margins and the coastal fringe.

Despite all this apparent fertility and forage, insects were keeping a low profile with the exception of a few small bumblebees. Eventually I came to an area of rich, tall bracken and low bushes growing along the edge of the cliffs. One section of this cliff hedge had been colonised by purple-flowered tufted vetch scrambling through the bracken. Something moving, possibly an insect, caught my eye and I paused to look more carefully. After a few minutes another appeared and I thought I saw the distinctive long antennae of the long-horned bee. I could also see pale brown hairs but the bee was moving about quickly making it difficult to be sure whether this was all just wishful thinking.

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Male long-horned bee on tufted vetch

I waited and an intermittent stream of these insects then passed through, some moving around quickly, some stopping to feed on the purple flowers. They were about the same size as a honeybee and I could see their impossibly long antennae, the very pale front of their heads and the fringe of beige hairs around their thorax. These were definitely male long-horned bees and it was very exciting to see them for the first time. According to Steven Falk, fresh specimens have russet coloured hairs which fade after a few weeks so the bees I saw must have been flying for a while. One of the passers-through had pollen-loaded legs so I assume this was a female but she didn’t stop long enough for me to be sure.

Long-horned bee 7

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This picture shows the pale front of the head

 

By now there was fitful sunshine and I began to be aware of the other sights and sounds around me. Through the curtain of bracken and long grass, the sea was visible, taking on a kaleidoscope of new colours as the weather improved. The urgent metallic sound of cirl buntings echoed around the surrounding hills and coming from below I could hear the plaintive cry of oystercatchers and the gentle soughing of the waves.

 

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The curtain of bracken and long grass

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Long-horned bees used to be found across the southern part of the UK but they have suffered a drastic decline in the latter part of the 20th century. The decline has been due to loss of suitable nest sites and preferred forage.

I visited Prawle Point on June 20th. The two “sunny” pictures (featured image and Coast Path near Horseley Cove ) were taken by Hazel Strange on June 18th.

Making life better for a jewel of a bird

The Coast Path in Devon (photo by Hazel Strange)

The sea was a patchwork of ever-changing shades of blue and the sun created an intense shimmering where it shone on the many small waves. It was as though a thousand small jewels reflected the sun’s rays. Far out at sea, a light mist obscured the horizon and caused the sea and the sky to seemingly melt in to one another.

The path by the sea weaves its way along the coast here, sometimes at sea level and sometimes perilously high on rocky outcrops. Here and there we saw violets, thrift and a few early bluebells – more small jewels. It was hard walking especially in this unseasonably warm weather and we had to remind ourselves that, although it felt like summer, this really was only late March.

There is another jewel that decorates the coast in this part of South Devon, a small songbird called the Cirl Bunting. This is the only part of the UK where the bird is found and it has become something of a local icon. We had seen pictures of the bird in the village of East Prawle, where we left the car, and had previously searched for the bird but not seen it ourselves more than a handful of times. Today our luck had changed. On a hedge hear the sea we spotted a mixed flock of birds including Dunnocks and Chaffinches but there was another small brown bird that continually darted from the hedge to the ground and back again. Fixing it with my binoculars I confirmed that this was a female Cirl Bunting. During the walk, we saw another six of these birds, some females, some the brightly coloured male but all with the distinctive face bar pattern.

Male Cirl Bunting (from RSPB)

So why is there a fuss about this little bird? It’s found quite widely in continental Europe and it used to be found over all of southern England. Intensive farming, however, almost eliminated Cirl Buntings from the UK and even now it is confined to a small coastal strip of land between Exeter and Plymouth. In 1989 there were only 118 breeding pairs and the bird was destined to be extinct in this country.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) devised a plan to protect and encourage Cirl Buntings but for the plan to work they needed to have the support and cooperation of local farmers. The RSPB worked out that the decline in the population of Cirl Buntings had been caused by farming practices which took away the bird’s food supplies. In the winter, the birds forage in weedy stubble fields eating seeds and spilt grain. In the summer, they nest in hedges and scrub and forage in unimproved grassland full of invertebrates with grasshoppers being especially important for chicks. The breeding and wintering habitats must be close as the birds do not move more than about 2 km. Intensive farming, including winter ploughing, use of herbicides and grubbing out of hedges severely depleted the bird’s natural habitats. In order to provide these habitats, famers agreed to change some of their practices, leaving stubble over winter, leaving wide margins around fields, planting low intensity grassland and restoring hedges. These changes have been supported by environmental subsidies from the EU.

The programme has been a great success so far and by 2009 there were 862 breeding pairs as well as increases in other wildlife in the area. Confidence in the bird’s stability has increased to the extent that some chicks have been hand raised and set free in Cornwall to try to establish another colony of Cirl Buntings in the next county.

The Cirl Bunting Programme was based on simple ideas that took account of the life cycle of the bird and how that had been affected by changes in farming practice. It is wonderful to see the little birds doing so well and the programme is a perfect example of cooperation and conservation in practice.

In a previous post, I wrote about music written by John Spiers to celebrate the Red Kite conservation project.  Perhaps another “folkie” should write a tune celebrating Cirl Buntings?