Tag Archives: RSPB

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.

 

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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

 

A seal steals the show

The smooth sheet of water ahead of me alternates between sparkling and dull as the low sunshine and grey clouds compete on this mild, early December day. Across the water, bordering the beds of tea-coloured reeds at the river’s edge, a thin strip of brown mud holds on tenaciously against the high tide and a few curlews and one little egret take advantage of the drier land. I am standing on the raised viewing platform looking across the confluence of the Rivers Clyst and Exe just south of Topsham in east Devon; this is the western end of Bowling Green Marsh, a local nature reserve.

As I scan hopefully with my binoculars I hear someone nearby say “Did you see the seal?” I hadn’t, but when I lower the binoculars I can see great swirls of mud in the shallow water. Then, about twenty feet away, a shiny black shape breaks the surface; with its domed dog-like head this is unmistakably one of Devon’s grey seals. It looks about furtively and raises its head at an angle displaying thick, grey, wiry whiskers. Now we can also see a large flat fish in its mouth, still alive judging from the twitching tail. There’s a bit of a battle on; the pale fish is resisting and the seal is trying very hard to gulp it down with a little help from gravity. Eventually the seal gets its way; the fish disappears and I can almost hear the belch! It swims a short victory lap, dives and disappears but we count ourselves fortunate to be treated to such a display.

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The view from the road near the Bird Hide

 

The Bird Hide is a short walk away; it’s a new and rather luxurious building and I have never seen so many birders in one place. This human parade is trumped by the avian display outside the windows. Plump, brownish-grey wading birds with long legs litter the riverside grass across from the Bird Hide. There are up to a thousand of these Black-tailed Godwits on Bowling Green Marsh at present but I can’t see much detail from the Hide, the birds are too far away for my binoculars. From the nearby road I get a better view: the birds are rarely still, continually and edgily moving about probing the grass with their long spear-like beaks as they feed.

But the Black-tailed Godwits don’t have it all to themselves; I notice several elegant black and white birds picking their way cautiously among the flock as though trying to avoid something unpleasant on the ground. With their prominent black bibs over white chests and elegant swept-back, black crests these Lapwings look like a cross between a posh waiter and a 1920s flapper. On the edge of the main flock a few wigeon and teal are enjoying the shallow water. The teal spend much of their time searching for food from the river bed, paddling frantically to maintain this unorthodox tail-in-the-air position. When the low sun shines, their yellow, under-tail patch glows like creamy butter.

Before I leave, I walk back to the viewing platform. The tide is now falling rapidly, water giving way to mud and I almost miss the first major arrivals. A large group of waders, probably Black-tailed Godwits, appears suddenly as if from nowhere, descending rapidly, wheeling and banking as they come in to land. The low sunshine picks out their pale under-parts and once they are safely down, they create a dark slick on the shallow water and concentrate on the important job of feeding.

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Looking across the water from the viewing platform, the slick of waders is just visible

Bowling Green Marsh, Topsham, December 4th 2015.

The featured image is a view across the Exe near Topsham.

The charm of goldfinches

Sometimes goldfinches one by one will drop
From low hung branches; little space they stop;
But sip, and twitter, and their feathers sleek;
Then off at once, as in a wanton freak:
Or perhaps, to show their black, and golden wings
Pausing upon their yellow flutterings.

From I stood tip-toe upon a little hill by John Keats (1817)

I suppose it’s the time of year. Our neighbours have taken to decorating their garden trees. But don’t think Christmas lights, think bird feeders. Every imaginable variety of feeder swings merrily on the breeze offering an avian cafeteria that no right-thinking bird can resist. There are peanuts, fat balls, fat-filled coconut halves and several kinds of seed and don’t the birds know it. The feeder array is as busy as a city-centre fast-food joint with the main customers being house sparrows, blue tits and great tits. A few blackbirds and coal tits also muscle in occasionally only to be overtaken by opportunistic starlings and crows.

But the birds that have surprised and delighted me most are the goldfinches. They patronise one particular feeder containing black seed (nyjer seed) and the two perches are busy until the light begins to fade. Frequently one or more hopefuls will also be waiting above the feeder and when they try to supplant the incumbent this results in much twittering and “yellow fluttering”. They are not restful birds; while they are feeding, goldfinches continually look around checking for threats. Sometimes something spooks them and they all fly off to apparent safety. A pair of crows occasionally blunders their way on to one of the nearby peanut feeders and these swaggering adolescents invariably empty the tree of all other birds.

I thought I had a rough idea of what a goldfinch looked like but having an almost captive supply of the birds has been a revelation. I knew about the blood-red “face”, the black and white head and the signature lemon-yellow wing flash but I hadn’t realised how intricately patterned the birds were. Their eyes appear to be surrounded by black “goggles” making them look like jaunty bank robbers. The tan-coloured feathers on their backs contrast with white feathers on the chest and underparts although some tan colouration extends in hand-like protrusions on to the chest. Just as interesting, when the bird turns away, are the patterns of the folded wings. Above the yellow flash, each jet- black upper wing exhibits a regular geometric pattern of small white spots resembling quotation marks. And then there is the song. I watch through a window so I can’t hear their song but I can recommend a recording on the RSPB web site or Mark Cocker’s description: “a filigree music grained with joy”.

But I am still not sure why they are here? We don’t normally see many goldfinches in the gardens and I don’t think it’s because I haven’t previously been looking. I suspect it’s because of the availability of a popular food (nyjer seed) combined with a reduction in weed seed in the countryside, partly seasonal and partly because of agricultural intensification. Whatever the explanation, I must have a word with our neighbours and encourage them to keep putting out the seed.

Goldfinches frequently appear in literature and in painting. Here is an excellent article on goldfinch-associated symbolism.

Picture credits: “Carduelis carduelis close up” by Francis Franklin – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carduelis_carduelis_close_up.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Carduelis_carduelis_close_up.jpg

Beauty incomplete

Ayrmer Cove is a secluded beach on the South Devon Coast and like so many of these small inlets it’s only accessible easily on foot, making it a deserted but beautiful spot. On a recent visit, it’s warm here and the sunlight shimmers on the waves as they make their relentless passage over the sand. The only other sound is the song of the skylarks which repeats and repeats as though the birds are continually asking a question but it is never answered.

Aymer Cove 1
The beach and sea at Ayrmer Cove

As we poke around the beach it’s clear that the beauty of this place is incomplete. All over the beach we find small plastic items, pieces of rope, shards of rubber from old tyres, fragments of plastic bottles etc. All kinds of maritime rubbish are on display here.

Aymer Cove 2
Maritime rubbish at Ayrmer Cove

Happily we do not find any dead seabirds. Quite recently more than a thousand dead seabirds have been found washed up on beaches in Devon and Cornwall. In fact this is the second time this has occurred this year. On both occasions the seabirds have been killed by a chemical (polyisobutene (PIB)) carried by ships and discharged in to the sea when they wash out their tanks. The discharged PIB does not mix with water and so forms a sticky mass; the birds become coated in the chemical and cannot dive or feed.
The chemical is not toxic to humans and is used extensively in different forms as an oil additive, in chewing gum and in cosmetics and as a synthetic rubber. Its effects on seabirds and marine life in general have not been well researched and the RSPB is calling for increased regulation and scientific investigation. 38 degrees also has a petition.
All I really want to do here is to draw some attention to the problems of indiscriminate dumping in the seas. It’s another example of our cavalier attitude to the natural world and I am not sure what we can do about it or how long it can go on.

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?