At about 10.30 on the 15th, a warm Cornish July day, I set off from my campsite in Maker near Torpoint to begin a short trek to Rame Head. Fuelled by a fried egg from the campsite barbecue (gulls had stolen our bread in the early hours) and a croissant from a bar in Cawsand, the uphill track to the headland felt like light work, doubtlessly aided by the promise of cirl buntings on the horizon.
Cirl buntings are blessed with the dual qualities of being attractive and rather rare. The males, the flashier sex, are predominantly russet and greenish-grey, with darker longitudinal stripes on the mantle, a black throat, a bright yellow collar and a pair of yellow stripes running above and below the eye. The more subtle females lack any greenish-grey or black feathering but are mostly streaked with brown. Their voice is almost as distinctive as the plumage, with the name cirl bunting actually stemming from the Italian verb zirlare, meaning ‘to chirp’ or ‘to sing like a thrush’.
Walking along the coastal path towards the headland, it was this distinctive song which proved instrumental in finding these localised buntings. Arjun, who had visited the site previously, kindly sent coordinates for where they had been seen in the past, yet the sound of the buntings greeted me long before I reached that point. Without the birds being so vocal I imagine I would’ve had a rather hard time locating them, as the dense gorse and blackthorn provided a superfluity of places where a small songbird could hide. Yet their vocal advertisement of their location allowed me to creep closer and closer and eventually attain much better views than I could ever have hoped for, and make some recordings of their characteristic song, one of which you can listen to here: https://www.xeno-canto.org/663598
The sheer abundance of cirl buntings at this site is fantastic news for the species. Cirl buntings used to be widespread in farmland in southern England, yet the population fell to its lowest levels in the 1980s with only just over a hundred breeding pairs, confined to a handful of locations in south Devon. This collapse is mostly attributed to changes in how we farm, including the use of non-specific herbicides which killed the arable ‘weeds’ whose seeds provide the buntings’ main food source. However, since that sharp trough, conservation organisations such as the RSPB have overseen a strong resurgence in the species’ population thanks to the provision of funding to farmers to improve cirl bunting habitat on their land. Cirl buntings are now found along a sizeable stretch of the Devon coastline, as well as just over the Cornish border in Rame. We are still far from replicating the cirl bunting’s historic distribution across southern England, yet continued improvement to agricultural practices and reintroduction schemes (which have already shown success further west in Cornwall on the Roseland) mean we may not have long to wait.