Monday, 15 August 2011

Cirl Buntings at Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon

Cirl Bunting, Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon - 11th August 2011

The Cirl Bunting is a rare breeding bird in Britain, confined the south west of England: a remnant population in Devon and an introduced population in Cornwall. So, while visiting the area this summer, I couldn’t miss the chance to see these birds, so I joined up with a couple of volunteer RSPB wardens for a tour of the reserve.

Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon - 11th August 2011

Labrador Bay is one of the RSPB’s newest reserves and is managed specifically for the benefit of Cirl Buntings. The area itself is a working farm, criss-crossed by public footpaths; but the RSPB owns land and they sanction all decisions concerning its use, ensuring it is for the good of conservation.

It certainly has some of the most striking scenery as any RSPB reserve, even though my visit was on an overcast morning with heavy rain forecast. We were fortunate with the weather, and with the birds.

We had only walked a hundred metres or so south from the car park before we spotted some likely finch/bunting-like birds across a wheat field. Family parties of Greenfinch and small post-breeding flocks of Linnet were active in the hedges, but flying from these was a smaller, yellow/brown bird. And there high in a solitary hawthorn tree was a male Cirl Bunting, resplendent in full summer plumage.

Cirl Bunting, Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon - 11th August 2011

The plumage is immaculate, with the striking black and yellow head pattern, and the very obvious red-brown coverts and scapulars on the wings. Through the scope I noticed a duller female and an even paler juvenile close by in the same tree.

Before long a second male arrived, calling from a higher branch, forcing the first male to move on. Apparently, the birds have very small territories, often centred on the corner of a field; so several pairs can have territories around the same small cereal field. Although Labrador Bay is a small reserve, there are an estimated 14 breeding pairs here this year.

We toured more of the reserve, going on a circuit that took us down closer to the sea. A single Common Swift and plenty of House Martins were steadily making their way south along the cliffs. Out at sea a couple of Gannets were also moving south, while closer in a Little Egret was going in the opposite direction. We were lucky enough to get on to a Peregrine, high over the cliffs to the north, while another sat on the red cliffs, its dark moustache and yellow talons clearly visible.

Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon - 11th August 2011

Up at the north end of the reserve we saw another male Cirl Bunting, calling on its territory. The birds were once common in much of England, particularly the South and Midlands, but their range has reduced to this tiny stronghold. Unfortunately, Cirl Buntings are very sedentary, so even though they are doing well here and on other parts of the south Devon coast, they need a helping hand to get re-established in other parts of Britain. A reintroduction programme is underway in nearby Cornwall, using young birds from this reserve and elsewhere.

Cirl Bunting nest, Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon - 11th August 2011

The nest was no longer in use - birds from this nest were reared and transported to Cornwall recently. The nest was only just inside a hawthorn hedge, apparently just the way Cirl Buntings like it. By the way, I was given permission to photograph the nest.

My guides finished their work for the day, so I took another hour or so to explore the reserve alone. Before long, in the corner of a wheat field, I found another a pair of Cirl Buntings, this time carrying food - obviously raising a second brood of chicks this year.

Both the male and female brought insects to the nest, particularly grasshoppers that their young prefer - I guess this is the reason Cirl Buntings are more likely to be seen in on the ground in summer than the closely-related Yellowhammers. I watched for a while, getting some photographs and video, but didn’t hang around in case my presence was deterring the adults from feeding their young.

Cirl Bunting, Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon - 11th August 2011

Cirl Bunting, Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon - 11th August 2011

Cirl Buntings, Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon - 11th August 2011

Somewhat frustratingly, the birds showed better in duller light, and then took cover whenever the sun came out. I did manage to get some video of the birds around the reserve.

August is generally a quiet month for birds, so I’d been lucky with my sightings today. As well as the buntings and other birds, we enjoyed views of a Common Buzzard from the reserve’s breeding pair gliding over the fields, and plenty of butterflies (Green-veined White, Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood, and loads of Gatekeepers).

Thanks to the RSPB volunteers who took the time lead the tour and gave me the VIP treatment (as I was the only person on the tour!).

Labrador Bay RSPB is situated 1.5 miles (2.4 km) south of Teignmouth in Devon on the A379 coast road, between Shaldon and Maidencombe. Click here for more information.

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