Of course they are not really called Cyril but Cirl Buntings. Birders though, love to give silly names to birds and this one really is irresistible. Nor by any remote stretch of the imagination can the area of Devon where the buntings are found be called The English Riviera but such is the perceived power of marketing it is still referred to as such by overenthusiastic local tourist offices.
Go to southern France if you want the real thing!
Cirl Buntings used to be commonplace in our countryside, spread across southern England and Wales and formerly found in no less than 39 counties. Now they are only found in two, where they are confined to just a traditional small strip of coastal south Devon that is managed sympathetically for them and latterly, since 2010, also southern Cornwall where a re-introduction scheme has been implemented. The combination of these two schemes has had some success and from a nadir of 118 territories in 1989 the population had risen to 862 pairs in 2009 and by now it is probably even more but is still pitifully small compared to former times and the species is unlikely to ever return to its former population size and distribution. Sadly there appears little chance of the bunting re-colonising any of its former territories in England or Wales now and it looks destined to be localised for evermore in the two westernmost counties of Britain.
The primary cause of the Cirl Buntings decline and restricted range in Britain is attributed to changes in farming practices, resulting in a loss of suitable habitat for them due to the lack of winter stubble or fallow fields on which to feed, as farmland is now rarely allowed to remain unused for long due to the ever increasing demands for crops to feed the growing population of this country. The loss of 'set aside' since 2007 has also exacerbated the loss of suitable habitat and climatic changes bringing cooler wetter summers have probably had a negative effect too.
In those European countries less intensively farmed it is still a common and even increasing species and its preferred habitat, just as in Britain is usually southern facing slopes of rough grassland, hedgerows and scattered trees close to cultivated land, and in mainland Europe it is often found in orchards, vineyards and even larger wild gardens. On a holiday in Greece a couple of years ago we regularly saw them in the garden of our rented villa.
So it was that on Wednesday Clackers and myself found ourselves driving to Broadsands which is near Paignton in Devon, parking in the deserted open spaces of the large public car park behind the beach and wending our way to stand by some derelict beach huts in order to view a thick and unkempt hedgerow with scattered trees that bordered the car park. The farmer who owns the fields sloping up behind the car park is recompensed to keep the fields and hedgerows suitable for the buntings and he is also subsidised to put seed down for the buntings where the hedgerow joins the car park.
Many birders know about this and make an annual pilgrimage to Broadsands to see the Cirl Buntings which regularly come down to feed on the seed. It is virtually guaranteed to see them at this spot at suitable times of the year although in summer the car park is undoubtedly crammed with cars and holidaymakers, especially on weekends, so it is unlikely the buntings will put in an appearance then.
A day of hazy sun but with a chill east wind blowing found us sheltering in the lee of the huts awaiting the appearance of a Cirl Bunting or two. At first it looked a bit grim with not a bird in sight but then a couple of Dunnocks flew down to the seeded ground. We waited. A curious birdsong commenced from the trees in the hedgerow although the singer went unseen. The song was like the beginning of a Yellowhammer's song but without the 'and no cheese' ending. 'That's one, its singing now,' Clackers told me. I had never heard one sing so this was a new experience. Seconds later a superb looking male flew into a small tree in the hedgerow in front of us and commenced singing again before flying down to the seed.
He did not remain long but was there long enough for us to enjoy his beautifully patterned and coloured plumage. A face of yellow and black bands, a thin lemon yellow necklace with an olive breast and rich chestnut band lower down and chestnut upperparts evidenced he really was beginning to look at his very best in his Spring finery.
Then he was gone, flying back into the thick tangle of the hedgerow running uphill at the side of the field to join two others, more distant still. We waited and after some time another male appeared and commenced singing. Maybe it was the same male as before and this was his territory? In winter up to fifty have been seen here feeding on the scattered seed but now in early Spring we only saw a single male at any one time and latterly one female who did not hang around. But one was enough and the views were as usual, excellent.
The sun was still shining. We were by the seaside. We had partaken of fish and chips for lunch earlier. It had to be done. 'Fancy an ice cream Clackers?' 'Good idea'. We wandered over to the Real Dairy Ice Cream Stand advertising gluten free ice cream. Well at least it sounded healthy! A Honeycombe Special for me. A much more exotic sounding and looking Blackberry and Double Cream for the Clackmeister.
We drove up the hill and headed for home.