In Search of…

Cirl Buntings

A cirl bunting on a rock
Image Source: Paco Gómez

The cirl bunting is a bird that I’ve never really given much thought to. For most of my life, this was quite understandable because I grew up in the northwest of England, where there aren’t any cirl buntings. I learned from my bird guide that it was a scarce and very localised breeding bird, found only in coastal regions of South Devon, so I never went out birdwatching hoping to see one.

But for the past two years, I’ve had no excuses because I have lived in South Devon. Perhaps unforgivably, it was only extremely recently that the cirl bunting entered my mind. I found out from a local birdwatcher that these little birds could often be seen in a narrow strip of coastal scrubland, wedged between the sea and the railway line, just a 20-minute walk from where Alex and I live. So naturally, we set off to try and spot one.

The cirl bunting is found mainly in continental Europe and Africa, and is at the very northwestern edge of its breeding range here in England. Nonetheless, it was once much more widely distributed and more common in this country than it is today. It used to live throughout the southern counties, favouring traditionally managed, mixed farm habitat. But then, as farming methods became more industrialised and intensive, the flower-rich meadows, hedgerows and orchards that the cirl bunting relied on gradually disappeared. And so did the bird itself. At one point, it looked in real danger of disappearing as a British breeding bird altogether: in 1989, there were fewer than 120 pairs.

Fortunately, thanks to a long-running RSPB project, the number of cirl buntings has increased significantly; there are now over 1,000 pairs. Although South Devon remains its stronghold, it has also been reintroduced to neighbouring Cornwall, and it has even started to venture into Dorset and Somerset as well.

A cirl bunting perched in a tree with an insect in its beak
The cirl bunting’s weird name (the ‘c’ is soft, by the way) comes from an Italian word that means ‘to chirp’.
Image Source: Frank Vassen 

From Paignton seafront, Alex and I headed up onto Roundham Head and down the Rock Wall to Goodrington Sands, just as we had done on our previous walk when we had been looking for greenfinches. This time, however, we continued south, heading along the coastal path towards Broadsands.

Anyone expecting a suspenseful tale, whereby the cirl bunting only makes its appearance at the very end of the walk when all hope seems lost, will be disappointed. The truth of the matter is that we got lucky about five minutes after leaving Goodrington. We’d already spotted a few rabbits on the railway embankment and stopped briefly to stroke a cute, earless cat. Suddenly, I heard an unfamiliar bird call. Now, I’ll be first to admit that I’m not particularly good at identifying birds solely by their calls, but there are many that I recognise as having heard before. This one, whatever it was, was definitely new to me.

I saw the bird that was making the sound sitting atop a shrub on the other side of the railway line, but it was merely a small, black shadow silhouetted against the bright sky behind it. By the time I’d raised my binoculars for a better look, it had flown away. Fortunately, it didn’t go far and we caught up with it a few hundred metres down the railway line. Once again, it was perched prominently on a bush, and this time we got a much better view of it. It had a striking black and yellow face, a streaked brown back, and a greenish breast band. It was, unmistakably, a cirl bunting.

One of our most geographically restricted birds and we had found it within half an hour of leaving our front door, with virtually no effort. I didn’t know whether to feel elated or ashamed that it had taken me a whole two years.

Even though we had found our target species almost immediately, we still wanted to explore the coastal path. The weather was fine but a little windy, especially in some of the higher, more exposed parts of the journey. At one point, the path dipped into a little wooded dell and there we were treated to sights of fighting blackbirds, singing bullfinches, and a wren skulking in the undergrowth, its cocked tail twitching sharply.

Just beyond, the path branched and we took a slight diversion onto a grassy headland covered with molehills. From there, we were able to look down upon a large secluded beach, Saltern Cove. A little egret – an elegant, pure-white member of the heron family – was walking slowly through a large, shallow rockpool, occasionally stabbing downwards with its black, slender bill as it attempted to catch small fish. A loud piping sound drew our attention to a wading bird as it flew frantically around the headland. Its jet-black upperparts, brilliant white underparts, and thick, orange bill left us in no doubt as to its identity. It was an oystercatcher, one of our more distinctive waders – and one that, despite its name, predominantly eats mussels and cockles rather than oysters.

On the return journey, I kept an eye out for more cirl buntings but none materialised. Not exactly a fitting climax, I know, but we were still extremely pleased to have seen even one. Perhaps our next walk will have a more satisfying conclusion, as we venture down to some nearby lakes to see if we can spot a couple of dabbling ducks – namely gadwall and pintail.

Also seen on this walk: cormorant, shag, chaffinch, blue tit

Running Total (Bird Species): 22


  • Jason Woodcock

    With a background in conservation and animal behaviour studies, Jason's passion lies in the natural world. He adores all things nature and enjoys nothing more than spotting rare and interesting species out in the wild. He has also worked in a zoo and knows plenty about keeping the animals inside our homes healthy and happy, too.

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