Devon’s Bunting

Past experience tells me the Devon countryside is stunning. Narrow, single lane roads with tight passing places. Towering hedgerows that block out all but a narrow strip of sky above. The occasional gaps in the hedge or where the road dips up and down, reveals undulating green fields with thick lines of hedges and round copses of woodland, finally opening out to scrubby grassland, rocky shores, pebbly coves and imposing cliffs. On those beautiful sunny days the green landscape, grey-black rocks and blue sea and sky gleam under the blazing sun. Years ago I spent a summer working picking fruit and vegetables in the undulating fields, and exploring this coastline and landscape. Today was not one of those days. Above and beyond soaring hedgerows the Devon countryside was shrouded in low cloud and mizzley rain. Trees appeared and disappeared from the gloom like ghost ships. Today we were just passing through but had decided to take a detour down to Prawle Point, the most southern point in Devon.

It is 15 years to be exact since I last visited this spot at the end of a narrow, single-track, descending winding, road. A stunning stretch of coastline with long grass, scrubby bushes backed by steep cliffs and meeting a rocky shore. Back then it had been one of those perfect summer days. Today the low cloud produced a constant supply of drizzle that got harder, then eased to mizzle. On either side the coastline vanished into the cloud, out at sea clouds and ocean merged, sailing boats appeared like phantoms in the mist.

A misty and murky Prawle Point

Question is why have chosen this spot to return to on our flying visit? The answer is a small rare bunting, a relative to the Yellowhammer, that is restricted to a small area in south Devon. The Ciril Bunting. Once common throughout southern England they were almost lost from the UK, with just 118 pairs left in 1989. Carefully targeted habitat improvement has led to an increase in the Ciril Bunting population, mainly in Devon although a reintroduction programme has led to the reestablishment of breeding pairs in Cornwall. Today they are still listed as Red on the Birds of Conservation Concern and protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Prawle Point is one location with a good chance of seeing this charming bird in both winter and summer.

So here we were. Rain pattering on hoods, splattering on glasses. It was only a short walk from the car park before we heard a distinctive call and through the rain spotted one of these endearing birds. A male, with his striking black chin, eye stripe and crown, brilliant yellow stripes on the head and underparts with a broad olive-green breast band and rusty brown on the sides. He flits from the lower branches of a gnarled, wind blown tree to land amongst a small field of barley, their heads heavy with seeds, collecting food and then landing at the top of a bush calling. Then a female appeared, followed by a couple of young birds. Despite the rain it was a lovely few moments spent watching this family before we then had to leave with our young family and continue our journey home.

Cirl Bunting in the rain

But what’s in the name? Cirl, pronounced ‘surl’, Bunting. It all comes down to the scientific name – Emberiza cirlus. The genus name Emberiza comes from the Old German Embritz meaning a bunting. The species name cirlus is from the local italian name cirlo for a type of bunting, from zirlare ‘to whistle as a thrush’. And there ends your nomenclature lesson for the day…


2 thoughts on “Devon’s Bunting

  1. What a wonderful sighting! We have cirl burnings in New Zealand, too (they were introduced in small numbers from Britain between 1871 and 1880). I have yet to see one for myself, but I am always on the lookout!

    -Emma

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