Friday, November 14, 2014

Cirl Buntings at Maidencombe, Devon

Looking south towards Maidencombe Beach
Cirl country
male Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus 
male Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus
female Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus
  I found an old Hamlyn field guide from the 1970's that describes Cirl Buntings as "Common in open country with bushes, trees, hedges."  The accompanying map shows their range stretching north, just beyond Wales.  Since that book was published, Cirl Buntings have been almost completely extirpated from the UK largely due to more intensive farming practices, and today can only be found at a few sites along England's extreme southwest coast.  That is where I happen to be right now, shovelling assorted animal poo all day - but that is a story for another day perhaps.  Over the past week, as the Forrest Gump rain has hammered the area, I've been daydreaming about one glowing thing - Cirl Buntings.  I suppose it's not hard to become distracted while shovelling poo all day.
  So today when the weather finally broke, I headed along the coastal trail north of Maidencombe, in search of Cirls.  As I started out along the gorgeous little paths, I kept saying aloud 'This is where they'll be!  No, over there is perfect, that's where the Cirls are!'  About an hour into the walk, that bad 'heebie-jeebies' feeling that I would have my birding dreams go unfulfilled started to cloud the peripheries of my mind, as the clouds did the same to the skyline.  But I'd never seen such great bunting habitat, so my spirits remained high.  When I got to to top of a small hill overlooking some cliff-top scrub, I knew that 'This is surely where they'll be.'
  And they were.  The unmistakeable bunting-shaped sight of a medium-small brown bird with a flash of white in the tail flying up into a patch of thorns had me hyperventilating.  I crouched down and honestly, my hot, excited breath was fogging up the binos so badly for the first 30 seconds or so that I despaired I'd miss out on the whole encounter, as they flew off forever, laughing.  But thankfully they stuck around for me, a nice group of two males and three females, fidgeting methodically through the thorns, as buntings do.  I sat there among them and observed their ways for 20 very happy minutes, until a Buzzard caused them to dissolve in a puff of purple smoke.
  It was one of the more special birding moments I've had lately.  There's something about having a close encounter with a long-awaited species like the Cirl that seems to round off life's hard corners for a while.  And I'm quite relieved that I didn't have to resort to twitching the batch of Cirls at Broadsands that are fed regularly in a parking lot - just wouldn't have been as much fun.  But I would have done it.