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Avocet On January - 21 - 2010

This article was recently written for ‘ Palores’, the newsletter of the Cornwall Birdwatching and Preservation Society. Are you a member?



PART 1           THE 19TH and 20TH CENTURIES.

The first of this two part article examines the decline of the Cirl Bunting in Cornwall and later will report on the success of the re-introduction project in the county as part of the RSPB recovery programme.

The Cirl Bunting was formally widespread across much of southern England and Wales but declined in the second half of the 20th century and is now one Britain’s rarest farmland birds. It is on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern in the UK having suffered a range contraction of over 50% and is one of the 25 bird species identified by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

First discovered by George Montagu at Kingsbridge in Devon in the winter of 1800, the early status of Cirl Buntings is poorly documented.  In Cornwall it was said to be ‘not uncommon’ in the mid 19th century and Rodd [1880] stated that ‘it is a common bird generally and particularly so in the neighbourhood of Penzance’. In 1892 M A Matthews remarked that ‘the Cirl Bunting was ‘common throughout Cornwall’ but surprisingly other authors make no mention of it. This suggests that the distribution was patchy and local; being common where breeding habitat, summer and winter feeding was suitable and may be explained as follows.

Cirl Buntings are fairly exacting in their requirement. In Devon they prefer dense hedges, patches of gorse, blackthorn and bramble scrub for nesting although Walpole-Bond [1938] lists hay ricks, rose bushes in gardens and ivy on walls as breeding sites. Cornish hedges, (stone faced banks topped with turf or rank vegetation) would be less attractive. Chicks are fed mainly on invertebrates, especially grasshoppers so tussocky grassland within 200m of the nest is necessary. After breeding the birds tend to gather in loose flocks, often with Yellowhammers or finches and feed on weedy arable stubbles. Spilt grain, especially barley, and an abundant supply of weed seeds are important if the birds are to survive the winter. As Cirls are usually sedentary, all these conditions are necessary within a local area. Where they occur the population can be quite dense, for example, in 2007 there were 23 pairs on 66ha of mixed Devon farmland managed under Countryside Stewardship.

There is little information from the early 20th century although on a national scale the population probably began to decline from the 1930’s. [Evans 1997] Causes have been linked to changing farming practices such as the switch from spring to autumn sown cereals resulting in the loss of overwintering stubbles, the intensification of livestock farming resulting in a loss of invertebrates and the removal of hedgerows. In Cornwall the decline probably began a bit later. In 1943, T. J. Willcocks reported in the Cornwall Bird Report [CBR] that Cirl Buntings were ‘fairly plentiful around Wadebridge’ and there was no mention of a decline in the 1950’s. Perhaps the intensification of agriculture in Cornwall was less marked than in other parts of the country.

In the 1960’s the national population collapsed but in Cornwall it was still frequent in certain areas. The BTO Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland 1968 – 1972 located 20-30 pairs in 26 10km squares, over half of which were towards the south coast. There was confirmed breeding in 7 squares, probable breeding in 18 and possible breeding in 1 square. Table 1 summarises CBR data for the 1960’s.

Table 1 The Location of Cirl Buntings in Cornwall in the 1960s

1961 15 pairs. 10 singing males between Newquay and Crantock
1962 13 pairs.
1963 19 singing males between Polzeath, Trebetherick and Brea Hill
1964 No data available
1965 22 pairs
1966 17 pairs
1967 15 pairs
1968 c28 pairs (probably an optimistic assessment)
1969 Pairs or singing males from 12 sites

Numbers continued to decline through the 1970’s. CBR listed 13 pairs in 1970, only 3 pairs in 1973 but recorded birds from 15 breeding areas in 1975, 10 sites in 1977, and 6 in 1979.

The data for the 20 years from 1980 -1999  is more comprehensive.

Isolated records notably from the Lizard and Trevose Head indicate that contrary to general opinion occasional passage birds pass through the county in April/ May and October/November. It is interesting to note that these are almost all males possibly prospecting new ranges. The spring records may be overshoots from the mostly migratory northern populations on the Continent and those in autumn linked to post-juvenile dispersal. The peaks in February and December are thought to be movements in response to cold weather.

. By 1980, breeding Cirl Buntings were more or less confined to the south coast between Rame Head and the Lizard and the north coast from Polzeath to Perranporth [Table 2]. The BTO national survey in 1982 located only 9 pairs in five 10km squares [Sitters 1985].

The 1990’s saw a continued range contraction and decline in numbers. There were records from thirteen 10km squares but breeding only from two, both on the south coast. Cirl Buntings maintained a tenuous hold in the Falmouth area and at St Keverne. With only a single record from this area in the 1980’s, the series of breeding records from this decade illustrates how Cirl Buntings micro-populations can either be overlooked, or establish themselves when conditions are favourable – be it only temporally. It also shows how vulnerable and unsustainable a small isolated population can be.  The last proven breeding in the county [prior to the 2006 re-introduction] was in 1994 although it’s possible that the odd pair were successful after then. Table 3 lists all the 1990 records.

By the 2000 millenium Cirl Buntings were almost certainly extinct as a breeding species in Cornwall. However in neighbouring Devon, the population was recovering due to the concerted efforts of Cirl Bunting Recovery Programme.

In the next issue the period from 2000 until the present will be examined together with a current assessment of the population in Cornwall as a result of the re-introduction programme.

Table 2    Cirl Bunting records in Cornwall 10km squares 1980-1989

SW 61 Single males at Mullion on 9 May 1982, 11 Nov1984 and the Lizard on 16 Apr 1985.
SW63 A male at Black Rock on 19 Aug 1983.
SW71 A singing male at Bass Point on 5 Apr 1987 and a male at Coverack on 29 Dec1989.
SW72 A singing male at St Keverne on 27 Apr 1986.
SW75 Pairs at Perranporth in 1982 and Sept 1986. A male on 31 Dec 1987; 2 territories in 1988 and 1989.
SW83 2-3 territories near Falmouth in 1980, 1981, 1983 and 1986. A pair and a singing male in 1984 and 1985. Two pairs probably bred in 1987 and 1989 and 3 pairs in 1988.
SW 86 A singing male at Mawgan Porth on 13 Feb 1982.
SW 87 A male at Trevose Head on 26 Oct 1983, one on 20 Feb 1984, 3 at Porth Maer in Oct 1985, 2 males at Trevose Head on 19 Oct 1986 and another male on 6 May 1989 were all passage birds.
SW93 A singing male at Nare Head on 13 May 1980.
SW 97 Two at Padstow on 29 Oct 1982, a male at Old Town Cove on 27 Feb 1985, another at Little Petherick on 11 June 1986 with 3 in the winter of 1987.
SX04 Two females at Gribben Head on 5 Oct 1980.
SX35 A pair bred at Polbathic in 1985.
SX 36 A male at Mellion on 7 Nov 1989.
SX 44 A pair at Rame from 1980-1984, and a pair possibly bred in 1988. A male at Penlee Point on 11 March 1986 and a singing male at Polhawn Cove on 5 Apr 1987.
SX 45 10 at Millbrook in Feb 1980 was the last ‘large’ flock in the county and there were 3-4 territories in the Millbrook/St John area until 1982. A male was at St John’s Lake in Apr 1985 and a pair seen in Feb 1987.
SX46 Two males at Landulph on 17 Dec 1989.

Table 3  Cirl bunting records in Cornwall 10km squares 1990-1999.

SW32 Single males at Porthgwarra on 1 and 14 May 1994.
SW42 A male at Lamorna from  29 Apr-1 May 1994.
SW53 A male at Goldsithney on 2 Oct 1994.
SW 64 One at RAF Portreath on 12 Dec 1995.
SW71 A singing male at Church Cove from 3-9 May 1991.
SW72 In 1991 there were 6 or 7 territories; proven breeding in the St Keverne area and probable breeding near Mawgan. Between 1992 and 1994, 1-2 pairs bred and there was an additional 1-2 singing males, with 5 birds frequently visiting a feeding station at St Keverne in Dec 1994. In 1995 and 1996 probably 3 males were holding territory, although only one was paired but, apart from a male at Trenoweth in the winter of 1998/99, there were no further records.
SW83 One to three pairs bred in the Falmouth area between 1990 and 1995 although there were 5 territories in 1991 and 1995 and 6 in 1994. From 1996 – 1999 there were occasional records of singing males and a flock of 5-6 birds at Churchtown Farm in the 1997/98 winter was indicative that breeding may still have occurred locally.
SW87 A singing male at St Ervan on 1 May 1993.
SX05 One at Par Beach on 6 Dec 1998.
SX25 Singing males at Hannafore from 24-26 Jun 1993, 17 Jun 1995 and from 9 May – 16 Jun 1999. One was near Seaton in late Apr 1994.
SX 44 At Rame there was a pair on 28 May 1990, a singing male on 6 March 1993, one on 29 Oct 1997 and a singing male at Penlee on 28 Mar 1999.
SX 45 A female at Millbrook on 2 Mar 1996.
SS20 A male at Bude on 7 Feb 1999.
Categories: Cirl Bunting

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