Cirl bunting in hedge

Watching cirl buntings

Thanks to a successful conservation project, cirl buntings can be seen in many places along the coastal strip between Plymouth and Exeter.

How to watch cirl buntings

Cirl buntings, as well as being rare, can be difficult to see and are very sensitive to disturbance, particularly during the breeding season.

As a result, they've been given special protection by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which makes it an offence to intentionally, or recklessly disturb them at or near the nest. Below are some suggestions that will enable you to enjoy watching cirl buntings without distressing them.

Winter watching (December to March)

In winter, cirl buntings flock together, but they can remain difficult to see as they feed in often privately-owned weedy stubble fields. 

Although this is frustrating for birdwatchers, it’s good for the cirl buntings as it allows them to feed undisturbed. 

However, there are sites where viewing on or near stubble fields is possible. 

Reduced daylight hours and limited seed-rich feeding areas make winter a hard time for cirl buntings. 

Please avoid disturbing birds from stubble fields because this can interrupt vital feeding time. Instead, wait for these winter flocks to perch up in hedges between feeding periods to view them.

The birds will make regular visits to the nearby hedgerows in order to preen and sunbathe. This is a good time to see them as they’re more visible, and - more importantly – you are less likely to disturb them.

Weedy stubble left as food source for farmland birds

Breeding season (April to September)

During the breeding season the males sing regularly, often from prominent perches – this often helps birdwatchers find them. 

However, the breeding season is also the time when disturbance can potentially harm a cirl bunting’s chances of breeding success.

Disturbing adult birds with young in the nest means they will spend less time searching for food to feed their chicks. This can ultimately lead to the chicks starving, so please be sure to watch the birds from a safe distance during this period.

Unfortunately, there is no defined safe distance for viewing the birds. It is more important to be aware of how birds are reacting to your presence.

For example, if you are too close, breeding birds will often stop searching for food for their young and may start calling. Similarly, spending too long watching the birds in one particular place, which may be an important feeding area, can impact upon feeding times.

Therefore, always ask the following questions: 

  • Does the bird seem unhappy with my presence?
  • Is it behaving unnaturally?
  • Am I preventing it from feeding or returning to the nest with food? 

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you are too close – so move away immediately.

Nest & eggs of Cirl bunting Emberiza cirlus. RSPB Cirl Bunting Project. Devon,

Song and calls

Cirl buntings have a distinctive song that can be heard up to 500 m away on a calm day. It’s  best described as a slightly accelerating, rattled trill, similar to that of a yellowhammer but lacking the final drawn-out 'eeezz' note. 

It’s not unusual to hear a short burst of song during any month of the year on calm, sunny days. 

Once you've heard a singing bird, slowly scan that area with binoculars, particularly the tops of nearby scrub and trees.

Other cirl bunting calls are far less obvious and are difficult to pick up. The commonest call is a sharp, thin quiet 'tsip', very like that of a young robin.

Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus, adult male perching on song post in Devon, England.

Where to watch cirl buntings

Thanks to a successful conservation project, cirl buntings can be seen in many places along the coastal strip between Plymouth and Exeter.

Below are some of the easiest and best sites to look for them, but you may encounter them elsewhere. 

Please consider the following points before visiting any of the sites below:

  • Always give careful consideration, as with any bird, so you don't disturb cirl buntings, both during and outside of the breeding season. We recommend visiting the How to watch cirl buntings page before you make your visit.
  • All sites are accessible by car, but we urge visitors to use public transport where possible.
  • Please always keep to footpaths or public access areas.
  • Please mention watching cirl buntings and other wildlife as a reason for your visit if staying locally or using cafes, pubs, etc.
  • Cirl buntings are present all year but winter can be a good time to view them as they move around in flocks and can be less elusive than when they are breeding.

Labrador Bay nature reserve, Devon

Location: approximately four miles south of Teignmouth. 
Best time: cirl buntings are there all year round, but in winter there are more than 50 birds on the site.
Access: See Labrador Bay webpage, linked from this page 
Terrain: Undulating mixed farmland. Some of the paths away from the car park are quite demanding.

Cirl buntings may be encountered across the nature reserve. However, they can often to be seen in the hedge surrounding the car park.

Prawle Point, Devon

Location: approximately five miles south of Kingsbridge. 
Best time: year round. 
Access: click on public transport links to the right, or park in the National Trust car park at SX774355.   
Terrain: flat well-marked coastal footpaths. Please note, there is steep rocky terrain if you decide to do the loop walk.

Take the coast path to the east and cirl buntings may be seen anywhere along this stretch of coastline between the car park and Horseley Cove. Good flocks of up to 30 birds can be seen in winter, and singing males are usually conspicuous by their rattling songs in the summer months. A good circular walk of approximately two miles is possible by taking the coast path east as far as Horseley Cove and then cutting up the steep valley west and back along the road to the car park.

Broadsands, Devon

Location: approximately two miles south of Paignton.  
Best time: October to April. 
Access: click on public transport links to the right, or park in the pay and display car park at SX896572.  
Terrain: flat, Tarmac car park - suitable for wheelchair access.

Cirl buntings can often be seen in and around the hedgerows adjacent to the most northerly car park. This car park is closed for parking in winter but there is pedestrian access.

RSPB Exminster and Powderham Marshes nature reserve, Devon

Location: Approximately three miles south east of Exeter city centre and less than one mile south east of Exminster on the west side of the Exe Estuary. Exminster nature reserve is at SX954872, Powderham Marshes nature reserve is at SX953871. 
Best time: Winter. 
Access: Please see the information on the reserve pages. On National Cycle Network Route 2, or park in the RSPB car park at SX954872. Bus stop at Swans Nest, 500 m from reserves.
Terrain: Flat but wet in winter.

Take the footpath from the Swan’s Nest pub. Look for birds feeding along edges of stubble fields.

Wembury, Devon

Location: Approximately five miles to the south east of Plymouth. 
Best time: Mid April to mid August. 
Access: Buses from Plymouth (click on public transport links to the right on this page), or park in the National Trust car park at SX519484. 
Terrain: Flat, well-marked paths.

Cirl buntings can be quite difficult to see at this site but perseverance is the key. The footpath through the valley taking you north to the village of Wembury can be good for singing birds. The coastal footpath heading west towards Heybrook Bay can also hold cirl bunting territories. It is worth spending time scanning for birds in the nearby fields and hedgerows.

Stoke Point, Devon

Location: Approximately eight miles to the south east of Plymouth, near Noss Mayo. 
Best time: Mid April to mid August. 
Access: Click on public transport links to the right, or park in the pay and display car park at SX557465. 
Terrain: Grassy slopes and coastal footpaths.

Take the track south towards the coast. Cirl buntings may be found anywhere along the coastal path. They often sing from the gorse slopes below the path.

Porthscatho, Cornwall

Location: Porthscatho, south Cornwall 
Best time: All year. 
Access: Park in village car parks.
Terrain: Relatively flat.

Take the public footpath east from the north side of Treloan camp site (500 m south of Porthscatho) to Porthscatho. Cirl buntings can be heard and seen in the arable fields bordering the village. Please keep to public footpaths.

St Just in Roseland, Cornwall

Location: Two miles north of St Mawes, south Cornwall 
Best time: All year. 
Access: Park in village car parks. 
Terrain: relatively flat.

Take the coastal footpath leading south to St Mawes. Cirl buntings can be seen in the fields west of the village. Please keep to the public footpaths.