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 Cirl Buntings in Cornwall

Cirl buntings are breeding again in Cornwall thanks to the RSPB’s cirl bunting reintroduction project in partnership with Paignton Zoo, Natural England and the National Trust. Cirl buntings are small farmland birds that used to be found throughout the county, and right across England’s south coast, but now they are restricted to a narrow strip of coastal farmland in south Devon. Despite a revival in numbers over the last 15 years, this population is still vulnerable, so it was decided to establish another population within its’ former range.



Summer 2006 saw the first releases at a ‘secret’ site in south Cornwall. Young chicks were taken from Devon nests under licence from Natural England, then transported to the site and reared by aviculturalists from Paignton Zoo. When the chicks were old enough, they were moved outside to aviaries, and released into the wild a week later. By the end of August 2006  72 cirl buntings had been released. They were all ringed with a unique colour combination so each bird could be identified. During March 2007 , pairs began to form territories and showed signs of breeding activity, with the first chicks hatching out in June.



Though this represents a great success for the species, more birds will be needed for the population to be able to sustain itself. More young birds have been brought down from Devon and released this year (2007), and will be for the following two years, and we are working with local farmers, landowners and Natural England to provide suitable habitat for cirl buntings under the government’s Environmental Stewardship schemes. If anyone has any sightings, would like to commit to regular voluntary work (*see below), or simply wants more information, please feel free to contact me on 07702 779345 or by e-mail. 


Nick Tomalin


RSPB Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Field Officer


* In the RSPB volunteers are a major resource and make a vital contribution to the RSPB’s aim to take action for the conservation of wild birds and the environment. On a project like this we would need someone with good field identification skills and reasonable fitness who could commit to at least one day each fortnight, since it requires regular work to become familiar with the ring identification and the monitoring area.  For more information please contact Nick Tomalin – details above.


Photos by Nick Tomalin



Cirl Project Update 2008...

The joint venture between the RSPB, Natural England, Paignton Zoo and The National Trust to reintroduce cirl buntings to Cornwall has continued with another successful year of rearing and releasing young birds from Devon, as well as continued breeding by older released birds in Cornwall. In 2007 we were able to report the first confirmed breeding of cirl buntings in Cornwall for some time, with several pairs making nesting attempts and rearing young. This summer there has been even more pairs breeding despite the wet weather, including some birds that were born in Cornwall last summer. These pairs have been dispersing into new areas too, finding suitable areas of over-wintered stubble and bird cover crops during the winter, and breeding in the nearby insect-rich grasslands.

The population has also been boosted by another batch of young birds translocated from Devon. Aviculturists from Paignton Zoo have again been busy rearing the birds from 6-day old chicks until release at around 30-32 days. This is no easy task, as the birds require feeding every two hours from 6am until midnight. The process has been adapted from last year drawing on the experience of the head aviculturist, Carl Laven, and on advice from vets at the Zoological Society of London, who develop the rearing protocol. Although poor weather may mean that the chicks are more vulnerable to disease, a total of 68 have been released this year - ahead of target and with very few losses, due to the dedication of the hand-rearers.

With the winter fast approaching, monitoring of the population will continue with RSPB staff and volunteers identifying birds by their unique colour-ring combinations. The birds will begin to form flocks and spend their time feeding in seed-rich stubble fields. The local farming community have been hugely supportive of the work, with many putting in suitable wintering habitat on their farms to encourage cirl buntings. Many have been interested in the governments Environmental Stewardship Schemes, which offer payments for wildlife friendly management of the land. This support is crucial to the success of the project. With more birds due to be translocated next year, it is hoped that the population will continue to expand over the next couple of years so that cirl buntings will be a common feature of the Cornish countryside once again.

If anyone has any sightings, would like to commit to regular voluntary work (*see below), or simply wants more information, please feel free to contact me on 07702 779345 or at nick.tomalin@rspb.org.uk.

Nick Tomalin

RSPB Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Officer

*In the RSPB volunteers are a major resource and make a vital contribution to the RSPB’s aims to take action for the conservation of wild birds and the environment. On a project like this we would need someone with good field identification skills and reasonable fitness who could commit to at least one day each fortnight, since it requires regular work to become familiar with the ring identification and the monitoring area. We also offer residential placements during winter. For more information see www.rspb.org.uk or contact Nick Tomalin – details above.


 Cirl Project Update 2009...

Another summer comes and goes and we ask yet again what happened to it! There were periods this year when I almost believed the met office’s prediction that it would be a ‘BBQ Summer’, but a hot, sunny day turned out to be nearly as rare as a Cornish cirl bunting. This was the fourth year of the project to reintroduce the species to the county, in a joint venture between the RSPB, Paignton Zoo, The National Trust and Natural England. Every autumn so far I have reported that wet weather has not helped the plight of these plucky little birds, despite the fact that released birds have been breeding on the Roseland Peninsula since 2007. This year the damp periods were sandwiched between a bright and warm April and May, and a slight resurgence of summer in September. The effect of this was a considerably more productive breeding season, as there was more invertebrate food available for the tireless parents to gather for their chicks. In fact, despite there being a similar number of breeding pairs to last year, the productivity went up three-fold, with around 50 young birds fledging from Cornish nests. Moreover, this year, females outnumbered males for the first time. This is an unusual situation for many species, and we were able to observe some instances of polygamy, which has rarely been recorded for this species before. One optimistic male tried his luck with three separate females, ensuring that he fathered more chicks than any of his peers.

 Another cohort of chicks were translocated from Devon and reared in Cornwall. By the end of the season, 67 had been released into the Cornish countryside. When added to the young born in Cornish nests, the population had been boosted by over 100 young birds this year. Many of these will not survive their first winter, but in larger flocks, alongside more experienced birds, they stand a better chance than in previous years. RSPB staff and volunteers will continue to monitor these birds through winter, when they tend to move onto spring barley stubbles or patches of bird cover. Many of these areas have been put in place through the continued support from local farmers. Their knowledge and enthusiasm for farmland wildlife has ensured that a diverse range of flora and fauna will benefit from suitable management. Some farmers have now been offered financial support from Natural England for this work, and this will secure the future of cirl buntings in Cornwall. 

We will shortly be deciding what the future holds for Cornish cirl buntings, as we go over the progress that has been made, and try to determine what we still need to do! The next year or two will be critical if the birds are to establish themselves for good. After a better breeding season this year, things are looking positive for the species. With the continued support of the local community, and a dedicated team of staff and volunteers keeping a close eye on things, I hope to be able to report even more success in future years for cirl buntings in Cornwall. Who knows, perhaps we’ll get a BBQ summer next year instead

If anyone has any sightings, would like to commit to regular voluntary work (*see below), or simply wants more information, please feel free to contact me on 07702 779345 or at nick.tomalin@rspb.org.uk

Nick Tomalin
RSPB Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Officer


Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Update 2010

2010 marked the fifth year of the Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project - a joint venture between the RSPB, Paignton Zoo, the National Trust and Natural England to re-establish the cirl bunting in Cornwall.

 The year saw a steady, continued rise in the breeding population and thanks to the generally fine summer weather, most pairs pursued two, or even three breeding attempts. The result of all this activity was the production of at least 39 juveniles. Intensive monitoring of these breeding birds again revealed what complex lives they can lead with separations and re-pairings being not uncommon. Also, as in 2009, one particular male, who at over four years old is our oldest surviving bird, paired with just the two different females this year compared to last year’s three! His performance has become legendary in the cirl world and, no doubt, his productivity will be what all others will be compared with for a very long time to come. Long may he continue!

 Another very good year of hand rearing saw 70 of the intake of 76 chicks from Devon survive to release. All sporting their assortment of uniquely colour-co-ordinated leg rings, several have already ventured some way beyond their release area to mix with their wild-bred relatives. In an attempt to reduce the impact that sparrowhawks have on the cirl bunting population, a few methods of non-lethal intervention were trialled this year. Central to this was a technique of providing supplementary food, in the form of commercially-reared dead quails, to the local pair of breeding sparrowhawks. Similar methods have been used in similar scenarios with great success, for example with kestrels that jeopardise breeding success at little tern colonies in the east of England. Initial results suggest that this action may have led to increased survivorship within the released population. Continued monitoring from project staff and volunteers will, hopefully, determine if this is indeed the case.


As the winter progresses it is likely that the cirls will continue to disperse further afield seeking out their favoured foraging habitat of over-wintered, weed-rich stubbles and bird-seed mix crops. Many of these areas have been put in place through the continued support from local farmers. Their continued involvement with the project has safeguarded large areas of farmland habitat for wildlife. Over 700 hectares of land near the release site is now managed under the new Higher Level Stewardship Scheme, where the farmers receive financial support from Natural England for environmentally sensitive practices. This will secure the future of cirl buntings in Cornwall.


As it becomes clearer over the coming months just how well the birds are doing, the decision will be made whether or not to extend the release programme into 2011, but the team will remain on the ground to monitor the situation closely. Providing the winter is not too severe, it is hoped that the majority of the birds from this year will make it through to breed next spring and summer. We are, as always, indebted to the help and support we receive from the local community and the dedicated team of volunteers who keep a close eye on the birds throughout the year.

 If anyone has any sightings, would like to commit to regular voluntary work, (*see below) or simply wants more information, please feel free to contact me on 07736 792524 or at stuart.croft@rspb.org.uk

Stuart Croft
RSPB Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Field Officer

 *In the RSPB volunteers are a major resource and make a vital contribution to the RSPB’s aims to take action for the conservation of wild birds and the environment. On a project like this we would need someone with good field identification skills and reasonable fitness who could commit to at least one day each fortnight, since it requires regular work to become familiar with the ring identification and the monitoring area. We also offer residential placements during winter. For more information see www.rspb.org.uk or contact Stuart Croft – details above.

Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Update 2011

Bring out the Bunting!

Britain’s rarest farmland songbird on the increase

This summer has seen a dramatic increase in the Cornish cirl bunting population, with record numbers of chicks being born in the county.

This enigmatic farmland bird used to range across Cornwall, but disappeared in the early nineties. Now, thanks to the ongoing reintroduction project, it has been returned to one of its past haunts and the population is growing.

The project draws on expertise from the RSPB, the National Trust, Paignton Zoo, Natural England and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), and has been running since 2006. Chicks are moved under license from healthy cirl bunting populations in Devon and reared and released in South Cornwall.

After breeding was first recorded in 2007, the population has been slowly increasing, but this summer has seen a big increase in the number of pairs breeding, and the number of young leaving nests is the highest ever for the project. Not only that, but the birds are expanding their range.

The RSPB’s Project Officer, Nick Tomalin, thinks that this is down to the availability of suitable habitat; ‘We always knew that the local habitat was good, but the farming community has been very supportive of the project, and many farmers have managed parts of their land to benefit cirl buntings and other farmland birds.

‘In many cases, cirls have moved into areas where this work has occurred, and it’s great to see these farmers rewarded for all their efforts’.

Ian Carter, Natural England’s ornithologist added; “Reintroducing a small bird like the cirl bunting is a huge and complex task - involving supportive landowners, experts who have hand-reared the birds and scientists who monitor their progress.  We’re encouraged that the birds we’ve released have reared significant numbers of young, many of which we hope will reach adulthood and then go on to breed.  The future of this rare songster looks brighter than it has for many years.”

Natural England and the RSPB have worked closely with landowners in the release area to set up Higher Level Stewardship agreements which have been invaluable in helping to ensure that released cirl buntings can find sufficient food and breeding sites in the wild. This scheme, funded by Defra and the European Union, pays farmers to manage their land in an environmentally friendly way, tailored to the needs of local wildlife.

Janet Lister, National Trust Nature Conservation Advisor said “It’s great to see numbers of the cirl buntings growing in South Cornwall. The National Trust is pleased to have been able to support this project both at the donor end in South Devon and where the new population has been established in Cornwall. We are really grateful for the help our tenant farmers have provided”.

Paignton Zoo Curator of Birds Jo Gregson said: “Paignton Zoo is keen to support conservation projects all over the world, but working with British birds is always very special for us.”

The Cirl Buntings have also been living up to their old name, the ‘Village Bunting’, by nesting in suburban gardens and feeding around the village edges. Many of the local residents have been delighted to find such a rare species making visits to their gardens and food supplies.

The burgeoning population will continue to be monitored throughout the winter, and with such strong support from the local community, both landowners and residents, conservationists believe these birds have a bright future ahead.

Another summer comes and goes, and its time to take stock again of what we’ve achieved in the last six months. It would be easy to succumb to an early bout of Seasonal Affected Disorder with the days drawing in and the cold winds returning, but this year more than ever I have cause for optimism.

Our bustling cirl bunting population in south Cornwall has increased dramatically, and with it the amount of young born in the area. All the signs in spring pointed towards an increase, but even we could not have hoped for such a sizeable leap forward. Last summer we recorded 16 breeding pairs, but this year we shot up to 28 pairs! This is probably due to a combination of a successful breeding and release campaign last season, and good over-winter survival. And between them these birds have produced at least 69 fledged chicks from nests locally. This figure can be added to another batch of young birds hand-reared and released by the aviculturalists, to create a total much higher than in any previous year. Although many young birds do not survive their first winter, this had not been a big problem for us in previous years, so we hope that a good proportion of these birds will make it through to breed next year.

Not only have we seen an increase in the breeding activity, but the birds have been finding new territories and extending their range across the peninsula. We’ve seen a significant movement of birds in virtually all directions, as well as a wide-ranging post-release dispersal that we have not recorded previously. For sedentary birds this is quite a spread, and has kept the field team on their toes when monitoring new areas. In several cases birds have relocated to areas of farmland where specific management is in place for farmland birds. The local farming community has again made this possible, and its wonderful to see some of them rewarded for their efforts. The work done in partnership with the farmers will continue, to ensure that there is sufficient habitat for the birds to survive here in years to come. This year may be the last year that any birds are translocated from Devon to be hand-reared, but our programme of monitoring will go on. This is partly because the population is still vulnerable at such a low level, but also to assess whether the population will now be able to sustain itself; we may reach the critical threshold next season. Let’s hope that we’ll see another increase like we did this year, and that the population continues to thrive.

Nick Tomalin
RSPB Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Officer

Follow the whole story of the re introduction of Cirl Buntings in Cornwall in the articles above.


Kelly – the life of a very special Cirl Bunting (9/7/2006 – 27/4/2011)     

For those who have been following the progress of the Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project for a while, one particular bird needs special mention. The combination red over metal, yellow over pink is a familiar one that has probably been penned in our notebooks on many an occasion. Due to his perseverance, Kelly, as he was originally named, has become a symbol of eternal hope and optimism. With his sad demise earlier this year, it is only fitting to pause for a while to reflect on his life.

Kelly 2nd March 2011                                              photo: Nigel Climpson

Back in July 2006 he was one of a brood of five, spending the first six days of his life in a hedge in one of the rolling green fields of sunny Devon. Just like all the rest before and since, he was then taken to a land that cirls had forgotten. However, it was a place where he would flourish and once wild and free, he spent the next few months getting to know his surroundings. By the following spring he had found his voice and, even though on occasion it was more like that of a yellowhammer or a chaffinch, he attracted the attention of Carlosmandelos (don't ask), a female originating from the same neighbourhood and with whom he pursued two breeding attempts. By the end of the summer they had produced three young cirls, to contribute to this fledgling population. 

During harvest of that year, Kelly was to be found back at his surrogate home near the release site – a place he knew well and from where he would see out the rest of his days. Sadly, Carlosmandelos did not accompany him and was lost without trace before the last of the barley had been gathered in. 

Through the winter he would frequently be seen, rarely more than a stone’s throw from where he gained his freedom. By the following April he had turned his attention towards Jeff - a female of his year and with whom he would have three nesting attempts. Their persistence eventually paid off, as after two failures they finished the season with a single fledgling.

 A winter on the stubbles, topped up with regular visits to capitalise on freely-available millet and canary seed, must have served him well, as by the following spring Kelly sensed an opportunity to really make his mark on the population. First in his sights was a female appropriately called Willing - a yearling for whom the bottom of the lane was home. Whether this attraction was due to his ability to mimic other species is not known. Whatever it was, she was sufficiently impressed to fashion two nests to father his offspring. However, despite a promising beginning, it soon became clear that Kelly was not content with a life in one territory, for just up the lane was to be found Jen - a two-year old with whom a bramble patch would serve as a suitable home to start a family. Again, Kelly was soon to get itchy claws. Leaving Jen to successfully bring up a couple of juveniles, he didn’t have to move far to find Curly Wurly. Another in her first spring, she wasted no time in settling down and laying a trio of eggs. Just like the previous two, she would soon realise that Kelly was not one for staying at home. To be fair to Kelly, he wasn’t neglecting his parental duties either. It’s just that he was realising he couldn’t be in three different places at once! After feeding chicks with Jen for several days he would switch to aiding Curly Wurly, resulting in three more additions to the fledgling total. Not one to forget a face, he then returned to Willing, with whom he devoted the rest of the season to simple monogamy and the successful rearing of three more youngsters.

 The following winter passed by without event for Kelly – an experienced bird by now, he knew where to get his next meal. And so to another spring and all the opportunities that came with it. Sadly, not one of the three females that Kelly had consorted with the previous summer had made it through to another season. Therefore, Kelly had to look elsewhere and first up was a true Roseland native without any of that fancy leg wear. However, following their first failed attempt, Kelly then took the opportunity to team up with a different young female, whose name amongst her observers was born from her most distinctive feature – that of possessing a rear claw that pointed forwards – Slipped Claw. Unfortunately, the fruits of their efforts amounted to nothing and so Kelly then wasted no time in returning to his original mate, with whom three juveniles eventually resulted.

 The winter of 2010/11 was a particularly harsh one, with snow and prolonged freezing temperatures making life in the stubbles a bit of a struggle to say the least. Kelly came through it though and by early April he was in good song and fine feather and already proving popular with one of the Roseland-bred females. However, as we were just finding out where they were settling down, we noticed that Kelly became conspicuous by his absence at the seed tray. Despite rumours suggesting that he was spending more time in the neighbouring hedgerows, it soon became clear that Kelly was no longer with us. His last entry states that on 27th April he was seen blissfully picking up grass stems with his mate from the lane side, just yards from where his life as a free cirl began almost five years before. In that time he had nested 11 times with seven different females and helped raise 15 fledglings. He outlived all of his class and many others of a younger generation too. We can only hope that there are a few others of his blood out there still.


Nick Tomalin
RSPB Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Officer


The Wintering Singing Black Redstarts of Wadebridge

by Colin Selway

Usually in late autumn Black Redstarts (Phoenicurus  ochruros) arrive from their breeding grounds somewhere to the east, and spend a  relatively warmer winter in coastal locations, like the town of Wadebridge in Cornwall, finding mostly the live food  they need, in the micro climates formed in the many sheltered gardens, balconies  and roof valleys to be found in the town, where they are in the habit of running like wagtails (they also hop) and feeding (usually unnoticed) under lines of parked cars, often in the busy streets.  They can be seen picking food items from  the gable walls of houses, often hovering under guttering or facia boards, and fly-catching from favourite perches, usually near lawns, were they can take prey from the ground, always returning quickly to the favourite lookout, their fiery tails giving  a welcome flash of exotic colour to otherwise drab winter streets.  

The adult male at Glen Road has been observed catching insects around street lights late at night.  This remarkable bird, I believe, by observing it closely, has spent the last four winters at the same site, its distinctive strangled song can be heard on sunny days, even before Christmas. Throughout  March it sings every day that the sun shines. Strangely I hardly ever hear the ‘tisip’ call, just on a couple of occasions, and then from the female at Town quay. It could well be that the ‘tisip’ call is harder to separate from the town's noise pollution.

There appear to have been four  known Black Redstarts in the town last winter, (the number varies from year to year)-two females and two males, all with their own fairly small winter territories.  The adult male at Glen Road has a territory no larger than 250m x 80m.  The female at Town Quay uses an area almost  exactly the same size.  At first this may seem like a small territory but it covers a larger area of roof tops and balconies on many levels.

There was  a male, probably a first winter (not as striking as the Glen Road male) holding a territory in the very centre of the town (Foundry Road across to Trevanson Road).   This male also sings during the winter.  Usually it’s the only way to pick it up, and then (if you are lucky)  just seeing its head poking over the gutters of the high buildings.

Only once have I seen a pair together in Wadebridge, and that was at Glen Road.  On that occasion the male was in the process of chasing the female away. Before living in the town of Wadebridge I spent several years in the Cornish town of Tintagel, where Black Redstarts are fairly common, wintering on the cliffs and the many derelict coastal slate quarries, but in all that time I never managed to hear their song. It came as a surprise to me to find that even first year males appear eager to sing in the town. The Wadebridge Black Redstarts usually depart in early April.


 Some thoughts on the White-throated Sparrow, found by John Fanshawe in his garden at Welltown Manor, Boscastle, Cornwall on 01/05/2010.

from Colin Selway

The singing bird (a first for Cornwall) was first heard on 30/04 /2010 then seen and confirmed on 01/05/2010 watched by many, feeding and singing occasionally all day on 02/05/2010 The next day following a clear night the bird was not seen or heard of again around the garden. In that time the almost constant song of this individual, especially in the still morning and evening time sounded sweet, loud and plaintive, with a noticeable pitch change up, then down at the beginning of each song burst "Fe-ua, fe-ua, fe-ua, fe-ua" ending with three obvious pulses, likened in its native Canada to "My-sweet, Canada, Canada, Canada" or United States "Old-Sam, Peabody, Peabody, Peabody" I thought it noticeable that the Old Winchester Hill individuals song, a similar bird (bright white morph) appeared to be the same basic sequence, but far less strong, more scratchy, and not as fluid, of course some of this could be down to the very different site acoustics, I remember listening to the Winchester bird singing in the early morning thick fog. Although among the sweetest singers of the Sparrow group it is thought only to sing occasionally during its migration, and then not to its full effect, on the breeding grounds they can sing like a Nightingale, day and night, the French-Canadian people of its northern breeding grounds named it Rossignol ( a French word meaning Nightingale) We cannot be totally sure that either bird was male, as the males of both morphs sing, but so does the white-striped female, the tan-striped female very rarely; both sexes can be very similar in appearance and all individuals at all seasons can range from dull to bright. The White-throated Sparrow breeds throughout the North-eastern United States and Canada and is a polymorphic species, separated by the colour of the median crown stripe and rear supercillium, into tan-striped and white striped morphs, both have been recorded in Britain, unusually and probably uniquely at the moment, they mate disassortively, this means that tan males almost always mate with a white females and the other way round, this somehow has the effect of maintaining a balanced polymorphism in the species, it could well be that, as white-striped are known to show more aggression than tan-striped, a white striped male encountering a singing white female in the territory might find her lessattractive (more of a threat) than a silent tan-striped female?


The tail of the bright white Boscastle individual showed an interesting moult stage, with most rectrices replaced or nearly replaced with broad rounded adult feathers, but retaining one narrow and pointed juvenile central feather, in remarkably good condition. The iris colour also suggests a first summer just out of a prenuptial moult, being grey-brown rather than reddish-brown; it goes without saying that you need to be able to view the bird closely, and in good light to be able to discern the differences, but they are regarded as very reliable. It would be very comforting to think that the Boscastle bird, that gave us so much pleasure on the 2nd of May, against all odds finally made it back to North-eastern United States or Canada, and not be condemned to a lonely life of searching for a mate, up and down the wrong side of the Atlantic. We will probably never know, but what we do know is, it did make it over by whatever means, and remains in remarkable condition considering the length of the possibly arduous journey, thanks to generous amounts of spilled seed from Johns well stocked garden feeders it left Cornwall in excellent condition.

Colin Selway

Probable Tundra Peregrine on the Amble Marshes


     This individual was first seen at Amble Marshes Cornwall 12 12 2010 and first reported as a Lanner Falcon! I watched it for the first time at Amble Marshes on 02 01 2011 at a fair distance, near the back of the reserve, and I could well understand why Lanner was suggested; my first impressions were, of a large, long-tailed, powerful Falcon, with wings very long but broad based, showing a very whitish head/nape and under-parts, darker upperparts with a clean dividing line level with the wings across the lower nape. I thought it could even be a Saker or Saker/Peregrine hybrid, especially as the two central tail feathers appeared to show a slightly different density or shade of barring.

     I later found a reference to a similar difference documented by Clayton M. White in his description of immature Tundra Peregrine Falcon (tundrius)” The Auk vol 85 April 1968 Diagnosis and Relationships of North American Tundra-Inhabiting Peregrine Falcons”. This feature can also be seen on some immature birds of the nominate race. Later, seeing the Amble bird more often, and getting more close-up views some showing the wing-tips reaching to the tip of the tail, the legs and feet to be a dull yellow (the thicker section of the toes nearest the claws being the brightest yellow) and the outermost primary longer than the third, all helped to confirm immature Peregrine Falcon, but the jizz and behaviour was strikingly nothing like any Peregrine I have watched before. As for the appearance, while I fully accept that plumage in this group is subject to age, sex and a great deal of individual dependent variation, certainly in the local population that variation tends to range within definite limits, for me the Amble bird stood out as a typical example of an immature Tundra Peregrine (tundrius) ticking all the right boxes. The white forehead, distinctive head pattern and colour with a dark stripe running behind the eye, below and parallel to a much lighter superciliary stripe, a light break running from the corner of the gape though the malar/moustache, not always obvious but sometimes unmistakable, extensive whitish-buff edgings to mantle and upper-tail coverts, narrowish linear streaking to the central underside, very light streaking on trousers, very light lower belly and undertail coverts with some light barring to longest outermost undertail coverts only.

     I cannot stress enough the caution that should be applied to accessing digital images particularly of this Falcon, in the field, even in very good light this individual always, in contrast to the local immature Peregrine appeared cold and lacking any rufous or warm tones, a whitish-buff at most, a bit like viewing a normal plumaged Common Buzzard next to a Rough-Legged . Not every photographers main motivation is to try to record as accurately as possible a rare race, quite understandably the majority, especially if they have a good image, try to compose, with no intension to mislead, the most pleasing picture to the eye possible, most often this is achieved automatically by the computer software.

     As this Falcon is extremely unlikely to be generally accepted as an immature tundrius, plus the occurrence of a dark headed immature, or adult tundrius phenotypes is even more likely to be overlooked, the best anyone can do is to describe and record for possible future reference. Indeed time is fast running out for anyone to be able to prove tundrius as a occasional migrant or winter visitor to the UK.

     Only recognized as a sub-species in 1968 by C.M.White the rapid dilution of genes from introductions, repopulation programmes using a mix of races, plus escaped falconer’ stock means contamination is inevitable on both sides of the Atlantic.
     It may help to support the case for considering the Amble Marshes Tundra Peregrine, in that, there appears to have been a possible small influx of phenotypically similar immature Peregrine into the southwest of England this winter, plus a record of a similar Falcon following a ship out of sight of land between New York and Miami, one in the Port of Rotterdam 19 10 2010, and one at Chew Valley Lake 28 12 2010, these last three records are all within the plumage variation range of the nominate form Peregrinus. The first of those records was almost certainly closer to America than to the mid Atlantic, and merely underlines the fact that migrating Peregrine Falcon do fly over open ocean, they would have no choice migrating from Greenland south, and for a very long time the North Atlantic has been dotted with football pitch sized floating platforms, some possibly with available prey species on board, certainly enough time for generarations of adapting highly migratory Peregrine to successfully utilise these stepping stones as a migration strategy, in much the same way and timescale as the nominate form, plus some races have adapted well to life in urban areas. The four remaining records in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly this winter, Tresco Isles of Scilly 06-26 10 2010 Treen Cornwall 17 10 2010 Amble Marshes Cornwall 12 12 2010-26 01 2011 and Davidstow Cornwall 16 01 2011 cannot be in my opinion be so easily dismissed as merely odd untypical Peregrines, there are good photos in circulation of the first three individuals and a poor video plus a good description of the Davidstow bird.
I remain convinced that the Davidstow individual is a different bird although it was recorded only approximately 14 miles from the Amble Marshes bird it appeared to be much lighter below with a slightly different nape pattern. It’s true that colours can deceptive in a poor quality video but a structural difference can be seen in the tail end corners, the Amble Marshes bird having a more clearly worn tail end showing sharper Kite like corners, The Davidstow bird still with some wear to the tail tip though showing much more rounded corners and more even brighter barring across the upper tail. As for notes on behaviour I can only provide details for the Amble Marshes Falcon except for Derek Julian’s account of the bird at Davidstow, he noted that it was perched on an exposed pine branch and it flew off in pursuit of another Peregrine Falcon, appearing to drive it away. Tony Blunden describing his Treen sighting as ‘a slow fly-over’. It was reported of the Tresco Falcon sometime during its stay on Scilly, that it killed and consumed a Common Kestrel!

     I must have watched Amble Marshes Falcon this winter for a total of between two and a half to three hours from the Tower Hide, each time the Falcon arrived it always, without exception, flew in at low level causing panic among the Duck and Waders. The duck, mostly Wigeon and Teal, would settle on the open areas of water and although they would call desperately they appeared to stay still as the Falcon flew very low overhead checking the flock over sometimes briefly hovering. The waders would adopt a different strategy, they would bunch up and fly high sometimes landing a safe distance away on the marsh, sometimes flying off towards the estuary. Both proved to be a successful strategies as I only once observed the Falcon attack a Black-Tailed Godwit which was at low level, as it came in to land. It was then chased off at high speed out of sight towards the estuary just above the hedge tops. In the whole time of watching this individual I never ever observed it to be higher than 60 feet, with all short banking glides noting that the wings were held flat with primaries pointed slightly upwards, and it always departed the Marshes in the same fashion, Sparrow Hawk like, just above the hedge tops towards the Camel Estuary. My only sighting of this Falcon away from Amble Marshes, but still on the Camel Estuary was at Treraven Meadow on 17 01 2011 where it acted in exactly the same way. But most of its time observed on the Amble Marshes it spent perched on flat open ground, in an area of flood plain with the river Amble running through the centre, a grazed field with open areas and patches of Juncos. This behaviour seemed a little odd as there was certainly no shortage of low fence posts, large rocks or tree stumps providing, you would think, ideal lookouts. On the ground it appeared to be either watching the wildfowl or searching for food while walking on the ground, it did manage to catch a small unidentified rodent and swallow it, in fact it’s the only thing I did see it actually kill. The only other prey that I watched it come close to killing was Herring Gull! In all I witnessed three different Herring gull attacks all appearing not to be instigated by the Gulls, but rather by the falcon focusing on a particular Gull that happened to be in range, it’s hard to say if the Falcons motivation was due to hunger or annoyance but each attack involved a short straight chase just above the ground ending in the Falcons talons just inches from the Gulls neck, on one occasion knocking body feathers out of the neck, serious attack or not there’s no doubt that Gulls took it very seriously screaming in distress then departing the scene. There was absolutely no evidence of the Gulls mobbing this Falcon.

        At the moment the minimum requirement for a tundrius acceptance would be nothing less than a ringing recovery, at best all there is to do is to describe interesting records of individuals or groups, differing in plumage or behaviour, be it suspected sub-species or geographic cline, from the nominate form Peregrinus. As this individual Falcon, and possibly a second! are still being seen intermittently around Amble Marshes and Davidstow (last date at both sites 03 02 2011) allowing anyone really interested enough a chance to see this bird for themselves, and perhaps to draw their own conclusions. I just thought it would be a novel idea to post some observations now, rather than several months later, after the Falcon or Falcons had departed.

Colin Selway                                                                      Photos by Adrian Langdon and Bob Mitchell

(Update.12 02 2011). The Probable Tundra Peregrine was seen again at Amble Marshes 11 02 2011 on this occasion it was present for most of the morning at least. I watched the bird for 2 hours plus and in that time I watched it chase and kill a Starling. From its position perched in the middle of a large field the Falcon flew directly towards a small flock of Starlings and took one cleanly, a few feet above the ground. It then completely consumed it’s kill on the ground, occasionally being tormented by a small group of Carrion Crow. They eventually drove the Falcon from the ground into a small tree, something I had never observed before with the original observations. With plenty of time to observe this last bird more closely I could detect some apparent differences in its appearance from the original Amble Marshes Falcon, including, the nape appeared more heavily marked dark, the tail end less heavily abraded and the uppertail more boldly barred, legs/feet evenly coloured dull yellow and showing no bright yellow at all, this leading to the conclusion that this later Falcon (from 03 02 2011) could be the Possible Tundra Peregrine first noted perched on tree at Davidstow! Last sighting. A Probable Tundra Peregrine was noted over Wadebridge 12 02 2011 it then flew towards the Estuary at 10:10.

It may appear a little odd that I have not mentioned before the possibility of calidus (Palearctic Tundra) especially as there appears to be, as yet no reliable established criteria for separating it from the (Nearctic) tundrius, in fact some people hold the view that the apparent variation in tundrius may be blocking calidus from the British list. I take the rather simplistic view that the Amble Marshes Peregrine appears to show the longest wings of any Peregrine noted by me, and tundrius has the longest migrations of the group, plus I feel it much more likely that a small influx of these phenotypes into the West of England only, would be much more likely to be from the New World, in much the same way as we appear to get more records of Greenland White morph Gyr Falcon than of the Norwegian Grey type. Then while there is Bergmann’s Rule, (larger sizes normally found in colder environments), it appears that only Peregrine Falcon from the Old World conform to that rule, and although being quite large you could never describe the Amble Marshes Peregrine as being compact, some observers have even described it as Kite like at times!

Colin Selway

The successful breeding of Gadwall (Anas strepera) at the CBWPS Walmsley Sanctuary, part of the Amble Marshes, in 2012.
by Colin Selway

This appears to be the first breeding record of Gadwall in Cornwall and represents a considerable achievement for the Cornwall Bird Watching & Preservation Society and their Warden Adrian Langdon with his small but enthusiastic group helping with the maintenance of the reserve.
The Walmsley Sanctuary is now regarded by many as the ‘Jewel in The Crown’ of the Society, not only attracting many rare birds but also just as importantly, providing a rare safe environment in these times for breeding birds. Now that the new water level management work has been completed it successfully retains a greater area of water, vastly improving its attractiveness to Wildfowl and hopefully should produce more exciting breeding records in the future. For that reason I feel that the details of this breeding should be documented. Although I may not be the best person to do it I was at least well placed to witness most of the major events as they unfolded.

In March-April at least eight individual Gadwall, made up of a fairly equal mix of males and females appeared to be using the Amble Marshes site. There was no shortage of pursuit-flights, calling, whistling and display behaviour by the males when sitting on the water. This consisted of simply raising and lowering their heads, sometimes facing and sometimes along-side of the females. These observations are not unusual, this behaviour has been noted many times during spring at this site in recent years at least.
On the 5th June 2012 a female and seven small ducklings were noted, they were observed for at least an hour, my guess at the time would be that they were probably around two days old. At the time there was no indication of the exact location of the nesting site, though the family group was first sighted on the newly formed scrape just south-east of the Tower Hide, later moving on to open water inside the bunded area. Inexplicably on the 6th June she appeared to have eight ducklings in tow! This prompted me to take an interest in the appearance of the individual ducklings as they developed, half expecting to discover an adopted Mallard duckling in their midst.

Adult female Gadwall with ducklings, 13th June 2012 Gadwall ducklings, 13th June 2012 Gadwall ducklings, 13th June 2012

From the onset all the ducklings looked alike, upper-parts black-brown without olivaceous tinge, light patches on upper-parts were cream-buff, not light yellow as Mallard, in all other respects looking right for pure Gadwall ducklings. I use the term ‘pure’ as with a probable first breeding record at a site where there is a history of interspecific pairings there will always be a strong well founded suspicion of Brewer’s Duck (Named by John James Audubon after his friend ornithologist Thomas Brewer. At the time Audubon thought that the bird shot in Louisiana was a new species, not a hybrid Mallard/Gadwall).
Frankly I would be astonished if the apparent long term, though recently rapid increase in the species numbers, effectively spreading westwards and spilling into Cornwall , assisted in part by escapees from Water fowl collections plus several high profile reintroductions all fuelled by the existence of newly formed reservoirs, fishing lakes, decoy pools and nature reserves had helped to prevent gene transfer from closely related species, namely but not exclusively Mallard (Anas platyrlynchos). Many wild Gadwall already show some diluted Mallard type plumage characters at some plumage stages, many female Gadwall show varying amounts of white in the tail, as does the Walmsley female. You can be certain that if there are observable consequences of gene transfer there will be many more that are not so apparent.

There is certainly no shortage of loose male Mallard groups patrolling the area in spring, seemingly hell bent on cornering and mating with anything, as long as it’s vaguely brown looking! I have never identified an obvious mixed plumage hybrid Mallard /Gadwall in the area of the Amble Marshes; not as easy as it sounds. Some presumed males especially, undergo extremely odd and puzzling plumage stages. I find it difficult/impossible to rule out with any certainty possible backcrosses and intersexes. Variant plumage is not the only possible manifestation of mixed genes, at least two apparently normal plumage male Gadwall have been observed showing an unmistakable and lengthy attachment to female Mallard (one at Amble Marshes and a different male at Treraven Meadow) even at times with female Gadwall in close proximity, though it’s impossible to speculate if the males were both the product of a mixed pairing Mallard/Gadwall or parasitic egg laying followed by imprinting, there is also the added complication of the possible whereabouts of previous hybrid young, these lacking description (two in 2008) at the same site.

During the whole observed fledging period 45 + days the adult female did a brilliant job of guiding and protecting her brood. As far as I could see she managed to keep them all together and intact, despite the attentions of an accomplished duckling snatching Peregrine Falcon plus numerous Grey Herons and Buzzards right up to the dog attack on 9th July. The young at this stage still unable to fly, for the first two hours the female Gadwall did an outstanding job of distracting the dogs from her scattered brood, skilfully managing to feign injury and stay a just few yards ahead of the excited dogs until she eventually tired. At this point, amazingly she dived under water travelling out of sight right across the total expanse of open water to join up with two of her frightened and unmistakably traumatized brood ( I presume under water not to risk leading the dogs back to her brood). Even after this lengthy, sustained attack by the dogs I saw no evidence that any of her brood had perished, the most likely outcome was that they had dispersed to all corners of the reserve, though I never did see all eight juveniles together again.
Six young plus the adult female were noted on 19th July all having no problems at all flying round and just beyond the bunded area, with four juveniles together and no sign of the female on 25th July.
On the 26th July six juveniles were repeatedly flushed by dogs, sometimes flying very high over the reserve and well out over the estuary though always keeping a tight grouping and returning to the quietest part of the reserve as the dogs moved around. Throughout this disturbance there was no sign of the adult female! who by now is probably flightless and understandably focusing on her own survival?
An update for the 29th July showed all eight juveniles alive and well.

Adult female and full grown juvenile Gadwall  for head profile comparison, photo taken 19th July

To go back to the question of proving the parentage of this brood beyond any reasonable doubt to enable the record to be excepted as a first Gadwall county breeding, the fact that no male Gadwall was seen around this brood is to be expected. It is considered normal for the male to have nothing at all to do with the ducklings’ rearing or the female’s well being. I see nothing in any of the photos of the young (other than the accepted individual Gadwall plumage variation) to suggest Brewer’s Duck. The adult female shows a good amount of chestnut to the wing coverts (not all females do) and each one of her ducklings shows varying amounts of chestnut on the coverts. My only question in regards to the parentage of the ducklings would be in the ‘structure of the head and bill’ this may well reflect a lack of experience with the range of structural variation in juvenile Gadwall on my part, but to me all the full grown ducklings show a more Mallard shaped head profile, lacking the steeper forehead and noticeably thinner bill of typical Gadwall. It could well be a perfectly normal juvenile Gadwall trait or possibly all of ducklings are males. To me the adult male Gadwall head profile always appears more Mallard like and heavier than the delicate female head profile, bearing in mind that the perception of a Ducks head profile can be extremely observer subjective and dependant to a large degree on the individual Ducks attitude, nevertheless I still consider the observation worthy of mention. All of surviving juveniles show a generous amount of white in the speculum, certainly more than is shown in most textbook illustrations depicting the juvenile wing. The only other differences noted in the individual appearance of the ducklings, apart from a slight size variation, being the amount of chestnut on the wing coverts and some dark spotting to the lower mandible, shown by some, presumably females, though I’m not sure if this is considered to be a reliable indicator of gender at this age. When the brood eventually disperses and winter visitors start to arrive it will not be as easy to comment on any future plumage stages, or developing characteristics without that certainty of knowingly observing members of this particular home grown family group.

Full grown juveniles in flight,  26th July 2012 Full grown juvenile Gadwall, 26th July 2012