The history of the Cirl Bunting in Berkshire
17 July 2003 (revised 14 September 2009) | Peter Gipson
A detailed account of all the records of the Cirl Bunting in Berkshire and adjacent parts of south Oxfordshire is presented. The species occurred in Berkshire between 1826/7 and 1981; it was a very local, resident bird that was sometimes proved breeding until 1971. There is no evidence it bred in east Berkshire, except during the 19th century in the Cookham district and once near Henley. It was generally absent in much of west Berkshire, north and west of Newbury, including the west Berkshire Downs, notwithstanding two 19th century breeding records for that region. During the 20th century, breeding probably occurred regularly in the Streatley district, the belt of open country between Newbury and Theale, and the area south-west of Reading. The decline in the Streatley and Reading areas possibly began in the early 1950s, the species having become very uncommon in all parts by the 1960s. However, an estimate of 2-3 pairs breeding in the county during 1968-1972 is considered to be too low.
Extinct in Berkshire since 1981, the enigmatic Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus never became common or widespread in the county at any time after its arrival in the 19th century. It was first recorded in Britain in south Devon in 1800, having spread northwards from France. It gained ground as a resident species right across the south of England during the 19th and early 20th century, possibly reaching its maximum numbers in the 1930s, when it had become widespread though local in Wales as well. A decline became evident in the 1950s which progressed in a drastic manner until the 1980s, leaving the species confined to south-west England, especially south Devon. This has been largely attributed to changes in habitat and farming practices (Gibbons et al. 1993). Fortunately, numbers in Devon are recovering well, partly at least in response to conservation measures; a survey there in 2003 revealed nearly 700 pairs.
The species occurs largely in the countries on the north side of the Mediterranean, extending northwards through most of France, but it has shown declines in several countries since 1950, including France and Germany. It is at its northern limit in England.
It is a bird of open country: farmland and chalkland are typical. It has a predilection in the breeding season for relatively low, sun warmed slopes and sheltered valleys that are well-endowed with grassland, bushes or old hedgerows, and tall trees. It is also attracted to the outskirts of villages. In winter it feeds in fields, showing a strong preference for stubble fields rich in weeds and fallow fields (Evans and Smith 1994), with most British birds staying within two kilometres of their breeding sites.
Inferring the breeding status of the Cirl Bunting from historical accounts and county reports is no easy matter and several factors need to be taken into consideration. It is often overlooked. Quite a few pairs almost certainly inhabited open country, including farmland, in Berkshire that was seldom if ever visited by birdwatchers and as a consequence they would have remained undiscovered. But even when an observer happens to be present in a Cirl Bunting territory, the birds can be difficult to find on occasion, although the male is often prominent. Once a singing male has been located it can be difficult to determine whether breeding is taking place or not: nesting females are unobtrusive and can be very secretive. On the other hand, males can sing frequently between February and September when no breeding activity is occurring, and Sitters (1985) surmises that the general population may contain a surplus of males who remain unattached and sing persistently. Therefore records that involved a male in song, even over a period of time, but unaccompanied by any reported female or young, cannot be taken to provide any evidence of breeding. Berkshire had many such records. If a female is observed between April and August in the company of a male, however, this can be tentatively taken to indicate breeding - at low densities, one would expect a pair normally to occupy a good territory and attempt breeding. Thus to infer breeding the detection of females or young is critical.
This article offers a detailed account of all the records of the Cirl Bunting in Berkshire, compiled from the sources listed in the bibliography, along with some comments regarding its status. It was only recorded with any frequency from a single district: the eastern periphery of the Berkshire Downs around Streatley. These birds formed part of a dispersed sub population that mainly inhabited the adjoining downland and outlying villages in south Oxfordshire, although this entire area of the "Berkshire Downs" did indeed once lie inside Berkshire, before the county boundary was changed in 1974. This article also includes the records from this part of Oxfordshire, as well as those from the adjacent area of the south Chilterns.
The first section looks specifically at the period from 1826 to the 1920s, when the Cirl Bunting was expanding in England and Wales, but when comparatively few observers were active in Berkshire, and the collation of their records was not systematic. The middle sections cover all the records for Berkshire, including in repetition those before 1930, plus the selected records for Oxfordshire, working generally across the region from west to east. The final section discusses the status of the Cirl Bunting in the county.
Records from 1826 to the 1920s (Berkshire)
The first documented record of the Cirl Bunting in Berkshire is of a pair with two eggs discovered at East Garston near Lambourn in 1826 or 1827. What scant literature there is intimates that the species remained a very local resident throughout the 19th century, although it was no doubt overlooked - and perhaps much so.
By the time of Clarke Kennedy (1868) it was not uncommon in the neighbourhood of Cookham, near Maidenhead, where it remained almost annual in summer despite specimens being procured. Additionally near Maidenhead, two were killed in 1875. However, Clarke Kennedy was unable to uncover any other records for his remarkable avifauna on the birds of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, which appears to show that the Cirl Bunting had not colonised most of east Berkshire (the region of which he had most knowledge). There are two further Victorian records for this region: a pair were observed feeding young at Park Place, near Henley, in June 1886 and it is mentioned at Finchampstead before 1902.
Elsewhere, nesting took place near Speen, Newbury, in 1884, and two were shot there a year later in December. It was also recognised at Aldermaston and Aldworth before 1902. One negative observation is worth mentioning: on the downland in the vicinity of East Ilsley, the species was not identified around 1861 (Hewett 1895-1911).
Writing in 1902, Noble (1906) inferred it to be "resident but very local." There is a gap of more than 20 years in the county records before a male was reported singing somewhere between Bisham and Maidenhead - not far from Cookham - in June 1924. Although, according to Jourdain (1926), it was not uncommon during the 1920s on the Berkshire Downs, the unspecified locality could have been in either post-1974 Berkshire or Oxfordshire (see later). No other records have come to light for 1900-1929, confirming that it must have been very local! This absence is peculiar, as it is considered to have reached its maximum numbers in Britain possibly around 1930, and was reasonably common in Hampshire.
Records for the region west of Newbury (Berkshire)
Only a handful of records came from the patchwork of hilly country, woods, parkland, farmland and river valleys to the west of Newbury. Nesting was observed near Speen in 1884, where in the following year two were shot in December. This hints that this could have been a regular site, and nearly 80 years later, one was seen in the same area at Bagnor in March 1962. The only other records involve sporadic males at Walbury Hill in 1973 and Inkpen Hill in September 1976. It may have been overlooked in the agricultural parts.
Records for the Berkshire Downs and Goring Gap (Berkshire and Oxfordshire)
Western Berkshire Downs
The status of the Cirl Bunting around Lambourn and its adjoining downland is something of a mystery. The history-making record of nesting in the 19th century was to be followed, unexpectedly, with only a single further observation being made in the Berkshire part of that district: a pair at Upper Lambourn in July 1963. Nowhere in the eight miles of chalkland stretching from Lambourn to Old Down, near Farnborough, has the Cirl Bunting been recorded inside the county boundary. Although Gooders (1974) advised birdwatchers that it could be found as a typical summer bird on the downs north of Lambourn, this was plainly misleading, for in his treatment of this district Jones (1966) affirms that it "has been found only in one locality on the Lambourn Downs proper." It remains unclear to what extent it has been present but undetected on the western Berkshire Downs because of a lack of observer coverage, but it appears to have been remarkably uncommon.
Some six miles north east of Lambourn, well into Oxfordshire, the species was regular at West Challow between 1962 and 1964, with breeding being proved for at least one pair in 1963; single males in song also occurred in this area in 1938, 1940 and 1966. There are three further reports for the outlying area in Oxfordshire, all from Compton Beauchamp between June and October 1959.
East Berkshire Downs before 1930
The rareness of the Cirl Bunting in the western Berkshire Downs stands in striking contrast with the numerous records of singing and nesting for their eastern reaches, which illustrates just how localised the species was. Apart from its presence at Aldworth before 1902, the first observations relate to the 1920s, being provided by Jourdain (1926), who states that it was not uncommon and breeding regularly "among the juniper scrub on the sides of the Berkshire Downs," although it is not clear which locality was being referred to, and hence whether it now lies in Berkshire or Oxfordshire. This also applies to the locating of no fewer than three nests on downland in May 1925 and a single nest in 1927. Evidently this population was flourishing. The unidentified locality is likely to be one of those where the species was breeding in the 1940s. Completing the records for the 1920s, a singleton was noted at Aston Tirrold, in Oxfordshire, in April 1929.
The Berkshire Downs were clearly a favoured haunt, raising the possibility that this local population had already become established by the 1860s, while remaining unknown to naturalists for decades afterwards. Breeding had taken place at East Garston in 1826 or 1827, which was only some 12 miles away (at most), and Cirl Buntings were known to be inhabiting the Cookham district by the 1860s. Aplin (1889) cites a correspondent who regarded it to be "fairly common in the southern corner" of Oxfordshire, the nearby area across the Thames, and a male is on record near Chinnor in July 1879.
East Berkshire Downs 1930-1949
Either this population dwindled in the 1930s, or else it was mostly overlooked: there are only two downland records for the whole of that decade! A male was singing on the Cholsey Downs - which actually lie two miles south-west of Cholsey by The Fair Mile, in Oxfordshire - in May 1937. Another was in song near Chilton, probably on the Oxfordshire side of the boundary, in August 1939. Was it the Cirl Buntings that were missing, or the observers? The latter seems likely, given the high number of subsequent records, and the relatively high numbers at the time in Britain. A third record for the 1930s came from north of the downs: a male with at least one female near Harwell in December 1934.
The records in the 1940s shed some light on the precise whereabouts of the nesting Cirl Buntings, revealing a sub population to be occupying the slopes around the Goring Gap. Between 1942-1944 the birds were dispersed across four or more sites, embracing Streatley and Thurle Down in Berkshire, the Moulsford Downs and Cholsey Downs in Oxfordshire. A charming district of steep, rolling hillsides, evening out towards Moulsford and Cholsey, it provided a combination of features attractive to the species, including cereal fields and rough pasture, juniper bushes and hedgerows, homesteads and villages, as well as plenty of sloping ground. A nest with young was found near Streatley in 1943 and the following year a pair with fully grown young were observed on Moulsford Downs.
Further afield, there were half a dozen rather isolated records in the 1940s concerning Oxfordshire sites on the northern outskirts of the downs - Blewbury, Upton and Harwell/Milton Hill - though not a single record from Berkshire sites to the west such as Aldworth, Compton or East Ilsley. One additional report is significant but nebulous: three males in song were discovered at a new, unspecified site at the foot of the downs in July 1940. This may have been Blewbury, where two males in song the following May provided the only downland records in 1941. An absence of reports in 1947 did not necessarily reflect the preceding hard snowy winter, as no reports were received for 1946 either. Only a single bird at Cholsey was reported in 1948, yet many were reported from the entire Wallingford Moulsford Streatley district in 1949.
It is probable that breeding occurred with some regularity in both the Streatley and the Moulsford areas in the 1940s - the slump in reports for some years seems likely to be due to falling observer coverage or inconsistent reporting. The situation for both areas in the 1930s, however, is less clear.
East Berkshire Downs 1950-1959
The 1950s turned out to be a decade of mixed fortunes around the Goring Gap. The years of 1950 and 1955 in particular provided some reassuring observations about the breeding status of the Cirl Bunting, yet ominously, by the end of the decade there was an indication that numbers had fallen in one quarter, the Streatley Moulsford district (Berkshire and Oxfordshire).
Numbers there began in strength in 1950, with four singing males/breeding pairs being located, and another pair summering nearby in Goring (Oxfordshire) [see Note 1]. Nevertheless, during the eight years from 1952 to 1959, apart from a male on the Cholsey Downs in April-May 1958, just six reports came from the Streatley Moulsford district, and all consisted of single birds on single dates between April and July; and pointedly, only one of these was in Berkshire. This apparent decline possibly began early on in the 1950s, as there were no records for 1952 or 1953; there would be no further signs of breeding in the Streatley area whatsoever, although males in song would be noted on future occasions. This is a more negative assessment than that suggested in The Birds of Berkshire avifauna: "It is likely that Cirl Buntings bred successfully at Streatley during the 1950s and possibly the 1960s." It would be interesting to know if a change in agricultural practice was implemented in this particular district early in the 1950s, or if the habitat was altered in some other way. From elsewhere on the downland in Berkshire came just one report: a male at West Ilsley in October 1958.
In healthy contrast, a good number of records continued to come from the Cholsey area in Oxfordshire, in particular in 1955, 1957 and 1958. In the best year of 1955, at least three pairs summered there: a nest with three young was found in July; a second pair was seen carrying food; and the cock of a third pair was in song.
Turning to other localities in Oxfordshire, the 1950s witnessed an increase in records for the Blewbury Aston Tirrold district, and after a pair summered at Blewbury in 1957, breeding was clinched in 1958. Among the other sightings were three at Aston Tirrold in October 1954 and four on Aston Down in December 1958. Further west of this district were isolated singles between East Hendred and West Hendred in August 1958, and at Harwell in April 1959.East Berkshire Downs 1960-1976
If the 1950s saw an indication of decline on the downs, the following years provided indisputable confirmation. The modest number of records for Berkshire all concerned single birds, especially around the steep bluff of Streatley Hill (Lough Down), where males in song were reported on a quite irregular basis in July 1961, May 1967, June 1972, May/June 1973, and April and August 1974. Some of these may have strayed from the Goring area. There was a male singing on the county boundary at Lowbury Hill in October 1961, and another there in 1973. The end of a notable era on the Berkshire Downs was marked by a male near Lower Chance Farm north of Compton in July 1976. (As a nostalgic aside, the site is adjacent to the dismantled railway line between Newbury and Didcot, where a dozen years earlier an era of a different kind had come to an end: the last train to ascend the demanding gradient over the Berkshire Downs did so in August 1964.)
In Oxfordshire, the Cholsey area continued to dominate the records, though only until 1966. In 1960 two pairs were located in the breeding season at Cholsey and one pair was proved breeding a year later, yet in 1962 it was only noted in September. Outside Cholsey in 1962 there were reports for "Moulsford Nurseries" (probably Westfield Nursery opposite the start of The Fair Mile) in April and the Cholsey Downs in December. There were no records whatsoever in the two years following the severe winter of 1962/63, which apparently wiped out the local birds, until a pair resumed breeding at Cholsey in 1965, and again in 1966. [The latter may not have been the last breeding record for Cholsey, since the 1968-1972 Atlas shows confirmed breeding in the 10 km square to the north west of Streatley, which includes Cholsey, but such breeding was not acknowledged in the county report or the subsequent county avifaunas.] It occurred at Aston Tirrold in March 1965, and on or near the Cholsey Downs in June 1968. There was only one observation away from the Cholsey area: one at East Hendred in February 1964.
Three records are too vague to attribute to either Berkshire or Oxfordshire: two birds are mentioned at an unspecified locality on the Berkshire Downs in March 1965 and June 1965, and there was another such bird in February 1969.
Records for Goring and the South Chilterns area (Oxfordshire)
Since the Cirl Bunting was partial to the southern slopes of chalk hills, it might be supposed that more than one instance of breeding would be documented for the southernmost reaches of the Chiltern Hills - that south corner of Oxfordshire between Goring and Henley on Thames, bounded by the River Thames. Indeed, it might be expected that several instances would be documented, as a stronghold of Cirl Buntings inhabited the segment of the Chiltern Hills that skirts High Wycombe; even as late as 1982 five pairs frequented the 10 km square SU 89 (Sitters 1985). And across the River Thames, of course, was the sub population stretching from Streatley to Cholsey and Blewbury. In fact, there were only two definite instances of breeding in the southern extremity of the Chilterns: a nest found at Mapledurham somewhen before 1902, and another with eggs at Shiplake Rise in 1934. Nonetheless, in keeping with expectations, Aplin (1889) reported the species to be fairly common and breeding in the "southern corner" of Oxfordshire.
How curious, then, that during the 20th century the Cirl Bunting would appear to be decidedly uncommon throughout this area, except at Goring, where it was fairly regular for a time. Outside that village, besides the nesting at Shiplake Rise, there were only three further reports, although all of them could have involved breeding birds. Two males and a female were found at Checkendon in June 1950; a pair occurred on the outskirts of Emmer Green in July 1960; and a female was stumbled upon near Coombe End Farm, north of Whitchurch, in May 1971, by an observer exploring the area.
The host of records for Goring began with a male in May 1948; then a pair stayed from February 1950 into the summer. Later, a long run of records, specifically for Cleeve, was submitted by the same fortunate observer who lived there, and included birds in his garden. Up to three were seen between July and December 1958; then singles were recorded in May, July and October 1960. In the following year, it was regular in summer and then a party of five were seen in December. It was present intermittently throughout 1963.
A change in the pattern of the records took place after 1963, with no further reports for the colder months between October and February: were the birds unable to find suitable fields in which to feed? Most if not all of the subsequent records were of single males in song, comprising May 1964, May and September 1965, March to May then August 1966, March and June 1967, July 1970, March and June 1972, and May/June 1973.
All these records pose two obvious questions. First, what was the origin of the many birds seen on and off at Goring, though seldom in pairs? Given the paucity of records for the Streatley Moulsford district after 1950, it might be assumed that many of these birds had wandered down along the Chilterns from their stronghold there. Against this, that sub population was over 20 kilometres away, while most British birds are sedentary, not moving more than two kilometres from their breeding sites. By the same reasoning, the Cholsey district was at best a borderline candidate for the source of the Goring birds. A more likely answer is that one or two breeding pairs were present in the vicinity of Goring itself but never detected. This fits with the discovery of the female at Coombe End Farm in May 1971.
The known presence of the species at Goring between 1948 and 1973, and its reported status as a fairly common bird in the south corner of Oxfordshire in the 19th century, raises a different question. Why were there so few reports in the 20th century for that area lying outside Goring? Although that century saw the loss of some of the open country to the development of Caversham, Emmer Green, Sonning Common and Woodcote, a good deal of apparently suitable habitat remained. Parts of this area appear to have been very under watched, but even allowing for this, just four reports in roughly 70 years cannot begin to be reconciled with the term "fairly common!" Neither when nor why the Cirl Bunting declined in the south Chilterns is known.
Records for the area between Newbury and Reading (Berkshire)
While parts of the area between Newbury and Reading, such as the reed beds, gravel pits and woods, are unsuitable for the Cirl Bunting, a large proportion consists of cultivated land with hedgerows and trees, in the vicinity of sloping ground, and appears to provide what the species requires. Certainly breeding occurred at four localities, with further pairs and singles being scattered more or less the whole way between the two towns.
On the outskirts of Newbury, singles were reported at Shaw in 1951 and Greenham in April 1975 and March 1976. A solitary record came from Hermitage of a songster in May 1953. Breeding was confirmed near Upper Woolhampton in 1968, where a pair was watched from April to June, with one being recorded there the following February. Sadly, a noteworthy record of a different kind came 13 years later, when the last Cirl Bunting to be chronicled in Berkshire was a male in song at Upper Woolhampton on 22nd March 1981 [see Note 2]. In the neighbourhood, it was noted at Aldermaston before 1902, and a pair was seen near Aldermaston in April 1971; additional singles occurred at Aldermaston GP (Gravel Pit) in 1949 and Brimpton GP in April 1962. Just five miles away from Upper Woolhampton, a young bird was watched being fed by a parent along the road between Bradfield and Theale in June 1944. At what was probably the same site, a family party was encountered in 1971 to the south of Cranemoor Lake, Englefield, characteristically at the foot of a south east facing ridge. This proved to be the last breeding record for Berkshire, although it was inadvertently omitted in The Birds of Berkshire book. That the parents were the same birds as had been seen earlier in April near Aldermaston, four miles away, cannot be ruled out, but it seems far more likely that they were different birds.
In view of all these records, it is plausible that one or two pairs of Cirl Buntings bred regularly for many years, unsuspected and undetected, in the swathe of somewhat undulating agricultural country beside the A4 between Newbury and Theale, where observers were thin on the ground.
The adjoining district lying to the west and south of Reading was a good one for Cirl Buntings as well. A male at Pangbourne Sewage Works in April 1972 could well have strayed from the south Chilterns immediately across the Thames, as could another heard singing near Tilehurst Station in June 1934. One was reported in Tilehurst in December 1969. A male at Theale GP in June 1974 held the nugatory historical distinction of being the last record in the now defunct "A" recording area of the Reading Ornithological Club (which encompassed the area within about a five mile radius of the town centre). A pair probably bred near Burghfield Common in 1935, as they were seen on two dates in June - open commonland is a typical Cirl Bunting habitat. A winter party of six were encountered at Burghfield in January 1962, and there was a single at Burghfield GP in November 1969. At Cottage Lane GP, which today forms part of this complex of gravel pits but at the time was separate and surrounded by flat fields, an adult and juvenile were detected in August 1949, breeding presumably having occurred in the vicinity [see Note 3]. A male was watched carrying food in "Kennet Meadows" (perhaps the Southcote/Rose Kiln Lane area near Reading) in June 1933 [see Note 4]. Breeding would probably have been attempted on the outskirts of Reading in 1946, where a pair inhabited a garden in Cressingham Road, Whitley - then an area of sloping fields - in February with the male in full song, but just possibly his rattling song was not to the liking of the local cat, which killed him! This site is only some two miles away from the breeding locality of Cottage Lane GP.
Altogether, these records suggest that the district lying immediately to the south-west of Reading as far as Burghfield Common (or beyond?) was probably an established breeding haunt of the species, at least until 1949.
Records for the region east of Reading (Berkshire)
There is no evidence that the Cirl Bunting bred in east Berkshire, except in two areas adjoining the River Thames: Maidenhead-Cookham and Henley. Elsewhere in east Berkshire there were no records at all between April and September. This is the reverse of the pattern for the later Goring records and strongly suggests it was absent as a breeding species.
Beginning with records on the east side of Reading, one occurred at Earley in 1951, and a male and two females were seen there in Cutbush Lane in March 1966. The only specific record of proven breeding was provided by the observation of parents feeding young at Park Place, near Henley, in June 1886. One stayed for three weeks at Crowthorne in February and March 1972. An undated record concerns Finchampstead somewhen before 1902. A small flock of four males and two females was present at Warfield in October 1971. A single was found at Hurley in October 1961, where later four were seen in November 1974. Some of these occurrences outside the breeding season may relate to birds wandering from the Chilterns stronghold not far from High Wycombe, or from Surrey, where up to six pairs were known to be breeding (Sitters 1982).
Before 1868, Cirl Buntings were not uncommon and almost annual in summer around Cookham, where they presumably bred regularly; and in 1875 two were killed near Maidenhead. A singing male was reported between Bisham and Maidenhead in June 1924, one was recorded at Maidenhead Golf Course in April 1950, and another at Cookham in May 1969. While it might appear that the Cirl Bunting was no longer regular in this district in the early decades of the 20th century, this may simply reflect a lack of conscientious observers and so, as elsewhere, its actual status then is not clear. What is known is that the species was being increasingly reported from the Chilterns some ten miles to the north during the first part of the 20th century.
Finally, there were three non breeding records of singles from the Slough area which were probably in Berkshire: near Slough in March 1949, and at Slough in October 1956 and November 1958.
A few authors have attempted to assess (or guess!) the breeding status of the Cirl Bunting in Berkshire. It will be recalled that Noble (1906) regarded it to be "resident but very local." Holloway (1996) classed its breeding status between 1875 1900 as "uncommon" in Berkshire (the pre 1974 boundary, of course, including all of the Berkshire Downs), and likewise "uncommon" in all the surrounding counties except Buckinghamshire, where he classed it as "rare". However, Aplin (1892) discerned it to be less common in Berkshire than Hampshire, where he describes it as locally common.
The text and map in Witherby et al. (1940) suggest it was scarce and local in the county. Alexander (1952) stated it to be "an uncommon resident somewhat local but breeding in all parts." This view, however, is at odds with its absence (in summer) in the region east of Reading, the western Berkshire Downs and the region west of Newbury. Both the western Berkshire Downs and the Inkpen Hill district are generally higher than the eastern downland around Streatley, and may not be sheltered enough for the Cirl Bunting. Its aversion to parts of east Berkshire, such as the woodland, ornamental parkland, wet meadows, and urban areas, is easy to understand, but its absence from the agricultural land - for instance between Twyford, Maidenhead and Bracknell - is more difficult to explain, although its comparative flatness may have played a part.
In her county avifauna of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, Radford (1966) declared the Cirl Bunting to be an "uncommon resident breeding in a few areas," while cautioning that it is "often overlooked." Although Radford's statement was intended to refer to both old counties taken together in the 1960s, it would equally serve to summarise the species' apparent status in the 1940s within the present boundary of Berkshire.
The subsequent avifauna published 30 years later, The Birds of Berkshire sounded the same familiar note that "Cirl Buntings do not appear ever to have been common in Berkshire." Unfortunately, it omitted the county's last breeding record near Englefield in 1971 as well as the earlier one there in 1944, and it did not identify two other breeding records to the west of Reading; nor did it recognize the likelihood that a scattering of pairs bred regularly between Reading and Newbury. In the other direction, its conjecture that breeding in the Streatley district was likely during the 1950s is supported by exiguous evidence after the year of 1950.
The contemporary lister, aiming to record as many species as possible in one year, would have found it difficult to add the Cirl Bunting to his Berkshire list after 1960. It was encountered less than two times per year on average between 1960-1976, and then it eluded detection until the final contact in 1981 [see Note 2]. So uncommon had it become that even visits throughout the year to the Berkshire Downs on the part of observers actively searching for this species proved fruitless for some of them. By the period 1968-1972, Sitters (1982) reckoned the population in the entire county to be 2-3 breeding pairs. This estimate is probably too conservative, considering the large amount of apparently suitable habitat between Newbury and Reading, which probably received fairly little coverage despite work for the 1968-1972 Atlas. If there really were only 2-3 pairs in the whole of Berkshire in 1971, it was most fortunate that birdwatchers should have actually found two of these pairs, near Aldermaston and near Englefield, in that small fraction of land which they set foot upon! It is also worth noting that the 1968 breeding record (and the others there) for Upper Woolhampton was obtained from an observer who happened to live there.
So when did the decline begin in Berkshire? It is hardly possible to assess the number of Cirl Buntings present in any particular year because of the poor coverage of the areas it frequented. All that can be said is that the reports hint - though no more than hint - that both in the Streatley district and in the area to the south-west of Reading, the decline in breeding numbers began in the early 1950s.
Unless a thorough survey is carried out specifically to detect the Cirl Bunting, assessing its status is inevitably difficult. This was never done in Berkshire, although the landmark survey work for the 1968-1972 Atlas, which sampled a part of every 10-km square in the county, did establish that it had become very uncommon by that period. The available information is too sparse to answer even the basic questions. When was the Streatley population established? When did it reach its maximum numbers and how many were there? What about the Cookham population? And so forth. We simply do not know.
- The Reading Ornithological Club report for 1950 comments that an observer "reports that at least six pairs bred within a radius of three miles" of Streatley, whereas the 1950 county report notes only that four different males or pairs were present in the spring and summer in the Moulsford-Streatley area, according to the same observer! This more conservative statement is assumed here.
- A later claim by a reliable observer has not been published.
- Reported as 1950 in The Birds of Berkshire book.
- I asked the Reading based observer where the locality was but he could not remember.
- The Birds of Berkshire Reports 1974 to 1995.
- The Middle-Thames Naturalist: Annual Reports of the Middle-Thames Natural History Society 1947 to 1973.
- Reading Ornithological Club Reports 1950 to 1973.
- Reports of the Oxford Ornithological Society on the Birds of Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire 1915 to 1952.
- Reports of the Oxford Ornithological Society on the Birds of Oxfordshire and Berkshire 1953 to 1973.
- Alexander, W B (1952) An Annotated List of the Birds of Berkshire.
- Aplin, O V (1889) The Birds of Oxfordshire.
- Aplin, O V (1892) On the distribution of the Cirl Bunting in Great Britain. The Zoologist 16, 121-128, 174-181.
- Balch, C C (1951) A list of the birds of Reading, with a summary of records prior to Jan. 1, 1947. In Reading Ornithological Club Report for 1950.
- Brucker, J W et al. (1992) The Birds of Oxfordshire.
- Clarke Kennedy, A M W (1868) Birds of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire.
- Cramp, S and Perrins, C M (eds) (1994) The Birds of the Western Palearctic Vol. IX.
- Evans, A D (1992) The numbers and distribution of the Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus breeding in Britain in 1989. Bird Study 39, 17 22.
- Evans, A D and Smith, K W (1994) Habitat selection of Cirl Buntings Emberiza cirlus wintering in Britain. Bird Study 41, 81 87.
- Fraser, A C (1954) The Birds of the Middle-Thames.
- Gibbons, D W et al (eds) (1993) The New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland: 1988 1991.
- Gooders, J (1974) Where To Watch Birds (2nd ed.).
- Hewett, W (1895-1911) Notes on the Natural History of the Compton District. Transactions of the Newbury District Field Club 5:29 41.
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© 2003-2009 Peter Gipson