I love all birds, yet there are some that are rather more enjoyable to watch or listen to than others; personally I find the Buntings are a wonderful group of birds that always excite me. Buntings are in the family Emberizidae and forty (nearly all) species are in the genus Emberiza, of which Britain is home to just five. Buntings are bold birds that are characterised by their habit of singing clearly from the top of song posts such as bushes, this makes them easy to find and gives the birder a fantastic view. Every species also has its own distinctive song; they may not be warblers but they do each produce a short, clear, easy-to-remember ditty that really aids identification and gives each species its own cheery character. Best of all is the male bunting’s fab head decoration; they all have colourful, contrasting and strong patterns on their heads which easily separates species and makes them great subjects for photography.
In Britain we have criminally few bunting species, just five – one of which is only just recovering from a near-extinction experience. The Reed Bunting, Emberiza shoeniclus, is probably our most common, familiar and successful species; it breeds mostly in dense scrub or reeds and prefers being near water – but in winter they can be seen in gardens taking advantage of bird-feeders. The males have gorgeous black heads with large white mustaches and a broad white collar that makes them stand out from some distance. Their song is a very simple three-note chant that ends in a slight trill.
Corn Buntings, Emberiza calandra, break the rule of the males having colourful heads, they are all-over streaky brown much like a lark but distinguished by their rotund shape and thick, cone-shaped bills that possess a slight point in the middle. Their voices are more unique however; the male starts by tripping over tiny high-pitched notes while speeding up rapidly, before releasing a mashed-up rattle of notes that are difficult to describe – though it has been likened to the sound of jangling keys. Corn buntings are just one of the species whose populations have plummeted at an alarming rate as a result of the intensification of agriculture; they are now becoming an irregular sight.
The Yellowhammer, Emberiza citrinella, is the only British species to not have the word ‘bunting’ in its name and was once known as the ‘scribble-lark’ because of the markings on its eggs. This is a lovely bird; males being the brightest sunshine yellow – they can be seen glowing from within trees from some distance. Their songs are very well-known to country folk, having been immortalised in the catchy phrase ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeese’, which reverberates throughout the countryside in the heat of summer and lifts a smile on my face every time.
Cirl Buntings, Emberiza cirlus, were once widespread across the entire south of England; nowadays they can only be seen in the extreme south of Devon and at a site in Cornwall where they were recently re-introduced. They are remarkable-looking things,
similar to a Yellowhammer but with a guacamole-green head striped with lemon-yellow and their bodies are a streaky brick colour. Their song seems to be stolen from the Yellowhammer; consisting of the rattling first half but ending without the usual ‘cheeeeese’, which results in a song that can be likened to a mobile ringing.
The Snow Bunting, Plectrophenax nivalis, is the odd one out here because it is neither in the same genus or even family as the other buntings – because it is not truly a bunting at all but belongs with the ‘Longspurs’. Delightfully known as the ‘snowflake’ this is a fantastic bird that lives in the harsh conditions of the Scottish mountains, yet some can be found in the lowlands of England (mostly along the coast) during winter. They are a brilliant white, mixed with black, brown and a blush the colour of a toasted muffin, with a bright yellow bill the shape of a kernel of wheat.
If you care to take a trip over the channel then you will find buntings galore; with at least another eight European species on top of the five we have, each of them with astonishing head plumage and their own chirpy songs. In other news, there is going to be a bit of a change to my posting schedule from now on as I have decided to reduce my output to one post a week on Thursdays – this is to give myself some extra time for my other writing demands.
(linoprint by Robert Gillmor)