BOY MEETS CIRL; He has always had an eye for the birds - and now MIKE LOCKLEY gets twitchy in Devon.
IN AN isolated pocket of South Devon where the ragged stubble fields kiss sheer cliffs, a 49-year quest to find one of Britain's rarest birds came to an end.
In wind strong enough to whip the sea into a soap sud foam that coated sand like cuckoo spit, I scoured Labrador Bay for a bird that occupies my bucket list.
It has been a race against time. Since first excitedly looking at illustrations of cirl bunting - it's pronounced "sirl" - in The Observer Pocket Book of Birds (a 1972 birthday present), the species has declined to the brink of British extinction.
Near industrial agricultural methods and EU subsidies robbed this striking olive-coloured bird of the overgrown fields and untamed fringes that were once part of the rural patchwork.
I gazed at the pocket book illustration and imagined remote Thomas Hardy landscapes where the few remaining birds had retreated. Yet this was a bird my grandfather recalled seeing regularly along the hedgerows of landlocked Shropshire. Those sightings were so long ago that they've slipped into folklore.
I made my first foray to find cirl bunting, a cousin of the more common yellowhammer, 35 years ago, scouring the seaside strongholds with no success. By then there were little more than 100 pairs and the bird seemed on a nose-dive to extinction.
Thanks to a handful of Devon farmers who left fields and unkempt hedegrows to nature, shunning the EU subsidised neatness and near-military maintenance of modern agriculture, the cirl bunting has battled back from the brink.
There are now around 1,000 pairs, enough to give hope the delicate bird will again venture from its "last stand" Devon stronghold and again be seen in England's collective countryside. The population, for so long in the dodo-style decline, is at last sustainable.
Labrador Bay, a wild, scruffy patchwork of fields less than two miles from Teignmouth that bleed into the sea, enjoyed a stellar 2016 for the bunting.
Twenty young were raised, that's 20 more reasons to believe the bird will one day break free from Devon.
In a storm that pushed your body back with the force of a rugby scrum, I tredged through the wild, scruffy, purple-tinged fields for three hours until the unmistakable rattling call cut through the air.
Then came the untidy flutter and splash of rich olive as the flock of cirl descended to take grain from the fringes of stubble. As if aware this blustery encounter represented the end of a near 50-year odyssey, the birds fed frantically on open ground, the flock swelling with each magical minute.
The crisp, rapid rattle of a song and the rich dancing colours provided proof positive that the cirl bunting - a name derived from the Spanish for "chirp" - is back from the very abyss of UK extinction. And the species has now spread its wings to neighbouring Cornwall.
It's a conservation success, but as I battled though the gale, I was struck by a dark, desperate thought. Cirl bunting numbers increase with each year, yet farmland birds common in my youth - birds such as the skylark, yellowhammer, corn bunting, lapwing and tree sparrow - become more scarce with each season.
Will my grandchildren face a similar frustrating search to find them? The species' steep decline suggests they will.
My weekend search of Devon's wild, beautiful wilderness was organised by Anne Blackham of the Devon Association of Tourist Attractions - and it proved a birdwatching bonanza.
There is one must for any tourist drawn by the vast array of rarities found in the county - Exeter-based Stuart Line offers a birdwatching cruise of the Exe Estuary, a PS7.50 trip that takes passengers to the mudflats that teem with waders feeding on a nutrient-rich, boggy soup of crustaceans and sea worms.
My one-and-a-half-hour trip on a February day cold enough to make brass monkeys beg for blowtorches, produced a staggering 30 species: some, like the black redstart and Bonaparte's gull encountered on the quayside, were lifetime first encounters.
The voyage itself produced an impressive list.
I counted black headed gull, herring gull, greater black backed gull, lesser black backed gull, Axmouth Seaton heron, mute swan, greenshank, redshank, lapwing, grey plover, avocet, curlew, cormorant, shag, shelduck, long-tailed duck, dunlin, teal, bar-tailed godwit, black-tailed godwit, turnstone, oystercatcher, red breasted merganser, great crested grebe, slavonian grebe, wigeon, brent goose and peregrine.
The feathered fiesta continued inland courtesy of Seaton Tramway, a company that has turned one of its vehicles into a bird hide on wheels, the top deck of the ancient carriage providing panoramic views across the marshes that spread either side of the track.
Helped by expert Ian Waite, we spotted an array of waders, but failed to find the otters that now hunt in the shallow, brackish water.
As a concept, a hide-on-tracks is headline-making, in reality it's hard to train binoculars on birds.
At least it's an ideal way of introducing youngsters to the joys of birding.
Devon remains a hotbed for ornithologists, but Ian Waite has seen the rise in some species, the demise in others.
"This summer there was real excitement about a single turtle dove in the county," he said. "I can remember when you were guaranteed to see them. Now they're the same as lesser spotted woodpeckers - rare as hen's teeth.
"The suffering of our species is not all down to mankind, and many who visit our gardens have benefitted from the food we now put out. But those that need open fields - or rather the overgrown wasteland that once fringed them - have been hit very hard. I'm afraid once the EU subsidies come in, conservation takes a back seat."
That's because cold cash tempts farmers to plough every square inch of every acre. There can be no wasted space and, sadly, birds whose song was once the soundtrack to every country walk have reaped what modern agriculture has sown.
If the EU subsidies dry up, Brexit may give those birds something to sing about.
At least one of those species has been saved. Cirl now again dance among the hedgrows of South Devon. And that's a conservation success worth hanging the bunting out for. | For information on Stuart Line bird cruises, a three-hour extravaganza which provides summer and winter voyages with a guide, call 01395 222144 or go to www.facebook.com/stuartlinecruises travel file: where to stay | The Manor Hotel, Exmouth (01395 272549): A charming, no frills hotel that's refreshingly free of modern gizmos. It reminded me of the holiday haunts of my youth, with attentive staff and top-notch, no-nonsense food.
It's excellent value, with rooms currently on offer for PS75 per night, and the ideal location for the start of a Devon birding pilgrimage.
Seaton's cruises are based a brisk five-minute walk away from the imposing Georgian building.
| Larkbeare Grange, near Whimple (01404 822 069): Quite simply, the best B&B I've stayed in and the array of awards proves others share that opinion. The country home, boasting its own orchard, personifies old English charm.
It is relaxing and hosts Charlie and Julia serve a full English to die for. That's not surprising - they bake their own bread and make their own preserves.
It has justifiably gained a reputation and certificates as one of the South West's best B&Bs, with the guest book dripping praise.
The plaudits are well deserved - it's the perfect place for a "get away from it all" weeekend.
Classic double rooms are currently on offer for around PS110, with suites from PS170.
| Langstone Cliff Hotel, Dawlish Warren (01626 868000): All the creature comforts you need after a weekend in the wilderness.
Dating back to the Victorian era, it's a large, family-friendly hotel in 19 acres of grounds. The food, rooms and service are superb and views excellent.
With its swimming pools and Sky Sport, the establishment is an ideal holiday base. It's also a stone's throw from Dawlish Warren nature reserve, which, in this year alone, has produced a string of rare birds. Bottlenosed dolphins are also summer regulars. And it's competitvely priced, with some sites currently offering rooms for PS94.
The Seaton tramway
Teignmouth, Devon, home to the elusive cirl bunting, inset
Axmouth from the Seaton tramway
Birdwatchers flock to cruise the Exe