Until I moved to live and work in rural North and East Yorkshire a Corn Bunting was almost mythical. I’d never seen or heard one until I was working as the Wetland Project Officer on Cayton and Flixton Carrs, 10 years ago (and I’m now the wrong side of forty). One day early in my stint as project officer, at a stewardship site called Star Carr an esteemed local RSPB manager, Keith Clarkson was taking a look at the site with me. He could hear a singing Corn Bunting, and explained the distinctive rising crescendo of tinkling notes that is characteristic of the species. He described it as sounding rather like a jangling bunch of keys, a description very apt when you hear the bird and which has stayed with me ever since.
Corn Buntings are now a bird I know how to find, in landscapes where they are present. In their favoured arable landscapes they tend to go for fields near or crossed by wires, typically telegraph wires but around here in Stamford Bridge even electricity pylons seem to do it for them. So about this time of year I like to go out hunting, well listening at least, for that distinctive jangling keys song of the male and report my records of territories to the local bird recorders. This is a species which nationally has undergone serious declines and is on the UK Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern, along with the likes of Linnet, Reed Bunting, Lapwing and Grey Partridge.
To look at Corn Bunting is a rather dumpy little brown job. Not unlike a skylark with its streaky breast and brownish upper parts, but the bill is quite a bit chunkier and the legs appear shorter and more hidden in the belly when perched. In flight, the Corn Bunting often has characteristic dangling legs. More often than not my first indication though is the song. I’ve even been known to catch the tinkling notes while in a car, with the windows down in a likely territory. They seem to prefer to perch up on a wire, or maybe a tree to sing.
This evening though, taking my bike on a whim to go in search of them in a familiar patch of fields near home in Stamford Bridge, I was surprised to locate two in a wheat field not crossed by telephone lines and it took me a few minutes to be sure I was onto Corn Buntings not Skylarks. There were numerous Skylarks about too, and pleasingly a young looking Yellow Wagtail in the same crop. The evening was overcast and not especially good for photos, plus they were too far away for anything decent on my phone. However, I hope you will look up the Corn Bunting and its song and maybe you too will become familiar with hunting for Corn Buntings and develop a special fondness for the bird as I do.
[As an aside, Star Carr is both a farmland location in the Vale of Pickering and specifically famous scheduled archaeological site there, dating from the Mesolithic. That’s the Middle Stone Age incidentally. If this interests you in the slightest and you have never heard of Star Carr then please do check out the website I created for the Carrs Wetland Project. There is heaps of fascinating stuff on there about the wildlife, landscape and archaeology. Even though the funding came to an end for a dedicated project officer (that was me) the website became such a repository of accumulated knowledge that I couldn’t bear to drop it.]