With thanks to Mike Langman, local ornithologist and illustrator
Berry Head is one of the richest and most rewarding locations in South Devon for bird watching. The headland overlooks a wide sweep of deep ocean and contains a mixture of varied habitats, all of which combines to attract a wide variety of sea and land birds.
The guillemots are perhaps the headland’s best-known birds. A colony of around 1500 adults nest on the southern cliffs every year. These birds don’t bother with nests; they lay their eggs directly onto cliff ledges, and rely on their pointy shape to prevent them rolling off! In the spring, at just a few weeks of age the young ‘jumplings’ are encouraged off the cliff by their parents. At this stage their wings have not grown strong enough to fly, and they plummet – with occasional bounces off jutting ledges – to the sea many meters below. Seeing them jump en-masse is an incredible experience!
There are many more rare species which live, feed or visit the area. Colourful Cirl Buntings are only found in the South West, mostly along the south coast of Devon and into Cornwall. Berry Head holds a small population who’s males sing throughout the year. Balaeric Shearwaters are a critically endangered species, which breed in the Balaeric Isles off the east coast of Spain and head up towards the Northen Atlantic after breeding. Lyme Bay is a popular feeding spot and Berry Head is one of the best spots in the UK to see these rare seabirds. An even rarer visitor, the Yelkouan Shearwater was spotted off Berry Head in summer 2008. This was the first ever sighting in UK waters, making it the 600th bird found in the UK and a real coup for Berry Head!
In the spring and autumn, the headland hosts many migratory birds. Typically birds will winter in Africa, and spend their summers in Scandinavia, Iceland or even Siberia. Berry Head is a good stop-over point, with plenty of food for a day or two. Each week brings a new batch of species; wheatears, ring ouzels, whitethroats, redstarts and many species of warblers. During the autumn overhead flocks of thrushes & finches can be incredible with over 15,000 redwings counted in one morning!
Local bird expert Mike Langman, who was one of the birders to spot the Yelkouan Shearwater, explains, “In the summer I love watching the seabirds; in the autumn it’s the warblers and thrushes. We get many unusual species here, such as the grasshopper warbler, with a lovely high-pitched call resembling its namesake, and the Yellow-browed warbler which migrates to Siberia. We had five or six last year, which makes it one of the best places in the county to see them”.
And it’s not just birds which bring Mike and other wildlife enthusiasts to the headland. The unique habitat – exposed limestone grassland – hosts many rare species of flower, such as the white rock-rose, small hare’s ear and the bee orchid, whose petals perfectly resemble a thirsty bee taking a drink of nectar. There are moths and butterflies too: the rare “Small Blue” has been found recently, feeding on a specific species of vetch found mostly in the quarry floor.
Out to sea, the regularly-sighted harbour porpoise and bottle-nosed dolphins are joined on occasion by a host of cetaceans: sperm, fin, humpback and pilot whales have all been sighted in Torbay in recent years, along with irregular visits of huge pods of common dolphins (a super-pod of over 800 was spotted in 2014) and rarer Risso’s & white-beaked dolphins in 2015.
And underground, the UK’s largest bat species, the Greater Horseshoe Bat, can be found in caves in the quarry. These threatened mammals – around 90 in the summer months – emerge on warm evenings to hunt for insects in the nature reserve and all the way along the coast towards Man Sands. The Berry Head colony is unique in that it contains both a winter hibernation roost, and a spring maternity roost. Among with other South Devon colonies, it represents the final stronghold of the species in Western Europe.
Mike Langman is a renowned local ornithologist and illustrator, and is one of Berry Head’s most regular and experienced bird watchers. You can admire his illustrations here.