The Month in Birds (for May 2014 Parish News)

Just occasionally, spring migration throws something unexpected into a land-locked parish. Such was the case on 10th April, when early in the morning a Grasshopper Warbler sang between the Old Vicarage and Place Farm.

The song of the Grasshopper Warbler is hardly much of a song at all. It sounds more like a fishing rod being wound in, or the insect that gives it its name. It’s a skulking, streaky brown bird, that will often remain hidden deep in a bramble even as it proclaims its territory. They were once fairly common in Sussex, but have declined greatly and now just a few spend the summer here, mainly in the river valleys and heaths but occasionally on the Downs too. Around ten years ago a pair summered not far away, at Tilton Bostal.

This one hasn’t been heard subsequently, and was probably making a brief stop. It’s only the second I’ve recorded in the last ten years in Firle, the last being an September bird scuttling around the undergrowth on the escarpment.

A view of the Stew Ponds, Firle Park

Stew Ponds, Firle Park

A couple of other birds beginning with ‘Gr’ reappeared in April as well. A pair of Greylag Geese turned up noisily at the Stew Ponds, the first I’ve seen in Firle Park for a while, and a white-rumped Green Sandpiper was there the same day too. The sandpiper is really welcome, as it’s the first recorded at the Stews for about two years, since before the restoration work on the ponds – here’s hoping that they’ll become regular visitors again.

Spring is the peak time for Red Kites in Sussex, and sightings of one or two birds were made by at least five people in Firle and at Glynde. Whether these relate to just a couple of birds or several passing through isn’t clear. Other raptors featured too. A Peregrine made a vocal stop-off in the fields at New Elms Barn one misty morning, fending off its prey from the attentions of a local crow. Looking from Firle Bostal one fine day in March, a grand total of 14 Buzzards could be seen the air at once, underlining just what a recovery these birds have made over recent years. And Ravens seem to be getting more regular in Firle – once you know their gruff honking call, it’s easy to pick them up as they pass through. One morning as I worked in the garden bird, one flew too close to the rookery at the edge of the cricket pitch, and it found itself angrily mobbed by the residents.

At the time of writing, many of the summer residents are still to arrive, but the first few Swallows, House Martins and Whitethroats are back, and Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs seem to be everywhere. I haven’t heard of a Cuckoo yet – has anyone in Glynde or Beddingham had more luck?

Subsequent to writing this… gather a Cuckoo was been around Glynde for several days, and heard it there myself on 25th April. And as of today the returning Sedge Warbler has returned to the (to my eyes) unpromising section of stream that runs beneath Mill Lane.

Charlie Peverett

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Ragged Robin flower, beside the Beddingham - Firle cycleway

Ragged Robin, beside the Beddingham – Firle cycleway, 27 April 2014

Some things beginning with Gr

A big surprise last Thursday morning, while walking the dog earlier than usual – a GRASSHOPPER WARBLER, singing from the overgrown hedge between The Old Vicarage and Place Farm.

Predictably enough I couldn’t see it, but just to make sure it wasn’t tinnitus I took a recording – you can just make out the reeling sound towards the end:

That’s only the second Gropper I’ve come across in Firle. The previous one was scuttling around in a bramble up the escarpment in September 2006.

On Saturday the first pair of Swallows were back on territory at Place Farm, and nearby the first Common Whitethroat was in song.

And then, this morning, two more surprises beginning with ‘Gr’ at the Stew Ponds – a pair of noisy Greylags and a lone silent Green Sandpiper. I think both are my first sightings at the Stews for a couple of years, since before the restoration work there began. Here’s hoping they’ll stick around.

Red Kite sightings have been more frequent again recently in Firle and Glynde, and Paul S had one over Firle village today, as well as the first four House Martins of the spring.

Sunday 12 Jan 2014


Almost jumped in the car to go somewhere watery, then remembered that it’s #footit month and so took a hike along the Old Coach Road instead. This time I concentrated on the game cover to the east of the Plantation, hoping to find the flocks of small stuff that eluded me last weekend. 

Unlike yesterday’s perfect winter’s day, this morning was breezy with intermittent cloud cover. The puddles along the track had all been icy until broken by the horses and cyclists that came before me, and there were hardly any passerines about. Easily the best was a single Reed Bunting in the hedge the other side of Beanstalk, my first local one this winter.

A Grey Heron flew in to one of the fields at Charleston, a couple of Buzzards did the rounds. I turned back at Tilton, crossing over to the escarpment and coming back through the old Safari Britain campsite, where a Tawny Owl gave a single hoot at the unlikely moment of 10.15am. 

None of the game cover strips appeared to have any flocks of birds at all, other than the game they’re intended for. I returned to a few Fieldfares over the village and little else. 

In yesterday’s sun, I checked the Stew Ponds and Long Pond in the Park, but found nothing other than a few Moorhens. If there are any Teal on the nearby Decoy, they’re keeping very quiet – I haven’t recorded any since the Stews were dredged last winter. Nor a Green Sandpiper. 

The mild winter seems to be suiting Goldcrests though – in the last few days they’ve been singing in three different places (the Lambpool, the Ram car park and the nature reserve). Yesterday I again heard a Chiffchaff-like sound in the nature reserve, but still can’t pin anything to it. Chiffchaffs are pretty unusual here in the winter, so it would be a good record. Incidentally, in December there was one at the bridge in Glynde, which is more of a likely spot. 

Last Wednesday, my first pair of Ravens of the year flew low over Place Farm as I walked the dog. Meanwhile a female Marsh Harrier was reported just south of the A27 at Beddingham yesterday, on the SOS sightings page


Firecrest + Ashdown Parrots

First proper walk of the year, making the most of a fine window in the weather.

Scalloped cloud pattern over the village

Inspired by Matt Eade‘s success finding Willow Warbler at Sidlesham yesterday and Siberian Chiffchaff at Newhaven today, I was more careful than usual to check out the little birds. And it paid off immediately, with a smart Firecrest at Place Farm. It was on its own in the brambles around the cattle shed, where the Old Coach Road takes a sharp turn as you’re leaving the village. It’s only the second record this winter, and the first to be seen. It hardly called at all, but showed down to a few feet before disappearing.

View of path through Firle Plantation woodsThe Plantation was predictably quiet, with only Goldcrest and Jay of note. Cutting back down from the top along the access land to Firle Bostal, a couple of Redpolls flew over from the direction of the Plantation. These are fairly unusual in January. But the game cover was almost deserted, holding just a few Pheasants and three Red-legged Partridges. No Stonechats, buntings or finches at all that I could see.

Back down to New Elms, and still no sign of the Little Owls (I haven’t seen them since before the disturbance to area by a power company in December) but thirteen Fieldfares flew over.

Then, squeezing out the most from this rare bright calm, Paul and I finally made the short trip to Old Lodge in Ashdown Forest for the Parrot Crossbills. After a fruitless hour listening to little but Coal Tits and the odd Brambling, the crossbill flock reappeared, just as we were leaving, and we enjoyed decent views of several birds (at least three adult males) amongst a dozen or so Common Crossbills. After just a view minutes the flock chipped off again, the difference between the heavy Parrots and slighter Commons quite stark as they flew.

Pine trees and health at Old Lodge, Ashdown Forest

The Month in Birds (for December 2013 Parish News)

St Peter's church through the spinney at dawn

In October there’s a short time when the last of the summer birds share the skies with the first of the winter. Before the last House Martins, Swallows and Chiffchaffs have gone, the first Fieldfares, Siskins and Redwings have arrived.

But it’s generally only when the last of the summer birds have left us that we see the latecomers from the North. One of these is the Brambling; it’s usually November before they come.

Bramblings are closely related to the Chaffinch, with which they’re often found in company. They come south from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, in greater numbers some years than others. Our part of Sussex rarely has more than a handful, but a few favour the downland. In previous winters they have roosted in Firle Plantation, spending the short days feeding in the strips of game cover.

One or two are usually noted flying over Firle village – they have a distinctive quizzical call. This year my first was a bit earlier than usual, on 24th was followed by another on 5th Nov, but this one seemed to be stationary, calling from a garden close to the school.

Bramblings do come to bird feeders, and they’re regularly reported from gardens in Ringmer, but I’ve never seen one in a garden in Firle, Glynde or Beddingham.

Perhaps this winter’s going to be a good one for them – if so, it’s worth checking your visiting birds. Look for a bluish head, orangey front and long, thin white rump when they fly – and if you see one, please let me come and see it!

In most respects it’s been a quiet autumn locally, with not much out of the ordinary. A few Yellowhammers, Redpolls and Reed Buntings have been moving through, and the Common and Black-headed Gulls are reinstated on the arable fields.

On a still day plenty of the resident birds can be seen or hear around Firle Park, with Mistle Thrushes, Jays and Nuthatches particularly noisy, and Treecreepers and Goldcrests easy enough to hear, with a little patience.

And New Elms Barn along Firle Bostal road continues to be a good place to stop and take a look around. As well as the usual pair of Little Owls, a Grey Wagtail has been seen again around the buildings, and a little later in the season the adjacent fields are popular with Fieldfares.

The Month in Birds (for October 2013 Parish News)

September saw the temperature dip, then rise again, and more migrants passing through the parishes.


Geese were the noisiest feature. Several hundred Greylags took to the fields around Glynde and Beddingham, attracted by the stubble. These are distinctly short-distance migrants, likely to have bred on the ponds and lakes of Sussex rather than the Greenland tundra (apologies to Emily T, whose romantic dreams of the wild North have been dashed).

At the end of each summer, large numbers of geese (mainly Canadas) congregate on the bigger bodies of water, such as Arlington and Barcombe Reservoirs. These birds spend the night on the water, but like to feed out in the fields for most of the daylight hours, and a few hundred head our way. Amongst them there sometimes a few oddities – of the 250 or so Greylags along Mill Lane in mid-September there were a few white geese of some kind – farmyard variations, or feral Snow Geese perhaps.

Geese on the stubble by Mill Lane, Glynde, 13 Sep - around 200 Greylags and a few randoms.

Geese on the stubble by Mill Lane, Glynde, 13 Sep – around 200 Greylags and a few randoms.

Whatever their origins, they’re a real spectacle as they fly along the Reach, particularly when Mount Caburn is their backdrop. Occasionally they deviate a bit closer to the Downs, and the 45 Greylags that flew over our garden in Firle on 21st September were a first for me.

Other new birds seen in the month were a bit smaller. On the evening of 4th September a Common Sandpiper flew over the Ram, calling distinctively in the dark. Early in the month, a few smart Yellow Wagtails were knocking around the paddocks at Place Farm – they love to feed around livestock – joining the local Pieds and one or two Grey Wagtails. This is the only time of year where you’re likely to encounter all three species together.

The build up of House Martins and Swallows peaked at at least 400, and on the morning of the 12th there was at least one Sand Martin with them.  After the single Redstart mentioned last month, Paul S went out and found a few more along the escarpment, with a high count of seven (plus the long staying garden bird in the village) on the 13th September. There were three Wheatears on the same date. Meanwhile, the pair of Stonechats remaining on the escarpment near Firle Bostal seem to be local residents – it’s good, after the hard winters to which they can succumb, to have this species hanging on.

This morning, the day of the equinox, a walk on the escarpment revealed the first four Siskins of the autumn, and many Chiffchaffs, which have now taken over from the Willow Warblers as Most Common Little Green Thing. At times there were Swallows across the sky in all directions, a sight apparently repeated across Sussex during what must have been a big Swallow migration event. Within a few weeks we’ll be seeing the last of these Swallows, and martins, and welcoming the season’s first winter thrushes, the Bramblings and the Firecrests.

The Month in Birds (for Sept 2013 Parish News)

Autumn really starts in August, and this year it felt that way, with cooler days than July.

The migrants started to appear: Wheatears, with their flashing white rears, along the escarpment (and one on Chalky Road); a Whinchat on the fenceposts at Firle Bostal; young yellowy Willow Warblers in the gardens, everywhere; a Green Sandpiper, flying over.

One of the best passage birds was a Redstart in the paddocks adjoining Paul and Mufti’s garden, in the centre of the Firle. Redstarts are, in the UK, principally upland birds. A few can be found in the summer on Ashdown Forest and on the West Sussex heathland, but most spend the summer in the wooded valleys of the West Country, Wales and the North.

Like Whinchats and Pied Flycatchers, which distribute themselves similarly, you are much more likely to come across one on the South coast in autumn than in the spring. They’re not at their brightest at this stage of the year, but always interesting to watch – their rusty tail quivers, even as the rest of them is stock still. In our parishes, they often choose to rest in places that resemble their preferred summering grounds, and so are most likely seen on the low branches of an isolated hawthorn, from which they will drop down to the turf to feed quickly before flicking back up to their perch. The spot at the back of Paul and Mufti’s has the right ingredients (as well as a sharp pair of eyes on hand) and so this is at least the third that’s turned up there in recent autumns.

The combined martin and swallow congregation at Place Farm built to at least 350 birds in early August, and started to attract the Hobbies. The Little Owls (definitely two now) were quite showy at times at New Elms, sitting right out on the fenceposts in front of the barn. One morning they were joined by a Cuckoo in the neighbouring field – a pretty rare sight in Firle these days, and perhaps a migrant just passing through.

We’ve probably all noticed what a good year it’s been for butterflies. The Small Tortoiseshell, which became very scarce a few years ago, has been seen in bumper numbers, and there are ‘cabbage’ whites (Small and Large) everywhere.

A more unpredictable arrival, the Clouded Yellow, is also appearing in strength this autumn, and worth searching out. They are large, coloured a distinctive orangey-yellow and black on top, and they fly fast and strong. The flower-rich slopes of the downs are a good place to see them, where with patience they can be seen settling to feed – always with their wings folded shut, but showing the lemon-coloured underside, like a Brimstone. They should be around for at least another month, and are lovely to see among the many blues, the Walls and Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers, Red Admirals and whites.

Rose Chafer beetle at Firle Allotments

Rose Chafer at Firle Allotments