The Month in Birds – November 2006

For many of us, fine weather in September and much of early October meant more time spent outside. ‘Best’ bird in the area was a Grasshopper Warbler near Firle Bostal on 17th September. They are a local, declining summer visitor to Britain, and breed in only a handful of places in Sussex. The Downs are a traditional habitat (a pair spent the summer at Alciston a couple of years ago) but this individual was probably a passage migrant. They spend most of their time hidden low in scrub, and can be difficult to see, but when flushed they often prove to be very tame. This one jumped up into a tree and eyed me for a few moments, before diving back into a bramble by my feet and scurrying off – more like a mouse than a bird.

Firle Bostal is a good place to search for less common birds. On the same day as the warbler there were Tree Pipits and a Peregrine, and a few migrant Wheatears were visible around the car park on most days during the period. It’s also a reliable site for Stonechats, Yellowhammers, Meadow Pipits and Skylarks, some of which will see out the whole winter. A scan along the fences with a pair of binoculars is usually rewarded with one or more of these species.

Another declining Downland bird is the Linnet, which nowadays you only expect to come across in pretty small groups. Therefore a flock of around 250 seen along the Firle Bostal road close to the village on 9th October was a welcome sight, especially as it was intermingling with a ‘charm’ of around 40 Goldfinches. The latter birds, in contrast to their cousins, are generally increasing – apparently thanks to Niger nyjer seed being used more in garden feeders. This large gathering was watched beadily by a Kestrel, and just before dusk at least 500 gulls, mainly Herring Gulls flew east overhead, presumably to roost at Arlington Reservoir.

Exotic bird of the month goes, undoubtedly, to the Great White Pelican seen in the centre of Lewes at the end of September. It was apparently mobbed by Starlings and gulls until it flew off along the Ouse towards Newhaven. There are several pelicans at large around the country this autumn, though they are all regarded to be probable escapees rather than wild birds, so won’t be sparking off any mass twitches.

For much of November, birds will still be moving – finches, larks and Woodpigeons all migrate in daylight and will be passing overhead in numbers. Winter thrushes will arrive in force – on still nights (between fireworks) listen for the ‘seep’ call of hundreds of Redwings as they fly through. Wildfowl and waders also return in force, with Teal, Wigeon and Snipe appearing on the wetter patches of low-lying ground.

Best of all, this is perhaps the best month for Short-eared Owls, the big, day-flying owl that sometimes winters in our area. They have big yellow eyes, small tufts on their head (‘ears’) and a buoyant, butterfly-like flight, and they enjoy quartering ditches and hedgerows. Whether we get many arriving in Sussex is dependent on the supply of voles in Northern Europe, but if it’s a ‘Shortie winter’ a few birds may materialise between Rodmell and Glynde. Worth a look around when you’re stuck in traffic at the Beddingham level crossing!

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