The Month in Birds – Dec 2006/Jan 2007

November can spring some surprises. This year the major one came in the form of a Long-billed Murrelet, the tiny seabird that turned up on the Devon coast and made national headlines for the human gathering it triggered. Thousands of birders turned up to see this small auk – similar to a Puffin – which somehow made it over from the North Pacific. Despite its drab appearance (mottled greys and off-whites) it’s already being described as “Bird of the Decade” by some twitchers, due the sheer unlikeliness of its arrival. For twitchers of course, that unlikeliness means it’s a ‘have-to-see’ bird, which might not turn up again in our lifetimes. Fortunately for those who ‘twitch’ at the very thought of missing it, it’s hung around for several days, and is still present at the time of writing.

In Sussex, we had more modest fare. The nearest big rarity was a Desert Wheatear, perhaps blown in from Central Asia, that spent a few days the other side of Pevensey. A fantastic bird, but with half-a-dozen or so records a year in the UK, common as muck compared to a Murrelet…

On the Downs, migration was steady. In late October there was a day-flying owl, probably a Short-eared Owl, between Charleston and Bo-Peep, and at least one Ring Ouzel guzzling on berries in the same area. Peregrines seem to have moved in for the winter, with frequent records between Berwick and Beddingham, mainly on the escarpment.

At Firle Bostal in November, a Raven was harried by a couple of Buzzards one morning. Like Buzzards, Ravens have re-established themselves in Sussex, and the Downs are their current stronghold. They’re not easy to see locally because they range over a wide area, but it’s always worth listening out for their distinctive call, often referred to as a ‘cronk’. It’s much deeper than a Carrion Crow or Rook, and if you see the bird itself you may be able to discern that it’s huge – the size of a Buzzard – with a long, diamond-shaped tail.

Winter birds to look out for

December and January are two of the quietest months in the year for migrant birds, but one of the best times to see our wintering and resident species. Within our parishes we have a rich array of habitats, and consequently an excellent range of birds in a relatively small area.

In the gardens, there will be ‘roving tit flocks’ (one of my favourite expressions in the English language) moving from tree to tree, feeder to feeder. The bulk of these are usually made up of Long-tailed Tits, but usually include Blue and Great Tits too, and sometimes Goldcrests, Coal Tits, Treecreepers and even the odd wintering Blackcap or Chiffchaff, birds more commonly associated with the summer months. Counting these flocks and seeing how many different species each one contains is equal, in my opinion, to many of the more ‘exotic’ wildlife experiences on offer. Red peanut feeders are proven to attract the diminutive Siskin into your garden, and Niger seed is increasingly popular way of attracting Goldfinches – an exotic-looking bird if ever there was one.

Where there are mature hedgerows, the arable fields can hold large groups of small birds too. The same kinds of tit flocks range up and down the hedges, while gatherings of finches use the hedges as emergency cover when feeding on the fields themselves. If you’re lucky, you can come across a flock of dozens or even hundreds of birds, usually Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Linnets and Goldfinches. Sift through them and there might be the odd white-rumped Brambling, the North European cousin of the Chaffinch, or perhaps some Yellowhammers and Reed Buntings.

Open land is the best place to see Little Owls too. On a sunny day, scan along a hedgerow or along the branches of a tree and you may catch one ‘sunbathing’, a favourite pastime. Another clue is to listen out for agitated Blackbirds, Robins and Dunnocks in a line of trees (for example, along the Firle Bostal Road) and see if they’re scolding a half-hidden owl.

Lapwings seem to have been slow to appear this year, but they too should easy enough to find on the wetter ground around Glynde and Beddingham during the winter. Check through for Golden Plovers, Snipe, Ruff and even Dunlin – usually a coastal bird, but several dozen winter as far up the Ouse as Lewes, and may wander.

Large groups of gulls on newly-ploughed fields are often entirely made up of delicate Black-headed Gulls or bruising Herring Gulls, but a closer inspection may reveal among them Lesser Black-Backed, Common or even pure-white Mediterranean Gulls, a record number of which bred at Rye Harbour this year.

Along Glynde Reach and some of the bigger drainage channels there will be Kingfishers, Little Grebes and the occasional Little Egret, which are now to be expected almost anywhere there is standing water. Another ‘traffic jam bird’, they can often be seen on the Ouse from the A27 at Southerham.

On top of the Downs, there can be very few birds at this time, but it remains the easiest place to see our resident raptors – Buzzard, Kestrel, Peregrine and Sparrowhawk – as well as the aforementioned Raven. The odd hardy Stonechat will eke out an existence among the scrubby patches, and small groups of buntings, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits will also hang on up there, but many will be pushed to the lower slopes by prolonged rain or wind.

The woodland lower down can be similarly quiet, but while the branches are bare it’s a good time to see our two common woodpeckers – Great-spotted and Green – and the Nuthatch, working its way down (always down) the length of a tree trunk. On the less disturbed paths, you might flush a Woodcock from the leaf-litter, or catch a Tawny Owl sitting quietly in the boughs.

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