Despite the bizarre weather, mid January to mid February was pretty quiet, as it usually is. Some exceptionally mild, still nights meant that it was easy to hear owls – Little Owls are always noticeable, but a Tawny Owl heard from the centre of Firle was less usual. The sound of bats hunting on several evenings was definitely odd too – how long before the stop bothering to hibernate at all?
Although Barn Owls are well distributed in our area, they can be tough to see. At least two have been found dead on the A27 at Firle in the last couple of years, so it was good to see one very much alive, caught in my headlights and hunting along the verge between the main road and Firle village.
Probably the best report was of a Marsh Harrier seen between Glynde and Ringmer. A few years ago this would have been incredible, but since their recolonisation of eastern England (especially East Anglia and Kent) they have become all-year-round visitors to Sussex, and odd ones can turn up anwhere, anytime. Projects to increase the amount of reedbeds in Sussex could tempt some to settle in the future – they would make a magnificent addition to our county’s wildlife.
March weather may be unreliable, but the first arrival of summer birds runs almost like clockwork. In the middle few days of the month the first Chiffchaffs will start singing – a wonderful event, although slightly confused by the fact that some birds now stay all winter.
If you want to be absolutely certain that you’ve got a real summer migrant, try a walk along the top of the Downs or beside a freshly ploughed field. You might disturb a pristine-looking Wheatear, fresh from Africa and on its way to the uplands in the north or west of the UK, or beyond.
The other definite early migrant is the Sand Martin, the much less well known cousin of our familiar House Martin. The first few can arrive anytime from around 10th March, and might be seen skimming the water on Glynde Reach or any large lingering patches of floodwater.
Of course, wait till the very end of the month and the gates are wide open: the first Swallows, Willow Warblers and Blackcaps will be arriving, and our resident birds will at the their most vocal. This is the perfect time to take advantage of the RSPB’s website, which has an A-Z of birds that now includes audio. You can listen to the songs of all our common birds, for free. The internet is useful after all.