Five of us met at Place Farm on a lovely midsummer Saturday morning, for a walk up to Firle Plantation and back. Often on these occasions the really special birds decline to appear on cue – but this time we were in luck.
As we gathered, a subtle but distinctive squeaking song drifted over from the trees around the Shire House. And there it was – a Spotted Flycatcher singing from the highest perch it could find. My first of the spring was up here in May, before birds started to be seen and heard regularly a little way down towards The Ram – is this a different bird, or one with a big territory? Either way there aren’t many around these days, so it was a great bird to start off the walk.
The buildings around Place Farm are usually busy with birdlife, and today was no exception. Pied Wagtails, Swallows, House Sparrows and Collared Doves gunned around the rooftops as we moved towards the Old Coach Road.
And almost immediately on striking it, there was a commotion in the skies. A small falcon cruised overhead towards the village, and there was out second star bird of the morning – a Hobby, showing its streaky underparts and red undertail patch. Although they breed locally, it’s not usually until later in the summer that they spend much time over the village, hunting down dragonflies and inexperienced House Martins, so this was a rare slice of luck.
Continuing up the coach road, several birds were in voice. First Chaffinches and a Goldcrest – at the crossroads adjacent to the pleasure gardens, a Robin sang sweetly and a Chiffchaff or two continued their two-tone routine. Surely they get bored of that by June – yet many sing on into October. Meanwhile, a Kestrel zipped through, doing a good job of impersonating the earlier Hobby until it gave itself away by hovering distinctively above the escarpment.
Climbing up beside the plantation, the birds and plants began to change. A lovely fresh example of Hedge Woundwort beside the path was worth admiring, as were the Common Spotted Orchids that appear in numbers as soon as you break free of the tree line.
Up there, where the hayfever really started to kick in, a Whitethroat, a Blackcap and one of more Skylarks sang, with brief excerpts of Green Woodpecker and Meadow Pipit. All too quickly, a Fox slunk across the path below us, disappearing into the long grass before everyone could get a look.
With all the stops along the way, more than hour had already passed, so we began to retrace our steps. Back along the track, one of the season’s first dragonflies nipped about and settled for a time – a female Broad-bodied Chaser, seen close enough to watch the sides of its abdomen inflating and deflating.
Back down towards Place Farm, young, short-tailed Swallows were being fed by their parents in one of the trees, and House Martins fed over the barley. And when we arrived back at the Shire House, the Spotted Flycatcher was still singing – this time amongst the trees in the wooded area of the churchyard, where the newly-thinned canopy makes a fine hunting ground.