In the modest tradition that is Firle birding (and that, by the way, extends to a bit of Glynde and Beddingham birding too), here’s 2011 in review.
It brought seven new species to my Firle patch list, a wonderful Hoopoe nearby and the realisation that some fine birds have likely been living right under my nose without me noticing.
Early on, it was cold but quiet – the Bittern seen at Glynde Reach on New Year’s Eve 2010 wasn’t found again, and looking back at the (lack of) blog posts I could have happily hibernated for two months without missing much.
But in March things livened up. For a start, our mangled, pub-fancying Herring Gull made a return, this time with a friend. They were seen on and off until April, and did a good impression of a couple in search of a lovenest, but they didn’t linger to breed.
It was about this time that I started making regular visits to the Decoy Pond on the southern edge of the Park, and the string of smaller ponds that feed it. Although it hosts our local heronry, I hadn’t spent much time there before because there’s no access to the main lake itself and it’s hard to see the water through the trees.
So it was great, peering through the branches, to see my first Firle Tufted Ducks there on 13 March. It’s little surprises like this that stoke the imagination, and when I returned the following day I was rewarded with a Green Sandpiper and a pair of Teal – both rare to me – on the smaller ponds.
Over the next few weeks, I realised that the sandpiper was usually to be found along the ponds (on two occasions, there were likely to have been more than one bird), along with the Teal and a pair of Grey Wagtails, as well as my first Coot for the patch.
This autumn, repeats visits have yielded up to nine Teal (yeah, take that Slimbridge) and the Green Sandpiper back again. So I have to concede, after more than five years living here, that birds I’d decided were occasional at best on the patch may well be there every winter, along the muddy margins a few hundred yards from my house.
Also out of the blue in April came a pair of Egyptian Geese, which trundled around Firle Park for a few weeks (at least until the end of June, according to local non-birders). There’s been an increase in the number of records this year in East Sussex, and although these two don’t appear to have tried to nest, the Park seems a good bet for future colonisation (i.e. it’s rather like Petworth, their preferred territory in West Sussex).
Breeding ups and downs
A spring migrant that stuck was the Willow Warbler that turned up at the Allotments early in April and sang all through the summer. Again, on many patches this might not be worth a mention – but it’s the first time in five years that one has set up territory here. It shared the allotments with all three common warblers (Common Whitethroat, Blackcap and Chiffchaff) as well as a singing Lesser Whitethroat.
Spotted Flycatchers also had a positive year – for the first time, I’m sure that there were two separate nests in the village, with one fledging five chicks and the other at least one.
Not all the summer migrant news was as good. Other fast-declining birds seem to have become virtually extinct. I didn’t hear a Cuckoo in Firle at all (though the Glynde village birds where there all spring) and the only Turtle Dove was seen briefly in August. Not a single one purred in spring, which is a profound loss.
Meanwhile, I heard second-hand that Grey Wagtails bred inside the courtyard at Firle Place, raising at least two young; three very-recently fledged Goldcrests were seen lined up along a yew branch in the nature reserve on wet morning, and a young Stonechat seen in early August on the escarpment was likely the local product of a pair noted there earlier in the year.
Other flyovers included a Common Sandpiper (tick number five), heard in the dead of night only because I was out of bed to throw water over a cat.
The escarpment directly south of the village is a natural bowl that’s good at catching migrants from time to time. The game cover over the fence there attracts finches, buntings and other birds, while the scrub hides warblers and chats and things. A couple of visits on sunny early autumn mornings found up to six Whinchats, and at least three different Redstarts, as well as many Wheatears. I wonder what more regular watching might turn up.
Glynde stole the show in September with that most exotic of visitors, a Hoopoe. So often a one-day-wonder, and with none seen anywhere near here for decades, this one was relatively obliging. Although it gave some birders the runaround, it lingered for five days, mainly on the grassy bank up the hill from the Forge. Lots of residents and visitors were able to get a look, and it may be many years before we see another.
A few weeks later, after a wholly predetermined push to see a Ring Ouzel on the patch (there had been lots in Sussex over previous days), I found a couple of them on the escarpment in October, in that same productive corner where the game cover adjoins a few blackthorn bushes. Great birds, one of which hung around for several days showing off its white stuff.
Meanwhile, for the first time Firecrests decided to linger in the village for a proper stay. After three brief previous records, a sighting in October near the Post Office heralded a string of records reaching into 2012, with two birds noted together on one occasion at Firle School.
Brent Geese reappeared after a gap of six years, with around 40 flying through in late October. Meanwhile the lone Golden Plover heard over the house in early November was an overdue addition to the patch list, and another type of ‘first’ was the Tawny Owl that flew around the field near the Decoy pond one bright morning, harassed by magpies. It’s the first I’ve seen flying in broad daylight in 26 years of birding.
By December, everything was pretty static again, and with no prospect of cold weather it was up to the Firecrests, Green Sandpiper and Teal to keep things interesting until 2012. Wonder what this one will bring?