The Month in Birds – Waiting for the Waxwings

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As any fans of sloe gin will be fully aware, it’s not been great year for berries. The hawthorns were ok, but it seems the sloe-bearing blackthorns were washed out in the soggiest of Aprils.

But it’s not just in Britain – in Scandinavia too the berry crop failed this year. And while that’s not good news for some of the birds there, it does mean we have a treat in store this winter – the arrival of Waxwings, one of the most marvellous birds you could reasonably expect to see from your kitchen window.

It’s only two years since the last ‘Waxwing winter’, when flocks were seen in various towns in Sussex. One well-watched bunch favoured the Tesco’s car park in Lewes.

Cotoneaster carpeting the slopes at Cuilfail, Lewes - picture by Lewes Wildlife Trust

Cotoneaster carpeting the slopes at Cuilfail, Lewes – picture by Lewes Wildlife Trust

At the time of writing, there are thousands in Scotland and north and east England, spreading slowly south-westwards. And this year, Lewes has just about the most stupendous crop of Waxwing-friendly berries it’s possible to imagine, carpeting the steep slopes of Cuilfail around the cliff face.

They’re cotoneaster, the introduced garden plant, and are usually cleared from the Downs, where as an invasive species they can spread and crowd out native ones. But in this case, on the too-sheer-to-clear surfaces around Cuilfail, they’ve have a bumper year and could be a magnet for Waxwings.

With a good chance of seeing Peregrines and Ravens in this area of Lewes, it’s well worth a stop.

In terms of other birds, the autumn was fairly quiet in Firle. In mid-October, a Ring Ouzel appeared along the Bostal road, and a family of four Stonechats turned up in the game cover between there and the Plantation, joined by a Whinchat for a couple of weeks. As last autumn, a Firecrest or two appeared in the centre of the village, working through the gardens between the Ram and the Church.

Swallows were slow to depart the UK this year, with plenty of reports into November, including a few in Firle and Glynde. But eventually they did disappear, replaced by the RedwingsFieldfares and gulls of winter, many of which can now be found around the paddocks and in the Park.

Meanwhile, Yellowhammers seem to have done relatively well, with up to half a dozen in the roadside hedgerows between Firle and Glynde, and Siskins and Redpolls were heard most days until mid-November.

It wasn’t until 23 November that the first Brambling was heard – I wonder if they’re roosting in the Plantation this year?

Work on the ‘stew ponds’ in the Park got underway in November, with huge quantities of trees and scrub removed from along the banks. It’s going to be interesting to see what effect this has on the birdlife – more open water should be attractive to some birds, and fewer leaves in the water may improve the quality.

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Our local Grey Wagtails, geese and Mallards should be happy with that. But skulking birds such as the Green Sandpipers, Snipe and Teal that have favoured the ponds’ enclosed stretches in recent years may not be as keen – watch this space over the winter.

A version of this article was originally published in the parish news, December 2012.

Seen an interesting bird in the parishes? Leave a comment or email cpeverett@gmail.

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