Autumn really starts in August, and this year it felt that way, with cooler days than July.
The migrants started to appear: Wheatears, with their flashing white rears, along the escarpment (and one on Chalky Road); a Whinchat on the fenceposts at Firle Bostal; young yellowy Willow Warblers in the gardens, everywhere; a Green Sandpiper, flying over.
One of the best passage birds was a Redstart in the paddocks adjoining Paul and Mufti’s garden, in the centre of the Firle. Redstarts are, in the UK, principally upland birds. A few can be found in the summer on Ashdown Forest and on the West Sussex heathland, but most spend the summer in the wooded valleys of the West Country, Wales and the North.
Like Whinchats and Pied Flycatchers, which distribute themselves similarly, you are much more likely to come across one on the South coast in autumn than in the spring. They’re not at their brightest at this stage of the year, but always interesting to watch – their rusty tail quivers, even as the rest of them is stock still. In our parishes, they often choose to rest in places that resemble their preferred summering grounds, and so are most likely seen on the low branches of an isolated hawthorn, from which they will drop down to the turf to feed quickly before flicking back up to their perch. The spot at the back of Paul and Mufti’s has the right ingredients (as well as a sharp pair of eyes on hand) and so this is at least the third that’s turned up there in recent autumns.
The combined martin and swallow congregation at Place Farm built to at least 350 birds in early August, and started to attract the Hobbies. The Little Owls (definitely two now) were quite showy at times at New Elms, sitting right out on the fenceposts in front of the barn. One morning they were joined by a Cuckoo in the neighbouring field – a pretty rare sight in Firle these days, and perhaps a migrant just passing through.
We’ve probably all noticed what a good year it’s been for butterflies. The Small Tortoiseshell, which became very scarce a few years ago, has been seen in bumper numbers, and there are ‘cabbage’ whites (Small and Large) everywhere.
A more unpredictable arrival, the Clouded Yellow, is also appearing in strength this autumn, and worth searching out. They are large, coloured a distinctive orangey-yellow and black on top, and they fly fast and strong. The flower-rich slopes of the downs are a good place to see them, where with patience they can be seen settling to feed – always with their wings folded shut, but showing the lemon-coloured underside, like a Brimstone. They should be around for at least another month, and are lovely to see among the many blues, the Walls and Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers, Red Admirals and whites.