These days, most of my birding fits around other stuff I do. But if I was footloose and fancy-free and inexplicably tied to the Firle area (a prisoner of Peak Oil, perhaps?), then these are the places I’d spend more time with a pair of binoculars.
Downs between Firle and Seaford
On all sides, there are well-known wet spots – Splash Point, the Cuckmere, Lewes Brooks, Arlington Reservoir. Hardly surpising then that the drier block of Downland, away from its scenic edges, receives sparse attention.
But there are birds to be found. Behind Seaford, there are several records of mid-summer Quail, and plenty of suitable habitat for them elsewhere. Grey Patridges cling on, as do Corn Buntings, with a recent report of Tree Sparrows too. In the scrubbier coombes, a few Nightingales and Turtle Doves spend the summer, perhaps undetected altogether in some years. Who knows what else turns up, discreetly, from time to time? If Stone Curlews , resurgent in some parts of the UK, are going to recolonise East Sussex, why not on the flinty chalk here? And there’s no reason that Dotterel, which tend to be noticed at Balsdean (which is carefully watched) and the Downs near Steyning, couldn’t be found more often on this side of the Ouse.
The list of occasionals is not long, but is intriguing. Last summer, a Montagu’s Harrier was reported near Firle Beacon and a Common Crane overhead at Alfriston.
Although winter anywhere on the Downs can be notoriously birdless, this patch regularly hosts good stuff, particularly Hen Harriers and Bramblings. Long-staying Snow Buntings have turned up at least twice at Bo-Peep in recent years. Merlins and Short-eared Owls are occasional, while Ravens are now a good bet at any time of year. And the roaming gull flocks must occasionally contain Med Gulls or something rarer.
Anyone prepared to get up early and take a good long walk could reap rewards.
Away from the Downs and the big river valleys, the levels between Glynde, Ripe and Laughton form one of the least densely populated areas in Sussex. Decades ago, they were much wetter, and hosted some excellent birds. Bewick’s Swan and White-fronted Geese were formerly regular winter visitors, and the area was particularly noted for Short-eared Owls, waders and ducks.
Relatively dry as it is now, the area still attracts some good birds, with one or two breeding Lapwing and Redhank, and a few duck. Summering Yellow Wagtails seem to have vanished, but could recolonise.
Those muddy patches that do still linger into the summer may attract the odd migrant wader, and the same rarities that occasionally turn up on Pevensey Levels – Great White Egret, Purple Heron, Black Kite – may occur more often than they have been recorded (they have all occurred in the area at least once in recent years).
Meanwhile the well-watched Great Grey Shrike that spent a week here around the beginning of 2009 might be a repeat performer – but could easily be missed if it favoured a spot further from the village during a subsequent visit.
Escarpment behind Alciston
Bit of nostalgia this one. The stretch of escarpment directly south of the village, east of the Bo Peep Road, is magical, with immaculate views towards the Arlington and the Long Man. And you rarely walk here without seeing something.
Just east of the ash wood, there’s a small area of scrub, where I’ve seen good falls of warblers, Spotted Flycatchers, and the odd Redstart and Ring Ouzel. In summer, one or two Corn Buntings (used to?) hold territory, with a flock in double figures there during the winter. A good spot for Stonechats, Linnets and Yellowhammers too.
It’s also one of the best local spots for birds of prey, particularly Peregrine, which often seem to come closer here than elsewhere.
Potential? Well, perhaps for more unsusual birds of prey, and for more unusual passerines. But if all else fails, there’s always that view.
Escarpment above Beddingham
Bird reports from here are scarcer than hen’s teeth. But an eye looking out over the gulls at Beddingham landfill would surely chance on some decent birds of prey and perhaps even the odd Stork. And the scrubby patches, as elsewhere on the Downs, are bound to get the odd good migrant – among the probably annual Redstarts and Ring Ouzels, how about a Red-backed Shrike? Or a juicy warbler of some description?