The Ouse valley around Rodmell attracted a great deal of attention in the winter of 2002/03, when one of Sussex’s few twitchable Rough-legged Buzzardsof modern times took up residence. That winter, good numbers of raptors, wildfowl, waders and passerines were attracted to the flooded fields and unharvested arable crops, and new visitors could have been forgiven for thinking they had stumbled across Sussex’s best-kept secret birding spot.
Since then, seasons have generally failed to live up to that exceptional period; but the area still turns up some exciting birds in winter, and when conditions are right the numbers of passerines can be impressive.
During invasion years, the Levels here can be among the best in Sussex for Short-eared Owls, with up to six quartering the fields – late afternoon, Dec to Feb, is best. These may be joined by one or two resident Barn Owls, while Little Owls tend to stick close to the village.
Hen Harriers are regular, but not easy to see, probably hunting on the Downs near Woodingdean, Lewes Racecourse or Firle for much of the day but coming into the valley to roost in reeds or standing arable crop. Merlins are a speciality, with up to four birds on occasion, although the presence of passerine flocks (which vary from year to year) is a key factor.
Buzzards, Sparrowhawks and Kestrels can always be expected, and the local Peregrines are often viewable on one of the tall electricity pylons, when they’re not actively hunting over the Brooks.
Waders and Wildfowl
The fields to the north of the main track running East-West between Rodmell village and the Ouse are usually best for waders and ducks, if water levels are right. The pasture invariably holds Lapwing, along with a few Wigeon and winter thrushes, but waders can include Golden Plover, Dunlin and occasionally Ruff. In recent years the new RSPB Lewes Brooks reserve nearby at Iford, where the water levels are higher, seems to have pulled many of the Snipe, Shoveler and Teal from this area.
The high-banked Ouse itself can seem devoid of birds, but usually holds a few Redshank and Kingfishers, with Common Sandpipers regularly wintering just to the north, near the A27 flyover. Both Rock and Water Pipits are sometimes recorded.
A large herd of Mute Swans tends to be present on the North side of the brooks, very occasionally joined by a few Bewick’s Swans. Greylag and Canada Geese are a year-round feature in the area between here and Lewes, but scarcer species drop in most winters too – usually a small party of White-fronted Geese, or Tundra Bean Geese.
The stream that drains out of the village directly beside the main track is notable for (sometimes showy) Water Rails and the occasional Green Sandpiper.
Little Egrets are now common all the way along the valley, and can be expected at any time of year. Cattle Egrets have occured on multiple occasions in the surrounding area (notably a group of eight just south of Rodmell at Southease for three months in 2006, three on Lewes Brooks for one day in May 2007, and a wintering bird just across the Ouse at Beddingham in 2007/8). While still rare, Great White Egrets too have become less surprising – a bird was seen in various locations along the Ouse and at Glynde in early 2009.
Just as the numbers of wading birds and wildfowl are dependent on the water levels, the presence of unploughed stubble fields is key to the seed-eating passerines. In a good winter, such as 2008/9, the number of Corn Buntings can reach three figures, with similar numbers of Linnets and smaller (but still impressive) numbers of Yellowhammers, Reed Buntings, Skylarks and Greenfinches . As yet, these flocks have not turned up any real surprises, but given the numbers involved they are probably worth checking through carefully for a wayward Lapland Bunting, Twite or a perhaps even a Serin.
Whatever the seed situation, Stonechats are usually prominent, as are Meadow Pipits, and the reeds and scrub close to the river have held occasional Bearded Tits and Dartford Warbler. Cetti’s Warblerscan be heard in several locations along the valley, but the East side of the river just across from Rodmell Brooks is amongst the most reliable spots.
Similarly, the sewage work buildings just east of the village have been a reliable spot for wintering Chiffchaff in recent years, and Firecrest is recorded in Rodmell village more often than anywhere else in the valley.
Rodmell Brooks can be accessed on foot from Lewes – from the Old Railway Land, walk south along the river on the west bank, until you see the track heading west to Rodmell village. It’s also accessible from Southease train station, which lies about 1 mile to the south along the Ouse.
By car, it’s easiest to park at Monk’s House (National Trust) in Rodmell, then walk east to view the Brooks.
In all cases, please stick to the main track, to avoid disturbing the birds.
Nearby birding sites
Southease & Piddinghoe