Kris Gillam found this Shore Lark at Sovereign Harbour last November. Surprisingly it has opted to spend the winter a little further along the beach at Pevensey. It’s quite a busy spot and although generally tolerant, it can prove difficult to find. I came upon it on the 5th time of trying since Christmas, a little further west from it’s favoured spot on the beach, which is opposite the Normans Bay Campsite.
The bird was in the company of a couple of Greenfinch and fed happily until an approaching dog walker moved it further east and lost to view.
The bird continues along the promenade amongst the Holm Oak adjacent to Staveley Rd. First found on the 14th January it is very easy to locate through its frequent bouts of calling, although seeing it is hampered by it’s choice of cover, which is dense and it rarely feeds at lower levels. That said, over time you can see it really well. It’s a few hundred meters from being on Beachy Head proper, which has 4 previous records of this subtle Asian warbler, all in Belle Tout wood, the last of which being in 2012. Beachy Head in fact hosted the first documented record for the UK back in November 1966. With a reasonable track record for them, it’s been something I’ve long anticipated here but not at this busy location on the seafront. Only 800m from my front door, many thanks to the finder who as yet remains unknown.
A single Firecrest was in a passing Tit flock. Despite there being at least 1 mixed flock to join up with, the Hume’s prefers to be on it’s own.
I’m not sure how the levels of commitment will fluctuate but I thought I’d have a go at the Local Big Year challenge. I’m not one for keeping lists of birds, I find that aspect a bit dull but it will encourage me to wander a little further to some local sites that I generally neglect in favour of Beachy Head. I’ve kept it simple and included the area that falls within a 10km radius of home. Admittedly 50% of which is open water but it does encompass some very good local sites like the Cuckmere Valley, Abbots Wood, West Rise Marsh and of course Beachy Head.
It’s started well with a handful of birds that are not guaranteed on Beachy Head or just simply scarce in general! The long staying Hooded Crow was an easy drive by at Polegate and the Sovereign Harbour Great northern Diver gives me a head start on a species not always easily seen at Beachy Head. However most enjoyable were the Hawfinch at Abbots Wood, always a pleasure to catch up with this large but unobtrusive woodland bird. Big units with the most innocuous of calls, there seems to have been something of an influx into the wood this winter and the birds have been making the most of the Hornbeam seed crop.
Another year draws to a close and I’ve put together another concise review of the more meaningful birding events on Beachy Head. In comparison to 2020 the spring was far more productive with a decent run of scarcities and a much better showing from commoner migrants. Autumn started nicely but rapidly turned very mediocre beyond the end of September for both common and scarce migrants. Something which was in keeping with the wider national picture. A general mix of fortunes, often weather dependent, is the hand most patch workers have to play. In terms of trends Ring Ouzel were scarce again, Yellow browed Warbler drew a blank (it’s been 3 consecutively poor autumns for them here) and I’m not aware of any Turtle Dove or WoodWarbler sightings, which is quite damning for one of the counties premier migration sites. On the plus side it was a good year for Honey Buzzard with 6 autumn records (a return to form for that species) and May produced a great run of birds. I managed to record 150 species on the headland.
As always a big thank you to everyone who shared news of sightings throughout the year. Finders initials follow notable species where appropriate.
January and February.
As is often the case Beachy Head remained quiet during this period. An immature drake Velvet Scoter (which spent the winter in near by Sovereign Harbour) was the only local bird of interest.
2 or 3 Dartford Warbler could be seen and heard in the gorse above Birling Gap. The only cold, winter weather came in the second week of February, where subzero temperatures were accompanied by snow on the ground for a few days. No cold weather movements noted beyond a meagre arrival of thrushes in the cold snap. Things quickly turned mild towards the end of that period and the first Black Redstart of spring appearing at Birling Gap on the 22nd February along with a steady movement of Common Gulls stopping to feed in the grazing fields. The first Red Kite and Firecrest of the year were seen on the 26th February. Stonechat territories began to be reoccupied.
March and April.
A mild start to the period saw the first Wheatear arrive on the 3rd March (RBo), 3 Chiffchaff were around the NT buildings on the same date. Firecrest became easier to find by mid month whilst a White tailed Eagle from the Isle of Wight scheme paid a visit on the 14th March.
I often struggle catching up with early hirundines on the headland and encountered my first Sand Martin and Swallow at West Rise Marsh, a few miles to the east of the headland, on the 8th and 27th March respectively. A 30 strong Alba wagtail flock at Birling Gap held 6 White Wagtail in the 25th March. Seawatching begun to pick up towards the end of March with an impressive movement of 744 Brent Geese in the last hour of light on the 22nd March.
A mild and sunny day on the 29th March saw the arrival of an early Common Redstart (KP) and also present, a singing Cuckoo (MEC, RHC) first thing.
April started cold and the birding on Beachy Head was stifled, in spite of the weather, a local highlight was this Red rumped Swallow (AR) that graced near by West Rise Marsh on the 3rd April.
April progressed to type although hampered by less than productive weather. The first fall of Willow Warbler noted on the 9th April. A decent number of Common Redstart passing through this period, whilst a single Ring Ouzel (scarce again this spring) and Great Egret were seen on the 20th April. On the sea an impressive movement of 418 Bar tailed Godwit in a short pre-dusk seawatch on the 21st April and 15 Pomarine Skua’s passed east on the morning on the 24th April.
On the 24th April the years first Swift shot eastward over the lighthouse and on the 25th a Hoopoe (RHC, MEC) was seen briefly before heading north bringing to an end to a long run of blank years for them here. A large passage of Common and Arctic Terns on the 28th April with 800 seen in two hours. A single flock of 49 Black Tern on the 30th April was the biggest single flock I’ve seen in the UK.
May and June.
The period started well with a decent local find, a duo of male Blue headed Wagtail (LP) at near by West Rise Marsh, which lingered into early May.
A surprise late fall of migrants enlivened the headland on the 7th May, highlights of which included 2 female Pied Flycatcher, Spotted Flycatcher, 5+ Common Redstart, 1 Black Redstart, 6+ Whinchat, a Cuckoo, singing Reed Warbler, 50+ Willow Warbler. It was probably the best day for spring migration on land this year and all on a north west wind under clear skies. This unexpected fall hailed a great run of form on the headland which continued into early June.
Having found a fewin autumn, it was a novelty to discover a singing Melodious Warbler (LP) just east of Belle Tout Wood on the 9th May, it remained for the entire day.
The month progressed well with a daytime churring Nightjar (RE) a surprise on the 10th May (the bird also performed briefly at dusk). A Stone Curlew (DP) went low over Birling Gap car park on the 14th May. The 19th May saw a singing Golden Oriole (RHC, MEC) spend the morning on the headland whilst on the 26th May a Serin (RHC, MEC) appeared all but briefly. A singing Marsh Warbler (KG) put on an excellent display of it’s versatile and manic mimicry early morning of the 31st May, whilst later the same day 2 Bee-eater (RHC, MEC) passed over.
With an influx taking place, I was busting at the seams to get to grips with one of these, so it was a joy to come across this Rosy Starling (LP) on the 5th June. Discovered in the car park on the pub, the bird was disturbed by someone opening a camper van door and disappeared north all too quickly.
By the end of June arrivals had switched to departures with the first south bound adult Cuckoo on the 22nd June followed quickly by the first Nightingale on the 23rd June. The odd Sand Martin could be seen dashing out into the channel at this time too.
July and August.
Traditionally a slow but transitional period, I saw my first Yellow legged Gulls on the headland on the 10th July and a smart juvenile Cuckoo lingered in Shooters from the 21st July with an early Whinchat there on the 26th July. I didn’t note any numbers of south bound Willow Warbler until 27th July.
All the regular autumn warblers were being recorded daily by the 5th August including, Reed Warbler, GrasshopperWarbler, SedgeWarbler, GardenWarbler, Lesser Whitethroat. My first Redstart and Pied Flycatchers didn’t appear until the third week of August, quite late really.
A Tree Sparrow (RB) on the 25th August was noteworthy given its modern day scarcity here. A real techincolour bombshell on the 26th August as a flock of 8 Bee-eater (LP,AR) appeared over Shooters, briefly circling us filling the air with their distinctive calls, they then went missing for about an hour only to reappear high over the hollow before gaining height and disappearing into the ether, as Bee-eaters often do!
The first of 6 Honey Buzzard to be recorded this autumn appeared low of Belle Tout Wood on the 27th August. Swallow, Martin and Yellow Wagtail numbers built up towards the end of August.
September and October.
A Wryneck appeared near the pub on the 3rd September, remarkably the only one to be seen during a large national influx. Raptor passage returned to form this autumn with a respectable number of Osprey, Marsh Harrier and Honey Buzzard seen up until the end of September. Many hours were spent looking for and enjoying the afore mentioned species along with migrant Merlin, Hobby, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and the occasional Short eared Owl.
This period is often characterised by big flights of Swallow, House Martin and SandMartin along with large numbers of Yellow Wagtail which begin to drop off throughout September. I saw my last Swift of the year on the 19th September. A tristis Chiffchaff (RE etal) was trapped on the 18th September and on the 19th, the only BBRC bird of the year came in the form of a fly over Tawny Pipit (KG) which went west on the 19th September, enjoyed only by the lucky finder. A predictable date for a once predictable bird here. On the sea, a significant passage of Balearic Shearwater took place offshore with 150 passing SW on the 28th September something of a county record and part of a large number seen along south east coast at the time. This also marked my departure to Scilly not returning until the 27th October.
Whilst I was away 2 Leach’s Petrel (ME,CB) were seen passing west on the 2nd October and somewhat of a site rarity, a Barn Owl (CB) was roosting in the wood on the 9th October. Returning to the headland later in that month I found birding quite uninspiring. A Woodcock and my last Swallow of the year seen on the 30th October.
November and December.
A decent flight occurred on the 3rd November featuring 8000+ Woodpigeon, 3 Ring Ouzel, a decent menu of late autumn finches including Redpoll, Brambling, Chaffinch, Siskin, a Woodlark and a late Wheatear but in general late autumn failed to ignite here. I found the numbers of common migrants to be very low. For example, I saw 3 Firecrest throughout the whole autumn and had a peak day count of just 10 Goldcrest on the 11th November. Although that day did coincide with the arrival of a single Pallas’s Warbler (RHC, MEC) which performed wonderfully on the afternoon of the 11th. Small numbers of flyover thrushes and finches were seen most mornings throughout November. On the 7th November a smart Shorelark (KG) at nearby Sovereign Harbour gave us something to look at despite the dearth of birds on Beachy Head. Dartford Warbler numbers rose to 4/5 between Birling and Shooters Bottom by early December.
A few attempts at a seawatch during December revealed large numbers of auk fishing offshore which appeared to be mostly Razorbill with a marked easterly passage of auks as Christmas approached which also included many Kittiwake. A small number of Red throated Diver were seen, mostly moving west during the few seawatching sessions held.
After a quiet morning on Beachy Head I decided to visit Newhaven where the Dusky Warbler showed well and was frequently vocal throughout my two hours on site. This particular bird’s identity had been subject to debate since it’s discovering the previous morning. The call to my ear was a typical Dusky Warbler “tet” uttered frequently during periods of activity accompanied by lots of wing and tail flicking. Otherwise it could skulk silently within the brambles for 20 minutes or so at a time. I feel the colour bias of these images is fairly accurate to what I observed in the field. There’s also video at the bottom of the bird calling.
The ID of the bird had swung back and forth between Radde’s and Dusky prior to my arrival so I was open minded, although upon immediately hearing it, I felt comfortable calling it a Dusky Warbler, the images support that too.
A day where all the decent sites on the headland were covered but with very little in return. A single Chiffchaff heard in the pub garden and presumably the same Dartford Warbler as last week in Shooters. It’s not only the paucity of scarce birds this autumn but the lack of common migrants too. For example Goldcrest have been virtually nonexistent, only once have their numbers risen into double digits with 10 seen on the 11th. Very low morning counts of Redpoll, Siskin and Brambling since my last post. A few migrant thrushes (mainly Blackbird) around on the 12th but nothing significant. By far the weeks highlight being a delightful Pallas’s Warbler in a private garden, which I was invited to see on the afternoon of the 11th, coinciding with the very modest arrival of Goldcrest.
Another dire day on Beachy Head was enlivened when Kris Gillam discovered this smart Shore lark at sovereign Harbour. It was fairly tolerant of the continued disturbance from dog walkers and Sunday strollers until a direct ambush by an enthusiastic border collie sent it skyward disappearing high to the north east. An echo of what the area could produce before its mass development into homes and a marina.
Beachy Head was again very quiet with only Siskin, Redpoll and Greenfinch passing in single digit numbers, c10 Redwing and the highlight was another passing Woodlark. The only warblers seen during the last 3 days have been a single Blackcap in the wood and a returning Dartford Warbler.
There was an arrival of Thrushes from the SE today today with c60 Redwing, c10 Fieldfare, c20 Blackbird and c12 Song Thrush arriving. Accompanying them the odd call of Redpoll, Siskin, Goldfinch, Linnet and Chaffinch although in negligible in numbers. 2 Chiffchaff and 2 Goldcrest were in the wood and c12 Stonechat scattered around.
A marked change in the weather, a light NW wind under cloudless skies.
The morning saw a large flight of Woodpigeon (about c8000 heading SW) much to the excitement of the local Peregrines. On more than one occasion causing flocks of birds to plummet towards the ground creating an impressive sound as 100’s stooped in unison over head. There was also a decent movement of finches with about 800 in total moving west and also coming in from the south east. Most of this movement was condensed into the first 50 minutes after sunrise. The finches comprised mostly of Goldfinch, Linnet and Chaffinch, although also represented were Greenfinch, Siskin, Redpoll (including a single flock of 30) c10 Brambling and 3 Reed Bunting. 3 Ring Ouzel coasted above the coastal path and a vocal Woodlark went west over Belle Tout as did 3 Jay. c10 Chiffchaff and a single Goldcrest were in the wood there. A late Wheatear was also seen.
A blustery SSW wind, heavy rain at first followed by sunny spells.
A late start due to heavy rain. A light passage of finches was apparent with most birds coasting into the wind above the hollow, this included Goldfinch, Linnet and Siskin. A single vocal Firecrest was in the old trapping area whilst a Woodcock was flushed from under foot in Shooters Bottom, A single Swallow flew east. I’m still to see/hear a Chiffchaff or Blackcap since returning on the 27th October. It really has been a lacklustre autumn nationally.