2020 review of the year.

What a year. I doubt many will look back upon 2020 fondly. The cruel impositions of restricted movement and to a degree, apprehension and uncertainty laid a heavy burden upon most of us. I was perhaps more fortunate than some living so close to my local patch. The headland had an above average year in terms of scarcities although frustratingly many were seen fleetingly and by their finders only. This year saw no pen to paper for BBRC descriptions. That said probably the most famous bird of year did pay us a visit during the autumn. Sadly another year passed where I didn’t see a Turtle Dove on the headland, although I’m aware of a single autumn record (RHC). Thanks to all who shared news throughout the year, finds and photos accredited where applicable.

January & February

The beginning of this period was wet with associated Atlantic depressions and a colder settled spell in the later part of January. February was unsettled with a brief quite spell in the last few days. My birding was mostly centred around other local spots, sparse highlights being Hawfinches at Penhurst and Bearded Tit at West Rise. Unfortunately I saw no Short eared Owls out on Pevensey Levels this winter. The period ended with at least 4 Chiffchaff being seen on the headland on the last day of February, which was particularly early.

March and April.

Despite the onset of a national lockdown, the weather was glorious and settled for much of the period completely sedating the birding on the land. March starting with a very small arrival of Chiffchaff, the first Firecrests on the 9th and Stonechat numbers notably on the rise too.

A proper spring day on the 16th March with the arrival of 3 Wheatear, a sprinkling of Goldcrest, Firecrest, Chiffchaff and 18 Common Buzzard soared above. Although the star birds were a pair of Common Crane (LP, JFC) which spent 20 minutes circling town and slowly heading west.

On the 18th March a 2cy Iceland Gull (LP) was amongst 1500 gulls following the plough in the set aside field at Birling Gap.

A party of 4 Spoonbill (LP) went east on the 25th March along with White Wagtails and Black Redstart on the ground. As we moved into April the continuing fine weather meant it slowly became one of the worst springs for common migrant falls anyone here could remember. For example I didn’t see a single Ring Ouzel during spring.

My first Swallow came on the 5th April followed by Willow Warblers on the 6th April (I failed to surpass a day total of 10 at any point this spring) A male Serin (LP) was a nice surprise on the 10th April. Other familiar faces followed with the only decent fall occurring on the 18th April which added variety but not quantity, it included Whinchat, Nightingale and Grasshopper Warbler. The sea was largely neglected by me with KG’s 8 Pomarine Skua on the 26th April being the best I heard of.

May & June.

The period started bright and blustery with a better birding spell on the 8th May when a Black Kite (AW, RHC) spent over 4 hours roaming the headland. Both recent records have occurred amongst the eastbound spring passage of Red Kites.

A typically brief Bee-eater (KG, RHC) was seen at two locations early on the 9th.  May. A Cuckoo in song for a few days around the 26th May was my only encounter with them throughout the whole year. The 30th May saw a curious record of 3 mobile Serin (JP, ME, JE, IB) seen at various sites on the headland. The 16th June saw the discovery of a Blyth’s Reed Warbler (LP) singing from a small clump of Blackthorn at Belle Tout. A major county rarity and one of only a few south coast records this spring. It was very vocal at first, becoming quieter later showing only on occasion.

An adult Rose coloured Startling (CB) briefly above Belle Tout wood on the 20th June added some gaudy quality to what wasn’t a bad spring in terms of scarcities despite the lack of common migrants. June ended with the first signs of southbound migration, a handful of Sand Martin and two Nightingale on the 26th June. 

July & August.

The slow trickle of early migrants continued into July with a surprise Serin (RHC) on the 7th July. The first Redstart of the autumn appeared on the 21st July, first Wheatear on the 22nd July & the first Pied Flycatcher on the 29th July along with 63 Willow Warbler which was my best day count of the autumn. Juvenile Yellow legged Gulls began to appear along the beaches of Eastbourne and occasionally over the headland. Heading into August the numbers and variety of migrant passerines increased with a Melodious Warbler (JFC) being a notable highlight on the 10th August along with the first group of Crossbill of the autumn (their best autumn since I moved here in 2013) also a Hen Harrier past through.

The 21st August was the first hint of hirundines moving in numbers. The latter part of August is often a great period for birding here but alas the weather intervened again bringing northerly winds and the coolest summer bank holiday on record. Unusually no Honey Buzzard were recorded during that period. Although the 31st August saw a decent flurry of birds 8+ Pied Flycatcher, first Merlin of the autumn, 3 Short eared Owls and a Wood Warbler (RHC)

September and October 

The first of at least 3 White Stork appeared on the 3rd Sept, Siskin were particularly apparent this autumn along of occasional small flocks of Crossbill.

A Wryneck appeared on the 12th Sept (TC) lingering for 2 days.

2 Osprey flew south on the 14th Sept with large numbers of House Martin moving around midmonth with my last Swift seen on the 15th Sept. An Ortolan Bunting (LP) put in the briefest of appearances on the 16th Sept. A Common Rosefinch (DB) was in Shooters Bottom on the 29th Sept, I also saw my first Ring Ouzel of the autumn on that date. The first of 3 Yellow-browed Warbler (LP) was below Belle Tout on the 3rd Oct. Nice to see after a complete blank in 2019.

The 5th Oct saw two Lapland Bunting (BC) spend a few days around the apex of the headland. Dartford Warblers began the annual winter residency with birds found above Birling Gap on the 11th  Oct and a Spoonbill flew over (SL). At least 12+ Ring Ouzel were present on the 14th Oct. Huge news followed later on the 14th Oct when ME discovered the departing Lammergeier at Went Hill which went on the grace the headland with it’s majesty for 24hrs before departing south out to sea on the 15th. After spending almost 4 months in the country it was quite a piece of serendipity it chose to depart from our corner of the UK.

A blythi type Lesser Whitethroat was in Shooters Bottom on the 17th Oct (present since the 10th) whilst ME had 3 flyover Bearded Tit (a much prized species here) and another Lapland Bunting.

A Little Bunting (RF) was seen briefly in Shooters Bottom on the 19th Oct . The month ended fittingly with a Pallas’s Warbler (RHC) seen briefly on the 31st Oct.

November and December

The month started well with Bob Edgar and co. trapping a Dusky Warbler on the 5th Nov.

Decent finch numbers continued into the early part of the month. At least 120+ Goldcrest, c1000 Goldfinch, 1 Woodlark and my last 2 Swallow on the 7th Nov. Things began to cool off a little toward the later part on the month with a regular singing Dartford Warbler above Birling often being the only highlight. December was typically very quite with little of note seen. 

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28.11.20 Caspian Gulls

The day started bright with a light but building east wind. Passerine numbers on Beachy Head were virtually nil, c100 Goldfinch tracked east into the wind. A single, exhausted looking, juvenile Brent Goose was resting in the field at Birling Gap.

I then went looking for gulls at West Rise Marsh and in the Cuckmere Valley which for me held one 3rd win. Caspian Gull and a 1st win Yellow-leg then an adult Caspian Gull and 3 Yellow-legs respectively.

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The last few days had promise but I failed to make good. The wind meandering between south east and most lately the south, bringing warm moist air from the continent.

Today I encountered a lovely Dartford Warbler in song above Birling Gap, a single Firecrest, c40 Goldcrest and a much reduced Goldfinch passage of c400 birds with small numbers of Redpoll and Siskin mixed in.

A lot of ground covered on the 7th with most sites covered. c120 Goldcrest, 1 Firecrest on the ground. c1000 Goldfinch, c50 Siskin, c100 Redpoll, 2 Crossbill, 2 Swallow went east. A single Woodlark flew over Shooters Bottom along with a single Dartford Warbler there. 2 Chiffchaff were also seen.

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5.11.20 Dusky Warbler

A clear day with a light northerly wind.

Hot on the heals of Saturdays Pallas’s Warbler came this Dusky Warbler, a much drabber but much rarer phyllosc here at Beachy Head. The bird was trapped this morning and not seen by anyone beyond those who ringed it. Although released close to the ringing hut, it unfortunately was not seen or heard again. Weighing in at a hefty 10.2g it’s unlikely to be a newly arrived migrant.

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3.11.20 Gale force.

A bright day with a brutal SW wind. Birding was predictably slow.

Nothing much to report other than a handful of Blackcaps, 2 Chiffchaff whilst 3 Swallow flew west.

A Pallas’s Warbler (RHC) was seen during the afternoon on the 31st Oct.

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14.10.20 Lammergeier!

Like everyone I’d been aware of this bird which summered in the Peak District but, even as it made progress south through the UK, I didn’t seriously expect it to appear at Beachy Head although a sighting in Kent, just 50km directly north did make us locals wonder. In the end it fell to Matt Eade who had the bird fly past him at Went Hill and then went on to relocate the bird sitting in a field just north of Birling Gap.

The bird was resting happily in a grazed field just north of Birling Gap until an inquisitive farmer decided to drive his Land Rover right up to it and flushed the bird. It then circled over East Dean for quite some time before heading into the Cuckmere Valley, a few kilometres to the west.

It’s appearance is somewhat reminiscent of the Blue Rock Thrush in 2017, which was another well watched rarity which appeared at Beachy Head as it reoriented back towards the continent. It’s been confirmed this bird is a female, born wild at the nest in the French Alps in 2019.

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12.10.20 Dartford Warblers

A very still morning after a crystal clear windless night. SW wind building, rain by early afternoon.

All in all a quiet morning for me, the light winds seemed not to produce much overhead and only a low single digit counts of Redpoll and Reed Bunting along with the odd invisible Siskin heard. My Chiffchaff tally was also low, maybe 15 birds. The two Dartford Warblers discovered the day before by SL were typical arrivals for the time of year. I had single Ring Ouzels at the radio mast and in Shooters Bottom. Firecrest in Belle Tout wood and Birling Lane along with 10 Goldcrest. 800+ mostly House Martin hung above the headland for most of the morning.

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5.10.20 Lapland Buntings

A light westerly wind overcast at first becoming brighter later.

A relatively quiet morning for me, In Shooters Bottom, a heard only Ring Ouzel, a handful of Chiffchaff, single Common Whitethroat, c10 Chaffinch, c50 Meadow Pipit heading in various directions, a single Tree Pipit and two Reed Bunting went over. A Wheatear flew across the road as I left.

I returned at lunch to catch up with these two Lapland Buntings which had been found midmorning. Lovely birds favouring the long grasses just between the pub and the monument. They are the first I’ve seen here, favouring the exact same spot as a Snow Bunting last November. Perhaps a pointer of where to look for these northern buntings in future! Whilst there, a small group of c6 Crossbill flew west too.

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3.10.20 Yellow browed Warbler… finally!

A light southerly wind with broken cloud after 24hrs of very strong SE and E winds and occasional heavy rain.

A very late start for me today. I passed through the Belle Tout area then on to Cornish Farm and Long Wood. With high hopes that at least one Yellow-browed was out there to find somewhere. Long Wood was very quiet, I was unable to locate any feeding flocks of birds and saw perhaps 3 Chiffchaff. 3 Yellow Wagtail were around the cattle pens at Cornish and the whole area had a mixed flock of about 500 Swallow and House Martin, a Merlin also passed through.

As I returned to Belle Tout my attention was turned to a small feeding flock passing through the bushes and was very pleased to see a Yellow browed Warbler fly across in front of me. It continued to show in the bushes below the lighthouse associating with a flock of Great Tit, Blue Tit and a Chiffchaff. It’s my first here for 2 years, 2019 being very poor for them at Beachy Head.

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14.9.20 A Wryneck and 2 Osprey

A bright cloudless day with a building east wind throughout.

Not much in the way of passerines, perhaps too clear for them. I was surprised to learn Saturdays Wryneck was still present despite a busy weekend and a location choice that puts it right underneath walkers feet. It was nice to catch up with it. They’ve been very scarce here in recent autumns. The other highlight was an Osprey I picked up distantly which headed over Belle Tout lighthouse and out into the channel at 12:55 taking the same line as one seen at 11:25 by SL.

Other notables included c1500 House Martin, 2 Spotted Flycatcher, c20 Chiffchaff, c10 Common Whitethroat, 2 Hobby, c40 Siskin.

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