Beachy Head 2019 – A personal review of the year.

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Belle Tout lighthouse.

This is a condensed retrospective of my birding year on Beachy Head. Concentrating mostly on notable highlights. In terms of scarcities I had a decent showing in spring in the shape of a Bee-eater and an all too brief Subalpine Warbler. Autumn started well with a decent end to August, particularly for Honey Buzzard and both Montagu’s (MEC,LP) and Pallid Harriers appearing in mid September. Persistent westerlies really put a dampener on the remainder of the autumn with a Siberian Lesser Whitethroat being the sole highlight. The annual average of 1 to 2 BBRC birds continued, with records of both Crag Martin (RHC) and Pallid Harrier.

Notable trends amongst commoner birds included Black Redstarts having a bumper passage in both spring and autumn, where as Short eared Owl remained scarce throughout. It was my first year without seeing a Turtle Dove or Yellow browed Warbler since 2014, although I believe there was at least a record of each from Hodcombe (JHC)

I’d like to thank everyone who exchanged info and sightings throughout the year. I’m looking forward to what 2020 may bring.

January & February.

These are the pallet cleansing months of the year on Beachy Head. Virtually zero migration was noted with no repeat of the brutal cold snap that was feature of early 2018.

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Hume’s leaf Warbler.

The nearby Hume’s leaf Warbler (MFA, LRB) and a Glaucous Gull at Newhaven were the only notable birds of that period. A Short eared Owl was seen near the pub in February, winter records are scarce here.

March & April.

The start of this period was dominated by strong SW winds, despite that Firecrest had arrived in Belle Tout wood by 7th March accompanied by an increase in Stonechat with 9 birds seen. These two species often are the first harbingers of change.

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Wheatear.

My first Wheatear came the 13th, found sheltering against a howling SW wind within the walls of the pumping station at Birling Gap and a Chiffchaff quickly followed in Belle Tout wood on the 14th.

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Firecrest

There was a decent little arrival on the 20th of Chiffchaff and Wheatear. Merlin and Woodcock on the 21st were new for the year. I saw my first Black Redstart on on the 20th and my first Sand Martin at nearby west rise on the 22nd.

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Black Redstart.

A quieter end to the month weather wise with the first Red Kites seen on the 25th and both Swallow and Willow Warbler seen on the 31st March.

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Willow Warbler.

A surprisingly early Grasshopper Warbler (and first to be reported in the UK) was reeling below belle tout lighthouse on the 2nd April.

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Grasshopper Warbler.

A calm murky night on the 8th April induced the first decent fall of  80+ Willow Warbler, which also brought the first Common Redstart, Ring Ouzel & Common Whitethroat of the spring. A lull in proceedings ensued until around the 17th when another decent fall saw all the expected migrants represented along with the first Tree Pipit. The 20th saw another arrival involving a different cast of birds including 7 Whinchat, the first Hobby of 2019 and Spoonbill flew east.

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Whinchat.

On the 24th, light S winds the night before produced a male Subalpine Warbler in Shooters Bottom. Seen and heard all too briefly it will may never be possible to attribute it to a particular race, although based on its song and brief views, my money would be on Western.

May & June.

A Wood Warbler was found in Belle Tout wood by Nick Pope on the 4th May which I managed to see. A species just hanging on as an annual migrant here.

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Wood Warbler.

I then left for two weeks birding at Long Point, Canada. On my return the rush of common migrants had predictably wained. A rush of excitement came on the 22nd May when Roger Charlwood found a Crag Martin which I tried in vain to catch up with. Remarkably it is the 3rd record for Beachy Head, all have been fleeting, despite seemingly perfect habitat to encourage one to linger. Some conciliation came the following morning when I heard a Bee-eater for 10 mins over the headland. Unfortunately it passed unseen drifting away east (RHC also had at least 2 others at Hodcombe throughout May). As passerine activity fell away my visits became  scarce with nothing of note seen. The Tawny Owls in Belle Tout wood fledged two owlets.

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Fledgling Stonechat.

July & August

The inactivity of high summer begun slowly to give way to the first signs of autumnal movement. A juvenile Yellow legged Gull appeared at Princes Park on the 1st July, being the first to be reported in the UK. I’d dearly like to know where abouts on the continent these early south coast juveniles come from.

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Yellow legged Gull

I heard my first returning Nightingale croaking in Shooters Bottom on the 7th and a Cuckoo flew through there on 16th (my only sighting this year) along with 25 Sand Martin, 5 Swift and a Reed Warbler all went to mark the changing season. My first vanguard, south bound Willow Warblers from the 22nd July onwards. Pied Flycatchers started to appear on the 3rd August (a max count of 10 on the 24th) along with increasing numbers of Willow Warblers.

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Pied Flycatcher

Daily totals of common migrants, including Tree Pipits, Yellow WagtailsCommon Redstarts, Whinchats & Wheatears fluctuated throughout the month in accordance with favourable weather. Light SE winds produced some real quality on the 23rd & into the bank holiday weekend with no less than 5 possibly 6 Honey Buzzard seen, 1/2 Osprey and an Ortolan Bunting (found by Kris Gillam on the 24th). All accompanied by decent numbers of common migrants.

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Party of 3 Honey Buzzard together.

An impressive movement of Swallow took place on the 23rd August involving many thousands, along with a Nightjar hawking around the pub at dusk. On the 28th, John Cooper found the only Wryneck of the autumn, a bugger to see and the third consecutive autumn they have hardly made the score sheet.

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Yellow Wagtails.

September & October

A Harrier sp. seen briefly on the 7th September (my birthday!) whilst out cycling went frustratingly unidentified. Despite returning promptly with optics it didn’t reappear. It was seen the following day, in the same area, by Liz Charlwood who ID’d it as a juvenile Montagu’s Harrier. Being the first I had seen on the headland and a bird I’d much anticipated appearing here, it was a joy to watch when I caught up with it again on the 9th. It was then seen sporadically until the 15th. I had mused which I’d see first here, Montagu’s or Pallid Harrier, which proved to be somewhat prophetic.

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Montagu’s Harrier

Huge numbers of House Martin were seen between the 13th and 16th September, with an estimate of 5000+ some days. One of Beachy Head’s most impressive avian spectacles.

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House Martin.

Curiously there was a conspicuous Blue Tit movement over several days around mid-september, with a personal high count of 35+ east on 17th the same date as my last Swift. Hot on the heals of the Montagu’s, a 2CY female Pallid Harrier appeared late in the day on the 17th and lingered until mid-morning on the 18th, it showed excellently allowing its darvic ring to be read from photos. It had been ringed in the nest near Oulo, Finland in June 2018.

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Pallid Harrier

Toward the end of September a SW airflow dominated, making birding a little bland. I then left for 3 productive weeks on Scilly not returning to Sussex until the 19th October. A Quail flushed at Cornish Farm on the 20th was my first “sight” record having only heard two calling birds in previous summers and first of two Siberian Lesser Whitethroat appeared on Long Down. A Dartford Warbler on the 22nd marked my first of the autumn. On the 29th a Hen Harrier went east which completed the set of circus harriers (bar Northern!). An excellent autumn for them here.

November & December.

There was to be no repeat of last Novembers purple patch. The month starting with my only Short eared Owl of the autumn on the 1st. On the 3rd a total of 55 Goldcrest, 18 Firecrest, c7 Black Redstart, 2 Dartford Warbler and a Woodlark were seen. A Snow Bunting found at the pub on the 5th gave me the opportunity to see my first at Beachy Head.

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Snow Bunting.

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Great Bustard.

The autumns second Siberian Lesser Whitethroat (this one confirmed by DNA) lingered at Birling Gap until the 6th November, the same day a Great Bustard (SL) from the Salisbury Plain introduction scheme paid us a visit. My last 3 Swallow passed over west on the 6th.

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Siberian Lesser Whitethroat.

2 Caspian Gull passed Birling Gap on the 23rd which marked a big influx into the SE of the country. Irregular visits towards the end of the year into December yielded nothing of note, as the headland goes further into a winter shut down. Often activity is concentrated in the set aside field at Birling, where Skylark, Corn Bunting and a small number of Linnet linger throughout the winter.

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Welsh Pony, one of the winter herd that graze Birling Gap from November to March.

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29.11.19 West Rise Caspian Gull

A glorious day cloudless with a light northerly.

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Typical views of Water Pipit at this site.

A very pleasant walk over a very flooded West Rise marsh. I flushed 40+ Common Snipe, c5 Water Pipit and amongst the gulls a pleasingly proportioned 1st Win Caspian Gull. Several Cetti’s Warbler heard. I had hoped for some decent looks at the Bearded Tits but only managed to hear a few calling birds. Disappointed the small white Heron around the Water Buffalo proved to be just a Little Egret, two collybita looking Chiffchaff were along the river south of the entrance gate. I was surprised not to have flushed any Jack Snipe.

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1st win. Caspian Gull.

An elegantly proportioned bird with signs of second generation moult across the greater and median coverts.

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1st win. Caspian Gull.

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23.11.19 Caspian Gulls

Despite a forecast of heavy rain and high winds, it was in fact relatively dry with a light to moderate south easterly. Although that did little in terms of birds on the ground it did produce a sudden arrival of Caspian Gulls to South East Britain. JP and I visited the Hollow, Cow Gap, Old Trapping Area, Birling Gap and Belle Tout.

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3rd win Caspian Gull passing east at Birling Gap (photo. JP)

This bird looks very similar (being mostly black billed) to a 3rd winter bird watched by Matt Eade earlier in the Cuckmere, where he had 5 that morning. A further 11 were seen at Dungeness.

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3rd win. Caspian Gull following on from a 1st winter – both my first at Beachy Head. (photo JP)

Two Caspian Gull (1st and 3rd winters) passing east Birling Gap, mostly amongst a passage of Great black backed Gulls, were the only highlights of a late autumn morning. In terms of passerines there were 2 Firecrest in Cow Gap, and about 10 Goldcrest and 3 Chiffchaff across all sites, a Black Redstart was at Birling Gap. Of note I saw my latest ever Swallow flying east along the cliffs at Rottingdean on the 21st.

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DNA analysis of the Lesser Whitethroat

During it’s stay at Birling Gap, I got a little bit obsessed with this Lesser Whitethroat. A determined effort was made to obtain sample material to allow for DNA analysis. Unfortunately for the bird, it had a very swollen hind toe which at one point bled on to some mallow. I retrieved the twig and posted it to Dr Martin Collinson at Aberdeen University. The results returned confirmed the bird was “unambiguously a blythi” and “clearly diverged from all other taxa of Lesser Whitethroat” which was satisfying.

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blythi Lesser Whitethroat.

Presently there are two recognised races of “eastern” Lesser Whitethroat to have been recorded in the UK, blythi halimondendri. Using current literature I felt it most likely this bird was blythi. Perhaps in danger of over simplifying things, it seems possible to identify and separate these two types in the field. Although they share similar features, this birds’ structure was more blythi, especially in regard to the primary projection. In terms of vocalisations, I only ever heard it “Tak” reminiscent of the call one would expect from curruca. Coincidentally nearby Dungeness hosted an example of the much rarer halimondendri over the same dates. Dave Walkers in the hand photo’s of that bird clearly showed a much shorter, blunter wing. Although to add to the current complexity it’s now believed two types of halimondendri have occurred in the UK!

Although not possessing true rarity status, blythi (or Siberian Lesser Whitethroat as it is also known) is a scarce autumn migrant mainly to the northern and eastern shores of the UK. Currently considered a race of Lesser Whitethroat it may have it’s taxonomic status revised to that of a full species in the future. This bird constitutes the first Sussex record to be accompanied with confirmatory DNA. Late Lesser Whitethroats are occasionally noted in the annual Sussex bird report and it’s reasonable to suggest, from October onwards, they may refer to birds of eastern origin. I suspect Siberian Lesser Whitethroat may well be occurring almost annually in Sussex and as opinion solidifies around “in the field” ID features, it may become quite acceptable to identify these birds without the need DNA analysis.

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A big thank you to Martin Collinson and Thomas Shannon for their time and work. The original post for this bird can be found here.

 

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6.11.19 Great Bustard

A bright and calm morning after another wet night.

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Seven Sisters at sunrise.

An odd day to say the least! A huge Woodpigeon flight for an hour at sunrise, I estimate somewhere in the region of c8000 birds. Most of which were arriving from the west and north west then continuing east and south east, although some seemed to reorientate north once hitting the coast. Between Birling Gap and Belle Tout I encountered c15 Goldcrest, 2 Firecrest, a Black Redstart, 2 Chiffchaff, the blythi type Lesser Whitethroat still at Birling, whilst 8 Long tailed Tit and a Coal Tit (britannicus) were in the wood. 3 late Swallow went west following the cliff edge.

The fantastical appearance of a Great Bustard, which Simon Linington found mid-morning, was an irresistible temptation. Perhaps the first time since the late 1800’s that one has walked the downland here.

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Great Bustard at Birling Gap.

Although from reintroduced stock, it was an impressive bird, looking quite contextual within the rolling landscape.

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Great Bustard. Red ring “92”

Part of a reintroduction scheme in Wiltshire, this female was released there in August. Hatched from an egg originating from Castilla Y Leon, Spain. Apparently this is the last year eggs will be imported; the population of around 100 birds is now breeding well and has reached the point of being self sustaining which is excellent news.

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Some of this mornings Woodpigeon, there are 501 in this frame alone.

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blythi type Lesser Whitethroat feeding on the ground this morning.

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5.11.19 Snow Bunting

Torrential overnight rain continued into the early morning with a light wind mostly in the NE sector.

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A wet morning finished off any plans to head out looking for birds but news of a Snow Bunting filtered through on the WhatsApp group early afternoon just in time for a lunchtime visit to catch up with this little arctic wanderer. Where ever it came from it most surely spent the summer months above the arctic circle in the lands of the midnight sun. It was doing just fine avoiding the hikers as they passed unaware of its presence.

It’s the first I’ve seen on the headland and I’ve no idea who to thank for unearthing it!

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Snow Bunting.

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4.11.19 Clear out

A still morning, occasional light showers broken cloud.

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Looking east from Belle Tout Wood.

A departure of yesterdays Goldcrest and Firecrest with only 3 and 1 respectively! A single Chiffchaff was at Birling Gap and the blythi Lesser Whitethroat was still around the cottages there feeding amongst the mallow. It’s quite apparent the birds preference for feeding near to, or on the ground in relatively open cover.

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Assumed “blythi” Lesser Whitethroat taken on the 29.10.19. It’s now been present for over a week and is part of a notable influx this autumn, mainly to the north and north eastern regions of the UK.

Yesterday the 3rd November, Jamie Partridge and I were surprised how lively the place was considering the absolute battering it received the previous day. Our totals for the headland (excluding the hollow) included 2 Dartford Warbler, 7 Chiffchaff, c55 Goldcrest, 18 Firecrest, 6/7 Black Redstart. A Woodlark passed over west midmorning & 4 Red breasted Merganser flew low over Birling Lane first thing.

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