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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A surprisingly early Grasshopper Warbler (and first to be reported in the UK) was reeling below belle tout lighthouse on the 2nd April.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Daily totals of common migrants, including Tree Pipits, Yellow Wagtails, Common 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Welsh Pony, one of the winter herd that graze Birling Gap from November to March.