Old Lodge NR, East Sussex ... Thursday 29th April 2010

We paid Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Old Lodge Nature Reserve on the Ashdown Forest in East Sussex a visit today, as Paul want to catch up on a few species missing from his year list.

Common Redstarts were plentiful, with two males and four females seen, but all were very flighty and mainly evaded our attempts to digiscope them, but Paul managed to get one shot.


Two Cuckoos were heard, with one glimpsed briefly on top of a tree near the brook whilst nearby a Tree Pipit was perched on top of a conifer (only one other was heard).
Two male Stonechats and one female were in close company and Paul noticed a bird with a white rump flying away from us and perching in a distant dead tree - a male Wheatear.
Shortly after, another male Wheatear joined the first one in the same tree.

Male WHEATEAR (Graham)

Further round the reserve, we heard the cronking call of a Raven and the bird appeared nearly overhead before flying off across the MOD land, its wedge shaped tail very obvious as it circled in the distance.
Good numbers of Common Whitethroats were heard and seen but only two Willow Warblers and two Chiffchaffs were noted. A Coal Tit was seen and many more were heard but we failed to see of hear any Goldcrests, possibly casualties of the hard winter like the Dartford Warblers, which we have yet to locate on the Ashdown Forest this year.
On the way back to the car park, two Woodlarks gave good views perched on the wires and allowed us to get some close shots. The length of their hind-claws is quite amazing and I wonder why they have evolved this feature as, from the photos, it would appear that this doesn’t add to their ability to perch.

WOODLARK (Top photo: Graham; Bottom photo: Paul)


Many wary Fallow Deer were also seen at several areas of the reserve.


Although the number of species of birds to be seen on the reserve is limited, as on all heathlands, this is compensated for by the quality of the species present and this reserve is well worth a visit from now until late autumn.

Paul & Graham

Who said that the camera never lies?..... 27th April 2010

Early this morning I found a lone gull perched on a straw bale at Mercers Lake at Holmethorpe Sand Pits. Just a Black-headed Gull but it looked good perched there with its mirror-image reflected on the water. A couple of quick digiscoped shots and on I moved on.

A few more shots of a Garden Warbler and a while spent listening to the rattling songs of Lesser Whitethroats and the rhythmic outpourings from a couple of Reed Warblers before the steady stream of dog-walkers and joggers started to spoil the tranquility of the morning.
Then the question came that I always dread: "Seen anything good?" which is always followed, before I get chance to answer, by the intricately detailed account of how last week they saw a big bird with grey and black and white on it and how it must have been a stork because it was eating the goldfish in their back garden pond!
As I get older I find myself becoming less tolerant of my fellow humans and resort to telling them that it probably was a stork in the hope that this will satisfy them and they will quickly b*gger off and leave me alone!

Rant over, back to the subject I was originally posting. It wasn’t until I returned home later in the morning and downloaded my photos, that I realised that the bird that I had presumed to have been a Black-headed Gull, appeared on the photo to have a black hood and black bill, not a chocolate-brown hood and red bill. It also showed no white spots on the primaries and surely the grey on its wings was too dark to be that species.
I knew that the bird was back-lit when I took the photo, but the evidence was there before me. Could this possibly be a Bonaparte’s Gull? This bird just didn’t look quite right to be a Black-headed Gull going by the photo. No other gulls on the lake at the time meant that size comparison was impossible.

The tension and excitement built, but I am always realistic about such matters. If it was a rare gull, how come I didn’t notice anything unusual about it when I took the photo? I told myself to keep calm, and do my homework on this gull before reporting it.
A few text messages, phone calls and emails later and I had contacted everyone that I knew had a knowledge of gulls (I am useless at identifying them myself).
Slowly the trickle of replies came back and by 8.30 p.m. it became clear that this bird’s legs were too long and its bill too thick to be a Bonaparte’s Gull and its hood didn't extend far enough down the rear of the crown. It was just a Black-headed Gull whose photo had been taken in adverse lighting conditions.

So the black hood and black bill were just effects of the lighting conditions and the camera’s attempt to set it’s own exposure.

Again this proves both the value of, and the problems that can occur, in getting photographic evidence. It provides the chance to prove or disprove a sighting, but it also shows how easy it is to fool one's self into believing that the common species you were observing is something a lot rarer. Digiscoping has its limitations.

Was I disappointed? After all this would have been a life tick for me had it been a Bonaparte's. No, not really, it is just another species to look for in the future.

My sincere thanks go to Dave Harris, Johnny Allan, Gordon Hay, Steve Gale, Matt Farmer and all the other birders who took the time and trouble to study the photos and identify the bird correctly for me.


Holmethorpe 2010 Bird Race … Sunday 25th April 2010

Our annual bird race took place on Sunday, a rather mad affair in as much as, although it is always planned as a dawn to dusk event, there are those who seem to register dawn as being a lot earlier than it is in reality.

I received this email from Gordon Hay: "3.08 a.m. its raining just as I am about to go owling!!!"

Are you completely mad, Gordon? Well, perhaps not, as he managed to locate a hooting Tawny Owl, the first one heard at Holmethorpe this year. Oh, and by the way, I didn’t read that email until the evening!

Steve Gale and Gordon Hay just after day-break.

The list of birds logged throughout the day was pretty good:

Great Crested Grebe
Little Grebe
Grey Heron
Mute Swan
Greylag Goose
Canada Goose
Egyptian Goose
Red-crested Pochard
Tufted Duck
Ruddy Duck
Marsh Harrier (female – Gordon Hay)
Common Buzzard (10)
Hobby (2)
Little Ringed Plover
Common Sandpiper
Greenshank (Thomas Blumire)
Whimbrel (Des Ball)
Black-headed Gull
Herring Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Common Tern (4)
Feral Pigeon
Stock Dove
Collared Dove
Tawny Owl (Gordon Hay)
Little Owl
Ring-necked Parakeet
Green Woodpecker
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Sand Martin
House Martin
Pied Wagtail
Yellow Wagtail
Grey Wagtail
Song Thrush
Mistle Thrush
Garden Warbler
Lesser Whitethroat
Common Whitethroat
Grasshopper Warbler (Neil Randon)
Reed Warbler
Willow Warbler
Great Tit
Coal Tit
Blue Tit
Long-tailed Tit
Carrion Crow
House Sparrow
Reed Bunting

A total of 88 species (the record is 91 species).

Notable omissions from this year’s list were Little Egret, Green Sandpiper, Kingfisher, Common Snipe and Meadow Pipit, which were all expected although Kingfishers have become very scarce locally since the freeze-up earlier in the year.

Although I do not have all the competitors lists in yet, it would appear that Gordon Hay is this year’s winner with a provisional total of 83 species (yet to be confirmed by him).
Steve Gale was close behind with 77 species.
I crept into third place with 73 species.
Thomas and Jerry notched up a respectable 65 species for fourth place.

My thanks to all who took part.


Old Lodge NR, Ashdown Forest, East Sussex ... Saturday 24th April 2010

We didn't arrive at the reserve until mid-morning and the car park was almost full, so we knew that, unusually, quite a lot of birders were going to be on the reserve.
Near the reserve entrance 2 Willow Warblers and a Chiffchaff were in full song and, after walking about 100 yards, I noticed a raptor in the distance being mobbed by a Carrion Crow - a Common Buzzard, one of two seen. Two more Willow Warblers and 2 further Chiffchaffs were seen and a few Coal Tits were heard.
Two Tree Pipits were singing from the tops of Scots Pines and 2 male Stonechats were present around the reserve, one sitting right at the top of a very tall Scots Pine. A Nuthatch gave us a very close, but brief view and then my wife Sue spotted two Common Redstarts together, both males, tolerating each other and feeding together. Two more males were seen further round the reserve, but no females. A Kestrel was hovering over the MOD land with a Sparrowhawk circling high above it. Another Sparrowhawk was also seen later.


In the distance, we heard the distinctive call of a Raven and later we spotted one high over the reserve being mobbed by a Kestrel, the Kestrel looking small compared to the giant corvid.
The Raven circled high above us, its wedge-shaped tail and deep cronking call making it very distinctive. It eventually gained so much height that it appeared a speck in the sky, even through binoculars.

The view from Keeches Bridge

A Cuckoo was calling distantly and, on the way back to the car park, Sue spotted a raptor in the distance. A quick look through the binoculars revealed a Hobby dashing across the heathland.
We met another birder who was standing staring at a conifer and he kindly pointed out to us a female Common Crossbill sitting quietly on a branch. I have to admit that we would not have noticed it. Our thanks to him.



Holmethorpe SPs ... Friday 23rd April 2010

Another morning at my local patch at Holmethorpe Sand Pits in Surrey produced a few migrants.
The first seen were a pair of Wheatears, but they didn't hang around for long.

A Sedge Warbler was chattering crazily from bushes by one of the pits and proved to be the first of three seen in the area. Meanwhile, a Reed Warbler was rhythmically pumping out its song from a scrubby area by another pit.
Blackcaps are still in fairly good numbers locally with at least 10 birds seen, only two of which were females, and other warblers consisted of 9 Common Whitethroats, 2 Lesser Whitethroats, 7 Chiffchaffs and 3 Willow Warblers.
A lone Skylark was in song flight over the farm and 5 Stock Doves were feeding on the fields.
Over Mercers Lake, around 15 Swifts were circling together very high but hirundines were poorly represented with just 2 Swallows and 6 Sand Martins seen.
A few wildfowl, apart from the ever-present Tufted Ducks and Mallards, are still around with two male Shovelers, a pair of Teal and a pair of Gadwall in temporary residence, though I doubt they will hang around for very much longer. A couple of Egyptian Geese flew over but raptors were obvious by their absence, considering the sunny and warm conditions, with only a male Kestrel seen.
A pair of Lapwings continue to display in the area and a Little Owl was perched out on an oak, until it decided it didn’t appreciate being watched and flew to another tree and out of sight.
This year, there seems to be an increase in the number of Song Thrushes holding territory with up to 15 birds singing early each morning.
Our first brood of Mallards have appeared on Mercers Lake with around eight ducklings present.
On one of the pits, a nest has been built at the water’s edge and I have seen it occupied by a Little Grebe and the following day by a Great Crested Grebe and then, this morning, a Coot was sitting on it.
It will be interesting to see which of them actually manages to lay eggs.


The migrants keep coming ... Wednesday 21st & Thursday 22nd April 2010 at Holmethorpe SPs

After enjoying the sight of the female Common Redstart at Holmethorpe Sand Pits yesterday evening, I did not expect to find it again today (Wednesday) but it had remained overnight at exactly the same location.

It was on an inaccessible area of Surrey Wildlife Trust land and could only be viewed from a distance, so getting a decent photo was impossible with the digiscoping gear that I have. The bird remained all day, never straying far from where it was first sighted.

Other birds noted by the local birders on Wednesday were a female Wheatear (I later found out that a visiting birder, Andrew Pearce, had seen two females together), two Green Sandpipers and one Common Sandpiper, a Lesser Whitethroat, a Shelduck, a Common Buzzard and a flock of around 70 Sand Martins that appeared from nowhere and disappeared just as quickly.

Today, Thursday, I couldn’t find the Common Redstart in the morning, so I presume it has moved on.
I had a good count of the warblers and found two Reed Warblers (new birds for the year locally, and the 115th species noted - photo below), 18 Blackcaps, 11 Common Whitethroats, 2 Lesser Whitethroats, 7 Chiffchaffs and 4 Willow Warblers, still no Garden Warblers!

Three Swifts and 3 House Martins were feeding over an area we locally call the Willow Wood. Several years ago, 'Willow Wood' described this area pretty well but, when Mercers West Pit was excavated, much of the wooded area succumbed to the digger, so it is no longer a wood as such, just a belt of mature willows and scrubby bushes between a brook and the pit.
Unfortunately, this is another area where there is no access but, in the past, the purring of Turtle Doves from the wood, the occasional sighting of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker or a Woodcock during the winter months was almost to be expected.
Now it is the domain of Woodpigeons, Magpies and Carrion Crows.

A Green Sandpiper was at one of the pits and three Common Buzzards were circling together high above the area.
Several Linnets are now paired up and I suspect that they are nesting in the tangle of brambles at one of the pits.

So, what will be the next migrant to appear at Holmethorpe?
My guess is Cuckoo, Garden Warbler or Common Tern, but something rarer would be nice!


Holmethorpe Sand Pits ... Monday 19th & Tuesday 20th April 2010

On Monday, I didn't set out quite as early as usual, so I was expecting to find quite a few dog-walkers and joggers present at the pits. Surprisingly, not many were about to disturb the birds so I headed for a mound behind the Water Colour lagoons in search of migrants.
A Little Egret flew over the mound as I approached it and I could already see a small bird running around on the sparse vegetation - a female Wheatear.
I know that Wheatears can be quite approachable at times but this bird took this to the extreme, often running towards me and perching on stones less than 20 feet away from me, at times too close to focus the scope on it.
I watched this bird for about 15 minutes before the inevitable happened. A young lady with a child in a buggy and a free-running dog came noisily up the path to the mound, the dog sending the Wheatear into a panic, leaving me watching a white rump disappearing into the distance.

Knowing that there was little point in remaining at this location now that the disturbance had begun, I headed of to Spynes Mere, one of the other Holmethorpe pits to the east.
On the way, at Mercers Lake, I counted 10 Blackcaps and 6 Chiffchaffs and, on arrival at Spynes Mere, I could hear a Lesser Whitethroat rattling away. Two Willow Warblers were in full song nearby and a superb male Bullfinch perched up in a willow for a full two seconds before yet another white rump disappeared from view. At Mercers Farm, two Little Owls were perched in the same oak tree, which is a promising sign.

Today, Tuesday the 20th, I set the alrm for 5.15 a.m. and was at the Water Colour mound by 5.50 a.m. The wind had veered to a north-westerly and I was hoping that this would hold up a few migrants heading north from the coast. My targets today were Ring Ouzel and Yellow Wagtail. Although we have already had one of the latter species fly over the local patch, I was hoping to find one on the ground.

A Little Egret was again in the area but there were no migrants on the mound today. At one of the lagoons, a Common Sandpiper was feeding along the bank, the first I have seen this year.

On my way to Spynes Mere, I counted 7 Blackcaps, 5 Chiffchaffs, 8 Common Whitethroats and one Willow Warbler and on reaching the small reedbed at Spynes Mere, I was greeted by the scratchy, erratic song of a Sedge Warbler, the first for the year locally.
A scan of Spynes Mere produced a small wader on the sand spit and a look through the scope showed it had the black belly of a summer-plumaged Dunlin, another first for the Holmethorpe year list bringing the total to 111 species seen so far, and bringing my personal local list to 106 for the year, still five species behind Gordon.
I made my way round to a spot where I could try to digiscope the bird, but the light was harsh from this point, so the photos were not very good.

A phone call to local birder Gordon to alert him to this bird and it was time to start heading home. On the way back, I met Matt Farmer who had just found the Sedge Warbler and had heard another just prior to this. He soon added the Dunlin to his local year list too.
Gordon made a flying visit at about 9 a.m. but the Dunlin was no where to be seen and had been replaced by a Common Sandpiper on the sand spit, possibly the same bird that I had seen earlier.

At about 1.40 p.m., Gordon rang me to let me know he had just seen a male Yellow Wagtail at the farm and later in the afternoon he saw two birds together and the first local Hobby of the year (112th species). Sedge Warblers had increased to three birds and he also had 40+ Sand Martins, 2 Swallows, 3 House Martins, a Lesser Whitethroat and a Common Buzzard amongst others.

In the evening, another call from Gordon had me rushing back to the pits, Des Ball had found a female Common Redstart along a hedgerow. It didn't take long to find Gordon, Des and Tom all watching the bird as it flew from the bushes and often perched on the fence posts nearby.

As we were watching the Redstart, a Swift flew over, the first of the year locally and the 114th species, and two Wheatears were behind the Water Colour lagoons.

If only every day was as good as this one.


A good morning at Holmethorpe Sand Pits ... Sunday 18th April 2010

Setting the alarm clock for 5 a.m., I was at the local patch at Holmethorpe Sand Pits by 5.45 a.m.
A slight frost was on the ground and there was mist over the pits to begin with, but both the frost and the mist soon disappeared. Conditions seemed good, as the very slight breeze seem to be coming from the south. Had anything dropped in overnight?

It was not long before I was looking at a first-summer male Wheatear in the horse paddocks at Mercers Farm. A phone call to Gordon Hay soon had him watching it alongside me. Gordon then received a call from Ian Kehl who was at Mercers Lake where he had been watching a Common Sandpiper, the first at Holmethorpe this year.

Ian decided to join us and take a look at the Wheatear as he needed it for his local year list. We moved round to the side of the horse paddocks to get a better view of the bird, as it had been directly in line with the low sun and was pretty much silhouetted. From our new viewpoint, the bird was in a much better position to view and I managed a couple of distant shots before the bird flew off over the hedge to the fields.

We headed back to Mercers Lake for the Common Sandpiper but we could not relocate it. Not to worry, there will be more.

A Shelduck headed west over Mercers Lake and, when we arrived at Spynes Mere, four Lesser Whitethroats, at least 5 Common Whitethroats, 2 Willow Warblers and 25+ Sand Martins were in the area.

We noticed four ducks flying in and soon identified them as being two pairs of Mandarins. They seem to land on a tree by Mercers Farm but we could not find them again and presume that they dropped into the brook nearby.

Gordon scanned the fields and soon picked up what was probably the same Wheatear we had seen previously but, as it was very distant, it was difficult to be sure.

Other birds of note included at least seven Chiffchaffs and twelve Blackcaps, five Skylarks and three Yellowhammers, three Bullfinches, an Egyptian Goose, three Lapwings, a Green Sandpiper and five Common Snipe, three Rooks and two Little Owls together in the same tree.

After I had decided to head home, Ian located a Little Egret so, all in all, not a bad morning’s birding.

Several reports of a Bonaparte's Gull at Arlington Reservoir in East Sussex today had me tempted to make the trip but the thought of masses of birders lined up to twitch it brought me back to reality.


Holmethorpe Sand Pits ....12th-16th April 2010

The past few days have been blighted by chilly breezes from the north-east and this seems to have slowed the spring migration down. It has not been all bad news though.

On Monday the 12th April, Gordon Hay found a Water Pipit, still pretty much in winter plumage - a scarce bird locally, and on the same day my wife spotted a large bird of prey heading from the local patch over our flat, dashing to the window I was greeted by the sight of an Osprey heading north-west. Two Green Sandpipers were also at the pits on the 12th.

At least Common Whitethroats were present on the 13th and an evening stroll with Gordon Hay and Neil Randon, on the 14th, turned up the first Lesser Whitethroat and Yellow Wagtail for the year at Holmethorpe. Sand Martins were in evidence with about 25 birds present.

The 15th proved to be a fairly quiet day, with little out the ordinary but I did find a few butterflies - one Small Tortoiseshell, 2 Peacocks and a Comma.

The 16th saw good numbers of Blackcaps, with at least 18 birds, all but three being males, and 12 Chiffchaffs in the local area. In addition, there were 2 Willow Warblers and a single Common Whitethroat. Two Green Sandpipers were around the pits and hirundines were represented by 2 Swallows, 9 Sand Martins and 2 House Martins. I also found my first Speckled Wood butterfly of the year.

The weather forecast shows that the winds are going to veer to southerlies late on Saturday and then veer back to north easterlies on Sunday. Hopefully, Sunday morning may see a few more migrants arriving (maybe!).


Return to Old Lodge NR, East Sussex ... Sunday 11th April 2010

On arrival at the Old Lodge NR car park, another birder informed me that he had seen 5 Common Redstarts, a Brambling, a Siskin and around 30 Crossbills, so Sue and I were optimistic that we were going to have a good visit.



The brisk north-easterly wind certainly kept the air chilly and we struggled to find any good birds. We did manage a single male Common Redstart, singing on top of a tall dead tree, one Tree Pipit, 2 Woodlarks, 2 male and one female Stonechat, 3 Nuthatch and several Coal Tits, Goldcrest and a single Willow Warbler. No Brambling or Crossbills though and still no sign of any Dartford Warblers.




Amazingly, as we were about to return to the car park, fellow Holmethorpe birder Matt Farmer arrived with his wife and sister-in-law, so I hope they did better than we did.

On the drive home, a Common Buzzard was circling over a field near Edenbridge.

The rest of this week will probably be spent local patch birding at Holmethorpe Sand Pits near Redhill and I am hoping to connect with our first Yellow Wagtail of the year. Watch this space!


Old Lodge NR, Ashdown Forest, East Sussex .... Friday 9th April 2010

My wife Sue and I returned to one of our favourite birding sites today, Old Lodge Nature Reserve.

This beautiful reserve on the Ashdown Forest is superbly managed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust and is home to most of the usual heathland bird species.

Today's visit produced two male Common Redstarts, a Tree Pipit, a Woodlark, a Cuckoo and ten Common Crossbills, all of which were year ticks for me.
(We must have missed a few birds as Matt Eade and Dick Gilmore reported on the Sussex Ornithological Society website that they had seen 8 Common Redstarts, 30+ Crossbills and 2 Siskins around the reserve late morning.)


A distant WOODLARK


The supporting cast included two Ravens, at first just heard but then seen on the ground and in flight, two male and one female Stonechat, two Common Buzzards soaring together over the MOD land, three Nuthatches, five drumming Great Spotted Woodpeckers, many Coal Tits, three Chiffchaffs and three Willow Warblers, nine Lesser Redpolls, one Skylark and 3 male and one female Pheasant.

A LESSER REDPOLL doing a magnificent job of keeping out of view.

A blurry male STONECHAT

At least fifteen Fallow Deer were around the reserve and, despite the really warm and sunny weather today, the only butterflies seen were one Brimstone and one Peacock.


Worryingly, we didn't see or hear any Dartford Warblers and one has to wonder just how badly the populations have been hit by this past winter's weather. The most numerous species by far today was the Chaffinch. At least fifty were seen around the reserve.


The local patch at Holmethorpe again ... Tuesday 6th April 2010

A morning at the local patch fron 6.45am to mid-day was a little disappointing, as the wind direction had promised an increase in migrant numbers. Unfortunately a clear, moonlit night probably saw the migrants flying straight through.

The first birds that I noticed on arrival were a Little Egret in flight and a first-winter male Goldeneye on one of the pits, which quickly took flight. I went in search of the female Ferruginous Duck at the area known as The Moors, but again no sign of it, but that was to be expected I supppose.

On returning to the pits, a Little Ringed Plover was circling low and eventually set down on a mound. I managed to sex it as a female, as it showed brown markings in the dark area behind the eye and had a reduced breast band compared to a male. A phone call to Gordon Hay soon saw him ticking it for his year list and gaining his 100th species for the year at Holmethorpe. He is well ahead of the rest of the local birders.

At Mercers Lake we relocated the Goldeneye and, around the lake, there were 8 Chiffchaffs, 6 Blackcaps and 3 Willow Warblers. A much reduced number of Sand Martins and Swallows were present compared to yesterday.

Four Egyptian Geese were seen in flight and after Gordon left, a pair of Mandarins landed on top of a dead tree briefly, an odd sight, but as they nest in holes in trees, I guess it this is normal behaviour.

The female Little Ringed Plover had moved to another pit (identifiable as being the same bird by one pale flight feather on the right wing) but it didn't stay for long.

Two Bullfinches, 2 Shelducks, a Common Buzzard and a Sparrowhawk made up the best of the rest, but there were still a few Gadwall and Shoveler present and a lone male Teal.

Hopefully, a cloudy night tonight might encourage a few migrants to drop in tomorrow.