Friday, August 29, 2008

Cuckmere, Seaford and Tidemills

An unexpectedly variable day. Starting off (after lunch in the small but now pretty expensive tea rooms) at Cuckmere with a walk down to the seashore and a few swallows still around - perhaps on their southward route from further north. There were a number of wheatears, stonechats and linnets in the scrub near the shingle. Now don't quote me on it but was it possible that I saw a Dartford Warbler down there? Something about the right size, small and dark certainly but I didn't get close enough or see it for long enough for a definite confirmation. There were also a few little egrets and herons about in the lagoon and a couple of egrets on the meanders, as well as four dabchicks.

From there we stopped off at Seaford to see the kittiwakes. There were a few still around - several adults sitting on the posts in the water and one or two of this year's pied youngsters with their black, white and grey plumage and distinctive black collar.

Not done yet the next stop was Tidemills between Seaford and Newhaven as I wanted to see what if anything was around. They recently landscaped the area although I don't think it's been set up as a tidal area there are reed beds and the potential for the shallow scrapes to be filled by water, so you never know what might be there. It wasn't until we walked down the path that I realised there was a whole village located there - built in the 1700s for the mill workers - the mill used the tidal flow (hence the name) and was abandoned in the late 19th century and mostly demolished during the second world war. There were a few pied wagtails around, dunnock and what looked like a female sparrowhawk and several dozen woodpigeons feeding on the stubble, a flock of sparrows and starlings and a kestrel hovering on the side of the road as we drove back out.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Autumn Butterflies

The autumn hatching of butterflies are out. I can see four, no five red admiral butterflies feeding on the buddliea from my office window. Butterflies have been few and far between for the rest of the summer, I can't blame them with all the wind we've had but now they seem to be appearing again and I've noticed more speckled woods this year - perhaps because I now know what they are.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Not Mush Room

The field mushrooms are starting to sprout - or whatever mushrooms do. I picked a small handful of field mushrooms and puffballs last week and a few more this week. It wasn't intended as a mushrooming session, I just spotted them on my way back from my run and was a bit limited to how many I could carry in one hand or pocket and jog without damaging them too much!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Volunteering At Pulborough

First day on the job as a Hide and Trails volunteer, doing what I usually do in the hides - talking to people. To start with though, I was issued with my name badge, radio and instructions on how to use it and then off down to the North Brooks to see what was around and offer help and assistance to visitors.

Not a lot as it turned out. I was hard pushed to see a common sandpiper, although there were plenty of black-tailed godwit around and the bar-headed goose was still there. I got a fleeting glimpse of a hobby which disturbed the lapwing and geese before disappearing from view or being too far away to catch sight of it again. However, round in the Winpenny hide which doesn't usually have much of interest, I caught sight of two hobbies, off in the distance skimming over the fields and then up higher being chased by the crows. They obligingly landed on a fence post and pole giving other people in the hide a good view of them through the scope. It's one of the hides that people have a tendency to walk down to and then go no further, so it's good to have something for them to look at.

A break for lunch, comparing notes with another more experienced hide guide (Graham) and then back for round two and an excited transmission from Graham who'd spotted an unidentified wader and wanted a second opinion. The radios were useful for reporting 'special' sightings, so that the daily log book could be updated. What use I was going to be identifying the wader, I wasn't sure but I went to have a look anyway.

It had most of us scratching our heads and referencing our assorted bird books but had us stumped. It was tiny. Not only was it on the small pond several hundred feet away from the Hanger but it was small, especially when compared to the moorhen that was feeding in the mud a few feet away from it. Now, as I'll freely admit, I'm not that hot on waders - I can get the more obvious ones but the 'peeps' as they're apparently referred to, are most certainly going to boggle me, if they're bemusing the experts. It appeared to have dark legs, a shortish bill, similar shape to a dunlin and distinctive white flanks which went right up around the edge of it's wings and a buff or brownish breast down to it's legs. We pretty much agreed what it wasn't - ruff, stint, common sandpiper and narrowed it down to dunlinesque or maybe a pectoral sandpiper.

Will have to wait and see what the final conclusion is.

Friday, August 22, 2008

How To Watch Birds - Part 5: Where To Find Them

Armed with your binoculars and your bird book and having familiarised yourself with the more common birds, you can now explore your own patch.

Birds can be found in a range of different places from the seashore to mountain tops, from gardens to remote heathland. Pretty much anywhere is likely to have a few varieties of birds and it can be exciting to visit a new habitat and spot something you’ve not seen before.

Habitat is important – birds need sites to feed, nest and roost. Looking after and creating the right environment for them to be successful means looking after the plants, animals and insects that create their environment and for the migrants that applies not just to the UK where they come to breed or over winter but for the countries they pass through or migrate from.

Certain bird species ONLY live in certain habitats and that can be a good way of identifying what you’re looking at. Woodland birds in woods, water birds and waders on or near water. You’re unlikely to see a swan in a woodland or a blue tit on a sea shore, well, you might but it’s not its normal habitat. Although many birds have adapted to our environment. Sea gulls now regularly inhabit towns well away from the sea. Peregrine falcons nest on tall buildings rather than their natural cliffs.

However, there will always be the unexpected bird that turns up but that’s part of the fun of bird-watching. You’re never quite sure what you’re going to see. Birds fly, they move around, they can get blown off course when migrating, so you might just spot something unusual where it shouldn’t be. Like the bar-headed goose, recently seen at the RSPB Pulborough reserve. It’s a bird from Asia, so it’s more likely to be an escapee from the nearby Arundel Wetland Centre than one that’s been blown way off course while migrating.

Get familiar with your local environment and you’ll start to recognise the different species of birds that live there – both the residents that are here all year round and the visitors that arrive for the summer or winter. Visit your local wildlife reserves – not only will they have a list of what’s around at a particular time of year but also ‘recent sightings’ and experts on hand to ask if you’re unsure, what you’re looking at.

Before you go somewhere new – take a look at what’s likely to be in the area for that time of year. Many bird books include a map showing distribution for each bird species, so you can get a general idea of if you’re on the right track when you spot something new.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Went out blackberrying out on the Downs today, just close to where a friend lives on the edge of Brighton. They've been ripening up for the last couple of weeks and although many of them are still only small or in flower, there were a good few that were ripe. In fact in one place, I found so many that I picked practically my whole haul in just that patch of brambles. It took a while to find as most of the bushes we passed had already been picked or weren't ripe but the first batch has been frozen with a few saved for breakfast.

Recommended wear for blackberry picking - long trousers, long sleeve shirt, tough outer covering so you don't get scratched to bits, tupperware box to gather them in, walking stick to get to those tantalising branches with the biggest, juiciest blackberries that are always just out of reach, water to wash your hands with when they're covered in squished blackberry juice, ability to stand on tiptoe at full stretch to reach as far as you can - doesn't help being short but at least I can get the low-hanging fruits.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

August Night Sky

Far too cloudy and windy to see the Perseids on Monday but I was out later this week - picking slugs and snails (the only 'crop' that seems to be growing well this year) and after a few nights of cloudy skies, it was a clear sky for a change.

While I didn't spot any shooting stars (it's far too bright with street lights for most star viewing) I did get a brilliant view of the moon and also Jupiter with it's moons, which could just be seen through my scope, after I finally managed to get it in the scope.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Interview Day

Over to Pulborough again for an 'interview' as a Hide Guide. As I seem to spend quite a bit of my time in the hides chatting to people and pointing things out, it made sense to at least see what was involved and having enquired last time I was visting, an interview was set for today. Fortunately they don't need someone that can identify every shape, size and variation of wader but at least I know one end of my binoculars from the other and a good bird book is always handy.

I got the job and start next week on Saturday which surprisingly tend to be days when they don't get so many volunteers turning up. While I was there, I of course took a walk around the reserve. Two buzzards circling high up above the meadows and a few swallows and house martins flitting across the brooks but not much else of special note, other than the usual waders - black tailed godwits, which are slowly changing into their paler winter plumage, some still in their ruffous summer plumage and a common sandpiper, ducks and geese.

How To Watch Birds - Part 4: Binoculars And Scopes

A pair of binoculars is essential if you want to watch and identify birds at any distance. Getting a good magnification and field of view and paying as much as you can afford for a good pair is definitely worth it.

There are two numbers that are important when choosing a pair of binoculars – the magnification and the field of view. The magnification is how much ‘bigger’ the bird appears through the lens and the field of view relates to how much you can see. Ideally you want to go for as big and as wide as possible but it also needs to be manageable.

Magnification – go for x8 or x10 – these are the best for viewing birds. x10 will give you more magnification but will be larger. I’ve got a great pair of x10, which are small and easy to carry with me almost anywhere but do allow me to see that much more detail or further than the x8.

Field of view – this usually varies between 25-50mm and relates to the width of the lens furthest from the eye. A narrow field of view allows less light in and won’t work so well in low light conditions.

10x50 might be great for magnification but will be bulky and heavy to handle. 8x40 is generally a good size and weight. It’s definitely worth trying out a few different pairs to see which fits your hand, eye (especially if you normally wear glasses) and pocket (budget). A cheap pair will not have the same quality and build as a more expensive pair but you don’t need to take out a second mortgage, by choosing the most expensive pair on the market.

A spotting scope is the next level up and will greatly enhance your viewing pleasure. The difference is amazing. You can practically count the feathers on the back of a bird that is a few metres away and if you’re trying to identify a wader on the other side of a river bank, field or lake you probably will only just about be able to see it with a pair of binoculars. Magnification starts at around x15 and goes up to x45 or even higher. If you’re into photography they can also be adapted to fit your camera. Price depends on make and optical quality and you will need a tripod with a scope.

Try them out – most large centres will have these on sale and may even have a special day when you get to try and buy.

Carry your binoculars around your neck at all times when you’re out and about, not tucked away in their case or a rucksack. If you have to scrabble around for them or get them out of a bag the bird will be long gone by the time you’ve fished them out.

Now, let's go and find something to look at.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Not All Gone

I spotted half a dozen house martins flying over the sheep field near the Tye this afternoon, so they haven't all gone quite yet. Most of them seem to have headed off and those that are still around are fewer in numbers

Monday, August 11, 2008

Suddenly They're Gone

They were around on Friday but suddenly they've all gone. Out for a run this afternoon and not a swallow, house martin or swift in sight. Off to warmer climes for the winter - don't blame them. We hardly seem to have had a summer this year and with the strong winds currently blowing across the Atlantic, I'm surprised they left over the weekend.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Woods Mill

Woods Mill is the headquarters for the Sussex Wildlife Trust. It's not somewhere I visit very often, so for this week's rain soaked outing, it seemed like a good place to chose, as I hadn't been there for ages and my friend never knew it existed.

After a coffee in the local deli in Henfield, to avoid the downpour and knowing that they don't have a cafe onsite, we drove into the small car park which was about half full with a few other visitors with young children.

It's only a small reserve - or it was. Since I was last there, they've added the meadow which bordered onto the reserve and it's now expanded to almost double it's size. There's a path out along the side of the meadow which was being grazed by some very pregnant cows and the Friday Hit Squad was out manoeuvring round the path with the tractor. How come we don't get T-shirts? There was a large flock of swallows feeding over the meadow, at least thirty of them. No house-martins or swifts with them and a few little brown jobbies that disappeared into the hedgerow before I could work out what they are.

The main lake is a lot more overgrown than I remember, with reeds in the lower part, which I'm sure used to be open water a few years ago and lovely yellow water lillies on the larger area. There were a few birds skulking around in the undergrowth by the only hide on the reserve and a mosquito buzzing around inside, which I discovered later had a meal out of me, as several bites appeared on my arm. The feeders in front of the hide were empty - perhaps they only fill them over the winter and there are dozens of nest boxes around in Hoe Wood.

Plenty of butterflies and dragon flies around although most of them flitting past far too quickly to identify them.

How To Watch Birds - Part 3: Bird Books

Once you've got to grips with the easier birds, you're likely to want to identify a few more species, so having a good bird book is essential and will add to your enjoyment.

Bird books vary greatly and there are hundreds of them out there. I learnt a lot of my bird recognition from the wonderfully illustrated AA British Bird book which is probably still available and often seen in second-hand book shops and my other essential is the small Mitchell Beazley handbook, which I still have although it’s very weather beaten and thumbed now.

You could buy one that has the most common birds in it which is good to get started but you’ll soon grow out of that and if you go around the country or want to extend your skills and knowledge it helps to have one that covers all the British species and either includes European species or rare visitors and migrants that you must might see. Collins produce a good range of bird books.

Illustrations are good for the specific information and detail about the bird but don’t always look like the bird that’s in front of you (probably appearing as a speck in the distance which is moving around).

Photographs will give you an idea of what the bird actually looks like in real life but you can guarantee that the light conditions and the plumage will be different (I’ll come on to that later).

Now if only birds could learn to pose, turn, pose, stand still, front view, back view, stretch their wings out that would be great and make life so much easier. However, they don’t!

Have a weighty tome that you can refer to at home but have a smaller, light weight version that you can carry with you and flick through.

This is where practice is essential. The more you see them, the easier they become to recognise each time.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

WOW!! A Thunderstorm And A Half

Complete with a torrential downpour of hailstones the size of golf balls ... well, small golf balls, thunder, forked lightening and all. The lightening has been going for about an hour and then the rumble of thunder got gradually closer and then I heard the hail pounding against the windows. It only lasted a few minutes and the rain a few minutes more and then it's gone.

Saved me watering the garden tonight.

Friday, August 01, 2008

How To Watch Birds - Part 2: Go For The Easy Ones

Get familiar with the common birds that you’ll see pretty much anywhere.

You can start by watching birds in your garden or local park. Most gardens, even the most urban will attract a variety of birds - blackbirds, sparrows, starlings and robins will visit pretty much any garden. Woodpigeons and collared doves are also found in most places and if you put out food you'll probably attract blue tits, great tits, chaffinches and greenfinches.

These birds are common for a reason, they’re either residents – here all year round or seen in a variety of habitats. Birds such blackbird, jackdaw and crow (carrion) are all black but easily distinguishable when you know the obvious differences.

Most people can recognise a robin but may have a bit more difficulty with different varieties of tits and finches.

Here are a few to get you started. Click on the link to go to the RSPB site for an overview of each bird.

Robin - unmistakeable red breast, loud song and can be quite tame.

Blackbird - males are black, females are brown and youngsters are brown and speckled.

Blue Tit - small blue and yellow bird, often seen on feeders.

Great Tit - more black and larger than the blue tit - also seen on feeders.

Chaffinch - male is colourful, pinkish-brown front, grey head, brown back and white feathers on the wings, female is mainly brown.

Greenfinch - green as it's name implies, yellow on the wings, paler in the winter, brighter plumage in spring and summer.

Woodpigeon - large, lumbering, grey pigeon, distinctive white collar.

Collared Dove - pale brown, black neck collar, small and delicate.

Starling - short tail and wings, sharp often bright yellow beak, very glossy dark black, green, purple plumage with light speckles. Noisy and often seen in large flocks. Actually not that common - they're on the red list.

House Sparrow - males have a dark brown head, black bib and white cheek patches, darker brown on the back and paler breast. Females are paler brown without the head markings. Also in decline and on the red list.

Dunnock - brown and grey sparrow like bird. Often low in hedges and shrubs. Lovely song for a dull brown bird.

Wren - small brown bird, round shape with upright, flicking tail. Loud song and call for such a small bird.

Jackdaw - small black crow with a grey head. Not as aggressive looking as the other crows.

Magpie - unmistakeable black and white bird with dark blue and green sheen to it's wing and tail feathers.

Carrion Crow - large, completely black crow.

That's fifteen to get started on.