Ouzels and Sprites

Last weekend was a great one for birding. Saturday started drizzly and it continued like that for the rest of the day, but when I saw news of a Yellow-browed Warbler just 10 minutes away I couldn’t resist going for this scarce vagrant. When we arrived at Bewbush West Playing Fields it was cloudy and miserable. We could tell that this wasn’t the most likely destination for most birders, it was simply a few football pitches, a tiny section of woodland and a hedgerow.

We followed a footpath adjacent to the playing fields, as that was where the Yellow-browed Warbler was seen. Along the whole route I played the call of this species, hoping that the lost bird would call back and reveal its presence. We had no luck for the first fifteen minutes, with only Blue Tits and Robins calling from the trees. However, as we reached a large, dense, berry-laden Hawthorn bush, my mum and I both heard the call. ‘Tseeweest, tseeweest’. That was the bird! I played back the call several times and received a couple more faint responses, but that was it. There was no sign of the bird, it was obviously well hidden inside the dark, dark hedge.

Yellow-browed Warblers are birds that breed in Siberia and winter in South-east Asia, but hundreds each year perform ‘reverse migration’, that is migrating in the wrong direction, and find themselves here in Britain. This is the perfect time of year for these Siberian ‘sprites’ to turn up on our coasts, with a maximum of 600 on one day earlier this year. All records are pretty much confined to the east coast, however, with few making their way inland. This year has so far been a bumper year for them, with 8 being seen in Surrey at the time of writing. Considering that there haven’t been any confirmed records for at least 2 years this is amazing!

The next day the weather was much more favourable and my dad and I made our way to the brilliant Ashdown Forest to see how Autumn was getting on. There had been 12 Ring Ouzels reported during the last two days and these are another species I had yet to see in Britain and indeed the world. When we arrived in the car park we could simply hear autumn calling from the trees: there were Chaffinches everywhere! Given this being a bumper year for beech mast, one of their favourite foods, I wasn’t too surprised to see lots. However, I think 69 is a pretty good total!

Continuing along the tarmac road I heard a distant Pheasant and party of Blackbirds in a dense holly bush. For a moment I thought I could hear a faint ‘chack’ of a Ring Ouzel, but I couldn’t be sure. Further along the road we came to a more open area with gorse and some isolated pines. Ahead of us on the path we could see a flock of about 20 Chaffinches; however they were very flighty and I couldn’t tell if there were any Brambling among them. It didn’t sound like it, no Brambling calls stood out as the flock flew over our heads and into some tall pines at the bottom of a short slope.

A short while later, as we were under the cover of some tall pines and beech trees again, I spotted a flock of thrush-size birds flying around a small Rowan. They weren’t close and even through my binoculars I couldn’t tell if they were Blackbirds or Ring Ouzels; however it seemed unlikely that Blackbirds would form such a large flock. Retracing our steps we managed to find a path that lead down towards the Rowan for us to get a closer look and confirm the identity of those birds. It was a steep but easy descent, in one place we had to move quickly as we came across a huge Wood Ant nest!

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Formica rufa, Southern Wood Ant, nest

The number of birds around us was incredible. A tit flock made their way through the thin birch trees, hanging from the flimsy twigs. It was mainly made up of Long-tailed Tits, however there were also Blue, Coal and Great Tits along with seven Chiffchaffs. Several Redwings passed overhead and there were even more Chaffinches and Goldfinches calling from above.

We soon got to a point where we could see the bush where we had seen the Ring Ouzels feeding. There was clearly a lot of activity on the small Rowan and I was pleased to see, through my binoculars, that they were definitely Ring Ouzels! They were very busy feeding on the ripe red berries, along with many Chaffinches. Three Bramblings were also a nice surprise feeding on the berries, they are my first this winter and always great to see. This year I am trying to attract them in to our garden, but there hasn’t been much luck yet unfortunately.

Ring Ouzels are migrants that breed here in the UK in hilly and mountainous open areas. They don’t usually breed in South-East England so this time of year when they are passing through on their way to their wintering grounds is the best to see them. They are similar in appearance to Blackbirds being primarily black, however the males are easy to tell apart due to the bright white crescent on the breast. All genders and ages have this white crescent however it is duller in the females and especially so in juvenile birds. In cases where the crescent is faint, then the next best method of identification is looking at the wings. In Ring Ouzels, the wing is paler than the rest of the body and almost appears translucent, whereas in Blackbirds they are completely black in the males or uniformly dark brown.

Ring Ouzels are sadly declining in the UK and they have been given the red status. However there isn’t a clear cause of the decline and there are several groups working on researching this species and finding out why populations have decreased so much. However, the least numbers of birds have been recorded after warm summers, suggesting that a lack of food might be the problem. With an ongoing trend of warm weather due to global warming it is likely that the decline will continue.

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SOS Outing to Old Lodge

On Sunday I joined the Sussex Ornithological Society on a walk around Old Lodge, a Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve in Ashdown Forest. My aim was to hear a Cuckoo for the first time as I worry that we might not be able to hear that characteristic sound for much longer.

The first good bird of the day was a Common Whitethroat flitting about a willow. I don’t see very many and this was only my second of the year, followed by my third half way through the walk.

Suddenly, I heard a faint two note call way off in the distance. A Cuckoo already! Despite the fact that there was a pair on the reserve that were seen yesterday, I wasn’t expecting to hear one so soon! It called the whole time while we were at the top of the hill near the car park, just loud enough for me to hear it but too quiet for my dad unfortunately.

A little further along the path we had great views of a Woodlark. It was singing while performing its parachuting display. It was quite close and gave good views through my binoculars. This is the first time I’ve heard a Woodlark’s amazing song as well as seen its display.

There were a few dead trees along the fence line to our right where we first saw a Redpoll and then had good views of a beautiful Stonechat. Just behind the dead trees were a few tall pines where I saw my first Tree Pipit of the year. It was singing its heart out and giving its display flight like the Woodlark. It flew up and floated in the air before parachuting down to an Oak tree. While we were watching the Pipit a Kestrel and 2 Swallows flew behind the trees.

Not long afterwards a familiar song arose from the sky above us. It was another bird that performs display flights – the Skylark! I remember hearing them a lot when I was on holiday in Northumberland, they would display over the cottage where we were staying. This one didn’t stay for long however, and soon departed  west.

The path turned right and we were heading down the hill through some thin woodland between the reserve and what looked like private land. There were lots of bluebells on either side of the path and the fresh oak leaves were amazing! We soon came across a pond where we stopped to try and find some Redstarts. A Willow Warbler started to sing in a small tree beside the pond and it wasn’t very mobile like most of the Phylloscopus warblers that I see. A Long-tailed Tit looked like it was collecting nesting material, probably for a second brood as Long-tailed Tits are one of the first birds to start nest building in spring. There was also a young Robin nearby and two Goldfinches were chasing each other around a Birch tree.

After that things got quiet bird-wise. We continued on our walk and only when we were climbing the hill again did things get a bit more exciting. There was a lone male Siskin feeding in a pine, exposed at times. There were also many more stunning Stonechats including a female in a perfect, well lit position on some dead bracken. A great photo opportunity for someone with the right sort of camera.

The terrain started to flatten out again and we were nearing the end of the walk, yet we had not yet seen a Redstart. I have only ever seen Redstarts once before, when I spotted a family at a different location at Ashdown Forest. I also wanted a better view of the gorgeous males.

We came to an old Oak tree along a straight ride with dense pines on either side. There was a bleached stump behind the tree where I spotted a small brown Robin-sized bird flit up and perch motionless on top. I called ‘Redstart‘ and soon everyone was watching the bird. It perched on the stump for quite a while, often turning its back and showing its rump. However, it was only a female and not nearly as pretty as a male Redstart.

We had circled back to the car park by eleven-thirty without seeing much bar a singing Chiffchaff and a trio of Great Spotted Woodpeckers. Having not seen any Crossbills during the morning some of us decided to head back to a spot not far from the car park where a flock of up to 20 had been seen during the last few days. None were seen, but we did see this:

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Unfortunately the photo doesn’t do justice to this fab male Redstart…

Total number of birds I managed to see: 33