Twit.

Yesterday I found myself lying down on an edge of a crater-sized hole by the side of the River Cuckmere, with my binoculars pointing down at a tiny, drab, little brown job scurrying about amongst dead grass and plant matter. Streaked brown all over, it resembled a small mouse creeping about feeding on minuscule seeds. The only bit of colour on the whole bird was its tiny yellow bill which would open occasionally to emit its single-noted ‘twit’ call from which the bird’s name ‘Twite’ derives.

Twite are usually gregarious birds in winter, feeding among plants along the coast before returning in Spring to their breeding grounds in the moorland. They are most commonly found between October-March on the east coast of England, where British breeding birds meet continental birds in saltmarshes and other coastal habitats. They are only rarely encountered South of Suffolk nowadays despite there  having been a regular wintering population on the Swale in North Kent in the past. They are therefore real rarities in south coast counties such as Sussex and they have appeared to be declining too.

Before the 1990s, double-figure counts were annual phenomena. However between 1990 and 2000 they were only rare occurrences. Now they have declined so much in Sussex that the last record on the Sussex Ornithological Society’s sightings page prior to 2017 was of a single bird with Linnets at Pagham in November 2013.

This particular Twite was first discovered in a patch of brambles along the River Cuckmere, East Sussex on the 5th of February. I was expecting it to be only a short-staying bird and that it would disappear soon. However it was seen regularly until the 15th February. For a period of 5 days after that it was looking like it had left with no news reported on the Sussex Ornithological Society’s sightings page.

Fine weather in Sussex allowed us to visit the Seven Sisters Country Park, and I took the opportunity of making a short walk to the coast through the marshlands of the Cuckmere river delta with no prior thought of seeing the Twite.

However the route we took happened to pass the site where the bird had been frequenting. Only about 30 seconds after arriving at the crater-like hole in the riverbank where the bird had been seen previously, I noticed a tiny bird fly up to perch on a large unidentified object which could have been a large piece of Styrofoam packaging. It proceeded to drink from a hole in the odd object while I managed to get good views of the bird through my binoculars. Small size; brown, streaky appearance; yellow bill… it had to be the Twite!

After allowing me to get some photos of it in the open it flew back down into the dead plant matter and continued to feed only 5-10 metres away from me. Despite its amazingly effective camouflage I was able to watch the bird well for quite a long time. It appeared to be oblivious to my presence and wasn’t wary at all, which surprised me for such a small and vulnerable finch. It felt like a great privilege to be able to get such close views of this Sussex rarity.

rscn1556

Feeding amongst the dead grass and plants

rscn1611

Drinking from the unidentified object

Here you can find a short video of the Twite:

A Starling Weekend

On Saturday afternoon, I headed to Hedgecourt Lake to see what might have been blown in on the storm the previous week. I have encountered several normally coastal species at Hedgecourt over the last year, for instance Slavonian Grebe and Scaup. Being the largest semi-natural waterbody in South-east Surrey it appears to be a magnet for seabirds blown in from the coast. Unfortunately there was not much in the way of scarce species, however an Egyptian Goose on the roof of the floating pontoon was a welcome surprise. I believe they frequent the lake but I have never been able to catch up with one here. They aren’t native to the UK, they were brought here for ornamental collections and quite a few escaped. There is now a stable breeding population in the UK, mainly concentrated in East Anglia however they could be seen throughout the country.

While watching the goose, I heard a whoosh above my head. I looked up and I was slightly surprised to see a flock of around 100 Starlings making their way to the other end of the lake. It appeared that one of the most iconic Hedgecourt events of the winter was beginning: a Starling murmuration! Plenty of other similar-sized groups of Starlings soon joined and several thousand were swarming above the icy waters in just a few minutes. The noise was immense – every Starling was calling to their companions, creating a sound that carried all the way across the lake.

Although the main murmuration had taken place at the far end of the lake the whole flock was beginning to fly straight towards us. The tightly-knit group made several quick flybys. Every one of the many thousand birds passed over us in just a few seconds leaving nothing but the plops in the water as they lightened their load.

dscn9650dscn9648

Once these amazing aerial displays were finished the Starlings poured into the reedbed closest to us. An endless stream of birds flew into the reedbed for minutes on end, they never seemed to run out. Soon around ten thousand birds were flying around and settling in a reedbed that is only a fifth of a hectare in size. Again, the noise was truly spectacular! Starlings often use murmurations to exchange information about the top places to find food, one of the hot topics would have been the best feeding spots.

Reedbeds are excellent habitats for many different species, a variety of different invertebrates, plants, mammals, fungi, fish and of course birds utilise them in many different ways. I was sure that these Starlings filling up the reedbed in their droves would push something out… and I was correct! Firstly a Kingfisher shot out like a bullet and crossed to the Alders on the other side of the lake and secondly a magnificent Bittern flew on deep, pounding wingbeats to a farther reedbed. This was my first here this winter. They are winter visitors to much of Britain including Hedgecourt; however around a hundred pairs do breed, mainly in East Anglia.

Unfortunately, the Starlings soon began to quieten down. The light was fading fast and the lake was beginning to freeze over once more. On Sunday morning they would wake up again, stream out of the reedbed and visit the most popular feeding areas. Then that same evening they would do it all again …

That evening, just after the murmuration, I heard news of an immature Starling that was being seen in a garden in the busy town of Crawley. But this wasn’t just an ordinary Starling! This particular Starling had become lost on its migration and somehow arrived in rainy Sussex having come from somewhere between the steppes of Eastern Europe or Western Asia and its wintering area in the Indian subcontinent! It was in fact a Rose-coloured Starling!

Rose-coloured Starlings are closely related to ‘our’ Common Starlings. However they are easy to separate, more so in adults. Even juveniles like this one can be told apart without much scrutiny. Adult Rose-coloured Starlings in their breeding attire are very beautiful birds, their plumage an equal mix of pink and black. Their breast and back are pink, along with their bill and their legs. They have black wings, tail and vent along with a glossy black head which often shows a long crest drooping down the nape. Non-breeding adults aren’t much different, however the pink colouration is dirtied by a grey-brown, the crest is shorter and stubbier and the black colouration on the head and flanks becomes scaly and vermiculated.  Juvenile Rose-coloured Starlings are similar to juvenile Common Starlings, however significantly paler. The main distinguishing feature, however, is the pale-yellow base to the bill.

This particular individual had been seen in a suburban garden around Bradfield for the last few weeks, although the news had only just surfaced. I imagine it was a non-birder who first spotted it on their patio but wasn’t able to identify it. Anyway, it appeared to still be in the area and I was eager to glimpse this very uncommon vagrant for myself. So the next morning we parked by the side of the road and immediately I could see that there were many Starlings around. Rose-coloured Starlings are unusual among vagrants in that they usually don’t turn up at the expected coastal rarity hotspots, for instance Spurn or Flamborough Head. Instead, they prefer to visit places I would never imagine a rarity to find itself, for example business estates or generally biodiversity unfriendly areas such as this suburban Crawley district. This is because they prefer to associate with large flocks of their only British relative, the Common Starling, during their stay on our shores.

Within fifteen minutes of our arriving on the right street a group of fifteen or so Starlings were spooked from one of the gardens and flew up into a large bare Silver Birch right next to our vehicle! It was easy to see the odd one out, the pale plumage of the juvenile Rose-coloured contrasted strongly with the other Common Starlings. After making sure that it was the right bird (it did indeed have a pale yellow base to the beak), I took a few record shots (photos that are intended mainly as proof rather than a photographic masterpiece!) through my binoculars and just a minute after I first spotted it it flew off over the rooftops. It wasn’t the most amazing view, however I was pleased that I did manage to get a glimpse of this unusual wanderer.

rscn9671

The Rose-coloured Starling in very poor lighting. You might just be able to make out the pale yellow bill.

rose-coloured-starling-mya-bambrick

A much better photo of the starling by Mya Bambrick, a fellow young birder who managed to see the bird later that day.

 

Underground Birds’ Nests!

This afternoon I was very lucky to be able to fit in a short trip to an undisclosed site in Ashdown Forest to see a very rare plant: the Bird’s-nest Orchid. I have been asked to keep the precise location a secret as there are only two individual plants flowering at the moment and I believe there might be some collectors keen to get their hands on them. Luckily Ashdown Forest is a huge place and these orchids are incredibly easy to miss.

I first learnt about these orchids being present at Ashdown Forest – one of the largest areas of woodland and more importantly open heathland in the South East – on the Sussex Botanical Recording Society website. There is a new ‘Latest Sightings’ feature on the website and I have been lucky enough to post a ‘Latest Sighting’ on there already, on the Krauss’s Clubmoss. You can read the orchid latest sighting here and my clubmoss latest sighting here.

The beech woodland where the plant was growing was very nice except there was very little diversity of ground flora. I think this may be due to the very large population of deer, particularly the Fallow Deer, which have over-grazed the area. However, there were some nice patches of late-flowering Bluebells as well as Ground Ivy, Germander Speedwell and not-yet-flowering Wood-Sorrel. In fact I saw a couple of female Fallow Deer while we were there, although they were very shy and were gone before I could see more than their heads with their sensitive ears standing up rigidly, on high alert. Deer were hunted in Ashdown Forest in the past so they must have learnt to be very wary of humans even now when deer-hunting has been discontinued.

There were some very large and beautiful Beech trees in the woodland that seemed to support a plethora of life. In one tiny patch of about 3 square centimetres there were no less than 5 adult Athous haemorrhoidalis, a common beetle whose larvae feed on tree roots. I also watched my first Spotted Flycatcher of the year flycatching from the mighty limbs of a particularly grand Beech tree.

We carried on down the road, checking every beech clump on the left side of the road to see if we could spot the easily-missed orchids. Surely we were supposed to be looking on the left side of the road? My dad agreed and we continued, starting to lose hope. We soon reached a point which was surely much farther than the directions had intended. Where were they? We must have missed them. We gloomily trod back up to the car, disappointed that we hadn’t seen these special plants. My eyes drifted over to the side of the road we hadn’t been looking at, where I stopped suddenly. I stood staring at two beige plants with disbelief. We had found the two Bird’s-nest Orchids! They were looking exactly as they had in the photo on the latest sightings page on the SBRS website which was taken 8 days before. Here are some photos and a very short mini-documentary:

DSCN5505DSCN5501

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:

DSCN4938

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

Total number of birds I managed to see: 33

 

Published!

This summer, I went to Knepp Estate for an Amateur Entomologist’s Society (AES)field meeting on grasshoppers and crickets. It was really interesting, but the best part was being asked to write an article for the Bug Club magazine for junior AES members on a bug that I found! This was the first time this has happened. It was published in the October issue of the magazine, here it is:

“On August 12th this year, a few keen bug-hunters and I made the journey to Knepp Estate near Horsham, West Sussex for an AES field meeting. Knepp Estate is a wonderful place and is currently undergoing a ‘rewilding’ project, where people try to restore a site back to the days when wildlife was plentiful in the area. It consists of a number of different habitats, but mainly scrubby grassland with a few lakes and ponds scattered around.”

“The focus of this AES field meeting was on grasshoppers, crickets and related species. However, the star species was actually a hemipteroid (a ‘true’ bug): the Tortoise Bug (Eurygaster testudinaria). We came across it while we were making our way through a marshy habitat, looking for a species of cricket called the Short-winged Conehead. The first we saw of the Tortoise Bug were actually two nymphs (pre-adults), sitting cosily on top of a Marigold flower. They look like typical shieldbug nymphs, with an oval-shaped body and a dark pronotum (the section of the body directly behind the head). However, the feature that stood out about this nymph was the fact that the main colour was a light rosy pink.”

“To my surprise, an adult was found soon after. However, it’s much harder to confirm the identification of an adult. Like quite a few other invertebrate groups, you have to peer really closely at obscure parts – in this case the front of the head. The Scarce Tortoise Bug is the species we have to keep in mind, and the easiest way to separate it is to check if there is a slight depression (dent) in the front of the head. Only the Tortoise Bug has this depression at the front of the head, but it’s very hard to see. We had to look really hard through our handlenses, but in the end we reached the conclusion that the depression was evident, making it the much more frequent Tortoise Bug. If only bug identification could be simple!”

Adult

Adult

Nymph

Nymph

3 West Sussex firsts in one summer!

This summer has been a productive one, with my first three vice-county firsts all being found in my garden. I find out whether a species is a vice-county first or not by emailing the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre, who are really kind and give me all the information I need. These are the three species:

Orius laevigatus – I came across quite a few of these small bugs on various bushes in my garden including Yew and our Buddleja. They may be small, but they are also predatory, and will feed on small invertebrates like bug nymphs and so on. There are 12 records in the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre database for this species, but believe it or not they are all from East Sussex! Most of the records are concentrated around nature reserves like Rye Harbour, so I’m really pleased to have found it in the garden!

Entomobrya nivalis – Entomobrya nivalis is a species of springtail, which are tiny invertebrates you can sometimes find hopping around among leaf litter. However, this is quite a conspicuous species and is covered in stiff bristles and has greyish mottling all over. This time there are only 9 records in the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre database, but again they are all in East Sussex!

Entomobrya nivalis

Entomobrya nivalis

Now, I’ve saved the best for last – Bright Four-spined Legionnaire (Chorisops nagatomii) – The Bright Four-spined Legionnaire is a fly with not only a great name but is quite colourful too. It has a yellow abdomen with black stripes running horizontally across it as well as a beautiful iridescent blue-green thorax. I was very surprised to find it on my kitchen window while I was having lunch, and even more so to find out that there are only records for Sussex and neither of them in West Sussex!

RSCN6471

Bright Four-spined Legionnaire (Chorisops nagatomii)