Guest blogger and local birder Dave Burges tells us what to look out for on Black Down.


11 / 5 / 2011   It’s all go!

I always think this time of year is so special, and yet so fleeting.  You wait and wait for the weather to warm up, the last trees to come into leaf, hear your first cuckoo….and before you know it, May has slipped into June and that long-hoped for spring is suddenly summer and feels, well, different.

But for the moment, May is nothing less than hectic on the birding front.  Some of our “early birds” have already fledged young, most of the summer migrants are here, with the last few species arriving as I write.

So, some breeding bird highlights to start with. I’d previously estimated about ten or eleven woodlark territories in total on Blackdown this year, and some of these birds have now bred successfully.  I’ve seen one family party of five, so in principle at least three young birds.  Other pairs seem to have failed at the first attempt, but now appear to be feeding second broods in the nest.  One or two males may not have paired at all, and can still be heard singing.

 That other classic early starter, the crossbill, has almost certainly bred on site too.  An adult male with two or three fledged young has been around for over a week, although often very hard to find.  A much bigger flock of about 40 birds, probably including many fledged young, has also turned up and it’s interesting to speculate just how far these birds may have travelled.

Many summer migrants are now well established, and a very striking feature are the larger than usual numbers of warblers such as whitethroat and garden warbler.  The former’s scratchy song can be heard on the open heath, usually based around scrubby gorse and birch.  If you’re lucky you may see its butterfly-like song-flight. 

Garden warblers are a trickier proposition, often singing from deeper cover, and often moving away as you approach!  To make matters worse, they sound very similar to what is, in many springs, the more common blackcap – also present in good numbers this year.  Generally speaking, garden warblers sing lower down, the song is more scratchy and less “fruity” than the blackcap’s, and each bout of singing tends to be longer.  I’ve also noticed for the first time that the gap between bouts of singing is often much shorter, almost as though the blackcap takes longer to get its breath back! 

But there is often a lot of overlap between the two, so if you can, it’s best to try and track the bird down.  Then it’s easy…the male blackcap is grey with – of course – a black cap, whilst the garden warbler is really rather nondescript, a warm grey-brown above and off-white below, but with a surprisingly obvious pale eye ring.

I’ve already mentioned cuckoos, and I’ve seen at least three birds on one visit, but they are really difficult to count accurately as they fly around so much between bouts of “cuckoo-ing”.  The females in contrast have a very strange bubbling call, quite unlike the males, and generally heard rather less.  I suspect that the principal host species on Blackdown is the tree pipit, and again, this looks like a good year with at least eight territories.  I guess it may be good for young cuckoos too!

Overhead there are reasonable numbers of swallows and house martins, and the swifts are now arriving in force, although probably easier to see screaming around the streets of Haslemere.  Often literally in hot pursuit is the hobby, a migrant falcon, about the same size as a kestrel but with the plumage and speed more reminiscent of the peregrine, with an added flash of red under the tail.  Hobbies are stunning fliers, and in addition to swallows, martins and swifts, also feed on large flying insects, especially dragonflies.  As we head into June and July, watch out for them hawking over the ponds on the heath for large insects.

A nice surprise in the last couple of weeks was a group of three ring ouzels (two females and a cracking male) which stayed for three days.  It’s likely that these were Scandinavian birds, pushed west on their way north by the easterly winds early in the month.

Perhaps the rarest bird in strictly Blackdown terms is a male yellowhammer which has set up shop on the west side of the ridge.  Listen for the famous “little bit of bread and no cheese” song.  More typically thought of as a bird of arable farmland, yellowhammers do breed on some heathland sites, and probably did so in greater numbers when heathland was more extensive in the past.  Like many farmland birds, yellowhammer numbers have slumped dramatically over the past 30 to 40 years, so any breeding birds are very welcome.  To the best of my knowledge, the nearest heathland birds are at Woolbeding Common to the west.  Could this be the first territory-holding yellowhammer on Blackdown since it was last open heath?  A vote of confidence in heathland restoration if ever there was one!

Last but most definitely not least, the first nightjars should be arriving now.  Nightjars are just amazing birds.  They are a long-distance migrants; they nest on the ground and  thus have cryptic, camouflage plumage; and they are – as their name implies, crepuscular, active especially at dawn and dusk.  But strangest of all is their call, usually given about forty minutes after sunset, and again before dawn.  It is often described as sounding like a two-stroke engine, but I think a better comparison is that of a cat purring loudly! 

The males “sing” from prominent perches – often pine trees – the song having a distinctly ventriloqual quality as the bird turns its head.  When they stop abruptly, they usually take flight and “wing-clap”, this being audible for some distance, along with a soft “cu-ick” call.  They are almost ghostly in flight, floating over the heath catching flying insects, and if you’re close enough you can spot the white wing and tail patches of the males.  But they move very fast, and it may take a few attempts to get a good view – so be patient!

Wait for a nice warm evening, not too much breeze (perhaps take a torch, decent footwear and insect repellent), and take a stroll on the heath.  In addition to the churring nightjars, you may see and hear displaying (“roding”) woodcock croaking and “tswicking” overhead, tawny owls hooting, foraging hobbies, bats, roe deer and fireflies.  Fantastic! 

18/3/2011 Spring is on the way…..really!

This piece covers the period from early February to mid-March, and picking up from where I left off last time, finally sees some signs of spring on the way, including a very welcome return for one of Blackdown’s special birds.  More on that later.

There was that hint in early February of things warming up a bit, and the birds began to respond, but the ensuing colder spell until early March put Spring on hold for a while, but it really does look like things are on the move now.

I’d mentioned previously that the local buzzards were getting more active, and now on sunny days with a bit of breeze, birds can be seen soaring over – and from – the ridge, and displaying vigorously and calling.   I had wondered if the sparrowhawks had been hit by the hard winter weather.  My line of thinking being that small bird populations have almost certainly suffered too, and sparrowhawks had either moved out or perished as their prey declined.  I still think numbers might be a little depressed on previous years, but birds are more visible now, although I haven’t seen much display – perhaps I’ve just not been in the right place at the right time.

Kestrels seem pretty thin on the ground too, and the “resident” pair that can usually be seen hunting the western slopes of the ridge haven’t been especially obvious either.  Other raptors of note include two red kites in mid-March and two peregrines, one over and one to the south of Blackdown.

There are definite signs of movement in and out however.  Winter thrush numbers have gone down a lot, but occasional flocks of redwings can be seen as they head back north east, a flock of ten on 3rd March is the largest group I’ve seen.  On bright, sunny days you can hear the odd skylark moving over at height, a bird that you very rarely see on the ground at Blackdown.

There has also been a lot of finch movement too.  Whilst total numbers of siskins and redpolls are down (the latter peaked at about 45 in early February), there are still birds about, some of which may breed.  In a similar vein there is also a small flock of crossbills, some of which could be breeding already, and there are now small numbers of linnets back on the heath which should breed too.  There has been a very noticeable movement of chaffinches too – with many flocks of ten to twenty birds moving through on bright, breezy mornings.   These movements often include brambling too – recognizable by their wheezy flight calls – but I haven’t come across any yet. 

Of the local specialities the woodlarks seem to have more or less settled into their territories – I estimate about eight or nine thus far, but there could be more.  The males are singing well, and can be seen in aerial “dog-fights” as they argue over territories. I have a theory that there is often a second flush of woodlarks in April, these perhaps being longer-distance migrants, which then try to “slot in” between the established birds.

In a real hint of spring, I heard a chiffchaff calling last week, although it’s possible that this may be a bird that has spent the winter in the UK anyway!

I mentioned a welcome return at the start.  It was a very pleasant surprise to see a pair of – and a single male – stonechat on the west side of the heath last week.  They have undoubtedly been badly hit by the winter weather, but it now looks like these birds will attempt to breed this spring.

Of the more unexpected birds, a flock of five snipe in early March was the highest count I’ve recorded here.  In the “one that got away” category this month was a flocks of six birds, flying low and fast to the north east, that might have been waxwings…..or possibly starlings.  There are still quite a lot of waxwings in the south east, so it’s certainly possible that birds could move through the area as they move back towards Scandinavia and Russia for the spring.

The most unexpected bird of the month was a red-legged partridge (!), seen feeding on the heath at southern end of the ridge.  I have no idea how or why this bird turned up here – it’s certainly not typical habitat – and I guess it moved on fairly quickly! 

Just when you think you know a site and its birds well, something really odd will turn up.  And as we approach spring proper and migration really gets underway, the chances of that happening go up a little bit!

1/2/11 A late start to birding in 2011…

Depending on your point of view, I was either fortunate to have spent the Christmas/New Year period in warmer climes, or missed what was no doubt (travel chaos to one side), another spectacular dump of snow on the Western Weald!

That usually means that Blackdown is fairly quiet birdwise….but did anyone come across any unusual birds?  I’d be interested to hear.  As you may know there have been large numbers of waxwings about – did any make it to Blackdown or Haslemere?  Funnily enough the same (or another) great grey shrike mentioned in my first post, popped up again on the 3rd December, but might have hung around for a little longer?

So here we are at the end of January already, and there are just the earliest hints of spring around the corner. 

To my mind the most optimistic pointer has been a single male woodlark – actually singing in January!   In my experience this is quite unusual for Blackdown, as birds more typically return in late February, and really get going in early March. 

It begs the question just how far do these birds go in the autumn?  Clearly some don’t move a great distance, and they may be sitting in arable fields on the Sussex coastal plain – or lower level heaths – that just don’t get quite so cold as Blackdown does. 

Assuming that the weather does gradually warm up from here, we can expect more birds to arrive in short order.  My prediction is for very good numbers this year as birds move into the newly cleared heathland areas.  Listen for their glorious, fluty song, often delivered in flight, but also from the tops of birch and pines, or even on the ground.

The cold weather really does seem to have driven off the stonechats, and I suspect, killed off the few Dartford warblers that re-appeared in late autumn.  Some stonechats should re-appear as we head towards spring, but we may have to wait until next autumn before the Dartfords have another go at re-colonising the heath.  I’d really like to be proved wrong on that.

The few sunny days that we have had recently have encouraged the buzzards to start displaying, and this should become more frequent from now on.  Look out for their “roller-coaster” displays, and if they’re close enough, you’ll hear their mewing calls. 

The local sparrowhawks should be displaying soon too, although they seem rather reticent at present.  Well, it must be cold up there!  Worth keeping your eyes peeled too for passing red kites, which for some reason almost invariably fly north/south or vice versa along the ridge.  The long, angled wings and long, deeply forked red tail present a very different silhouette to the buzzards.

You might also see – or hear the distinctive croaking calls – of one or more ravens.  Much bigger, with longer wings and tails and heavier bills than carrion crows, they give the impression of really enjoying a good fly around, soaring over the heath and even rolling over in flight.  A bird with real character!

As I hinted above, smaller birds are still in short supply, but there are a few finches about.  Small numbers of siskins and redpolls can be seen and heard, most likely commuting between the birch catkins around the heath, and just today, a flock of six crossbills.  These are worth looking out for as they feed on the Scots pine and larch cones.  Listen for their hard “chip, chip, chip” calls.  It’s quite likely too that small numbers will stay to breed.

Lastly, here’s a challenge.  Has anyone seen a hen harrier at Blackdown?  I never have – despite a lot of waiting!  There are birds relatively close by on the South Downs, and sometimes off to the north-west at Woolmer Forest.  Surely they pass through Blackdown occasionally? 

The males are about crow-sized, but with long wings and a long tail.  They are a beautiful pale grey, with slightly darker heads, black wing tips and a striking white rump.  The females are larger, but essentially brownish, again with the white rump and an obviously black-barred brown tail.  Young birds look like the females, and not surprisingly, both are often referred to as “ring-tails”.  Typically they hunt low over the ground, with their wings raised in a shallow “V”, methodically quartering the heath looking for the small birds and small mammals which make up their diet.  Anytime between now and early March could produce a sighting, as birds move back to the British uplands – and perhaps further afield to Scandinavia – to breed on heather moorland. 

Good luck, and good birding!

2/12/10 Looking Back

…I’m sitting here with snow falling in the garden – the tits, chaffinches and blackbirds are squabbling for the food around the bird table.  Earlier this morning I saw the astonishing sight of a male sparrowhawk flying around, sitting on and scrambling through a small hawthorn bush just outside my window, trying to catch the tits which remained resolutely behind the thorns as the sparrowhawk tried to get his breakfast!

The rather warmer days of early September seem some way off now, but that period marks the start of one of the most exciting times of the year for birders, as autumn migration really gets underway.  I thought it might be interesting to recap the birding highlights of the past few months – or rather what I’ve seen – I’m sure I’ve missed just as much!

Blackdown is a great place to observe bird migration in action.  It’s high (obviously!), has a good mix of open heath and woodland habitats, and one side or the other will provide some shelter from bad weather for migrants that stop here.  In terms of the local topography, it also provides an obvious “stepping stone” between the Hindhead Commons to the North, the Woolbeding/Bexleyhill Common ridge to the South, and on to the South Downs, which many migrants then follow East before they leave the UK for the winter.

The weather conditions are critical of course, both in terms of what is helpful for the birds, and what might make them easier to see for the birder!  Clear, dry conditions with gentle tailwinds probably suit the birds best.  They can see the night sky and the sun to give them their bearings, and many must go straight over without stopping.  You know migration is going on, but you might not actually see much!   From the birders’ point of view, any wind with a bit of east involved, perhaps with showers overnight, tends to make for an interesting walk around the site the following morning.  But of course, interesting birds can turn up at any time, and that’s part of the fun….

Perhaps the most obvious feature of the autumn is the mass exit of our summer visitors – the swallows and house martins in particular moving down south down the ridge on an almost daily basis.  Flocks of 10 to 50 birds were quite regular, but my largest count was a minimum of 200 house martins on the 21st September.  Curiously, swallows and house martins often seem to migrate in quite discrete flocks, so a “good day” for swallows tends to fall on a different day to a “good day” for house martins, and vice versa.  I’m really not sure why! 

Other summer visitors stopping off on Blackdown include small numbers of wheatears, probably from the UK’s uplands.  On the 23rd September, I saw my first ever whinchat on Blackdown, a close relative of the wheatear.  I can’t help thinking I must have missed a few before now!  The third species in this group, and one which regular visitors will have seen, is the stonechat.  It is present on Blackdown for most of the year – but the birds you see in the breeding season are almost certainly different to those around in the autumn or the winter.  More on them later.

The movement of large numbers of smaller birds obviously attracts predators, and one of the most spectacular is the hobby – a small, very fast, migratory falcon, which specializes in hunting swallows, house martins and swifts, but also large flying insects especially dragonflies.  So you can see why they stop off at Blackdown!  My best count was of three birds on 19th September.  Larger birds of prey also use the ridge, using the updrafts on breezy days and thermals on the genuinely warm ones.  On 12th September an osprey flew south, whilst a red kite moved north.

As the last of the swallows go, the first meadow pipits appear, and a little later the winter thrushes – redwings and fieldfares – begin to arrive from Scandinavia, and possibly further east.  This year the berry crop has been especially good, and the winter thrushes and finches spent all their time stripping the whitebeams.  Redwing numbers have been especially good this autumn, with flocks of tens of birds present on many days.  My best count was over 100 birds on 18th October, with 50+ fieldfares on the 22nd.  

It has also been a good autumn for brambling (again from Scandinavia), a close relative of the chaffinch with a striking white-rump, and in males especially, bright orange “shoulders”.  Over fifteen birds were present on 15th October, and it’s likely that many more will have passed through.  Similarly good numbers of redpoll have been around too, feeding mostly on the remaining birch seeds.  These small, brown, streaked finches are often very quiet whilst feeding, but fly noisily when flushed, often just too far away for you to have a really good look at them! 

Perhaps the most exciting feature of the autumn was the extraordinary numbers of ring ouzels passing through Blackdown.  Ring ouzels could be mistaken for blackbirds, but the males have a broad white gorget on the throat, and all birds have pale panels on the wings, which are fairly easy to see in flight.  In fact, they are most distinctive in flight, with a silhouette that is more like a cross between mistle thrush and starling, with long, pointed wings, fast direct flight and loud “chak, chak, chak” flight calls.  The long wings point to the fact that these are long distance migrants, probably heading from Scandinavia (they arrived with the redwings and fieldfares) to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.  Small numbers were seen from the end of September, but over twenty birds were present on both 10th and 13th October – quite exceptional.  When they stopped, the winter blackbirds started arriving.  Odd that, but very striking.

Passage birds of prey have put in brief appearances, with single merlins (another small falcon) on 6th October and 23rd November, another red kite on 2nd November, and a magnificent female peregrine on 10th November.

I mentioned stonechats earlier, and it’s interesting to see how numbers of the special heathland birds vary over the year.  After the last two cold winters, breeding stonechats have been thin on the ground, but numbers have fluctuated over the autumn from regular ones and twos, to a maximum of 8 on 14th October.  The current cold weather is likely to drive birds away again, and we will need a mild second half of the winter or early spring to get birds back for the breeding season. 

Similarly the “local” woodlarks probably leave Blackdown in August/September, but this year there has been a noticeable “tail” of birds stretching well into the autumn, with up to 17 birds on 28th September, and even three on 19th November – including a singing male!  These are most likely to be migrants from elsewhere, which will have moved on again in the cold weather, perhaps to the coastal plain or further afield.  Watch – or rather listen – for their return in late February/early March.

That true heathland specialist the Dartford warbler has probably been locally extinct on Blackdown for the past two summers, following hard winter weather.  So it was good to see a single bird on 2nd November, two on 3rd November and presumably one of these again on the 19th.   These birds probably represent typical autumn dispersal from sites further west, such as the New Forest and the Dorset heaths, where numbers have held up.  Sadly the freezing temperatures and snow of the past few days will probably mean we’re back to square one again, but you never know, it would be nice to find a song-flighting male in April!

Lastly, there are always those birds you really don’t expect, or hope might just turn up if you’re luck is in.   My candidates this autumn include a single waxwing on 22nd October and a great grey shrike on 25th October – both probably staying less than a day – and black redstart on 25th November.  The strangest sighting was probably the three goosander – a “sawbill” duck usually found wintering on freshwater in southern Britain – flying north on 22nd October.

Well that’s quite a lot to kick off with, and future blogs will be shorter and more up to date.  Meanwhile it’s freezing again outside, and that usually means Blackdown will be fairly quiet bird-wise.  But worth looking out for woodcock flushed from the bracken, perhaps hungry tawny owls hunting in the day time, or crossbills “chipping” from the tops of the pines.  They can start breeding in January – doesn’t that make you think of spring?!