This week, Nigel tells a tale of birding derring-do from the darkest corner of remote East Sussex …
Most birders keep a garden list. It may be written down or it may be in their heads, but those who strive to attract birds into their gardens are usually well aware of which species are regularly seen and those that are more rarely recorded – some may have been seen only once or twice, but that still counts as a ‘garden bird’. But what are the rules about what can or cannot be counted? Obviously a bird physically in your garden is fully acceptable as a garden tick. Species flying over in ‘your’ airspace also count for most people. Purists might limit their garden list to these two categories, but I prefer to count any bird that is seen from my garden. So, a species does not actually have to be on my little patch of land, but I have to be to be able to see and identify the bird from the house or while I am in the garden.
Having established the ground rules, the key to a big garden list is location, location, location. A garden within sight of the sea or a large waterbody is much more likely to attain more species than an inland suburban one. It should be possible to see more than 100 species in the former, while 50 might be a reasonable tally for the latter. My own garden in rural Sussex is not close to the coast or on any migratory fly-line, but instead is surrounded by fields and woodland. It has taken me 12 years to reach a tally of 60 species – a modest total by my reckoning. Mind you, I do have a full-time job, and I don’t get up early very often to look for unusual migrants in spring or autumn. Anything I see in my garden is incidental to my usual activities. Having said that, the garden is quite birdy. There is constant activity at the feeders, with Marsh Tit being a very frequent visitor, and my three nestboxes are all occupied every year by Blue Tits and Great Tits. House Sparrows nest noisily in the ivy on the house, and the songs of Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps can be heard persistently throughout the summer.
This year, a pair of Nuthatches successfully reared a family in one of my nestboxes and Bullfinches are nesting in a hedge beside my vegetable patch. Every few years, I get an invasion of Siskins in late winter; the first ones appear in late January but February and March are the best months. My peak count was 85 – not bad for a garden bird. Most of them leave in April, with an occasional pair lingering into May. Common Buzzards are now seen quite frequently, in stark contrast to ten years ago when they were almost unheard of in Sussex. Perhaps the greatest find for my garden list was a pair of Ravens that flew over on a sunny day in September a couple of years ago. I was picking blackberries at the time, and the characteristic deep call caused to me look up. That was until last Sunday…
At around 12.50 on 17 June I stepped out of my front door and immediately heard the familiar call of a European Bee-eater. I looked up and, to my amazement, saw the back-end of a bird disappearing through a gap in the trees. Even on a brief view I knew instantly that this was a bee-eater. A few moments later, a group of four birds emerged from behind the trees, heading out across the open field adjacent to my garden. A fifth bird quickly joined them, and all five briefly circled and glided quite low over the field, keeping in close contact with each other with their constant calling, before continuing their journey in a SSW direction. I waited to see if they would return but had no further sightings. It was not the best of views. I had no binoculars with me and it was all over far too quickly, but there was no mistaking these distinctive birds. I have seen many thousands of bee-eaters abroad over the past four decades, but this species is a big rarity in Britain, and even in my active twitching days it was a bird that had always eluded me. Indeed, despite having a respectable British list in the mid 400s, European Bee-eater was probably the ‘commonest’ species that I had never seen in Britain.
But what were these birds doing flying over my garden? Where had they come from? Where were they going? One can speculate that they were a group of failed or non-breeders that had wandered up from France or Spain. Or they could have been a family party cruising around western Europe before heading south to Africa for the winter, having bred in central France, or even in Sussex! We will never know of course. But, by a strange coincidence, my friend Bill Harvey (also a Christopher Helm author) saw five Bee-eaters flying north over his garden near Tunbridge Wells, exactly 24 hours later. They must have been the same birds. Maybe they will fly over another birder’s garden to help us build a bigger picture of the movements of these mobile birds, but even if they are never heard of again, this was a spectacular addition to my British list – and to my garden list.
Along with being a publisher, Nigel is co-author of Where to Watch Birds in Britain.
Our Soho Square bird list is nothing to boast about. Just 25 species in 11 years! But then we are in central London, without a blade of grass for miles, if you discount the obsessively manicured gardens of Soho Square itself. Even this little patch of green is barely visible underneath the masses of random, sun-seeking bodies that fill the square on sunny days, and it’s shaded by tall sterile plane trees that support a lot less microfauna than a good, solid native oak. Nevertheless, we’ve had our moments: the occasional Mallard strolling across the lawns looking for a puddle of water, a fly-over Grey Wagtail, Redwings migrating overhead in winter, and even a Willow Warbler once in August. A Sparrowhawk eating a pigeon caused quite a stir amongst the non-birding staff of our office, and has been seen a couple of times subsequently. A few years ago, a flock of 120 Waxwings descended on Fitzroy Square, just a few minutes to the north of us. This was sensational for Central London, and when we were walking back to the office a flock flew south along Charlotte Street towards Soho Square – but we weren’t there to get it on the list!
This year, after years without an addition to the list, we’ve had two. A pair of Goldfinches has taken up residence in the square. They were first found by Jim, but are now to be heard singing or twittering on most days. Then, a snatch of song on 6th May alerted me to the presence of a Black Redstart in Frith Street. It did not show itself, and a frustrating few days went by before it was heard again. The next time it was a few streets away, but again it was not seen. Finally, I nailed it back in Frith Street, and I was lucky enough to actually see a pair. Since then, it’s been fairly regular in the Frith and Greek Street area, being recorded as far afield as Chinatown and Great Marlborough Street.
We’d been hoping for this city speciality for some time. Jim thought he’d got one a couple of years ago, but it turned out to be someone’s Canary singing away from the balcony of a top floor flat! Black Redstart is a rare breeding bird in Britain. It only started breeding in Britain on bombsites in London in 1940, and its population remains fairly stable at only around 100 pairs in the entire country, mostly in towns or on power stations. So, it’s a pretty scarce bird, and to have a pair around your usually rather birdless office is quite a treat.
*this is a lie.
Not many people know this, but the newly appointed Deputy Chief Whip in the coalition government is a birder. He is John Randall, known to his closest friends as Alex. He’s an old chum of mine and was even best man at my first wedding, many years ago now. In those days, he used to lead a few birdwatching tours to places such as Hungary and Poland, and at that time I too was a Birdquest tour leader, in my pre-publishing days. We all had fewer commitments then before marriage and families intervened and we were free to travel to exotic destinations to watch birds.
Alex was elected as MP for Uxbridge in 1997, in a move that surprised even his closest friends. Since then he has diligently worked in the whips office in opposition, with rather little time for birding, though he does manage to get away on a few family holidays (for example a trip to Borneo last year with one of his sons).
I won’t bore you all with tales of lunches in the House of Commons, but Alex did send me the photo below recently. He’s on his way to the State Opening of Parliament (no, he doesn’t travel to work like that every day!). Apparently one of the perks of his new job is to ride in this fancy coach behind Her Majesty. How the other half lives!
To find out more details about John Randall, check out his entry in the latest edition of Who’s Who.
Spring is a busy time for birders. This year, it got off to a slow start after the severe winter, but suddenly it was all happening! The trees burst into life and there was much to do in my kitchen garden. There were also the Timed Tetrad Visits to complete for the new BTO Atlas (this country-wide project is now more than half way through its four-year cycle). Then, as if that wasn’t enough, I had to go off on a Birdquest tour to Georgia and Armenia (I know that sounds tough, but someone has to do it – more about this later, if I get time). When I returned in late May, I was busier than ever. But there is only so much gardening and survey work that you can do, and a fix of local patch birding is what was needed to remedy this.
My local birding is largely confined to Rye Harbour and Dungeness, both of which are within easy reach of my home in East Sussex. I was spurred on by the welcome news that a pair of Purple Herons was nesting there. This southern European species is a regular spring overshoot to Britain, but it has never nested here before. I set off with the usual enthusiasm and confidence, but Purple Herons are well known for their secretive habits when breeding in dense reedbeds. I should have known better! I arrived at the site near Dungeness where the only other vehicle was a Winnebago containing three middle-aged men drinking tea. A camera on a tripod with a huge lens pointing at the reedbed indicated they must be birders, so I asked them if they’d seen the Purple Herons. Their response took me by surprise. They claimed not to know about any Purple Herons, so I assumed they were not serious birders who just happened to be at the precise locality for the herons. I scanned the reedbed and pools diligently until an old friend turned up. Ray Turley is a well-known figure at Dungeness. He lives just down the road and birdwatches there most days. We chatted for a bit, before he wandered over to the Winnebago. He seemed to know its occupants well, and then the penny dropped. These guys were serious birders after all, and they were pretending not to know about the herons in case I was a dodgy character! Maybe they thought I was there to disturb the birds or, worse, to try to steal the eggs. As it turned out, they were indeed part of the official round-the-clock rota that was put in place to protect the birds while the eggs were being incubated. Having cleared up this little misunderstanding, I stayed another hour, but the herons were not playing ball.
It took three more visits before I finally caught up with these elusive birds. Presumably they will become a little more obvious when they are feeding young, but during incubation they tend to keep well hidden. My visit last weekend was enhanced with another scarce European visitor. A first-summer male Red-footed Falcon spent a week in the area. I hadn’t seen one in Britain for more than 20 years, and it was a real pleasure to see this charming little falcon hunting insects over the marsh, though it actually spent most of its time perched on telegraph poles and wires. Although most of its plumage was blue-grey, it showed the dull red vent and bright red legs so characteristic of the adult male, but a broad buff collar indicated that this bird was only a year old. An interesting plumage.
Find out more about Nigel’s local patch in the brand new edition of Where to Watch Birds in Britain, due to be published at the end of June.