Bird song: Starling

Neil Fletcher
Interpretation Officer

starling / Neil Fletcher

starling / Neil Fletcher

Starlings that may be seen over Brighton Pier and other places, these birds have declined dramatically as a breeding bird in the UK. Chicks are not making it through to adulthood and it’s thought this is due to modern intensive agriculture reducing their food supply.

I almost never see them in the garden these days, and this recording was made in central France – you can make out the chirping of crickets in the background.

Their song is a complex mixture of melodious and mechanical sounds, and each bird has its own repertoire which often includes mimicking of other sounds. They are closely related to the common myna, and can even be taught to repeat human words.

Our bird starts off with a buzzard-like mewing [this is a regular noise to many starlings, and I don't think it's mimicry in this case]. At about the 15-second mark there is a clear impersonation of a magpie, and then he eventually settles down into a rapid series of clicks, like a piece of cardboard trapped in the spokes of a bicycle wheel.

sonogram of starling's song

sonogram of starling’s song

More bird song here

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Bird song: Blue Tit

Neil Fletcher
Interpretation Officer

blue tit / Neil Fletcher

blue tit / Neil Fletcher

Blue tits are so familiar and almost ubiquitous (just as likely to see one in a reedbed as in a garden), yet their thin, earnest little song is likely to be lost among the clamour of other birds.

Without the huge variety of the great tit, and mostly at a much higher pitch, the usual song is two long notes followed by a very rapid series of six to eight short ones, like a 1950’s school boy in short trousers imitating a wartime machine gun. Nor is it repeated ad infinitum like the great tit, often there will be long gaps between each entreaty.

The scolding alarm calls heard at the end of the recording are much more insistent, usually given when something or someone is near their nest site – note the upward inflection just towards the end of each churr.

There is one other notable alarm call of which I don’t have a recording, but it’s a boon to raptor-loving bird watchers, for the very high ’seeeee-seeeee’ is only given when a sparrowhawk approaches, even from half a mile away. Hear it, look behind you, and there’s a good 90% chance you’ll witness the hawk swooping over your head.

sonogram of blue tit's song

sonogram of blue tit’s song

More bird song here

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River Song

avocet /www.natureconservationimaging.com / Jeremy Early

avocet / www.natureconservationimaging.com / Jeremy Early

Author Sue Curnock
Nature Tots Officer

You know it’s going to be a good morning’s bird watching when you’ve seen a pair of greenfinches before you leave the car park. Seven Sisters Country Park had her best dress on and the meanders of the Cuckmere River were a mass of sparkling ripples as we set off towards the iconic white chalk cliffs in search of the elusive wheatear. Our band of intrepid birders was serenaded by skylarks as we swept our bins to and fro across the fields.

The wheatear proved elusive, but we were richly rewarded with a little egret sighting as he waded watchfully along the river bank, his pure white plume buffeted by the brisk onshore breeze. Four linnets were feeding nervously on the path up ahead and a cormorant was posing open-winged, bathing in the sun. Mike explained that, for water birds, cormorants are not very waterproof and regularly need to dry their feathers this way. A bit of a design flaw in my book, but I wouldn’t argue with a cormorant. They look mean with a short fuse; not surprising really, if they’ve got a soggy bottom half the time.

As we approached the freshwater pools behind the beach, we spotted three avocets busily feeding by swishing their long scooped bills sideways through the water, briefly raising their heads every now and again to gulp down the fishy dish of the day.

We crunched noisily down onto the pebble beach for a picnic lunch and caught glimpses through Mike’s telescope of fulmar bobbing leisurely in and out of view as they rode the waves. Much to Mike’s chagrin, not a wheatear to be seen or heard all morning, we headed back with our eyes and ears on full alert. I don’t think anyone would have turned their chair for the tuneless cronking of the ravens, but what they lacked in melody they made up for in drama and grace as they swept majestically overhead. Wheatear now forgotten, we watched enthralled by a buzzard circling on the rising warm air; a silent silhouette gliding effortlessly against infinite blue.

A truly magnificent morning!

buzzard / Dave Kilbey

buzzard / Dave Kilbey

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Undersea Explorers

Caught a crab / Miles Davies

Caught a crab / Miles Davies

Author Nikki Hills
Making Waves Officer

Staff and volunteers at Sussex Wildlife Trust have been getting on their wetsuits, masks and snorkels to go snorkelling… in a swimming pool. It might seem a bit over the top to wear a wetsuit in a warm indoor pool and what exactly are we likely to see through our masks? Well, it’s all for our new activity; Undersea Explorers, where participants can learn how to snorkel and find out about our wonderful local marine wildlife in a swimming pool filled with life-like models of marine plants and animals.

Last week we ran our first sessions with the Year 5 class of Mayfield Primary School. Most of them had never used a mask and snorkel before and it was amazing to see how quickly their confidence grew in the water. They were soon swimming around to see how many different creatures they could see, racing from one side of the pool to the other in one of the games and before long were happily diving underwater.

Here’s what some of the children thought about their first Undersea Explorers session: “It was so exciting as I have never had the opportunity to snorkel before. This meant I could see all of the amazing and realistic sea creatures” and “I can’t wait until our next session.”

We’re running a limited number of school and public Undersea Explorers sessions for 7-11yr olds. To find out more about Undersea Explorers including details of upcoming family events and how to get in touch to discuss booking a session for your class at school then please see our Making Waves website.

Undersea Explorers Gallery. Photos by Miles Davies

Undersea Explorers was developed by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. Undersea Explorers is being run at Sussex Wildlife Trust as part of the Making Waves Project.

Making Waves is our marine education and awareness project, which is spreading the word about the wonderful marine life found around our coast and the importance of protecting it. This project is run in partnership with Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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The reducing colour in our countryside

Author Tony Whitbread
Chief Executive

ox-eyed daisy / Miles Davies

wild flower meadow with ox-eyed daisy / Miles Davies

Native, species-rich grasslands have suffered around a 97% loss since the 1940s – a staggering rate of loss for any habitat so why have we not heard more about it?

Perhaps one reason might be our reducing expectations.

Look out of the window and you would be forgiven for thinking that there is grassland everywhere – so what is the fuss about! Well, it seems that we have forgotten what grasslands can actually be like. A good “unimproved” grassland can be a riot of colour – all sorts of species existing together in intimate mixtures. Literally dozens of flower species can exist in an area that today might hold just two (perennial ryegrass and white clover). Look at grasslands today and, usually, the colour has gone. We see an expanse of green, imagine that is all it can be and don’t expect to see anything else. We don’t imagine better so we don’t see the loss. This narrowing of our horizons is perhaps more depressing than the actual loss.

Indeed calling these habitats “grasslands” at all is a misnomer. There is not much grass in a good ancient grassland – a better name would be pasture or meadow. We do however call them “unimproved” meadows because they have not been re-seeded, fertilised or sprayed with pesticide. This means that a wider range of native plants are able to survive.

Meadows, alive with colour, cut for hay and then grazed by sheep or cattle, were a mainstay of mixed farming for centuries. You could argue that these habitats are just not relevant to modern agriculture so perhaps they are just a relic of a bygone age. This is certainly not a criticism of farmers or farming, but the world has moved on.

I do not hold with this view, however, and perhaps the world should move on again.

These habitats are now so rare that even if we offered a very lucrative incentive scheme to farmers for each surviving fragment just to save threatened meadow flowers it would be a small price to pay.

But flower-rich meadows do much more than just sit there and look pretty!

Bees and wild pollinators are really suffering at present. And if we loose pollinators then much agricultural productivity (and many other benefits we get from nature) will be threatened. Unimproved pastures provided an expanse of nectar sources in the middle of summer, a time when nectar sources are otherwise limited. So wild flower meadows keep our pollinators going.

Many of our unimproved grasslands sit on top of water resources – water percolates through these habitats into the underground aquifer, purifying as it goes and giving us clean drinking water. Permanent grassland also holds the soil together preventing erosion, reducing run-off, stops silt building up in rivers and reduces flood risk.

Soils under unimproved meadows are also rich in carbon – they lock-up carbon that would otherwise contribute to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, adding to climate change. Expanding the area of flower-rich meadow could therefore be a contribution to climate change mitigation.

If all that is not enough then it also seems that these unimproved grasslands could have great health benefits to people. Animals that graze on these grasslands have a better fat balance to those that are grain fed. If we eat the beef or chicken that grazes outdoors then we benefit from a healthier diet.

Flower rich meadows are therefore not just a relic of a bygone age. We owe a great debt of gratitude to those landowners who have maintained them so far, and we are now moving into a new age where we can restore these important habitats to something of their former glory.

We can’t rebuild a habitat that has taken centuries to evolve. We may, however, be able to make a moderately rich new meadow which delivers some of the benefits of genuine old grassland. We may not get the orchids, round-headed rampion or bastard toadflax, but we could get yellow rattle, ox-eye daisy and cats-ear.

Techniques have improved over the last few years and many people are starting to make wild-flower meadows where once a green desert stood. As well as a new form of flower-rich meadow, grazed by cattle, such an approach is also being picked up in amenity grassland, under orchards in urban gardens, school fields and even under solar farms.

But essential to all of this is keeping what remains – hence The Wildlife Trusts “Save our Vanishing Grasslands” e-petition.

We don’t need to look at flower-rich meadows through the rose-tinted spectacles of an imagined rural golden age; we need to see them for what they offer us for the present and the future – which is plenty.

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My first nightingale

Mike Russell
Senior Wildlife Advisor

nightingale / Neil Fletcher

nightingale / Neil Fletcher

Well, they’re in; I never really doubted that they would come but it is always a relief when they arrive. My spring is now complete; I’ve heard my first nightingale.

Luckily Neil Fletcher was able to record the nightingale singing for you to enjoy.

Now, it is always rather annoying when I’m not the first person to hear this wonderful song that emanates deep from within a blackthorn bush at Woods Mill, the Sussex Wildlife Trust’s headquarters just outside Henfield, and this year I’ve had to wait a couple of days after one had been first reported, before I actually heard one. After all, they are “my” nightingales and it is only through my good grace that I allow anyone else to come in and listen to them! My life and those of generations of nightingales have been intertwined for the nearly 30 years that I have worked at Woods Mill, and for the first 8 years, living on site.

Every year, they suddenly appear around the second week in April and the reserve has enough habitat to hold three to four territories of nightingales and for about six glorious weeks these most impressive of avian songsters provide a wonderful soundscape for those of us that work here. For over 20 years now I have run ‘Evenings with Nightingales’ at Woods Mill and it is one of the great thrills in life to be able to take people to within a few metres of a nightingale singing their hearts out. The effect on people who have never heard one before is palpable; it can be a real emotional experience, something they will never forget.

A singing nightingale is the best proponent for its own conservation; how can you fail to be moved by the incredible range of notes that this little, unremarkable bird the size of a robin can produce and want not to save it. Sadly, they are declining across Britain and Europe, but Sussex does remain a stronghold for the population of nightingales.

This year I’m taking the ‘Evening with Nightingales’ out on the road so as well as doing the two at Woods Mill I will also be running two other evenings, one at Arlington the other at Knepp Castle, which, due to an exciting wildland restoration project, now hosts two percent of the national nightingale population.

Listening to nightingales should be on everyone’s ’50 things to do…’ list. It excites the soul, it can soothe that aching brow and it reminds us of the beauty that can be found in the natural world in which we share this planet.

Evening with Nightingales

Thursday 8th May Woods Mill near Henfield
Monday 12th May Arlington near Polegate
Tuesday 13th May Knepp Castle near Horsham
Tuesday 21st May Woods Mill near Henfield

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Bird song: Goldcrest

Author Neil Fletcher
Interpretation Officer

goldcrest / Alan Price

goldcrest / Alan Price

The song of the goldcrest can be so high-pitched that some older listeners may have difficulty in picking it out – they can certainly attain a frequency of 20MHz (though this recording was limited to 16MHz) which is right at the top of anyone’s audible range. There are usually several short-and-long notes repeated and then ending in a downward flourish.

Goldcrests can be surprisingly confiding, often approaching you when you’re not really looking. They have a tiny yellow stripe on the crown which is usually only just discernible, but if you’re very lucky (I have seen this only twice), then two males may display to each other quite aggressively, raising these yellow feathers to reveal a secret brilliant orange patch, like a flame in the forest gloom.

sonogram of goldcrest's song

sonogram of goldcrest’s song

More bird song here

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Bird song: Chiffchaff

Author Neil Fletcher
Interpretation Officer

chiffchaff / Neil Fletcher

chiffchaff / Neil Fletcher

What can you say about the song of the chiffchaff. It does what it says on the tin. They can go on for hours, often quite high up in a tree. It’s an unrewarding exercise to crane your neck for a look, for they don’t move except at the head end, and can be very difficult to spot. If they’re in for the long haul there are sometimes little pauses when they make much smaller ’ch-che; ch-che’ noises, as though they want a rest but don’t want to shut up entirely.

In the late summer and autumn the young birds make ’tsee-eep’ contact calls, almost indistinguishable from the same noises made at that time by young willow warblers, but with diligence and practice they can be told apart. Perhaps later on I’ll try to get them down on tape.

sonogram of chiffchaff’s song

sonogram of chiffchaff’s song

More bird song here

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A much maligned plant

Author Pete Crawford
Head of People and Wildlife

Whilst considering your garden after the ravages of winter, you may see the odd gap, space for a bit of spring colour. Can I draw you attention to what I think is a must have plant?

A real herald of spring, its bright yellow flowers are already opening. But in contrast to the ubiquitous daffodil trumpets, each bloom is actually composed of dozens of tiny florets, arranged in a flat whorl, attractive to pollinating insects, including bumblebees, butterflies and pollen beetles.

Each plant will throw up many flowers, each on a short, leafless stem, which does not flop or bend in spring winds. Careful deadheading can prolong the flowering season further. These marvellous plants generally flower in spring and early summer, but have been known to bloom at almost any time of the year.
They are the hardiest of perennials, and will thrive in most conditions. Their neat rosette of leaves takes up little space at the front of the border and they can naturalise in lawns or a meadow successfully.

You can even add the young leaves and petals to a salad. Traditionally the flowers were used to make a wine and its renowned diuretic properties are reflected in various colloquial names – “wet the bed” being the most polite.

However this horticultural wonder is not readily available in garden centres, perhaps due in part to the oversight of Alan Titchmarsh et al.

Perhaps Sussex Wildlife Trust members can help promote this unfairly ignored garden plant, which has so much to offer. May I offer you the splendid Taraxacum officinale, although you may know it by its common name – the dandelion!

dandelion / Pete Crawford

dandelion / Pete Crawford

If you already have specimens in your garden, why not look closely at the beauty of the flower, cherish their hardiness and allow them to flower to benefit the bees, before deadheading?

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