Saturday 10 November 2018

Stoatally amazing experience

I moved to Rye in March this year, having been living with my parents after my separation in 2016. It was a tough time for me, and I found myself spending more and more time Rye Harbour Nature Reserve to walk, relax and unwind. It was the one place more than any other I found I could switch off my thoughts and just focus on what was around me. I can honestly say my visits to the reserve were, apart from the support from family and friends, the biggest help in my recovery.

When I found my flat up to let at the start of the year, it just felt like fate. I now have the reserve almost on my doorstep, and throughout the summer with the long, warm evenings, I was getting out as much as possible. I have enjoyed many memorable moments watching foxes, cuckoos, hobbies, marsh harriers and barn owls. Now the days are shorter I only have my days off from work to enjoy the wonders and wildlife of the reserve, so on Monday I took myself out to a part of the reserve known as Castle Water.

This area is not as accessible as the rest of the reserve and therefore I very rarely meet more than half a dozen other people out walking. It's also one of the best parts of the entire 1100 acre site for bird watching, with the habitat suited to a number of species which aren't seen an often on the beach reserve. With its reed beds, birds like bearded tits, bittern and marsh harrier are regular here (though finding them isn't always as easy). While I have a special place in my heart for birds, sometimes another animal steals the show...

I spotted the stoat in a place I fondly call 'rabbit corner'. My past sightings of these magnificent mammals have been brief, a quick view as it darts down a burrow or in to the undergrowth. So I was quick to pick up my camera and grab a photo before it disappeared.

As you can see, it was very aware of my presence, but none-the-less darted out further in to the open. I took to my knees to get a better angle and kept still.

It's quite obvious at this point it was somewhat intrigued by me, but I still expected it at any moment to turn back and run the other way, but that wasn't to be the case.

By now I was somewhat baffled by what was going on. Why was this typically shy animal running towards me and not away? How much closer would it come? The only thing to do was to keep still and keep taking photos.

Having come so close, I was having a hard time keeping up with its movements and certainly struggling to fit it all in the frame. If I haven't made it clear I am completely out in the open, on the footpath which runs adjacent to the fence line separating the field from the reserve boundary. Up to this point, the stoat had been running towards me on the very footpath I was on, but decided to cross through the wire fence to my left.

Still watching me, as some on social media have suggested, possibly wondering whether it could take me down. Stoats belong to the family Mustelidae, which includes weasels, mink and wolverines, all with a reputation for punching well above their weight in the animal kingdom. I prefer to think this little stoat saw me as a friend rather than foe. Whatever it thought of me, I was completely awe struck by this fantastic beast, and it decided to come closer still, in fact as close as my lens could possibly focus.

Less than 4m away, this photo hasn't been edited or cropped at all, just resized for the blog. A little look around and it finally turned back, coming back through the fence and taking one last look back at me before taking off.

After watching it disappear down a burrow, I carried on with my walk, feeling somewhat emotional at this wonderful experience.

I recommend a visit Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, but if you can't get there, I encourage you to find a place near you where you can reconnect with nature. I hope you have a stoatally amazing experience like I did.

Saturday 13 October 2018

Autumn changes

Continuing on from July's heatwave, we had a mostly fine August and September, which are typically two of the quietest months of the year for activity on the feeders. October is often when things pick up, but so far we're still experiencing temperatures in the high teens to low twenties, so only on an 'off' day are we seeing lots of birds using the feeders. From tomorrow onwards the forecast is back to average for the time of year (around 15°) with more rain than we've seen in some time, so I expect the food to start going down more rapidly.

While we expect this downturn on the feeders during Autumn, it normally coincides with an increase in summer migrants passing through on their way south, but this year we've had little more than a few visiting chiffchaffs. We spotted our first redwing on Saturday 6th, yet still this week we have seen a solitary swallow and around 10 house martins passing over. Mistle thrush activity has increased, buzzards (up to 6) have been enjoying the warm weather, sparrowhawks have been dropping by regularly and the kestrels are getting plenty of stick from the local corvid population as always. I've also seen and heard skylarks flying over on a few occassions in the last week. Coal tits are back in higher numbers now, as they often are at this time of year, taking the black sunflowers away to cache for the winter. Long-tailed tits have been passing through, but with plenty of natural food still around, they're not often coming down to the feeders just yet. We had hardly seen pied wagtails in the summer, and then two weeks ago a couple turned up and the number built throughout the week up to a maximum count of over 10. Fleeting glimpses of grey wagtails leave a lot to be desired. Although there doesn't seem to be a bumper crop of acorns, a few jays have been dropping in to the oak tree in the car park for a bite to eat. Finally, our tame pheasant, who looked a right mess at the start, now looks a million dollars.



Pied wagtail


Friday 27 July 2018


After May's blog post of thunderstorms and heavy rain, we have since been graced with two months of extremely dry weather. In fact, the south east has not reached even 10% of the average rain seen in June and July. Temperatures have been lingering around 25-30°C for a couple of weeks, but it looks like that is set to change over the weekend with rain expected in the coming days and day time temperatures dropping in to the low 20s.

What this has all meant for July, particularly the latter half, is a lack of activity on the feeders, with most customers noticing a trend of 'disappearing' birds. Our feeders have almost come to a halt, and both the number of species and overall number of birds dropping significantly. Blue tits, great tits and sparrows are still regular, with the occasional visit from a coal tit, robin, dunnock, blackbird, goldfinch or chaffinch. Not forgetting of course the dozen or more white doves which have taken up residence all over the farm, while the tame, scruffy pheasant has taken to coming in to the shop to eat in peace. A few hirundines still grace the sky, but even they seem to be quieter in this particularly hot weather.

The biggest factor for this? Birds eat to sustain energy, a bit like us (although they have faster metabolisms), so when temperatures are like this, they lose less energy and therefore don't have to eat so much to survive. Also, unsurprisingly, there is more natural food around at this time of year. Although the rate at which the feeders have slowed this year is more dramatic than previous, it is an annual trend for July to tail off and activity to remain quiet for August and September.

We've had no notable sightings here recently, apart from irregular visits from a hobby.

While the birds quieten down, butterflies become more active. Our buddleias outside the shop are a big draw, attracting quite a few different species.

Painted lady

Meadow brown

Large white


Wednesday 30 May 2018

Early breeding season signs

Springwatch started this week which gives us a great idea of how the breeding season is going, not just from their location (NT Sherborne, Gloucestershire) but from across the country as the public send in their reports. Of our summer visitors, especially hirundines, many are arriving later and in lower numbers than previous years. 'Our' house martins are in reasonable numbers this year (around 12 birds is the most I've counted), possibly better than 2017, but still much lower than when we started here at Feathers in 2010. I think there are also 5 pairs of swifts back in the church, although they arrived at least two weeks later than last year. We see a pair of swallows regularly so presume they are nesting nearby but once again they aren't any nesting on the farm.

Of our resident breeding birds, the starlings in our nest box were earlier than last year, fledging on the 14th May, although our first juvenile birds visiting the nature area were on the 11th. One of the earliest breeding species is the mistle thrush and we saw fledglings in the car park on the 20th April. Of other species nesting on the farm, we've seen juvenile sparrows, goldfinches, greenfinches, great tits and the first of the baby blue tits today, all of which seem roughly on time, although certainly not in good numbers.

Unfortunately, the timing of fledging the nest has coincided with stormy weather with many spells of heavy rain and thunder this week across the country. This will certainly have a negative impact on the survival rate of many young birds. We would expect the feeders to be busier than they are too, with suet balls and blocks unsurprisingly proving the most popular at the minute (high energy content) but sunflower hearts and peanut consumption is very slow. I hope for many species that second broods will be more successful.

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Breeding behaviour

March was very up and down, with a very cold start changing to warmer temperatures, before the cold arrived back again in what was dubbed the 'Mini Beast from the East' around the middle of the month. Fortunately, this freezing spell didn't last too long and by the end of the month it was back to normal. Now into the third week of April and temperatures are set to reach above 20° tomorrow and it will remain warm all week. The feeders have slowed down considerably, as have sales of food, as expected. There is plenty of courtship going on, lots of beautiful bird song and nesting material being collected. The first baby blackbirds are being reported on social media, although we haven't seen any here yet.

I did witness some interesting behaviour with the dunnocks at the start of April, with the female raising her tail and the male pecking at her behind. This is apparently known as 'cloacal pecking' and is an attempt to remove the sperm from the female's previous mate (it's fair to say dunnocks aren't always faithful to their partner...).

Dunnocks cloacal pecking

Dunnocks cloacal pecking

A pair of kestrels appear to be nesting in the church, which has seen successful broods raised for the past few years now.

Woodpigeons can be seen performing their display flight, noisily flapping their wings as they rise and then dropping back down quietly. Another territorial behaviour the woodpigeons can be seen doing is fighting. This often happens in the depths of a tree but two recently took their fight down on to the ground by the cow shed. The battle went on for about a minute or so before the defeated pigeon took off.

I heard my first singing blackbird at the end of January and they have been vocal ever since. Robins, wrens, dunnocks and goldcrests are all in good voice currently too. Our first cuckoo was reported by Lyn on the farm on Saturday 14th.

Our visiting hawfinches were last seen on the 25th March, rather amazing how long they stayed for after arriving in early December and what a privilege it was to have had them. There are still siskins around however, as usual they tend to arrive later in the winter and often stay until early Summer.

And finally a few photos of a red-legged partridge which made a rare and brief appearance on the 7th April.

Saturday 7 April 2018

First Spring Arrival Dates 2018

2018 Spring Migrant first arrival dates at Feathers, Salehurst, East Sussex

Swallow: 7th April (2017: 7th April)

House Martin: 20th April (2017: 19th April)

Swift: 8th May (2017: 26th April)

Chiffchaff: 3rd April (2017: 17th March)

Blackcap: 8th April (2017: 7th April)

Whitethroat: 20th April (2017: 20th April)

Cuckoo: 14th April (2017: 7th April)

Swallow - 07/04/18

Wednesday 7 March 2018

Winter roundup

Temperatures and rainfall were about average throughout December and January, but things changed a bit in to February as the colder, drier weather arrived. A sprinkling of snow early in the month didn't last long, but late February into early March brought the 'beast from the east' as it became known. Temperatures plummeted, with the 1st March recording the coldest temperatures on record for March. Significant amounts of snow accumulated, although we didn't get as much here as many other parts of the country. We stayed open all week so the birds were well looked after, with extra supplies put out to keep them going. Nothing out of the ordinary visited our feeders but lots of customers recorded fieldfares, redwings, lapwing and snipe coming in to their gardens. None-the-less, consumption increased dramatically as did sales. 160 boxes of 50 fat balls sold in under 2 weeks as the birds looked for high energy foods to help them survive the freezing weather.

Female pied wagtail

Blue tit


Cock pheasant

Male blackbird

Blue tit



Our feeding area outside the shop

The shop

Without a shadow of doubt the talking point of the winter was the hawfinches, which I have highlighted in my other blog posts. Our last sighting here was on the 3rd March, nearly 3 months after their arrival in December. My best photos were taken on Monday in Beckley as a good few were hanging around the small stream near the village hall.

It's not outside the realms of possibility that some may stay to breed, though most likely they will all be returning to Europe where they are more common.

Temperatures now are set to return to double figures, some 15° warmer than last week. As we progress through the month the feeders will quieten down as the birds begin nest building and the availability of natural food increases. We'll be looking out for summer visitors and keeping a note of their first arrival dates to see how they compare to previous years.

Friday 9 February 2018

Feathers' finches

Our last blog post revealed our 97th species here at Feathers - the hawfinch. This winter's influx has been unprecedented, with an estimated 12 times as many in the UK than normal at this time of year. Sussex has certainly seen good numbers, with plenty of sites recording them across the county for the first time. I wrote before Christmas about our surprise of still having the hawfinches here two weeks after their arrival and expecting them to move on. Well, here we are in February with another sighting in the church yard yesterday and our biggest count of 7 late in January. Dozens of birdwatchers have visited to see them and most have been successful.

Hawfinch at Feathers, Salehurst, Sussex, 07/02/18

We've also recorded our first siskins and redpoll in the feeding area outside the shop. Redpoll isn't a species we see very often here so that was a nice surprise.

Redpoll, 21/12/17

Siskin, 03/02/18

Another species we don't see here as much as we'd like is bullfinch. In February 2015 a small flock spent much of the month feeding on the buds in the flowering cherry outside the shop, but we haven't had them often since then. This winter I have spotted one or two on the odd occasion, but they're always very elusive and difficult to photograph.

Female bullfinch, 05/01/18