Paul Cole

Paul Cole

I have had an interest in birds and wildlife since I was a young child and love nothing more than being out in the great outdoors. My family and I moved to Henfield in the summer of 2017 and I was delighted to discover that there was a thriving birdwatching club in the village.

I have a passion for local birding and find it fascinating to build up a picture of what can be seen on your doorstep. It never fails to amaze me what you can find within just a mile of your own home. I feel lucky to live somewhere where we are surrounded by such a wealth of wildlife, and I can hopefully do my part to spread this enthusiasm to the residents of Henfield.

Lesley Milward

Lesley Milward

I’ve always been curious about birds and wildlife. I still have my Young Ornithologists badge from when I was 10, the ladybird books I frequently thumbed through as a child, and many vivid memories of spending the long summer holidays down on my grandad’s farm in North Devon. My connection with the outdoors has remained strong and I’m well aware of the therapeutic power that nature can have on our health and wellbeing. I love the idea of citizen science and try to take part in as many surveys as I can for the BTO, SOS, and RSPB. I’m also a member of the Perching Manor Survey team. We really do live in a very special village and I feel passionate about protecting the habitats and birds that also like to call our parish their home.

1 Month Down, 11 to Go!

My main impression of the first month of the survey in our garden in Lower Station Road is how consistent the species and numbers have been, there has been very little variation. There has been a good variety of species, 30 in total, with perhaps a brief visit by 12 lesser redpolls being the most unusual. I’m presuming the male and female great spotted woodpeckers are the same birds as are the 2 jackdaws. Blue tit numbers range have ranged between 8 to 14 while long-tailed tits have been 4-6. I’ve no idea if the single coal tit that has visited every week is the same bird, the same can apply to the one goldfinch.

4 blackbirds have co-existed without too much friction, unlike the couple of robins that have occasionally been joined by a third. There have been just a couple of starlings every week while house sparrows have reached the dizzy heights of 14. Talking to Brian and Karen Lang up the road, just about 100 metres away, it is interesting to compare species and they never record house sparrows or starlings. They have got up to half dozen reed buntings whereas we have just recorded 2.

Weather can have an impact on what birds visit the garden and this winter we haven’t had any long spells of very cold weather, just the odd days here and there which have been interspersed with warmer days which means that birds haven’t had to range far and wide for food. The bird food which you put out in your gardens plus, because of the relatively warm winter, means there is still quite a lot of natural food available to them.

Whatever, comes to the garden though is always interesting, how they behave, pecking order at the feeders, and how different species relate to each other is good to watch. Looking forward to the next 11 months!

Mike Russell & Lesley Milward

Challenging Long-held Beliefs

First published May 2018

As recent joiners to the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO), national garden birds recording scheme, we receive their quarterly bulletins and the latest spring edition had some particularly interesting articles and information. This survey requires participants to submit weekly records of the birds in their gardens (actually in it, not flying over!) and has been going since the 1970’s, peaking with over 1500 people taking part across the UK, making it one of the biggest citizen science projects in the UK.

One of the articles in the current edition highlighted the problems of increased risk of diseases posed by garden bird feeders and indeed it was the garden survey that first drew attention to the fall in greenfinch numbers and the rise in Trichomonosis, a disease that particularly, though not exclusively, affects this species. Every issue publishes the results of each the quarters and this one looked at the October to December records for 2017. The results reflect the short-term factors that might affect a particular quarter such as unusual weather, the success or otherwise of breeding or a shortage or glut of natural food. These results picked up on the hawfinch invasion of last Autumn as over 3% of gardens recorded this species in their garden, ten times more than the usual count.

However, the article that really caught my eye was summary of a newly published book, The Birds at My Table: Why We Feed Wild Birds and Why it Matters by Darryl Jones. A study revealed that we provide 60,000 tonnes of bird seed annually, enough to feed the actual population of blue tits alone, 5 times over! Feeding birds in our gardens has grown enormously over the last 30 years and the variety of food we put out is now is very varied. Also, views have changed about feeding birds all the year round, as initially it was thought not to feed in the summer, but consensus is now that this is okay. Personally, I don’t put food out in the summer, preferring that adult birds should still provide their chicks with natural food. When it comes to the winter though, I like to put out a lot of food, believing like nearly everyone else, that natural foods are scarce and becoming scarcer, they simply need the food we put out to survive the colder months.

The author challenges this idea though. He cites that evidence shows that for most individual birds, the feeder food they consume is actually a very small part of their diet and that, except in extreme conditions, they don’t need the food we provide, they will simply go elsewhere. They are wild creatures that choose to visit our feeders on their own terms, perhaps because it just the easier way of finding dinner.

Without reading the whole book, I don’t yet know the evidence he uses to support this proposition, it’s encouraging me to go out and buy it though. It certainly challenges my ideas that that feeding birds, particularly in winter, that we are all helping millions of birds to survive this season. I certainly need convincing otherwise and would like to know if a model has been looked at to predict what would happen to our birds should all our garden feeding was to cease.

In the meantime, I and hopefully you, will carry on feeding the birds until ensuring that they have a greater chance of surviving the harsh realities of living in an increasingly hostile environment.

Mike Russell



Nature in the Raw

First published January 2019

We all love robins don’t we, they brighten up dull winter days, they accompany us while we garden, they adorn many a Christmas card, they are officially in fact the nations favourite bird. Well, if you love your robin, as I love mine, you might find the following a bit unsettling.

One morning recently while just enjoying the birds in the garden over a cup of coffee I watched a robin on the patio for a full five minutes or more as it digested a worm. It was a big worm, still very much alive, wriggling frantically to try and escape the small but lethal beak of the robin. The bird at first just kept picking the worm up, shaking it vigorously then dropping it. After a while it decided that it was time to eat and snipped off a chunk of worm, so we then had two wriggling worms on the floor and the robin picked up the smaller potion and swallowed it.

Meanwhile the remaining bit of worm tried to escape but to no avail, the robin having digested the first bit, snipped off another bit and then swallowed it. This carried on and I think the robin had in the end eaten four separate sections each of them still alive, the whole process taking over five minutes in total. It was a real nature in the raw moment.

Now, if anyone watching this episode would may be slightly unsettled by this episode but probably would not bother to write to a conservation organisation or tweet or put on Facebook a message about how terrible it was and that we should cull or control the robin population as they are such terrible birds.

Yet this is what happens quite frequently if people see a sparrowhawk take a small bird from their feeding station or garden. Over the years while working for the Sussex Wildlife Trust I had a number of conversations with indignant people bemoaning that a sparrowhawk had killed an eaten a blue tit, great or even a robin in front of them. I distinctly remember one person demand angrily “Your” sparrowhawk has eaten” my” blue tit, What are you going to do about it? There is currently a very small but vociferous group of people who claim that sparrowhawks are a significant cause in the decline in the small garden bird population, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that this is not the case. And they want their legal protection removed.

Basically, we humans love our birds but we don’t love worms or caterpillars or by and large, most other insects. No one is championing the cause of worms, yet the worm is essential to the ecology of the soil, but also provides the major source protein for numerous birds, animals and amphibians. In the same way, small birds provide the protein needed for the larger predators such as the sparrowhawk; it is all part of the food chain that sustains life on earth. Someone who once had a lot of time on their hands, calculated that in one year if all the great tits from all the broods survived to breed the next year and this happened in subsequent years then within a decade, we will all be knee deep in great tits!

Like it or not, blue tits, great tits or even robins are an essential part of the food chain, as are worms and provided that there is a properly function ecosystems then nature will sort it all out so that everything flourishes at the levels that they need to.

Mike Russell

Travels of a Nightingale

First published April 2018

I know I have written about migration before, but it is something that is just so fascinating that I’m not going to apologise for re-visiting the subject again, especially as having just come back from a trip to Morocco, with some of my Henfield Birdwatch colleagues, and experienced migration at first hand.

While on the edge of the desert we were in the gardens of one of the hotels we were staying at and amongst the vegetation a small bird was moving around the base of the trees and shrubs that was very hard to see, but eventually showed itself to be a nightingale. For us ‘Henfieldites’, this was rather poignant as we are very much associated with the nightingale population within our parish. Now, we had no way of knowing whether this little bird was going to end up around Henfield, but the romantic souls that we are, hoped that it might do!

But, seeing this bird just reminded us that what an extremely difficult and hazardous journey millions of birds take to get to their northern hemisphere breeding grounds, having spent the summer on the African continent. Over the last 10 years, fitting a tiny satellite tag to nightingales has enabled researchers and conservationists to find out where our nightingales spend the winter and what routes they take both on their spring and autumn migrations. We now know that nightingales spend the winter months in West Africa, mainly in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau and it is only a relatively short time that they are there. Most of the year they are actually on the move.

One of the first nightingales that was fitted with one of geo-satellites while at their nest site in East Anglia on the 12th May 2010 and then, following breeding, it left the site on the 25th July, crossing the channel a week later. The satellite transmits regular signals on a regular basis so that the birds’ journey was tracked down to its’ wintering grounds at which it didn’t arrive at until mid-December, so the journey took nearly 5 months. It then left its wintering grounds in Senegal on the return journey early February and arrived back within 50 metres of where it was originally tagged in early May the following year. This tiny bird, about the size of a robin, travelled about 6000 miles, spending over 9 months moving between its wintering and breeding grounds. That journey took it through various habitats, desert, crossing seas, barren farmland as well as sudden inclement weather, facing dangers as predators and even hunters, a truly remarkable achievement.

Other species we came across in Morocco that were making their way northwards that mat end up in our parish included many swallows, which may well have started their journeys right down in South Africa. A few house martins passed overhead as well as swifts and a couple of wheatears.

Seeing some of these familiar birds in unusual habitats and situations is actually quite humbling. We just got an aircraft and in about 4 hours we were in Morocco, whereas for these birds their journey is full of danger and a big number of them never actually make it.

Mike Russell