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


Magical Sounds of the Night

First published October 2018

Throughout this winter, right through to the 31st March next year, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is undertaking a nationwide survey of the tawny owl, UK’s most common owl. This survey has two aspects to it, firstly, volunteers are assigned areas, a kilometre square tetrad and they have been asked to visit their site on 2 occasions and these took place in September or October.

The second arm of the survey is open to anyone and can be undertaken anywhere, you can take part of from the comfort of your own bed by just opening your window and listening! All you need to do is listen for 20 minutes each week between now and the end of March. It doesn’t matter if you miss a week, all records are welcome as are those that don’t record any owls at all; the absence of owls in an area is as important information as hearing one calling. If you are interested in taking part in the survey, you can download the information from the BTO website ( and the tawny owl survey information is on the opening page.

As I said originally, the tawny owl is our most common owl, but it isn’t seen that often because of its very nocturnal behaviour, we are much more familiar with its call, the archetypal ‘too-whit, too-whoo’ sound the floats through the night skies. Although it is our most numerous owl species, it is on the Amber List of species for conservation concern, this means that its population has declined between 25-50% over the last 40 years. One of the main reasons for the survey is to build on previous survey information from 12 years ago and to see if the increasing urbanisation and the subsequent light and noise pollution is having an impact on tawny owl breeding success. In the more rural areas, loss of habitat is another potential reason for their decline.

Henfield seems to be doing quite well for tawny owls, this is mainly from anecdotal evidence and also a continuing monitoring project undertaken by David Plummer through Henfield Birdwatch. Over the last couple of breeding seasons, a number of tawny owl sites were found and chicks were heard at these sites. At Woods Mill, there was a very vocal family of three chicks and on one lucky occasion I was able to see one of the adults feeding a hungry youngster. Also, a very prominent family held a territory along the Downslink where on a dusk walk I encountered a curious youngster staring down at me from a branch across the track.

Hearing the call of a tawny owl of an autumn night is one of the great natural sounds of the UK. It can for some people sound quite eerie and in days gone by, many myths and stories have been associated with it, many of them relating to death or dark deeds. For the owl though, it is merely the best way of communicating to each other through the hours of darkness. If you hear the ‘too-whoo’ sound then it is the male proclaiming a territory to other males and also trying to attract a female into it, whereas the ‘too-whit’ sound is usually a responding female, so you are in fact hearing two owls.

While still fairly common, it is sad to think that this wonderful, iconic bird is declining, so any help in finding out where these birds are will be of great help in finding ways to make sure that they are still around us in the future.

Mike Russell

Can You Speak Up a Bit?………..

First published June 2018

We’re in the middle of a heatwave, it’s a Sunday, summer is truly here so what can be better than relaxing in the garden absorbing the warmth and the associated symphonies of the natural world. Very soon it begins, the soothing hum of an electric lawnmower, the excruciating whine of a strimmer, if you are lucky you might hear the distant choking of a chainsaw, but best of all the musical harmonies of a trio of power drills, angle grinders and tile cutters. Welcome to the sound of a 21st Century summer in England.

No longer does the gentle drone of bees and hoverflies prevail, nor the soothing sound of leaves rustling in a slight breeze, or the general sound of birdsong, all drowned out by a cacophony of machinery where the noise virtually obliterates all natural sounds, invades your aural space and prevents you from enjoying what you most like doing within your own boundaries. Now, I realise that everyone has to maintain their gardens and if you are at work all week then you have a limited amount of time to mow the lawn, trim the hedges and vegetation or indeed carry out your own house/ building extensions. Last summer in our road and on virtually every Sunday, an extension was being built by the occupants, so power drills, grinders and grinders were in constant use a combination that, for me, made it impossible to be outside, the noise piercing through the air into my space.

I checked the laws relating to noise and basically, they state that on weekends and bank holidays you can’t use the above instruments before 9.00am and after 8.00pm but between those hours, you can make as much noise as you want, they don’t really come under the term ‘unreasonable’. In the case of building construction, it can be stipulated in the planning consent that work should not be undertaken on a Sunday. In Germany, there is enforced legislation to say that on no account can any of the above outlined activities take place; lucky Germans! Now, I daresay that if I ever raise this to people and said wouldn’t it be great if we had such a law in the UK, the majority of responses would be that I should take myself off to Germany then (probably not in quite such polite language!), but I really do feel that I have just as much right not to have to listen to other people’s noise for at least a limited defined period as they have to make it.

Our world has become increasingly noisier over the years and this has generated research into the impact that this can have on wildlife, particularly birds. There has for a few years now been anecdotal evidence that more birds such as blackbirds, robins and song thrushes are singing during the night, one reason being proposed is that our cities and towns are so noisy during the day and evening that birds singing for a mate or to proclaim a territory can’t be heard over the din! Night time is quieter so they are more likely to get a response if they sing then. In 2001, the University of Bonn started to research how loud the nightingales sang that bred in the green areas in Berlin and they recorded one bird was singing at 93 decibels, that’s 5 decibels louder than noise regulations allowed! Which set the question, how loud can birds sing? As loud as they have to make themselves heard apparently.

Noise pollution is becoming a bigger issue not only for it’s impact on wildlife but on our own general health and wellbeing. Is it too much too ask that for just a relatively short time in our busy week we have time to enjoy just a little peace and quiet?

Mike Russell

June 2018 – Wildlife and Habitat Destruction

Two incidents lately on our patch highlights problems and frustrations that all of us feel when damage to habitat occurs, particularly during the breeding season. Down at West Mill Farm many of us were delighted to see that lapwings bred on one of the fields, with at least 9 youngsters being seen, a real bonus for this declining species.

On the 24th May, local border Guy Border posted on Facebook that the field had been ploughed and after that, only 3 youngsters were noted. Val followed this up with Natural England as it was thought that this field was in an Environmental Stewardship Scheme, which, in fact, it is but only for field edge options such as buffer strips, beetle banks and field corners, so the ploughing up the field to plant maize even though lapwings were nesting does not contravene the terms of the stewardship agreement.

More recently, Birdwatch member Sara Taylor reported that on land next door that was owned by developers to her had been completely ‘trashed’ right in the middle of the breeding season, displacing many young birds and presumably destroying nests in the process. Sara has admirably followed this up, trying, so far with little success, to engage with a local Wildlife Crimes Officer and not much help from the Sussex Wildlife Trust or RSPB.

And herein lies the real problem that leaves us all so frustrated and helpless. In terms of legislation, wildlife protection is governed by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and, in relation to the two above incidents, the part of the act that these will come under, is below:

Protection of wild birds, their nests and eggs

(1)Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person intentionally 

(a)kills, injures or takes any wild bird;

(b)takes, damages , (destroys or otherwise interferes with) the nest of any wild bird while that nest is in use or being built; or

at any other time takes, damages, destroys or otherwise interferes with any nest habitually used by any wild bird included in Schedule A1;

obstructs or prevents any wild bird from using its nest;

ttakes or destroys an egg of any wild bird,

he shall be guilty of an offence.

But the onus to prove that damage has been done falls on ‘us’, we would have to have evidence that birds and/or their nests have been damaged. The defendant will usually deny knowledge that they knew of any nesting birds as they wouldn’t have undergone a survey prior to taking the action that they did and I don’t think there is any legal duty for them to undertake one.

Also, even if it can be proved that the above act has been contravened, getting something done about it, such as a prosecution, is extremely difficult. Trying to get the police engaged, as Sara is finding out, is impossible; most constabularies have a nominated Wildlife Crime Officers, but usually it is only a very small part of a wider remit and wildlife crime is a very low priority for them. It is actually the responsibility of the Government to ensure that the Wildlife and Countryside Act through Natural England, part of DEFRA. Unfortunately, the present Government has been eroding Natural England’s ability to enforce the Act by both decreasing their funding and resources and by a clear direction that they are not to take out prosecutions, theoretically withdrawing all the remaining teeth it had.

Unable to get any satisfaction from the organisations that are supposed to enforce our laws, they turn to organisations such as the Trusts or RSPB. Now, big as they are, they have no more legislative powers than you and I as individuals and also, they don’t have the resources to undertake expensive legal processes. Having worked for the Sussex WT for 30 plus years, I’m only too aware of the frustrations of both individuals who want the Trust to take on their particular issue and of the staff who see habitats being destroyed over the whole county and are generally powerless to do anything. What they have to put their very limited resources towards is at the level of trying to influence and encourage good practice through advice to planning authorities, companies and land owners. This on top of then having to fight major threats to the environment such as the proposed A27 road extensions, the continual problem of fracking applications, and the destruction of important habitats because of extensions to Newhaven port.

Until wildlife becomes a much more important issue on the political agenda, we will all continue to be frustrated and angered by seeing our local wildlife and habitats being destroyed and nothing being done about it. Despite the RSPB having well over a million members and the Wildlife Trusts heading towards that number, whenever elections come along, wildlife and its conservation slips right down and often off the agenda altogether. That high degree of membership of these organisations should be able to have a massive influence on politicians, perhaps we need to exert that influence more ourselves.

March Sightings – Paula

Male GreenfinchAt Woods Mill on a warm sunny day on the 9th Paula clocked up 21 species at Woods Mill, though birds weren’t the real highlight (see below!).  In an after breakfast wander down Windmill Lane on the 10th I flushed a Woodcock from a copse.  Paula noticed Mallards had returned to the Tanyard pond, and 2 Jackdaws turned up in Yvonne’s lounge! Brenda noticed 3 Little Egrets by the Beeding roundabout on the 4th – they were there again for Wendy a week later!  There is a heronry (egrettery?) not far away on the Coombes Road.  Some serious nest building was going on in Paula’s garden on the 11th.  A Blue Tit was taking sheep’s wool from a hanging container.  Other nest boxes were being visited and a pair of Great Spots were drumming in the dead area of an oak tree next door.  She heard a Chiffchaff singing, a pair of Greenfinches were in the conifers at the back – the male an amazing bright yellow.

March Bird Sightings – Nige and Libby

WrenAt the overflow pit Nige, Libby & I were annoyed to find two people training dogs to retrieve game from the water by throwing in objects – that is until a Mute Swan hauled itself up from the nearby stream and flapped aggressively towards the dogs.  Dogs & people beat a retreat and we gave the swan a round of applause! Further afield Graham & Liz visited Dungeness (51 species) and Rye (60 species), while Yvonne nipped down to Hove and found Waxwings! Sallie went to Burton Mill Pond and saw a probable Marsh Tit collecting bits of lichen. On the 26th Graham & Liz had their 2nd ever garden visit (in 28 years) from a Treecreeper.  At Woods Mill on the 28th Paula got a telling off from a pair of Wrens, but it gave her a chance for a photo.  The same day a pair of Coal Tits was in Lesley A’s garden in Benson Road.

March Sightings

Sallie was surprised to watch a Blackbird by her pond helping himself to some tiny tadpoles, while Paula Shovelerreckons her garden is Dunnock Central – no less than 11 of them on the 27th!  The next day along the Millstream she found a male Linnet, a Yellowhammer, a pair of Reed Buntings, half a dozen Meadow Pipits on a power line, and on the wet area 2 pairs of Shoveler, a pair of Teal, Mallards, 2 Coots and a lone Lapwing taking a rest and standing on one leg.  There was an influx there later that day when Mike came across 12 Shovelers!


Barn Owl
Copyright David Plummer

Bryan saw a Barn Owl flying near Betley on the 3rd; Peter & Penny had wonderful views of another (down south?) a few days later. Will’s garden pond was visited by a Firecrest on the 4th.  The next day a Blackcap was at Sallie’s. Two male Reed Buntings arrived at my garden feeder on the 6th, but Brian L trumped me by saying he & Karen had at least 6 regularly coming! At Truleigh Ponds on the 5th John & Pauline watched a male Red-crested Pochard on the water. Just outside our boundary but an angler arrived and the duck flew off not only giving a very clear view of its wing markings as it flew into our domain. Quite a skittish bird so could well be truly wild and not on a visit from a London park where John has previously seen them. Darrell counted 8 Buzzards together on the Lydds on the 7th.  Three found a thermal and drifted off north while one was harried by crows and headed east pursued by the mob (it’s beginning to sound like one of those rhymes we used to learn…)   Also, he was fairly convinced he saw a Turtle Dove, but wouldn’t call it as such as it seems far too early in the year and he was without binoculars. Just wishful thinking or an early arrival?

Val Bentley

Val Bentley

Val describes herself as the general dogsbody, but also took on the Treasurer role in 2019.

Sussex born and bred, Val spent a few years in the West Country before returning to the county in 1986, and settling in Henfield in 1992. Seriously birdwatching since the late 70s, and bird ringing since 1983, Val has been Secretary of the Sussex Ornithological Society 3 times and is still very involved with their activities. She looks after “Area 9”, the patch including Rye Farm, and the stretch of river from Stretham to New Inn Farm, which in 2014 produced a brilliant Grey Phalarope and the village’s first Glossy Ibis in 2020!