Sunday was a very autumnal autumn day, up on Ashdown forest (one of the largest expanses of heathland in the south east by the way) at a little nature reserve called Old Lodge the season really came into its own. The temperature was typical of this time of year; chilly in the shade with a nippy north wind, but out of the wind and in the sunlight it was pleasantly warm. The landscape up there is one of hills and valleys and vistas, dark green conifers are numerous and contrast with the decaying yellow and burning bronze of the deciduous trees. The bracken was dead and the heather had set seed so that in the wind it now made a dry rattle, the ground was damp and cold with small, broken heads of fungi scattered in the leaf litter. Thick grey and black clouds rolled gently across the wide open sky and the increasingly pale yellow sun shone brilliantly whenever a patch of blue appeared overhead. Looking into the distance, down across the low wield and across to the far South Downs, the whole land was turned a pale hazy blue – each hill crest faded a lighter and lighter shade until the downs rose up above them all in blurred glory – they melted into the sky until there was no perceptible boundary.
As John and I walked down the lane that led into the reserve we became aware of birds all around us, flittering and dashing from bush to bush, calling to each other ceaselessly. There were at least eight Long-tailed Tits amongst them and the others were made up of Coal tits, Blue tits and high-pitched Goldcrests no bigger than my thumb, flaunting their dashing lemon-yellow crests as they poked about for food. These mixed flocks will be a common sight in woodland and hedgerows from now until early spring; it is the Long-tailed tits that instigate the group as they are highly social birds – other species join in for the safety, company and increased chances of finding food.
Further down the lane our attention was grabbed by some bulky thrushes in a patch of birch trees; through our binoculars they were revealed to be Fieldfares (the first of the season). These are attractive thrushes from northern Europe with pot-bellies, a strange chattering call, and sport the wintry colours of grey and blue – they are very wary of humans so this large group quickly made its way into a conifer stand where we couldn’t see them.
A pair of stonechats perched perkily upon the tips of heather stems to the south of the lane; these are true denizens of heathland and a day on Ashdown without seeing one would have been a poor day indeed. We then turned off the road and headed into the reserve proper, the path passed through an area of open conifer plantation with some older beech trees and oaks breaking up the repetitive pines. A Raven flapped past on great dark wings heading purposefully towards some unknown goal, John espied a delicately fawn-coloured female Kestrel acting as sentinel atop the dead arm of an old chestnut. The air was still amongst the trees so the musty smell of damp in the atmosphere filled every breath, it was so quiet compared with the town we had come from – then a Green Woodpecker shrieked his piping laugh as he bounced into flight, flashing a brilliant yellow-green rump as he went.
We walked onward and began to descend the hill, the trees opened up into an expanse of grass and past-its-best heather which was still tinged a faded purple. A trickle of a brook, dark with peat, ran along the bottom of the valley; we passed over the footbridge and huffed up the other side. About half way up the slope a small gang of Swallows skimmed overhead – quickly disappearing against a brooding black cloud, it was strange to think that those are very likely the last I will see this year.
A fence runs up the hill and marks the boundary of the Old Lodge reserve, just a few metres on the other side stood a wide-spreading Yew, laden with bright silky red berries. It was this tree that John and I had been searching for as we had been informed that it was a regular haunt of all manner of thrush species – including the rare migrant Ring Ouzel. We stopped and stood and scanned with our binoculars, several warm-brown Song Thrushes fluttered in the lower branches and higher up a much larger Mistle Thrush was scoffing berries. As we waited another mixed flock of tiny birds passed through the branches of the birch trees standing just behind us; Goldcrests, tiny black-and -white striped Coal tits, Great Tits, Blue tits and obviously lots of Long-tails.
After a while a large flock of Fieldfares and smaller Redwings (also from northern Europe) flew into the Yew, some flew back out again and some waited at the top of a distant beech tree – they are shy birds and kept flying into the yew then scattering wildly again. At one point there was every British thrush species (bar the Ring Ouzel) in that one tree – along with a single bold Chiffchaff.
Both Fieldfares and Redwings have just arrived in Britain for the winter from Scandinavia, they stick to the open countryside at first and are wary of humans; but around January-February time when it is much colder and food is short these two species can be seen much closer to home and also much less bothered with humans. We made our way back up to the car park, then on a whim headed over the main road to walk around a good-looking area of flat heathland – densely populated with Gorse bushes that even now were in flower. After a while we spotted some small twittering finches in a pine tree, due to the low light it was difficult to tell what they were – a couple of them then flew into a smaller pine and with their brown streaky plumage and distinctive red spot on their forehead it was clear that they were Redpolls. It took us a while to be sure of what species they were as Redpolls have a chequered taxonomic history – currently there are three species but some authorities still claim there are just two. We decided in the end that with their warmer brown feathers they must be the (relatively) common resident species Lesser Redpoll – a nice find as I have not seen these all year and they can be tricky to catch up with.
Autumn is in full swing, signs of a cold winter are in evidence, the birds in this country have changed with the summer species largely gone south and some of our wintering species from far north already here. The weather has been mild so far – insects are still in evidence which has been beneficial to birds and other wildlife in preparation for winter – I just hope that the coming cold season is not too harsh – for many birds it can be deadly.