When it comes to heathlands, bird-wise, they do not support a great diversity or great numbers of birds, instead their attraction lies in the quality of the species that make their home in this rare habitat. The best birds to be found on heaths include such lovely creatures as Dartford Warblers, Crossbills, Nightjars, Woodcock, Woodlark, Redstart, Tree Pipit, Hobby, Redpolls and Stonechats. In Sussex, the main areas of lowland heath are found either on Ashdown forest or in the greensand area of West Sussex – there are still plenty of heaths in this latter area John and I have yet to visit, so on Sunday we set off to explore a couple of these. 

Our first stop was at a pair of superb commons, separated from each other by no more than a country road. Together these make up the largest area of lowland heath in West Sussex and consequently are home to many rare and special species, not just birds either. When we arrived the weather was sunny but breezy and Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers were singing in the birch trees around us.

We walked up onto the eastern common, an exposed and heather-dominated area with plenty of pines, it wasn’t long until we briefly caught the descending notes of a Tree Pipit song in the wind, but we failed to locate the bird itself. Further on, John and I came to a halt at the immediately recognisable scratchy ditty of a Dartford warbler that emanated from some scrub barely 8 meters away. As we stopped to listen in the hope of locating the bird, a second joined in to our left, but despite searching, neither bird was obvious. We had moved on only a little farther down the path when I noticed a small bird perched on some heather in front of us. It had a long, perky tail, orange legs, alert posture and a plumage of purple and burgundy – it was a male Dartford Warbler and it gave pretty fab views before bouncing off into the undergrowth.

The enigmatic Dartford Warbler (nothing to do with Dartford).

As we struck uphill along another path past some pines we were brought up short by an explosion of feathers as four brown birds took flight from under the trees. They scattered into the canopy of needles and I lost track of all but one of them, which landed on a branch in full view but with the sun behind it so that it was little more than a silhouette. It was repeating a mournful but musical note over and over, which, along with better views when we had moved around to the side, helped clinch the ID as a Woodlark. After a few minutes the other three birds reappeared in the foliage and we could see their strong eye-stripes and streaky lark-like plumage. These are not common birds and were the first I had seen in quite a few years, they have a delightful song which I have yet to hear myself, but I was chuffed to see this group.

The photographers eternal enemy, the stick, strikes again (with Woodlark).

We then set off around the adjacent common, a larger area of scrubbier, grassy heath where we had further fantastic views of some Dartford Warblers, as well as a fine male Stonechat, Linnets, a female Kestrel and a Coal Tit. We also spotted a couple of Buzzards and a Red Kite passing overhead, and we did hear a Yellowhammer sing but it was too distant to spot.

We then took a short drive to another patch of heathland, this one set in an area of extensive conifer plantations – in fact a significant portion of the site had previously been a plantation until it was restored to heath just over a decade ago – the habitat looks pretty good now so it was encouraging to see what can be done with the right management. We had barely walked out of the car park when I spotted a small grey bird fluttering about in the tops of some pines, once it had settled down and I could get my bino’s on it I was pleasantly surprised to see it was a Spotted Flycatcher. These dull-looking but characterful birds are summer migrants that are increasingly scarce in Sussex, so it was good to see one here.

The first area we walked around was a bit quiet apart from a pair of Stonechat and a Painted Lady butterfly (my first of the year), so we crossed over a road to a much larger patch. After hearing a singing Common Whitethroat in the dense gorse we also spotted a bright male Linnet and several singing Willow Warblers along the path.

It was then we spotted a falcon moving directly towards us from some distance away, the small size and slim form ruled out Peregrine, and the blue-grey colour of the back ruled out Kestrel, but when it banked and we saw its streaked underside with red ‘trousers’ we both knew it was a Hobby. It landed briefly in a lone pine tree, allowing us to spot the distinctive, strongly-marked black and white face pattern, before it flew off again and over the tree line in the distance. We suspected it might come back, so we waited about ten minutes before our guess was gratified as the Hobby returned to land once again in the tree – giving really brilliant views of this gorgeous raptor.

The Hobby is one of my favourite birds, they are fabulous to look at, with razor-sharp wingtips, smoky-blue back, boldly streaked white belly with blood-red fluffy thighs and a contrasting head pattern that stands out some distance. They are also masters of the air, capable of catching dragonflies in flight, they are characteristic summer denizens of heaths, but also nest near reedbeds and wetlands. When the Hobby had moved off we then had very close views of a pair of Dartford Warblers that were prancing about in the heather just in front of the path. They always strike me as looking quite un-British, rather out-of-place, but then they are on the northern edge of their range in the UK, being much more comfortable around the Mediterranean basin.

To finish the day, we headed to a Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve centered around two old hammer-ponds, I’d never visited before and it has a reputation as being a good spot for Lesser-spotted Woodpeckers. In fact, for the most part it was fairly quiet, the ponds were busy with the usual Coots, Moorhens, Mallards and a few Little Grebes – all busy nesting or squabbling. We saw a male Blackcap carrying food, came across several very old and huge Sweet Chestnut trees, saw a Green Woodpecker and heard a Reed Warbler singing from a very small patch of reed. The highlight though was quite unexpectedly coming across an adult Firecrest (always a good find) very busy feeding a fledged youngster in a birch tree! These are beautiful birds and tricky to find at the best of times, but I have never seen a young Firecrest, nor any evidence of breeding before, besides singing males – so result!

This trip was about quality, not quantity, and exploring new birding territory – we saw some really rather excellent birds and got to walk around one of the most beautiful and serene rural areas in the whole county. It’s good days like this that remind me why I love nature (not that I often need reminding).