Black Down

There won't be many more opportunities now for me to see 2 lifers in a day in the UK, and there'll be even less in Sussex, at least not without a concerted effort which would look too much like twitching for my liking. My unplanned trip to Black Down today is memorable for being one of these ever depleting opportunities.

A journey to Farnborough to buy a new sofa was prevented by the sudden closure of the hogs back, so I made a detour, fully accepting that my past trips to Black Down have been largely disappointing due to the number of people and unruly dogs. However, with a good chance of seeing one of three lifers that are fairly regular there, particularly at this time of year - Crossbill, Goshawk and Honey Buzzard - and it being a weekday when one hopes it will be less busy, I thus went in hope, but without too much expectation. In fact, it wasn't at all busy, and at my first resting place, looking out east, 3 Crossbills came jipp-jipp-jipping over. I was almost certain they were Crossbills at the time, but without good views there were doubts in my mind, so I didn't record them. It was still early in the trip and I wasn't dispirited with thoughts that that was my only opportunity to see Crossbill. I walked over to the west side where, upon scanning, I noticed a small raptor. I initially thought it was a Kestrel but it looked quite pale underneath, didn't hover, and it didn't feel like the right kind of habitat for them. It glided over towards a large wooded ridge and suddenly a much bigger bird came up from the canopy, seemingly to attack the smaller bird, but without much determination, which made me think it was just warning it off. I had a feeling this bird, the attacker, was a Goshawk, and I managed to get a couple of photos as it cajoled with the smaller bird as they both moved along the ridge. As it moved out of sight another small raptor came soaring over calling in an unusual way. For reasons I can't articulate (the call wasn't familiar to me and it was too distant for me to visually identify) I had a feeling this bird was a Hobby. I walked further down and saw another birder and I immediately asked (after saying hello, of course)  if I had seen a Goshawk, which he confirmed along with my suspicion of the second bird being a Hobby. I was delighted. Goshawks are notoriously difficult birds to see. He informed me it was a female which explained its size and that the smaller bird it was attacking was a Sparrowhawk. It was encouraging to hear him say the call the Hobby was making was very unusual, and he thought it may have been due to the Goshawk's presence. This birder turned out to be Dave, a regular patch watcher at Black Down who often posts interesting reports on the SOS sightings page.

After some chit-chatting and Dave kindly providing me with some tips for seeing Crossbill (for which I was very grateful) I headed back north towards the car parks. In the spot Dave recommended I heard Crossbill calls again and they were quite frequent, but I really wanted to see one to be absolutely sure. I sat down in the area where I heard them and waited. Again a jipp-jipp-jipping sound came from a distance and started to get closer until a group of birds came into view and perched in a tree not too far away. One of the birds was just about visible and I managed to get a couple of shots. The large crossed-over bill was visible and the bird was a green colour, making it a female - that sought after association with the calls I'd been hearing was finally made. As is often the way when you're in luck it seems to keep on producing, and walking back I heard a call which I initially thought was Whitethroat. Unsure, I consulted the Collins guide, which all but convinced me it was the alarm call of a Dartford Warbler. Not a lifer and this is a good spot for them, but a scarce bird nonetheless and only my second encounter with one. I had ever so brief views of it, just about making out a rusty brown colour on its underside before it darted off. Despite my certainty that this was a Dartford Warbler, it wasn't until I heard a Whitethroat alarm call at Waltham Brooks more than an hour later that I felt beyond doubt the bird I heard and partially saw was a Dartford Warbler, again helping me to make important associations between a bird's calls and its physical appearance and habitat. I only recorded 24 species at Black Down today, but this was certainly a case of quality over quantity.

On the drive home I stopped at Waltham Brooks and noted that the Greenshank is still there, if indeed it is the same one, but the Whinchats seem to have gone.



Black Down Heathland


Spotted Flycatcher


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