In the winter months it is possible that you will come across a perched great grey shrike, or a hen harrier coming in to roost.
Flocks of fieldfare and redwing may be found feeding, or going to roost in the late afternoon, and bramblings may be seen on the wood edges – Five Hundred Acre Wood, for example. Mistle thrushes can be found on the wood edges, too; they can be seen in groups in October, when berries on bushes and trees, such as rowan, are plentiful. Like their relative, the song thrush, they are tree-nesters. Five Hundred Acre Wood often produces stock doves, and you are likely to hear their distinctive song there.
In spring and summer, the number of species increases dramatically, as does the volume of bird song. Another heathland speciality, the woodlark, is perhaps the most melodious of all. You may be alerted to its presence by its trilling call; it will sing from a suitable song post, and also in its display flight, when it may circle or hover. Later in the summer months, you may come across a family party of these delightful birds, pottering about on the drier, less vegetated areas of heath. Old Lodge nature reserveis a good place to look, as is the Misbourne valley.
You are likely to see stonechats, which obligingly sit up on top of gorse or heather and announce their presence with a harsh “chack chack” call, and you may also hear their rather scratchy song (very like the song of the Dartford warbler).
The lesser redpoll is another likely find – whilst they flock together in large numbers in winter, you are more likely to see one or two flying over at other times, and hear them “shaking their keys” (flight call) as they do so. Or you may be lucky and find a small flock feeding on silver birch catkins. Siskins are birds of the wood edges, too. They like to feed on alder seeds and those of silver birch, and are often seen dangling upside down whilst doing so. A flock of siskins can be very noisy – they tend to keep up an incessant wheezing chatter.
If you are fortunate, you may discover a few crossbills – such exotic birds. A sunny day when pine cones start to open in the warmth is a good time to look. Seeing lots of debris falling from pine trees may be a good sign – unless it’s a squirrel or two, of course. Greenwood Gate and Wrens Warren are likely areas. Crossbills start breeding early in the year – February/March; their flight is undulating, and their call a short “gip, gip, gip.”
Reed buntings, like stonechats, are on the Forest throughout the year, but most numerous in the winter months; the males sing from low bushes in spring and summer. Yellowhammers behave in a similar way; the male’s song is the familiar “little bit of bread and no cheeeeese.”
Spring migrants include the striking common redstart – another bird with a distinctive song. These birds need trees with holes or fractured branches in which to nest and rear young; the bottom of the old Airstrip is a good place to see them.
You might also find spotted flycatcher there – another bird which is obliging in that it sits, very upright, on a convenient branch from which it makes short feeding forays usually returning to the same spot. Its alarm call is a short “wheet, chuck chuck.” Sadly declining in numbers, a few turtle doves return to the Forest in May, their purring song indicating their presence. Duddleswell and Airman’s Grave are favoured areas. Our most familiar migrant, the cuckoo, is often best seen early in the morning, but can be heard singing throughout the day and often late into the evening.
Another migrant which makes its presence felt is the tree pipit. The males sing from the tops of pine and other trees, and make a parachuting display flight with legs dangling, usually landing in another tree nearby. Meadow pipits are here all year; late afternoons in autumn and winter are good times to see them gathering to roost. They are widespread throughout the heathland areas.
Willow warblers, chiffchaffs, whitethroats and blackcaps like the gorse and scrubby areas – you can usually locate them by their familiar songs. The chiffchaff can be distinguished from the similarly-plumaged willow warbler by its habit of flicking its tail as it moves through the canopy.
Towards the end of summer, or in early spring, you may be lucky and find the odd passage migrant like lesser whitethroat, wheatear or whinchat. Wheatears are more often seen on the ground; the whinchat tends to perch up in a similar way and in similar territory to that of the stonechat. The area below Bushy Willows CP is a likely spot for whinchat, though any of the southern slopes might produce either bird. Late summer is an ideal time for another passage migrant, the ring ouzel. Again, these may turn up anywhere, often in small groups.
Evening walks in summer can be very rewarding. Soon after dusk, the nightjar can be heard churring – its song likened to that of a two-stroke engine – from its song post, which may be a pine or other tree. When its song ceases, the nightjar may make a display flight, or its bubbling call, or clap its wings – or all three. One of the two Forest waders, the woodcock, displays in the evening, too. This is roding, during which you will be able to hear its mouse-like “squeak, squeak” followed by its frog-like “croak croak.” These birds spend their days in damp woodland, and you may flush one as you walk such areas as Church Hill or Mardens Hill. Only the very lucky will hear a snipe drumming – there may be just one pair left on the Forest.
The many streams or ghylls which criss-cross the Forest may, rarely, produce a kingfisher. Grey wagtails may be seen on or near them, too; the Splash near the Hatch Inn is a likely spot. Pied wagtails can turn up almost anywhere; surprisingly, they often gather in car parks, before going off to one of their communal roosts.
“Big” birds on the Forest include buzzards – these are becoming much more common, as are ravens. The mewing calls of the former, and the cronking calls of the latter, are the signal for you to scan the skies. Kestrels seem to be doing reasonably well, and a few hobbies return each year to breed. The Vachery area is a good place to listen for the hobbies’ “ki-ki-ki” call. They are sometimes seen hunting over Weir Wood Reservoir. Sparrowhawks are about in reasonable numbers, as are tawny owls. Again, evening walks are the best time to hear tawnies calling, though you may come across one dozing in a tree by a Forest ride if you are especially lucky. Red kites have been seen flying over more frequently in recent years, and may appear anywhere.
Wooded areas will produce all the usual tit species, though marsh tits tend to favour the more damp places. Church Hill and Townsends are good places to look for marsh tits; and the summer season has produced a lone wood warbler in the latter area for several years now. Its rippling song and “pew, pew, pew” call is easy to hear. Other woodlanders are plentiful – nuthatches, treecreepers, goldcrests, green and great spotted woodpeckers (with a very occasional lesser spotted woodpecker), bullfinches, green and goldfinches. Linnets are plentiful, too – Roman Road is a good place to see and hear them.
A day’s birding on the Forest can be rewarding – especially in the milder months, and especially when the sun is shining. Good luck – and please let the Forest Centre know of any unusual sightings.
With very many thanks to Sue Phillips and Peter Johnson of the Ashdown Forest Bird Group for the text and pictures.