30/05/2002
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Downland Birding

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The chalk downlands are a prominent feature of southern England and are also one of the most threatened habitats in the United Kingdom. Centuries of activity by man have affected the topography and status of this specialised habitat perhaps more than any other. This has been to such an extent that only pockets of remnant downland remain, primarily because they are unsuitable for agriculture. As well as its avian interest, unimproved download is an excellent hunting ground for plant and butterfly enthusiasts.

One of the most exciting bird groups to be found on the downs are the raptors, the most sought-after of which is the superb Montagu's Harrier. The species has declined drastically in the last decade to alarmingly low numbers. It can be highly unpredictable in its breeding pattern and frequently does not return to the same place to nest two years in a row. Bearing this is mind they can be extremely difficult to locate, but still can be found at a couple of sites. However, they appear to be very sensitive, and are easily affected by disturbance, so caution should be exercised if you chance upon these extremely rare birds. A more familiar site hawking across the downland in the summer months is the dashing Hobby. These birds are found perhaps more frequently on heathland but can still be found on the more extensive stretches of downland in the south. Common Buzzards are a frequent sight soaring above the downs, and both Little and Barn Owls can be located where the habitat is suitable.

The summer season also brings two other specialities to the region; Stone Curlew and Quail. Both these species have suffered a decline in numbers over the last forty years, mainly as a result of habitat loss and a change in farming methods. Due to their shy habits, they can be very tricky to observe. The best time of the day to watch these elusive birds is around dusk, when their calls hang hauntingly in the still summer air. The Quail in particular is best located using its call, which is one of the more distinctive calls to be heard in our countryside. They have an uncanny ability to 'throw' their voices, which can confuse the observer even more! Both Quail and Stone Curlew numbers fluctuate greatly from year to year making locating them even trickier. Finding these birds is a challenge for the most seasoned birdwatcher.

The Nightingale is a bird whose song is renowned around the world. In common with the Quail, the Nightingale is most vocal in the evenings. It prefers areas of downland with plenty of scrub and gorse to conceal itself when delivering its rich call; these areas also act as suitable nest sites. The Wheatear is another summer migrant to the downs, preferring open areas of grassland interspersed with bracken and the odd gorse bush.

The common breeding birds of the downland are the Lapwing and the Skylark, both of which can be found throughout the region. The scrub of the downlands, usually consisting of hawthorn, blackthorn and gorse, supports a wide range of breeding birds. Linnets, Yellowhammers, Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat, Stonechat, Grasshopper Warbler, Nightjar, Tree Pipit and Meadow Pipit can all be found. The downs are often fringed with extensive farmland or coppices of woodland. These areas provide nest sites for Corn Buntings and Turtle Doves, which can be found in good numbers at appropriate spots. These locations are often the chief haunts of the Grey Partridge and Red-legged Partridges too.

The majority of birds frequenting the downland are summer visitors, and the downs can appear a bleak place in the winter. Hen Harrier, Merlin and Short-Eared Owl are this season's speciality and can be found hunting over the open downs, though locating one of these splendid raptors can often take some searching and more than a little bit of luck! The higher areas of downland in the northwest of the region are the only sites where Rough-Legged Buzzards are observed with some degree of regularity. Also in winter, large finch flocks often gather, sometimes comprising the more interesting species such as Brambling, Tree Sparrow and Cirl Bunting whilst mixed gatherings of Lapwing and Golden Plover roam the open countryside.

Spring and summer can produce a trickle of migrants, including Pied Flycatcher, Whinchat, Ring Ouzel and Black Redstart, whilst small trips of Dotterel are worth looking out for in spring.

Some of the best downland sites can be found at:

Dorset

Durlston Country Park SZ033774

This is a good site for commoner downland birds, such as Common Whitethroat, Grey Partridge and Tree Pipit as well as Grasshopper Warbler, Nightingale, Lesser Whitethroat and Garden Warbler. The area is also good also for migrants during spring and autumn.

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Hampshire

Martin Down SU034177 and Pentridge SU036200

This is an extensive area connected by agricultural land and woodland coppice. During the summer months Quail, Nightingale, Turtle Dove and Hobby can be encountered. In winter this area is also productive for winter raptors, particularly Short-eared Owl.

Beacon Hill SU895360

Winter raptors are a feature of this area, and breeding birds include Turtle Dove, Corn Bunting and both Partridges.

Cheesefoot Head SU535275

In summer, Quail can often be heard calling from deep in the fields, and Corn Buntings also breed in good numbers. It is also a good winter site for Short-eared Owl.

Berkshire

Inkpen and Walbury Hills SU370620

This is a good area for commoner downland birds and migrants such as Ring Ouzels. In the summer there is always the possibility of Hobby.

Oxfordshire

Churn SU510832

A remote area of the 'Berkshire' Downs accessible by road from Blewbury. Short-eared Owl, Hen Harrier and Merlin are possible in winter, Curlew are frequently encountered outside the winter months, and Quail and various migrant passerines are possible in the appropriate seasons.

Aston Rowant NNR SU735965

A regular site for migrant Ring Ouzel in spring, and Red Kite is almost a certainty at any time of year. Close to the M40 where it cuts through the Chiltern escarpment.

Sussex

Kingley Vale SU825088

This is an excellent area for Nightingales, which occur in good numbers, as well as commoner downland birds. Golden Pheasant and Hawfinch are also present.

Written by: Steve Portugal (with additional material by Dave Dunford)