Let’s hear it for the little brown birds


A LLB is a birdwatcher’s slang for a little brown bird that you can’t easily identify. These can be a bit of a nightmare to tell apart, especially in dismal light, such as we seem to have had on most of my miserable days off for around the last few months! It is frustrating not being sure if that little bird that just flew off was a common bird or something more interesting! Not that that common ones are any less welcome of course!


(my) sparrows in the garden

I’m getting better at identifying the most commonly seen birds, and it’s great when you do get near enough to positively identify them. It’s often the bird behaviour that gives you the first clue, rather than a reliable view of the brown feathers. Regulars in my gardens are the house sparrows and dunnock. Though both small and brown they behave very differently. The sparrows are normally moving around in the safety of a crowd unless feeding young. They fly first to the bushes beyond our lane, chirping cheerfully among themselves, then after checking the coast is clear, they fly into the garden, either hiding in the hedge, or perching on the trellis until they decide it is safe to attempt a landing on the bird feeder. They are more likely to decide it is safe to proceed when the starlings are also in, which means a lot more competition for the food, as the starlings squabble with any bird in sight. If they can’t find a spot on the bird feeder the sparrows will dive under the bird table to grab the spillages. If they find a spot on the feeder, they too will fight with each other for space.


Dunnock on Seaford Head

The splendid dunnock on the other hand is often spotted alone, or with a mate or chasing a competitor. He will stalk and strut along the back fence in a territorial manner, and always feeds on the ground.  Under the bird table, in the flower beds or even in the flower pots. If the robin has his back to you, he could also be mistaken for the dunnock, having similar movements and feeding habits. But his song is unmistakeable and cheery, marking out the Winter territories in which pairs tend to spread out into wider feeding areas. In late Summer a walk over Cuckmere had robins singing from every corner!

Over Seaford head, a favourite brown bird of mine this year has been the meadow pipit (affectionately nicknamed mipits!) They are frequently disturbed from the grassland, or spotted fence hopping along the coast path.


Meadow pipit at Cuckmere

This is also skylark territory, and you’ll often spot these too. In the air and singing, the skylark is unmistakeable and a wonderful sight and sound. I heard my first one of 2018 at Tidemills last week, so Spring must be on its way! Spotting one in the grass or fence, it’s quite hard to differentiate between the two little birds, though the skylark is slightly larger, and can have a crest on the top of its head, but not always obviously!


Skylark at Tidemills

Towards Splash point on the rocks and jetty there are often rock pipits, which are also similar, though tending to be darker in colouring.


Rock Pipit at Splash Point

They are a bit of a challenge these brown birds, but far from boring!

My challenge this year is to spot and correctly identify a few more warblers and for this I think I really need to learn my bird songs. It’s very rare to get a photo as clear as this one. I’m putting my money on willow warbler due to the light colour legs, but a song or two would also have helped rule chiffchaff out!


Dawn chorus here I come.. just as soon as that interminable rain stops


I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.

“We are nearer to Spring 
Than we were in September,” 
I heard a bird sing 
In the dark of December

by Oliver Herford




Bumper berries, thrushes and stinks

Bumper berries, thrushes and stinks


Apparently it’s been a great year for berries due to a warm, dry spring, followed by July and August rains.

On the local roadside slopes I’d noticed a huge spreading mat of red – which I believe is cotoneaster horizontalis! I’ve never seen it so noticeable everywhere before! Quite stunning!


A good year for berries, is good news for birds. A couple of weeks ago I took an early Sunday walk over Seaford Head and was delighted to see not one but three different thrushes feasting on the harvest! This weekend too at Sheffield Park, there were plenty more thrushes feeding in the trees and shrubs!

The first was a beautiful song thrush, a native bird that has declined by 50% in the 25 years to  1995. I rarely spot a thrush and its always a welcome sight


Continuing on my walk I spot a couple of redwings too. In my photos the red wing is not really visible but the marked eye stripe is unmistakeable. Redwings are generally Winter visitors, arriving in October/November so my redwings may have just arrived and be travelling north.


The third one was a fieldfare, also a Winter migrant. Often seen in big chuckling flocks!


On wet and cold November days it would be easy to get depressed about the onset of Winter but there are some advantages . We may have said goodbye for now to some birds such as these swallows busy feeding and preening before heading south..


But the arrival of other birds such as the lovely redwings and fieldfares can only be a bonus. One day I also hope to spot some waxwings feasting on British berries too, in a supermarket carpark or wherever they descend! Bring on the berry eaters!

Not all berries are eaten by the birds. This beautiful one is stinking iris (iris foetidissima) I believe,  found in open woodland, hedges and on seacliffs. Also known as scarlet-berry Iris, Gladdon, Gladwin Iris, Roast-beef Plant, and Stinking Gladwin.  The names come from the smell of the sword-shaped leaves when they are crushed or bruised – a smell that is said to resemble rotten raw beef! The plant has a long history of medicinal use but can be rather powerful.


Another advantage of the bare branches is that birds are getting rather easier to spot!


I’ve spotted a couple of blackbirds back in my garden too! Hurrah for that, they have finally forgiven me for getting rid of the lawn. Possibly tempted in by the rather pitiful crop of crab apples, and the cotoneaster. As the wind blows and the rain falls, I’ll be filling up the bird feeders and watching out!


Sing a song of seasons!
Something bright in all!
Flowers in the summer,
Fires in the fall!

Autumn Fires

Robert Louis Stevenson

If you go down to the woods today.. Falling, fluttering and flitting



On Monday I took a walk along the South Downs way which goes through a golden leafed Friston Forest towards Litlington.. and on this sunny November day as I crunched through the fallen leaves, I still managed to spot some butterflies.

This speckled wood was still flitting around quite happily, settling on these fallen leaves! Velvety brown the spots are quite a bright cream colour.


( 12 Speckled wood, pararge aegeria)

The first one I spotted this year was near Rye harbour, just as I was coming out of a bird hide. Another week in the Summer I took a walk from Falmer across to Ditchling, and where the path passed woodland, there were dozens of them, mostly chasing each other!



The other thing I didn’t really expect to see was dragonflies (or perhaps damselflies?) They were flitting everywhere in the forest, and then there were dozens down in the rushes by the Cuckmere river.


What a glorious spot it was. I sat on the river bank and enjoyed a snack at my half way point before I followed the river back to the coast, on an almost deserted path.


The red admirals still seem to be everywhere at the moment, rushing around with their beautiful wings, far too busy to have their photo taken! The red admiral is a migrant to Britain and can be seen in many months of the year. Though some survive in this country, most arrive from continental Europe  from  May to early Autumn. In the 17th century some naturalists called it the “Admirable” rather than the Admiral.. and I can see why. It really is rather splendid with those scarlet markings.

One Summer day I went out for a walk spotting butterflies, and didn’t see any red admirals, but as I sat down in my living room later, one came right up to my window and on stopped my balcony to rest.. Thank you beauty.


(13 Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta)



      Oh, Autumn! why so soon
Depart the hues that make thy forests glad;
Thy gentle wind and thy fair sunny noon,
      And leave thee wild and sad!


Autumn Woods, by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

Faith in Flowers.. and a cure for scabs and arrow wounds



One of my recent birthday presents was a book by Faith Anstey called Flowers in the Field. It’s just what I needed really to start at the beginning! There is no point having a huge reference book of wild flowers if you don’t know where to start. So I’m starting my botany at the beginning, and hopefully it will help me to identify at least some of the wonderful wild flowers I’ve seen this year!

The first lesson is the structure of the flower. So in lesson 1, I learned the following about this lovely common centaury. That as it has five petals it is a dicot, it has all round symmetry and that the yellow parts of the flower are the carpel (stigma, style and ovary) and the male Stamens (anther and filament)


This primrose though having different leaves is also a dicot with all round symmetry but less obvious stamens.


The lily is a lovely example of a monocot which has petals and sepals in multiples of three. Leaves are normally straight blade or simple oval shapes.


Taking a closer look at a scabious flower from my garden, lets you clearly see the stamens with the anthers and the end of the filaments covered in pollen, where the bee is happily collecting it. I love to grow these in the garden, but have also spotted a number of wild ones over the Summer which are hopefully correctly identified!


Devil’s bit scabious, (Succisa pratensis) at Cuckmere. This one is found in damp habitat, and is the main larval food of the declining Marsh Fritillary butterfly (sadly not spotted)


Small scabious growing in short grassland near Crowlink, Seven Sisters


Field scabious in meadows at  Lewes railway nature reserve

The name scabious appears to have come from this herb’s traditional usage as a folk medicine to treat scabies, caused by the plague. Indeed it appears to be an essential of the medicinal garden as my old copy of Culpeper’s complete herbal includes:

“Scabious is very effectual for all coughs, shortness of breath and all other diseases of the breast and lungs. The decoction of the herbs and roots outwardly applied doth wonderfully subdue all hard or cold swellings in any part of the body, is effectual for shrunk sinews or veins and healeth green wounds, old sores and ulcers. The decoction also cures running and spreading scabs, tetters, ringworms and the French pox. The juice cleanseth the skin and removeth freckles, pimples, morphew and leprosy. The herb bruised and applied doth in a short term draw forth any splinter, broken bone or arrow head from the flesh!”

Useful to know. I’ll remember that, next time I’m shot with an arrow while out flower spotting.




Still chasing the blues – searching for my adonis!



I was still on the hunt for the Adonis Blue. I read somewhere that Malling Down was a good place to try, so I took a chance, and decided to spend my Monday off walking from Glynde over to Lewes via Mount Caburn and Malling Down. I’d not been up this way for a number of years.

It was not an encouraging start. Drizzle all the way up Mount Caburn and very little wildlife in view except a few sodden sheep. I reached the top and headed north and into Southerham nature reserve. It’s perfect butterfly habitat rich with wild flowers, if only the sun would come out and warm a few butterfly wings. The best I could find were a few moths and a beautiful lacewing in the meadows.


galium carpet moth


common carpet moth



I backtracked, trying my best to avoid the golf course where I always seemed to end up dodging golf balls, and carried on around the hill. I ended up rounding the back hill on a path that turned into sheep trails that seemed to get steeper and wilder as I went on! I disturbed a number of pheasants which flew off in noisy protest and also watched a bird of prey (probably a buzzard) hunting in the fertile grassland. It was still gloomy and drizzly and I ate my sandwich walking along.  I eventually came to the edge of a chalk pit, which looked very promising butterfly spotting ground down below (in fact I could see a couple of likely butterfly spotters and their cameras!) However it looked like a steep descent and  I really wanted to start heading back towards Lewes. So I took another path westwards. It’s always a bit difficult to work out exactly where you are on these nature reserves which are open access.  I suddenly came across a sheltered clearing, thick with wild marjoram and vetch, and there at last were some butterflies. Not just any butterflies, but blue butterflies including the one I was looking for!.

Looking at the books the Common blue and Adonis blue can look very similar. However in the field, my first Adonis blue took my breath away. There really is no doubt – what a brilliant blue it really is! Looking more closely, the distinctive black lines that stripe through the white margin and blue wings that also distinguish it. These lines are even visible on the side of the wings.


Absolutely stunning. You can keep your Greek gods, I was very happy with my Adonis blue butterflies!

The path started a steep descent and I was soon back in a lane on my way back to Lewes to warm up in front of an afternoon film in the new cinema.

(11 Adonis Blue, polyommatus bellargus)



Adonis – a divine figure in Greek mythology, portrayed as a beautiful youth and associated with fertility

I’m feeling good – searching for the blues



What does the colour blue mean to you? To me it is a happy colour, of serene skies and calm azure seas, of peaceful lagoons and woods full of scented bluebells. It’s peaceful and relaxing colour. But if you are feeling blue.. you’re the opposite of happy. All those blues musicians sure have the blues!

The term “blues” may have come from “blue devils” meaning melancholy and sadness from a one-act farce “Blue Devils” in 1798 or from Britain in the 1600s when the term referred to the intense visual hallucinations that can accompany severe alcohol withdrawal.

When I was searching for the blues under the Summer skies, I was on the hunt for butterflies.

The common blue was satisfyingly common. At Seaford Head, Crowlink and the Seven Sisters I spotted a good many. Beautiful blue they are too when they finally stop long enough for you to take a look at them! The common blue is found in a wide variety of habitats and the male has a wonderful bright blue appearance.


(9 Common blue, Polyommatus icarus)

The female is mostly brown, but the underside markings are similar (though remarkably like other several butterflies which can make identification tricky!) This (I think!) is a female common blue


So once I was getting confident with my ID of the common blue, I was on the hunt for some different blues. The first one on my list was the chalkhill blue.


(10 Chalkhill Blue, Polyommatus coridon)

Not surprisingly, this is a butterfly found on chalk and limestone downland which is the only habitat that supports the larval food plant, the horseshoe vetch. So the plan was to walk along the chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters and look out for the horseshoe vetch! Though there has been a long term decline of this butterfly, in the right sites, thousands can still be spotted.

The meadow fields between Crow Link and the South Downs way along the Seven Sisters was definitely one of the best places and in among the clouds of butterflies flying,  I finally managed to spot some sitting still long enough,  for me to get some photos and a positive ID!


The male seen here on a fine scabious flower, has an underside that is a lot less colourful than the common blue. When open, the dark fringes of the males, make it clearly different to the common blue.



The females are mostly brown and harder to spot.


And a favourite picture of the little lovers together, this time at Malling Down. What a lovely pair


To be continued…

Dragonfly out in the sun you know what I mean, don’t you know Butterflies all havin’ fun you know what I mean Sleep in peace when day is done that’s what I mean And this old world is a new world And a bold world for me It’s a new dawn It’s a new day It’s a new life For me

And I’m feeling good

Written by English composers Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse and recorded in 1965 by Nina Simone, and others!

Golden Brown, basking butterflies



No not the dismal rather drab soggy brown of this Autumn because I’m still working through my photos the butterflies of Summer! To help me on my quest I invested in a rather nice book “Butterflies of Britain and Ireland by Michael Easterbrook” Apparently one of the first English books of English butterflies was compiled by Merrett in 1666 which included 21 species with obscure latin descriptions but no names. The collecting of butterflies as a hobby began at the end of the 17th century and the first names were given by a James Petiver.

The browns were a bit more tricky to learn. It took a while, but I think by the end of Summer I could tell my meadow browns from my gatekeepers as long as they weren’t flying off too quickly!


The gatekeeper (sometimes known as the hedge brown) is generally a lovely bright orange and brown, in July there were quite a few around.

(4 Gatekeeper , pyronia tithonus)

When they are perched, its a little harder but it seems the double white eyespot is a bit of a giveaway. I think the one above is a male, which is a little smaller than the female with dark smudges of scent scales across the orange wing. The species was first described by Merrett in 1666



So the other common one flying around is the meadow brown. This one is actually also bigger, so a good identifier in the field, though not so good once I get an image home and have nothing to compare it too. The male really is quite a dull brown, with a tiny eye spot.

(5 Meadow Brown, Maniola Jurtina)


The female is a bit brighter. These butterflies are one of most common, often seen in large numbers. I spotted the most between Crowlink cottages and the South Down’s way, where the meadow fields were teeming with butterflies on a mid Summer stroll. Just an amazing sight, hundreds and hundreds of butterflies – most of them on the move!


Another orange and brown one that I spotted a few times, is the tiny small copper, which favours warm dry sites such as downland and coastal dunes. In 1699 Petiver described it as the “small golden black spotted meadow butterfly”, or later the “small tortoiseshell”

 (6 Small copper, lycaena phlaeas)


Another rather lovely orange and brown, is the Wall Brown, spotted once at Seaford head, and once on holiday on the Yorkshire coast. Once common, this butterfly has disappeared from much for central and Southern England. It loves to bask on walls, rocks and in this case bare earth! First described by Petiver as the Golden Marbled Butterfly with black eyes, then later the London Eye.

(7 Wall Brown, lasiommata megera)


The last one of this group, seemed to become more common as the season went on. By September the Small Heath seemed to be only butterfly I spotted up Seaford Head. This tiny butterfly was surprisingly easy to capture with my camera, most obliging!



(8 Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus)

I remember in the 80s that brown and orange seemed to be the height of fashion. We had brown wallpaper, and brown and orange curtains. Tasteful! It’s quite out of fashion now of course, but looking at these little beauties I can now quite see the appeal of the combination. It seems that brown is anything but boring.

“I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days – three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.” 
John KeatsBright Star: