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

Weed hogging and magpie hopping


At the top of Seaford Head in early July, it was hogweed nurturing the most wildlife! Not the infamous giant hogweed, that is non-native and can very toxic if you touch it, common hogweed is a native plant and was blooming everywhere. Almost every flower head I peered over, was covered with busy red soldier beetles, feeding, mating and general congregating.

Hogweed (heracleum sphondylium) has lacy umbellifer flowers which are white or pink.


Soldier beetles are very common here and feed on aphids, pollen and nectar. The larvae prey on ground dwelling invertebrates such as slugs and snails. Another welcome insect to try and attract to my garden then!

It was a windy day and the birds were mostly lying low, except for a noisy family of magpies in a bush beside the golf course. Presumably juveniles, they congregated and cogitated, then flew off in a noisy hullabaloo.


As I walked down the hill towards Hope Gap, the hogweed was joined by ladies bedstraw (gallium verum). The tiny delicate yellow flowers combine into golden clouds that waft prettily all the way down the hill. The flower is most abundant on very poor chalk soil where it cannot be crowded out by other more vigorous plants.


Their pleasant honey and hay scent of the flower, made it popular in days gone by for drying and using to stuff mattresses, especially of women about to give birth, hence the name! In Norse mythology it was also used as a sedative for women in labour! Due to its high acid content it was also used as a rennet substitute to colour and flavour cheese!



(truckle bed at Singleton Downland museum)

The end of my walk was also accompanied by more noisy magpies, who clearly wanted to stand up and be counted. But I think I lost count in the end. Anyway this little chap certainly wasn’t on his own, so I think I can avoid the curse of a lone magpie today.


One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird,
You must not miss.[1]




Winter gloom and the darkling thrush



So where has the time gone? One minute the Winter is dragging on and the next we are galloping towards Summer. So what has happened in my coastal garden so far this year?

Well this Winter wasn’t so bad. Not too much wind and rain, no real storms taking all the fences away (though there is still time!)  A couple of frosty spells, but nothing too severe. The Winter pansies I grew from seed last year hunkered down stubbornly refusing to bloom until Spring arrived. The rosemary bush seems to have doubled in size and most shrubs seem to have survived well except possibly the ceanothus I was given in October. It really needed more shelter from the wind than I could give it.

The potatoes I grew in a pot for Christmas dinner got forgotten in December. When I did find time to check them, I found a little bucketful of perfect tiny new potatoes. They were soon cooked and covered in home made aioli. Mm garlic!


The wagtails and wood pigeons made themselves at home. The starlings grew their coats of many colours, and came crashing into the garden at regular intervals for food and a bath (even on the coldest days where I had to break the ice with a hammer and boiling water)


Since December I’ve been working at home two days a week, and it’s been lovely getting a view out onto my garden, especially in the depths of Winter when otherwise I wouldn’t see it from one weekend to the next. I even got a glimpse of the black redstart venturing in, and posing cockily on the bird feeder station, and the fence.

A number of the plants in pots were dying/suffering, and after emptying a couple I found that most were infested with vine weevil. Quite a few of the little blighters were moved  to the bird table (a tasty snack much appreciated by the starlings) and I’ve had to empty the worst pots, and have drenched the rest with a nematode, and top dressed with gravel. From now on, no plant comes in the garden without a root inspection! It does explain why some pots like the trellis planter did badly last year regardless of which plants were in it, and where I put it. You live and learn. I was most worried about the crab apple tree in a pot, but it seems to have made it.

Inside my heated propagator and sunny windowsills were filled with little trays of seeds and I’m dreaming of Summer.

The song thrush had been and gone, clearing the bushes of berries through the dusky afternoons, and moving on again.  


The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-grey,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires.


At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;  

By Thomas Hardy

 Just when it seems that Winter will never end, come the first buds appear. Behold the joy of Spring.







W for Waves, winds and Winter wrens


W is for Wind, Waves and Winter. Wind is the main challenge for my garden along with salty air and occasional sea water run off! Even the most hardy plants can shrivel and hunker down under such conditions (For example I finally gave up on a spiky Pyracanthus!). The only consolation is that it is mostly in the Winter that the worst of the winds reign, and you can sometimes get away with the annuals and perennials during the Summer. Last year I was lucky as there were few real Autumn storms and some of the flowers just kept going! However a sudden storm or windy week in the Summer can bring havoc. The worst casualties are G’s big pots of bamboo, which we keep round the hot tub. They just turn into a browned off stalks by December. Luckily once Summer comes they do grow new shoots again, and I just cut off all the dead ones. I’m not sure what is the best plan, perhaps to wrap fleece round them come the Autumn.

Making the best of it, some of the grasses look wonderful with the wind rushing through them, reflecting the wild beauty of the grassland in the nature reserve.


Plenty of Wildlife beginning with W too. I did my RSPB Garden birdwatch recently and was glad to be able to include a Wren, which was happily hopping about, probably searching for spiders in the hedge, and a beautiful pied Wagtail which has become a regular visitor.


What they lack in size, wrens make up for with their loud song! Someone certainly thought it was Spring this morning at dawn, there was some fantastic singing going on in the dawn chorus!


Wrens apparently often huddle together in nest boxes – with a record 61 once found in a single nest box! I’ve only ever seen one a time, but pretty regularly. Apparently the males make several potential nests and the female gets to choose which one she wants. Will have to keep an eye out for signs of nest making. I have some brass wren ornaments on the top of the trellis panel, which are tiny, but still bigger than the real ones!

Also have had cute little Wood mice in the compost bin (looking rather sleepy and startled when I open the lid).

Last but not least, Weeds. Well not too many hopefully in my garden, though it is rather difficult sometimes to tell if anything sprouting in my new bed is a) seeds I enthusiastically planted in Autumn, b) weeds inherited with my Eastbourne clay top soil c) seeds scattered by the frenzy of birds at the bird table and under it. I guess that’s a good excuse to just wait and see what turns up!

Anyway let’s hope we will be waving goodbye to Winter very soon!

Autumn ends, winter comes,
And everybody’s gone.
Days grow short, and pull apart,
And now the nights are long.
We winter wrens have made amends,
With the silence and the cold.
So, just leave us to our own device.
We winter wrens are fine.

So, just leave us to our own device
We winter wrens are fine
‘Cause there’s no mistake of the call we make
When there’s no one else around

‘Cause there’s no mistake of the call we make
When there’s no one else around

Lyrics, Winter Wrens by Dolorean


Tumbling toms and thunbergia


T is for tomatoes. I may not have a greenhouse or a lot of space, but I do still like to squeeze in some Tomato plants. Tumbling Tom is a favourite so I grew that one and a new one maskotka. Hard to choose between them really, both did really well in some bargain big £1 tubs from Ikea, in a corner that doesn’t get a huge amount of sun, but is more sheltered from the wind than most of the sunny side. Plenty of cherry tomatoes, and enough  green ones left for four jars of chutney.


Walk a few yards up the hill behind our houses and you’ll soon spot some Thrift (often known as sea pinks) growing on the slopes and edge of the cliffs. It feels most at home there and in my garden where it is most welcome


In the Spring of course a succession of bulbs start to cheer up the pots. The tulip bulbs probably need replacing, they weren’t as great this year, they really don’t keep all that well.


We usually head out to some National Trust or other gardens in the Spring to get the best displays!



A new plant for me this year is this fantastic Thunbergia (superstar orange). It grows from seed to a substantial climber in one season. What gorgeous orange flowers they are. It did quite well in my garden, but not as well as the one I gave my mum. She’s not really a gardener (My Dad always used to do the garden) but following directions, she kept it in her conservatory, then planted it in her front garden against a warm wall, and it positively blossomed, far longer than mine did! Quite stunning




Another stunning T is a visitor to the garden in January, a Thrush. I only ever see them in January for a short period, while they (or possibly just the one!) clear the berries from the shrubs at the bottom of the alley way. A lovely way to cheer up my cold and frosty January!


S is for Summer flowers and Starling squabbles


S is for Spring and for Summer, but they seems a long way away at the moment. Last year an impulse buy from the garden centre was Scabious, butterfly blue. It impressed me with its lovely flowers and longevity, and was adored by the bees and butterflies! It seemed to self seed a couple of plants too, so these were potted up and are being carefully nurtured for this Summer!


Another late Summer flower much loved by pollinators is the Sedum, which has thrived, despite some neglect (in fact it appeared to thrive on it, very happy in a pot that was really too small) I left the flower heads on to go russet and crispy!


A Winter beauty, very resilient is the Skimmia. I first put it in the flower bed, where it obediently survived but didn’t thrive, failing to send its roots out into the world, or to grow a single leaf.


Now I know a bit better I’ve kept it in a pot and some ericaceous compost where it is much brighter, and pretty much the only real colour out on my patio just now. A cutting has also taken, so there will be more colour next year!


And I can’t leave S without mention of the noisy ones. What is the name for a collection of starlings I wonder? A squabble of Starlings perhaps.  Today I got a kettle of water and a hammer and broke the thick ice in the bird bath, and within minutes they were back out there drinking, fighting, squawking  and splashing. Life is never dull with them around!