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Part 19 - The Bullfinch and the Wheatear

Bullfinch - Pyrrula pyrrula

A line drawing of a Bullfinch

If you’ve ever had bullfinches in your garden, do let me know. The male is one of our most striking birds, with his black head and tail, salmon-pink breast and cheeks and white rump, though females and juveniles are far duller. The bullfinch population has declined markedly in the last 20 years, probably because of habitat loss (they favour mature hedges and orchards) and the parallel loss of feeding areas – adults are vegetarian and eat a wide variety of seeds including those from arable weeds which are now in far shorter supply as land has become more intensively farmed. However, this is still a relatively common bird and the southeast is one of the best areas to see it in Britain. It was presumably far more commonly found in this area before housing displaced the old orchards.

Bullfinches flourished in the 1950s, so much so in fact that licensed shooting was allowed – although by all accounts this had little effect on their numbers. Happily, few people shoot bullfinches these days. My own encounters with bullfinches in Kingston have been both brief and few. On two occasions, I’ve found them in the overgrown hedge beyond and below the wood at the end of The Street. The only other place I have seen one was on the Ridge bridleway near the cattle trough – again in a hedge. Each time, and this is typical, my attention was attracted by hearing them call. They make a very characteristic low whistle and family groups use this constantly to keep in touch, much as long-tailed tits keep calling to each other as they move through the trees.

Bullfinches do turn up at bird feeders, showing a preference for black sunflower seeds. They also sometimes nest in mature gardens, so do look out for them!

Wheatear – Oenanthe oenanthe

A line drawing of a Wheatear

This is another very distinctive bird with a white rump (“wheatear” is a corruption of “white arse”!) but there the resemblance with the bullfinch ends. Wheatears are chats – relatives of the robin – and are now only passage migrants in Kingston, normally arriving on the Downs from March onwards (although they have been recorded in February) on their way north and dropping off here again, after breeding, in August. They can then be seen – if you’re lucky - throughout the autumn. The best place locally is the plateau on the top of Kingston Hill.

Wheatears cannot be mistaken for anything else. The breeding male a blue grey head and back and a thick black band below the eye, giving it the appearance of a masked bandit. Females lack this mask. They are very obliging birds and allow you to approach quite close before flitting away to perching on a rock, fence post or – in the absence of either of these – a small mound. The call-note is responsible for some of the bird’s many local names like chickell (Devon), stanechacker (Lancashire) and hedge checker (Cheshire).

These birds were once far more common locally. Like skylarks, they were once routinely on the menu at hotels in Brighton and other coastal towns near enough to where the birds were caught for them to be served fresh. John Dudeney, the South Downs shepherd who - in a startling career move – afterwards became a schoolteacher in Lewes, describes how in 1799 he “removed to Kingston, near Lewes, where (he) had better wages, �6 a year.” He had a chance, too, to supplement this great sum as he “also had part of the money obtained from the sale of wheatears”. Dudeney’s next job was at Westside Farm at Rottingdean where he “caught great numbers of wheatears during the season, which lasted from the middle of July to the end of August”. “The most (he) ever caught in one day was thirteen dozen”. However, even these numbers were low in comparison with reports of wheatears caught in earlier times, when hauls of “ a hundred dozen” may not have been unusual.

It’s not clear from these early accounts (from W H Hudson’s Nature in Downland) whether these wheatears bred on the downs or were merely passing through. These days, the only place in Sussex where the wheatear does breed regularly is Rye Harbour, but the downs in the eighteenth century would have provided more suitable habitat for the bird. Then, hard grazing by sheep and huge numbers of rabbits would have produced a far less lush and far more stony and barren landscape than the one we see today, which is the product of vast amounts of enriching fertiliser.

The Rye Harbour wheatears breed in artificial nest sites in the form of short pipes sunk into the ground provided for them by the Warden. English Nature experimented with this approach at Castle Hill, the National Nature Reserve near Woodingdean (but entirely, I think, within the Parish of Kingston) in 1995. So far, however, the only beneficiaries of these have been little owls!

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