This blog is a celebration of the nature in the South East and highlights ways you can get involved and explore nature in the region. If you've got news of the South East’s nature that you'd like to share, please contact the RSPB South East office on 01273 775333 or email SERComms@rspb.org.uk
On Wednesday 1st May, the BBC Springwatch crew arrived at RSPB Pulborough Brooks, West Sussex for an extra special visit.
We were in search for nightingales; one of RSPB Pulborough Brooks most famous breeding species, which attracts thousands of people to the reserve during the National Nightingale Festival.
As with any wildlife filming, it’s impossible to guarantee that you will find what you are looking for, but one of our male nightingales quickly became the star of the show, helping soundman Gary Moore highlight just how severe the plight is for these incredible birds; which have suffered a staggering 90% UK population decline in the last 40 years.
In fact, some of our rarer wildlife was so keen to be on screen that the loud call of a cuckoo, while an interview took place, resulted in a few extra takes!
But after dark was when the real show began…the male nightingale sang uninterrupted for hours into the night, and we captured a moment few people ever get to hear in person these days. Hearing the sound captured with Gary's specialist recording equipment; just the pure liquid notes of nightingale song with all background noise removed; was an experience I will never forget.
Not content with stunning nightingale solos and calling cuckoos, the crew and I stayed up right throughout the night to discover the other secret sounds (and sights) of the reserve as the sun started to rise.
Dawn chorus at RSPB Pulborough Brooks is an incredible experience. The reserve features a mosaic of habitats; we choose traditional woodland, to hear wrens, blackbirds, robins and blackcaps, but if you wander to the wetland, or head down the heath and you can hear a whole host of species you might not have discovered before.
Gary asked how people can help save our UK nightingales. Lots of conservation organisations, like ours, are working hard to ensure that these secretive songsters have safe spaces to breed, but sadly, the dense scrub and overgrown thickets that they nest in can look messy, unmanaged and are often in prime locations for development. If you are lucky enough to have nightingales in your patch, the best way to help is to tell people how valuable these scrubby habitats are, and track any sightings of nightingales via BTO’s Birdtrack to help map their populations.
Want to experience an RSPB reserve at dawn or dusk for yourself? We hold night-time safaris and dawn chorus events throughout the year.
Image credits -
Nightingale at RSPB Pulborough Brooks, Ben Andrew
BBC Springwatch filming, Sara Humphrey
Centuries ago, visitors to our region’s heaths would have encountered open spaces brimming with life and human activity.
Vast heathland habitat once sprawled across the south east. This common land was the heart of the peasant economy and was alive with people herding livestock, cutting gorse for bread ovens, collecting birch for tools and besom (twig brooms like those associated with witches), gathering bracken for bedding and making potash which they used to feed crops and for the glassmaking industry.
Over centuries this prolonged human activity shaped a unique habitat, leading to highly adapted communities of wildlife. They rely on this special landscape and struggle to exist elsewhere, making heathland one of the UK’s richest but scarcest habitats.
Lowland heath is home to some of Britain’s rarest wildlife including all twelve of our native reptile and amphibian species. Specialists such as sand lizards and smooth snakes depend on the sunny, sheltered patches of bare ground found on drier heaths.
Listen carefully and you’ll hear the distinctive churring of nightjars and the knocking call of stonechat. The rare Dartford warbler (pictured below) is completely restricted to heathland and breeds under the protective cover of dense heather or compact gorse. And look out for crossbills tearing at pinecones, woodcocks displaying and tree pipits perching.
As heathland is lost it becomes harder for these species to exist in Britain. Lowland dry heath is, on a global scale, rarer than tropical rainforest. In the last 250 years over 85% of our heaths have been lost and fragmented due to a lack of active management and changes in agriculture, development and extraction. So we’re taking action.
We’ve joined forces with ten other organisations to expand and connect the existing 1% of heathland left in the South Downs National Park. The Heathlands Reunited project will create wildlife corridors forming an area of heathland greater than 1,200 football pitches.
At RSPB Farnham Heath in Surrey, we’ve given a boost to one of the UK’s rarest and most threatened reptiles with the introduction of 21 young sand lizards.And we’re leading a Back from the Brink project to make field cricket populations more robust by extending and joining patches of habitat, and starting new populations by translocating crickets on restored heathland.
Watch our short video about the field crickets here:
As well as being vital for wildlife, heathland is also an important space for millions of people, with recognised benefits for health and wellbeing. We asked RSPB Farnham Heath Warden Mike Coates for his tips on how people can connect with and protect heathland habitats.
“The best thing you can do is become a peasant volunteer! We don’t have peasant farmers any more so rely on volunteers to manage the site to replicate this 18th century agricultural system.
Dog walkers should always keep dogs on leads. Ground-nesting birds such as tree pipit, nightjar and woodlark are vulnerable to disturbance and may leave nests exposed to predation or the wet and cold as a result.
Be very careful around fires, the habitat is naturally dry and flammable, so please don’t have a barbeque in the middle of a heath!
Come and enjoy our reserves and events, the RSPB manages heath in five reserves across the south east, Farnham Heath, Hazeley Heath, Pulborough Brooks, Broadwater Warren and Blean Woods.”
Colloquial names apart, the big question is.... Who designed the dragonfly?
I ask you, what sort of mind could conceive of a cross on a stick that flies, then make the stick-body metallic or furry; colouring it bright red, electric-blue or brown and adding a couple of balls for eyes! It’s the stuff of sci-fi spaceships or flying robots.
Dragon and damsel flies are mesmerising in their fragile beauty. One of nature’s small wonders, haunting ponds, puddles and waterways. And we’ve plenty of these darting, stuttering and hovering creatures on our reserves in the south east.
There are an estimated 45 different species in the UK and you can find more than half of those at our Pulborough Brooks reserve in West Sussex, Broadwater Warren in East Sussex or Rainham Marshes on the eastern outskirts of London and plenty to see at other sites too.
We’ve a series of opportunities for you to discover them on our reserves for yourself over the coming summer. So check out the events pages of your nearest RSPB reserve or set-off on your own safari and lose yourself in the world of dragons and damsels. It’s become an obsession for at least two of our brilliant volunteers, who’ve become expert dragon-hunters.
Rob Manvell, knew little about them until we asked our regular reserve volunteers if any of them would carry out a survey. Rob stepped forward and attended a Dragonfly Identification course held by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. Once Rob had attended the course, Broadwater’s warden Matt Twydell offered to show him the route for the first survey. Rob’s partner, Samantha Croker is a keen photographer and decided to join them. After two hours of wading through bogs, jumping across streams and being scratched by brambles, they had recorded 13 species.
Last year, Rob and Samantha identified six new species for the site, including; red-eyed damselflies sitting characteristically on lily pads, white-legged damselflies and four-spotted chasers. Samantha says: “With each new survey there is the excitement of the possibility of finding new species for the season or even better, new species for the site. We completed eight full surveys last year and among the new species confirmed were the heathland specialist keeled skimmer, the striking banded-demoiselle and the UK’s smallest resident dragonfly the black darter.“
Broadwater Warren’s list now runs to 22 species and may increase this year. Rainham Marshes has 24, and staff at Pulborough Brooks are confident they’ll top 26 different species on site this summer. Nip along to one of our reserves or a nearby pond and see how many you can spot?
Our online shop has a field guide to dragon and damsel flies and we've also got an ID chart.