Mike Russell & Jess Price of Sussex Wildlife Trust on species making Sussex their home and the arrival of the Nightjar
PUBLISHED: 16:00 12 August 2014 | UPDATED: 16:00 12 August 2014
While the outlook for wildlife in general is bleak, two species in particular have made Sussex their new home, says Mike Russell of Sussex Wildlife Trust
Wildlife is currently under threat from all sides, but I’m going to put those worries aside for the moment to write about some good news. Two new species have unexpectedly bred in Sussex.
The swallowtail is probably the most spectacular butterfly you could come across in the UK, but it only breeds in a few places in Norfolk; that is, it did until this year. Last year, the much improved weather in the second half of the summer saw an influx of swallowtails from the continent with many turning up in Sussex. Members of Sussex Butterfly Conservation monitored these sightings and noted that some were actually laying eggs. Surprisingly, they were depositing these eggs on carrot and fennel, not well-known food plants for the caterpillars, so the goodwill of the gardeners of the land where these magnificent insects decided to breed was needed.
After almost a year of monitoring the progress of the swallowtails through all stages of their life-cycle, in late May a few privileged members of Butterfly Conservation were able to watch as the butterflies slowly emerged from their chrysalis, the first known breeding record for swallowtails in Sussex. Caterpillars were recorded in the 1940s but there have been no absolute records of adults emerging before, so this is likely to be a county first.
If this wasn’t exciting enough, May saw the arrival of more visitors from the continent as a pair of black-winged stilts arrived at the new Medmerry reserve at Selsey, and immediately decided that this was just the place to set up home. These elegant but ridiculously long-legged wading birds appeared to have overshot their normal southern Europe breeding range as they migrated back from Africa.
Having decided that this wonderful RSPB nature reserve provided everything needed for breeding within days the pair had mated, and shortly afterwards observers noted a couple of eggs lying in the fairly scrappy nest on the ground just above the level of the water. Another new species breeding in Sussex for the first time.
There is a connection between these two events and our changing climate. Medmerry resulted from a flood protection project carried out by the Environment Agency to reduce the potential for flooding in Selsey because of rising sea levels. At the same time this provided the opportunity to create some wonderful wetland habitat, not only giving these stilts a place to breed, but also helping other wading birds such as avocets – the site has four breeding pairs.
Both the swallowtails and the stilts will be closely watched over the coming months and hopefully years to see if they can become established as breeding species. If so, they will be very welcome additions to our county flora and fauna.
One of the UK’s late spring arrivals, nightjars can usually be seen in Sussex from May until the end of August. This is a bird enshrined in myth and mystery, most of which stems from its nocturnal habits. From its eerily silent flight to its guttural churring call, nightjars are a summer wildlife spectacle that shouldn’t be missed.
Nightjars prefer open habitat with trees and perches dotted around, which means in Sussex they are mostly found on healthland. Unfortunately, excluding the Ashdown Forest, most of our heathland is now small and fragmented, which limits nesting opportunities. This also means there is a higher risk of disturbance, especially in those areas where dog walkers are common.
Like many of our summer migrants, nightjars were fairly common 100 years ago, but changes in land management have reduced the amount of suitable habitat and numbers of its insect prey. Now the core nightjar areas in Sussex are the Ashdown Forest and the Greensands Heaths in West Sussex. Thankfully a concerted conservation effort, especially targeted heathland restoration, has meant that numbers of breeding nightjars are recovering from an all-time low 20 years ago.
Their cryptic brownish-grey plumage is barred, streaked and mottled, providing outstanding camouflage. In fact the chances of spotting a nightjar during the day are slim to none, as they spend their time sitting perfectly still on a tree branch or nesting on the ground.
The best time to see nightjars is at dawn or dusk on a warm summer’s evening. Stand patiently and listen for the low churring of a male calling, or the clap of him hitting his wings above his body as he flies to attract a mate or warn competitors away.
Sussex Wildlife Trust, Woods Mill, Henfield, West Sussex BN5 9SD, 01273 492630; www.sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk
WildCall (wildlife information service); 01273 494777
Mike Russell of Sussex Wildlife Trust on his trip to Lesvos
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Mike Russell of Sussex Wildlife Trust on the newly refilled pond at Woods Mill