Monthly Archives: June 2014

Short-toed Eagle – what a week!

As some visitors to the Forest may have noticed, over the past week there have been a lot of birdwatchers around, mostly at either the Old Airstrip and Black Bog or at Gills Lap.

What has attracted a lot of them is a Short-toed Eagle, a nationally incredibly rare bird of prey.

So, what exactly is a Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus)? Well, it’s a medium sized bird of prey, slightly bigger than a Common Buzzard. The bird here at the moment is a young bird and so has light brown upperparts and dark edges to the upper wings which can look like it has pale ‘shoulders’. Its underparts are very pale and have very faint markings. It has yellow eyes and a bit of a crest so when its settled the head can look quite big. It feeds on reptiles, which is one reason why it’s settled on Ashdown Forest as there are plenty of reptiles around!

(Photo: Bob Pask/Ashdown Bird Group)

(Photo: Bob Pask/Ashdown Bird Group)


I had seen on one of the birding websites that this bird had turned up in Dorset about 2 weeks ago and had been flying around southern England since, but I didn’t really think it would turn up here!

Why is it here? By complete accident is the simple answer. Short-toed Eagles usually come up to halfway up France and may just creep into Germany from the east. For one of these to come the UK is a very rare event. This is only the 3rd ever Short-toed Eagle seen in the UK and A LOT of birdwatchers will want to see it.

Unfortunately, not all bird watchers are as responsible as they should be so some may try to get a bit too close to get that perfect photo and could cause unnecessary disturbance to other wildlife, so please be careful!

I first tried to see the bird early on the morning of Monday 16th June while it was at Black Bog. After the first person I asked had told me to look in entirely in the wrong place for the eagle, I joined the group of bird watchers who had just been watching it perched in tree in the open.

I then prepared to wait for the bird to reappear but unfortunately, for me, I had to go off for our Monday Morning Meeting, with one of the birders telling me to “get my priorities straight”.

I knew that I and our new Countryside Worker, Ashley, were due to do a Forest-wide car park litter pick, which was fine with me with this thing flying around!



(Photos: Bob Pask/Ashdown Bird Group)

We had our mid morning tea break in Broadstone Car Park where a birder pulled up and said that the eagle was headed over to Gills Lap, happily the next car park we were due to visit. Just as we arrived, the Short-toed Eagle was hanging in the air. I grabbed my telescope and rushed over to get a good view and watched on as the eagle plunged down and landed on something, but this time it didn’t come up with a reptile.

Not only did this bird attract a lot of birders, it also attracted all of the Ashdown Forest Conservators staff out at lunchtime to look for it! Sadly, no photos of this rare event exist for prosperity.

It is worth noting that we did carry on with the litter round and on this crazy day I ended up giving an impromptu talk about the eagle to a school trip next to Friends Clump!

That was the last I saw of the eagle until after work on Tuesday 17th June at Black Bog again. When I got down there I was amazed to find that someone had found its perch, deep in the Scots Pine trees, and for the next two and half hours my and the other 30 birders view of the eagle was this:


Yep, one of those pale blobs is the eagle!

Eventually, as I’m watching it takes off and everyone is treated to a wonderful circling flight over the woodland. The bird then loops over and up towards the airstrip and out of sight.

(Photo: Neil Fox)

(Photo: Neil Fox)

As a collective group, everyone is looking at each other to see who will go first. In the end, it was me! I headed up the track towards the Old Airstrip, with a look behind me to see the majority of the people following in a cloud of dust and tripod legs at all angles.

We got to the top of the slope and can’t see the eagle but in my mind I’ve had some fantastic views and as I’m on the airstrip in the evening sun I’ll wander back happy.

I am all alone at this point as everyone has stayed to see if the eagle comes back. When I get about a third of the way back up the airstrip I can see through a gap in the trees a white thing on top of a lone Scots Pine. Sure enough, it’s the eagle!

(Photo: Neil Fox)

(Photo: Neil Fox)

I am still by myself so I start waving to attract someone’s attention and soon the same tripod filled dust cloud comes hurrying up the airstrip and before long there is a line of birders lining the whole airstrip!


As I write this the Short-toed Eagle is still on the Forest and seems quite settled so it is unknown how long it will stay here for. There is a chance for this bird to find its way back to where it should be when it comes to the time of year it should migrate back to Africa.

It is worth pointing out that this all happened in Ashley’s first week of working here and not only that he found a £5 note on the litter round! Apparently he did buy a lottery ticket but I’ve yet to hear how that turned out.


One crazy week!


(Thank you to the Ashdown Bird Group, Bob Pask and Neil Fox for the photos).


Parasites and carnivores

A scary title, but fear not – I’m talking about plants, and the strange ways some of them get their nutrients. I’ve posted about Sundews before, and their habit of eating insects. I recently saw the other species of Sundew found on the Forest (there are three native to the UK, but one doesn’t grow here). Conveniently, the two species are growing side by side, for ease of comparison:


Round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) top right, with Oblong-leaved sundew (Drosera intermedia)

Another unusual way for plants to obtain nutrients is by parasitism. What you can see in the photo below is not those red liquorice bootlaces you used to be able to buy, but a plant that has given up on leaves and photosynthesis altogether. Common dodder sprawls all over other plants, often Gorse, and where it touches its host it essentially taps into its pipework and draws out nutrient-rich sap. It’s a bit like connecting your house’s electrics to next door’s mains. Since the Gorse is doing all the hard work of photosynthesis, the Dodder doesn’t need to, and stopped bothering to produce leaves. It does still flower though – I’ll post a photo if I’m in the right place at the right time.

Common dodder (Cuscuta epithymum)

Common dodder (Cuscuta epithymum)

Interestingly, a plant I have blogged about before – Lousewort – is what is known as a hemi-parasite; it does a similar thing to Dodder, tapping into the roots of other plants, but hasn’t gone so far as to lose its leaves. A ‘belt and braces’ approach, I guess.

Lousewort (Pedicularis sylvatica)

Lousewort (Pedicularis sylvatica)

Steve Alton

Conservation Officer


Question Time, of sorts…

For this week’s blog, I thought that I would try to tackle some questions people may have about the work we do, while at the same time telling you what we have been up to.

So to start with:

How many horns can Hebridean sheep have?


Well, as I found out when I helped the grazing team with spraying the shearlings with an anti-blowfly, err, spray, it can vary a lot! Most have two, this one has four (and it might be this one which is called Dark Star but one of the grazing team would know) but some in there do have five!



How do you choose the right litter picker?

Well, it’s not as easy as it looks! What you want to do to start with is look along its length, much like you would when selectingTomPicker a snooker cue, so check that your litter picker is straight and not twisted (this one is prime example). Then it gets tricky because I am quite tall but prefer a shorter litter picker! Bizarre I know, but it really is down to an individual’s taste.


Why are some Bluebells white?



a)      Because they are albino versions of normal Bluebells and are lacking the necessary pigment to be blue.

b)      Or because they are ones that have been touched by moonlight.

I know which one I believe!

What does the view from Stonehill Car park look like if you stand on your head?










What is the best technique for sweeping out the tractor shed?

Well, opinion on this does vary but I like what I call ‘The Hawth’ technique (named after the way the stage is swept at The Hawth Theatre in Crawley). You sweep from the sides of the shed, make a line of sweepings, if you will, in the middle and then sweep up the line.TomSweeping

I find it quick, efficient and it gives you time enough to take a photo of it :-)

What are these spiders?

TomSpiderlingsI found these spiderlings on one of our bins at our dump last week and just by looking on some social media a few other people have too!

They have yellow bodies and black rear ends (politest way I could describe that anatomical area!).

I had to look it up but these are Garden Cross Spiders (Araneus diadematus).



How do animals get out of cattle grids if they fall in?

Simple! Sort of… There are holes in the ends of the girders that support the cattle grid and a ramp for the animals to climb out! This is looking through the holes with the ramp at the end after we had just cleared this cattle grid out. TomCattlegrid

That is all of the questions that I can think of for now!

I will try to think of some more questions for next time or write something completely different,

Tom Simon