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!
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!
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.
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!
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).