Long famous as a migration watchpoint, Beachy Head in Sussex is a spectacular chalk headland on the south coast of England rising to more than 160 metres (525 ft). The headland and the South Downs between Eastbourne and Birling Gap is an area of great interest to birders as well as being important for a huge range of chalk-loving plants.
Although breeding birds of the cliffs and downs are relatively few it is the migrants attracted to Beachy Head that make it of such interest to ornithologists. Like Dungeness to the east and Selsey Bill to the west, Beachy Head protrudes several km into the English Channel and so acts as a funnel for all kinds of migrant birds during passage periods.
The cliffs provide nesting ledges for Northern Fulmar and Herring Gull, Jackdaw, Rock Pipit and Feral Pigeon, and Kittiwake from colonies a few km to the west can usually be seen over the sea. The dense scrub on the clifftops supports breeding Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat, Stonechat, Corn Bunting and Yellowhammer. Green Woodpecker can often be seen feeding on ants on the close-cropped turf.
Winter at Beachy Head is bleak and often birdless with little but Eurasian Skylark and Yellowhammer on the Downs with the occasional Peregrine Falcon or Merlin. Offshore there may be more activity with divers, seaduck and auks.
Passage periods are by far the best time for the birder to visit Beachy Head. All three divers can be seen offshore but Red-throated Diver is by far the most numerous. Brent Goose and scoters also pass by, the latter in large numbers from mid April onwards. Skuas, mainly Great Skua and Arctic Skua with some Pomarine Skua, move through around this time followed later in April by waders, especially Bar-tailed Godwit, and in May there is a large passage of gulls and terns. Autumn passage at sea is much lighter but skuas and terns pass the head in small numbers.
The earliest passerine migrants are usually Wheatear and Chiffchaff as early as mid March. Scarcer migrants such as Ring Ouzel, Common Firecrest and Black Redstart are also early arrivals but the bulk of migrants appear from mid April onwards.
Autumn passage begins in August and can involve many thousands of warblers, chats and flycatchers with smaller numbers of pipits and wagtails. These are followed by the finches and later by huge numbers of hirundines.
Scarcer migrants recorded annually include Wryneck and Barred Warbler, Icterine Warbler, Pallas's Warbler and Yellow-browed Warbler.
Raptors passing through Beachy Head are usually few and fast-moving but generally include Honey Buzzard and Common Buzzard, Marsh Harrier, Hobby and Osprey. Sparrowhawk and Kestrel are resident.
With so many migrants and a band of dedicated watchers, Beachy Head inevitably turns up rarities on a regular basis. Species such as Serin, Hoopoe and Wryneck, Red-backed Shrike and Ortolan Bunting are annual as are Yellow-browed Warbler and perhaps Pallas's Warbler. Rarer species also occur and have include European Bee-eater, Alpine Swift and Eurasian Crag Martin in recent years as well as Greater Short-toed Lark, Rose-coloured Starling and Black-headed Bunting. One of the most unexpected rarities in the area was a Black-and-white Warbler found in a local garden in September 1996.
Birds you can see here include:
Red-throated Diver, Black-throated Diver, Great Northern Diver, Great Crested Grebe, Northern Fulmar, Great Cormorant, Northern Gannet, Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Common Scoter, Velvet Scoter, Common Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, European Honey Buzzard, Western Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Common Kestrel, Northern Hobby, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Grey Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Pomarine Skua, Arctic Skua, Great Skua, Mediterranean Gull, Little Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, Sandwich Tern, Common Tern, Arctic Tern, Little Tern, Black Tern, Common Guillemot, Razorbill, Feral Pigeon, Stock Dove, Common Wood Pigeon, European Turtle Dove, Common Cuckoo, Short-eared Owl, Eurasian Hoopoe, Eurasian Wryneck, Eurasian Green Woodpecker, Eurasian Skylark, Sand Martin, Barn Swallow, Northern House Martin, Tawny Pipit, Tree Pipit, Meadow Pipit, Rock Pipit, Yellow Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Pied Wagtail, Common Nightingale, European Robin, Black Redstart, Common Redstart, Whinchat, European Stonechat, Northern Wheatear, Ring Ouzel, Eurasian Blackbird, Fieldfare, Redwing, Common Grasshopper Warbler, Icterine Warbler, Melodious Warbler, Barred Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat, Garden Warbler, Blackcap, Pallas's Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Wood Warbler, Common Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Goldcrest, Common Firecrest, Spotted Flycatcher, European Pied Flycatcher, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Red-backed Shrike, Carrion Crow, Eurasian Jackdaw, Chaffinch, Brambling, European Serin, European Goldfinch, European Greenfinch, Eurasian Siskin, Eurasian Linnet, Lesser Redpoll, Yellowhammer, Corn Bunting
Butterflies are well represented on this part of the South Downs with Chalkhill Blue Lysandra coridon, Adonis Blue Lysandra bellargus, Brown Argus Aricia agestis and Marbled White Melanargia galathea. Migrant butterflies include Painted Lady Cynthia cardui and Clouded Yellow Colias crocea.
Areas of Interest
The best sites for sea-watching are the lower cliffs at Birling Gap [Map]and Cow Gap[Map] while passerines can be seen on virtually any patch of scrub or grassland.
However, there are two areas of particular interest for smaller migrants, the dense scrub of Whitbread Hollow, close to Eastbourne, and the small wood, Belle Tout, a short distance east of Birling Gap. This wood is the only patch of mature trees in the area and so provides breeding sites for a few species in summer and much-needed shelter during the bleak days of autumn and winter.
This is probably one of the most regular sites in the entire country for Yellow-browed Warbler and has also attracted Icterine Warbler and Melodious Warbler, Pallas's Warbler, Dusky Warbler and Sardinian Warbler as well as Golden Oriole and Common Rosefinch.
Access and Facilities
Beachy Head is situated on the South Downs on the coast of East Sussex. Eastbourne is the closest town and lies just to the east. The area is easily explored and the footpath known as the South Downs Way runs the entire length of the cliffs. Car-parks can be found at the western end of Eastbourne at the start of the South Downs Way, at Birling Gap and at several spots over the Downs between the two.
Eastbourne has a wide range of hotel and guest-house accommodation and Beachy Head can easily be reached by public transport from the town.
Eastbourne Tourist Information Centre
Tel: 01323 415 415
Content and images originally posted by Steve