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Wildlife in Kingston

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Even before I met someone on the Downs on 14 June who told me of something really special they’d seen a few days earlier, I had plenty to write about.There have been yet more red kites in the village, all of which I have managed to miss. A tawny owl was reported chasing a bat near the new pond. (Owls don’t normally go for bats and my money in this duel would have definitely been on the far more manoeuvrable bat). Then there was the quail I heard calling in Kingston Hill Fields at the beginning of June and the unusually high numbers of large green beetles in my garden and presumably those of everyone else in the village.  But over and above all of these, pride of place has to go to the hoopoe seen in the ash plantation on 8 June below the horseshoe path on Kingston Hill.      

Many people will be familiar with this extraordinary looking bird from holidays abroad. The hoopoe is common enough in the Mediterranean as a summer visitor and its distribution extends across to China, India and Africa. It is, though, very uncommonly seen in Britain with only about 100 annual records in recent years, that number representing a marked decline from earlier decades. Most records are in April or May, with another bunch of sightings in the autumn. June appearances are unusual. Even so, while all reports of rarities have to be treated with caution and while this particular record may not be officially (ie by the Sussex Ornithological Society) accepted because of lack (so far at least) of corroboration, there is no reason to doubt its authenticity. The observer was familiar with the bird, which, with its long curved beak, huge crest, black and white rounded wings and bouncing flight, can hardly be mistaken for any other species.  Hoopoes do very occasionally breed in England, and have done so in Sussex on seven occasions, the last being in 1976. Two birds apparently spent the entire summer of 1932 in Uckfield, but are not recorded as having bred successfully. More usually, hoopoe visits are far from fleeting and it doesn’t look as though the Kingston bird hung around very long. But did it? Was anyone else lucky enough to have a glimpse of this one and if so when? Do let me know.  

Hoopoes have a varied diet which includes large insects. One such insect which might well be on their menu is the rose chafer, Cetonia aurata. This brilliantly-coloured iridescent green beetle (the aurata element of the name coming from its golden sheen) is related to the cockchafer and like its larger relative – indeed, like all large beetles – spends most of its life underground as a larva. Unlike cockchafers, which are rather destructive both as adults and larvae (the adults eat flowers and the grubs chomp away at plant roots) rose chafers are positively beneficial in gardens, the larvae subsisting for a couple of years on rotting wood, leaf litter or compost, helping to break down and re-cycle organic matter. Disconcertingly, they often crash into windows - or people. It is in fact rather puzzling that this insect appears to have developed so little control over its flight direction or speed over the last few million years. Even so, it will certainly outlast us as a species so perhaps there is little room for smugness on our part. Rose chafers are locally common in some parts of the south and southern midlands and the Lewes area is certainly one of those places; outside of these favoured spots, however, they can be hard to find.                                                                  

The pond at Kingston Hill Fields continues to be a focus for much local wildlife. In late May and June, both house martins and swallows could be seen there, some gathering mud for their nests, others hunting for insects or swooping down to the water’s surface for a quick drink.  The fields themselves, used for crops for many years, are now starting to develop a far more diverse flora, with viper’s bugloss and rough hawkbit among the many flowers to be seen among the plentiful buttercups in late spring. House martins seem a little more in evidence this year than they have lately, two pairs even showing brief interest in nest building on different houses in Bramleys (neither of them ours). Apparently, they thought better of it and moved on. I hope they found somewhere more suitable rather than gave up altogether.    

Meanwhile, at least one of the four female turkeys which appeared mysteriously around the same time as the equally baffling “wild” pigs is still at large and pops up all over the village. Pat and I were rather startled to see it fly very low over Well Green Lane as were we driving along. It was hard not to duck!

Do keep me informed. Au revoir until the autumn.

- Steve Berry