Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) are a large bulky wading bird with short legs, and a very long straight tapering bill. It is largely nocturnal, spending most of the day in dense cover and very difficult to see, although if you are lucky enough to disturb one you will see its zigzagging flight through the trees before it drops down into cover again. Most of the birds in the UK are residents; although in the autumn birds move to the UK from Finland and Russia to winter here. The breeding population has been falling in recent years, perhaps because of less habitat, as conifer plantations become too mature for woodcocks to find open enough breeding areas.
In the past the early arrival of migrant Woodcock in autumn was said to mean a good harvest, especially if they stayed until spring. It used to be thought that Woodcock flew to the moon during the months when they were not seen and the first full moon in November, when large numbers arrive on the British coast, is sometimes described as the ‘woodcock moon’.
The English surname ‘Woodcock’ developed as a nickname from the bird, meaning ‘a fool, simpleton or dupe’. In William Shakespeare’s play, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Berowne describes himself and his friends as ‘four woodcocks in a dish’, after discovering they have all fallen in love when they have sworn not to.
Woodcock can be found at many sites in the High Weald such as Ashdown Forest and in spring the male can often be seen at dusk performing his courtship flight known as ‘roding’.
Mistle thrushes (Turdus viscivorus) are large thrushes which live in open country, often seen singing on mild winter days from the tops of very tall trees; listen out for its call – whilst it is in flight, it sounds like a football rattle! This loud and far reaching call is often heard during stormy weather, hence its alternative name of Stormcock.
It once had a now long vanished country name – ‘January Joy’ and it certainly does seem to be indifferent to inclement January weather, often being in full voice at this early time of year before many other birds have started to sing. Its melodious and fluty song is not dissimilar to that of the Blackbird.
Its English name refers to its mistletoe eating, as does the scientific name, which is derived from the Latin words Turdus, ‘thrush’, and viscivorus meaning ‘mistletoe eater’. However it does not only eat mistletoe berries, it noisily defends any berries it finds from all other birds.
It has a beneficial association with mistletoe, as after feeding the thrush will wipe its beak on a branch to clean it of the stickiness of the berries which transfers the seeds to a new spot allowing it to grow a new plant.
Mistletoe thrived in the apple orchards of Kent but sadly with the decline of this habitat it is becoming more difficult to find.
Any of the winter guided walks on the High Weald events calendar may give you the opportunity to hear Mistle thrushes.
Butcher’s Broom, Ruscus aculeatus was once called ‘knee holly’ because of its low growing habit at the base of trees and its bright red berries. It is plant of ancient woodlands, and indeed the clumps beneath trees may be older than the tree itself. The name Butcher’s Broom came about because bundles of the plant’s stalks were once used to scour butcher’s blocks.
The bright yellow, coconut scented flowers of Gorse, Ulex europaeus, brighten early Spring. This versatile plant has been used over the centuries as fuel, cattle food, as somewhere to spread washing to dry, chimney brushes, dye for cloth, and no doubt many more uses!
The Wood Anemone Anemone nemorosa is one of the earliest spring flowers and an indicator of an ancient woodland site. The plant spreads at snail’s pace – no more than 6 foot every hundred years, so occupies very confined areas.
Record your spring sightings on the nature’s calendar
Visit a woodland to find Wood anemones in spring.
Song thrushes (Turdus philomelos) are a familiar and popular garden songbird whose numbers are declining seriously, especially on farmland making it a Red List species. The decline appears to be caused by a combination of lack of food and nesting sites, both brought about by the intensive farming methods so widely practiced in the UK today such as the loss of hedgerows and wet ditches. One of our management plan targets is to ensure no loss or degradation of existing field boundaries. Targets like this will help to maintain the habitats that are so important to the Song Thrush.
Once voted the favourite songster in an RSPB poll, it can be heard singing in early spring as they start to establish a breeding territory, essential for nesting. Its song of repeated phrases distinguishes it from the Blackbird and may include sounds copied from other sources such as trim phones or borrowed sounds from other birds.
Much poetry has been written about the Song thrush, perhaps inspired by our sense that the song is part of the soundtrack of the English countryside. Thomas Hardy wrote about the ‘Darkling Thrush’ contrasting its ‘full-hearted evensong/of joy illimited’ with the exhausted winter landscape.
The dialect names throstle and mavis both mean thrush, being related to the German drossel and French mauvis respectively. Throstle dates back to at least the fourteenth century and was used by Chaucer in the ‘Parliament of Fowls’ and in modified form gave rise to a group of surnames – Thurstle, Thrussell, Throssell and Thrush, starting life as a nickname for those as cheerful as the bird itself.
Visit our events section to find out about Dawn chorus walks in early spring when you may hear Song Thrushes.
Early to flower, Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) bursts into a mass of frothy, white blossom in March and April. The blooms appear on the dark brown branches before the leaves and are appreciated by honey bees and other insects and pollinators.
Blackthorn is a thorny shrub or small tree, common in the High Weald’s many hedgerows and woodland edges. It is an important species for wildlife; the leaves are food for many butterfly and moth caterpillars, and the dense, spiny bushes make great nesting places for birds.
In autumn, the blue-black spherical fruits, or ‘sloes’, are best known for being used to make sloe gin.
The Marsh Marigold or King Cup (Caltha palustris), is a member of the buttercup family and one of our most ancient plants. Its bright golden-yellow cup-shaped flower, like a large, stout buttercup, lights up marshy places, damp meadows, wet woodland, ditches, pond margins and watersides in the High Weald.
Marsh Marigold flowers from early spring through to summer, providing early nectar for insects and dark, shiny leaves which give shelter for frogs. Creating, restoring and looking after wet habitats helps Marsh Marigolds. They can also be bought as perennial plug plants, or in aquatic baskets, for planting in shallow water like pond edges or wetland habitats.
See our pond management advice on creating, managing and restoring ponds and bankside habitats for wildlife.
The Skylark (Alauda arvensis) is a brown-streaked bird with a small crest and a white-sided tail, a little larger than a sparrow but smaller than a starling. Skylarks like open countryside and can be heard or seen in the High Weald’s grasslands, heathland and farmland, often starting to breed in March.
Inconspicuous on the ground, the males are easier to see during their distinctive vertical song flight, displaying high up in the sky. Even if you haven’t seen a Skylark, you may have heard its variable song.
Now a threatened bird species, Skylarks nest on the ground and feed on seeds and insects. Farmers can help them by providing suitable places for them to nest and feed.
For advice on how to manage farmland for Skylarks visit the RSPB website.
Hear the Skylark’s song on the RSPB website.
The male Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) is a large, bright lemon-yellow butterfly. The female is a pale greenish-yellow, almost white. Both have pointed leaf-shaped wings with visible veins.
Brimstones are one of the first butterflies to appear each year, flying on warm days throughout the year, especially in spring. They are one of the butterflies doing well in the High Weald and can be seen in sunny places here in scrubby grassland, woodland and ‘rides’ (open, woodland corridors), hedgerows, verges, wetland, open ground and gardens.
The caterpillars’ food plants are the Alder Buckthorn tree of wet woodlands, riverbanks and heathlands, and the Purging Buckthorn tree which is less common in the High Weald. If you have a garden, you can help attract butterflies like the Brimstone by planting nectar-rich flowers, and climbing ivy and shrubs for winter shelter.
Woodland management for butterflies and moths – a downloadable guide from Butterfly Conservation.
Tips on encouraging butterflies and moths into your garden from Butterfly Conservation.
More gardening for butterflies from Wild About Gardens by the Wildlife Trusts and the Royal Horticultural Society.
The Wild Daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) is found in ancient woods and undisturbed grassland. Scattered patches survive in the High Weald, although it is now rare.
Most of the daffodils growing on our roadsides and in parks are likely to be garden varieties. True Wild Daffodils are more subtle and delicate: shorter with lemon trumpets, paler yellow petals and grey-green leaves. Coppicing and less intensive grassland management help them thrive.
Although slow to develop, the Wild Daffodil is said to be the easiest, most successful daffodil to grow for naturalising in grass and beneath trees and shrubs. It can hybridise with other varieties so is best planted in separate groups. Why not try buying and planting some native bulbs if you have a garden or suitable land?
The pretty Primrose (Primula vulgaris), one of the nation’s favourite wildflowers, grows well in undisturbed High Weald soils.
The Latin ‘prima rosa’ means first rose, and the Primrose is one of the first blooms of early spring brightening up open woodland, shady hedge-banks, road verges and railway embankments. The flowers are an important nectar source for butterflies. Primrose was once used as a herbal remedy to relieve pain.
Native, wild Primroses can thrive in gardens or become naturalised in grass. They can be bought as perennial plug plants or in pots. The buttery-yellow flowers of the wild Primrose make a welcome change from the more vivid garden primula varieties, and attract bees and other pollinators.