Xander King tells us about the birds to look out for at Coombe Bissett Down.

If you’re lucky enough to venture onto Coombe Bissett Down nature reserve in spring and summer then an enormous amount of biodiversity and natural beauty awaits you. The chalk downlands are home to a host of different species including rare plants including burnt orchid, and specialist butterflies such as the Adonis blue. We know from Granville Pictor’s bird surveys that many different bird species feed and breed at Coombe Bissett Down. Here are some of the birds you should keep an eye out for.

The quintessential bird of Coombe Bissett Down is the yellowhammer, with 12 breeding territories recorded in 2019. The male yellowhammer has a bright yellow head with a brown streaked black and a few white tail feathers. The female is similar but with more brown but still the distinct yellow head and breast. They nest on or near the ground and feed on the ground too so keep an eye out amongst the old anthills on the slopes of the reserve.

Yellowhammer. Credit: Mark Hamblin 2020VISION

The Blackcap was one of the most common birds to spot on the reserve last year. The blackcap is a small grey warbler. The male is grey with a distinct black cap on the head. The female looks similar but with a more red-brown cap on the top of the head. If you’re lucky enough to spot a juvenile blackcap, you can identify it by its similarity to the adult female, but smaller with a more reddish tinge to all its feathers.

Blackcap. Credit: Amy Lewis

If you see a bird of prey soaring high above the reserve, it is likely that you have spotted one of the buzzards that have been recorded in our surveys. They vary massively in size and colour but most commonly are large with an approximate wing span of over a metre, and dark brown plumage. White flecks and highly variable lines can often be seen across their breasts. The common buzzard is a generalist predator and will prey upon a variety of invertebrates. On Coombe Bissett Down they may be hunting the small mammals that make the structurally diverse chalk grassland home.

Buzzard in flight. Credit: Darin Smith

Another more secretive bird that you may be fortunate enough to see is the green woodpecker. These are distinctive green birds with a red crown and black around their eyes. Unlike the greater and lesser spotted woodpeckers, the green woodpecker rarely drums on trees and is more likely to be heard by their loud “yaffle” call, which is well worth looking up.

Green woodpecker © Jon Hawkins
Green Woodpecker. Credit: Jon Hawkins

Whilst walking across the downs have your ears tuned in to a repetitive metallic type sound, almost similar to the jangling of keys. If you hear this sound then you know that a male corn bunting is nearby. This species is large for a bunting. They have dark eyes with grey and brown backs and white-brown underparts. The corn buntings at Coombe Bissett reserve are often more likely to be heard than seen.

Corn bunting. Credit: Luke Massey

This year due to travel restrictions Granville was only able to visit the reserve once, quite late in the spring. As well as sighting the usual birds two species Granville hadn’t recorded before were wheatear and spotted flycatcher, both likely to be migrants passing through.

These are just a few of the bird species that have been sighted during Granville’s bird surveys. There are plenty to discover and we’d suggest checking out the Wildlife Watch website for spotter sheets and keeping an eye out wherever you can. You may not be able to get to Coombe Bissett Down nature reserve, but exciting and interesting birds are found everywhere! More spotter sheets are available on our resources page.

If you'd like to learn more about birdsong, check out our guide to deciphering the dawn chorus, too.