• Sim Elliott

Neighbourhood Nature: the importance or our local areas for well-being & pro-conservation motivation

This the record of a circular walk; and an exploration of the importance of attending to local nature to well-being and conversation.

All of the photographs in this post were taken by me between 08.45 and 12.00 on Thursday 11.02.21, except those photographs used to illustrate rare or non-British bird species.

My main interests in nature are birds and landscapes; that is what I mostly choose to attend to. I could choose to attend to specific plant species (about which I know much less) or insects (and at times I do, e.g. when I am bumblebee surveying for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust's short-haired bumblebee reintroduction project) but in February there are very, very few Bumblebees in evidence, as the vast majority in existence are non-visible hibernating queens, although in winter Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) "can be just as busy ... as the rest of the year. In the warmer parts of the UK, fully active winter colonies of this species are regularly recorded, even when temperatures are close to freezing and there is snow on the ground. Read on to find out how to help them. These plucky bees are feeding upon a few winter-flowering plant species such as Mahonia .. and winter honeysuckle". (iWinter-active bumblebees - Bumblebee Conservation Trust

I am interested in birds and bumblebees because I find them beautiful and because bird and bumblebee abundance and diversity are indices of anthropogenic (human-caused) extrication, as a result of global warming and habitat loss.

I am fascinated by all birds - of all types, in all places. I am fascinated by birds rarely seen in Sussex, e.g. the Yellow-browed Warbler ("rare" birds are defined by British Birds Rarities Committee (BBRC) and the Sussex Ornithological Society's Rarities Committee). But I have never seen one of these "rare" birds, and I have no current intention of spending hours and hours, days on end, to spot one; although if one turns up in my everyday travels I'll be very happy to see it.

Yellow- browed Warbler Eastleigh Sewage Works (Hampshire, not Sussex) photographed by Martin Peacock on 31/12/2015 - see Martin's Sussex Birding Blog: Yellow-browed Warbler (martinsbirdingblog.blogspot.com)

I am also fascinated by overseas birds - both relatively common species that are unknown in the UK (e.g. the Black-necked stork, which I have seen in the Northern Territories of Australia i1992) and international species that are rare (e.g. the Kapapo of New Zealand, or the African ("Jackass"). Penguin of South Africa). But I am not going to go to New Zealand or South Africa to see them, as the carbon cost of doing so is likely to increase the decline of abundance and diversity of animals on our fragile plant.

Youngest Kakapo chick of the bumper 2018/19 breeding season, Stella-3-B-2019

Image: Andrew Digby | DOC (New Zealand department of Conservation)

What I am really fascinated in is what you can see in your own neighbourhood. Part of this fascination has been provoked by the UK's 3rd Lockdown in response to the Covid-19 Coronavirus Pandemic; where spotting birds in your local area is all we are permitted to do. But local birdwatching was already what I was doing; I only spot birds that can bee seen by going to locations by foot, bike, bus or train; in order to reduce my carbon footprint.

I believe that neighbourhood nature journeys are very important; for three reasons:

  1. they promote well-being. Being able to see and experience nature is important to wellbeing (i) and the most accessible nature, i.e. that which you are most likely to visit, is that which is close to you. Apart from the distraction from troubling thoughts, and the positive emotion that seeing natural beauty brings, becoming immersed in local nature promotes a sense of well-being based linked to meaning, purpose and values. Learning more about your local wildlife engenders a sense of achievement; and participating in citizen-science projects, like the Big Garden Birdwatch, promotes a sense of meaning, as the data is useful for conservation purposes (ii). Living according to your values (e.g. reducing your carbon footprints) also engenders well-being. Deep awareness of your connection with nature around you is also well-being enhancing at a spiritual level, and there is evidence that spiritual well-being is a very important part of general well-being (iii); you may consider that be theistic spirituality (e.g. animism, or the approaches to the divinity of nature taken in ancient and modern religions) (iv), or "non-theistic (scientific) spirituality" (e.g. the feeling that we are part of a bigger ecology system) (v), or "philosophical" spirituality (e.g. panpsychism) (vi) (See footnotes at the end of this post for the references cited above)

  2. reducing your carbon footprint really does help nature

  3. developing a real connection with your local natures is a motivation for pro-ecological behaviour (vii). Caring about what is in your back garden, in your street, in your local neighbourhood (especially when you realise how endangered some everyday nature is) is a prompt to become engaged in the conservation of nature personally, and to promote the conservation of local nature through political advocacy.

What follows is a series of photographs (presented in chronological order) of a circular walking route from my front door in Sutherland Road (via the Craven Vale estate, Craven Wood, Whitehawk Hill/Whitehawk Allotments, Whitehawk Hill Local Nature Reserve/the Race Hill, Sheepcote Valley (East Brighton Nature Reserve), East Brighton Park, Marlow Road, Manor Way, Donald Hall Road, Whitehawk Hill Road, Whitehawk Hill, Craven Wood).

None of the things that I saw were particularly rare, although the House Sparrows, Herring Gulls, and Starlings are on the RSPB Red List i.e. highest conservation priority, due to:

  • Severe (at least 50%) decline in UK breeding population over last 25 years, or longer-term period (the entire period used for assessments since the first BoCC review, starting in 1969).

  • Severe (at least 50%) contraction of UK breeding range over last 25 years, or the longer-term period.; but everything I saw fascinated me.

and thus, I believe, they require us to put in effort to conserve them.

House Sparrows, 08.43. Sutherland Road.

This bush was alive with the sound of House Sparrows singing; and is almost opposite my house. (I am very poor at identifying trees, shrubs and other plants; this is a future project for learning; it is always good to have something new to learn). I see House Sparrows in my back garden, mostly in the honeysuckle bushes (maximum I have seen is 14 at the same time) and front garden in the buddleia (maximum I have seen is 5), and they nest in the eaves of our porch. House Sparrows are adorable, and come in many shades of brown;.

"Noisy and gregarious, these cheerful exploiters of man's rubbish and wastefulness have managed to colonise most of the world. The ultimate avian opportunist perhaps. Monitoring suggests a severe decline in the UK house sparrow population, recently estimated as dropping by 71 per cent between 1977 and 2008 with substantial declines in both rural and urban populations. While the decline in England continues, Breeding Bird Survey data indicate recent population increases in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland." (RSPB)

(Throughout this post (RSPB) denotes that this quote is from the main entry on this bird from the RSPB website: The RSPB Wildlife Charity: Nature Reserves & Wildlife Conservation - you can use the RSPB search facility to find this quote and more information on this bird)

"Here are five simple things you can do in your gardens to encourage House Sparrows.

  1. Let an area of your garden go wild to encourage insects.

  2. Plant species such as hawthorn and Ivy which provide thick vegetation for House Sparrows to hide in.

  3. Provide your birds with a home, using either a House Sparrow terrace or a group of nest boxes (with 32mm entrance holes) near the eaves of your house.

  4. If you feed your birds, provide them with a suitable seed mix that includes large grains.

  5. Regularly clean your feeding stations to prevent disease."

Good news for House Sparrows | BTO - British Trust for Ornithology

Woodpigeon, 08.44. Sutherland Road.

Woodpigeons are very common; but that does not mean they are not beautiful or interesting; they are both. I enjoy their loud noise they make when leaving tress when I am walking in the countryside; and their comical puffed-up visage when they are cold and/or wet.

"The UK's largest and commonest pigeon, the woodpigeon is largely grey with a white neck patch and white wing patches, clearly visible in flight.. Although shy in the countryside it can be tame and approachable in towns and cities. Its cooing call is a familiar sound in woodlands as is the loud clatter of its wings when it flies away." (RSPB)

Herring Gull, 08.46. Craven Road

What could be more iconic of Brighton that an adult Herring Gull (often just called "Seagulls" in Brighton, not that there is a species called "Seagull", despite Brighton and Hove Albion FC's mascot "Gully the Seagull".)

"Herring gulls are large, noisy gulls found throughout the year around our coasts and inland around rubbish tips, fields, large reservoirs and lakes, especially during winter. Adults have light grey backs, white under parts, and black wing tips with white 'mirrors'. Their legs are pink, with webbed feet and they have heavy, slightly hooked bills marked with a red spot. Young birds are mottled brown. This species is on the red list due to ongoing population declines and wintering population declines." (RSPB)

"The most well-known and most belligerent of all our gulls, the herring gull, is now a red listed species of conservation concern. You may find this hard to believe as they are a very vocal species that is not easy to overlook and can still be found at most coastal locations and many inland as well. However, their breeding population has declined from 750,000 pairs in 1993 to 378,000 pairs according to the most recent figures.

The internationally important numbers of non-breeding herring gulls which spend winter here have also fallen by over 50 per cent, according to the long-term trends. Herring gulls have dropped in number at their coastal sites by 53 per cent since 1969. Despite an increase at inland nesting sites, they are still declining overall.

One of the main reasons for the decline is the lack of food for them in the coastal environment. The overfishing of UK coastal waters and warming seas caused by climate change are likely to be the main reasons for the reduced amount of food available to gulls and other seabirds.

Due to the lack of fish, the fishing fleets have also now dwindled, which has reduced the amount of fish processing waste that used to be discarded and was scavenged by gulls. Other factors include the loss of suitable coastal nesting sites, botulism and killing by humans.

Other familiar gull species that occur in the UK - such as the kittiwake, black-headed gull and lesser black-backed gull - are on the amber list, so we are concerned about them as well.

To help save our declining gull species, seabirds and other marine wildlife, we are campaigning for more protection for our marine environment. One way would be the creation of Marine Conservation Zones. The RSPB: Ask an expert: My brother thinks that seagulls are endangered, which I find hard to believe. Is this true?

Craven Wood

Craven Wood is an area of tress on the west side of Whitehawk Hill and is maintained by Friends of Craven Wood volunteers: "What had been allotments until some 40-50 years ago had degenerated into sycamore scrub, and a portion of this has now been removed to make way for a hazel coppice, an orchard of Sussex varieties of fruit trees, two plantations of native shrubs and trees, and two wild-flower glades. We have already been repaid - the number of butterfly species has increased from seven to twenty-four since work began in late 2011" Friends of Craven Wood.

Craven Wood is a haven of peace in our busy city.

Blackbird, 09.10, Craven Wood, "Jacob's Ladder" steps.

Male Blackbirds, with their jet-black feathers, bright orange beaks, beautiful song, and friendly natures, are one of the UK's most loved birds. Their ubiquity often results in them being overlooked as the interesting as the beautiful bird that they are.

"The males live up to their name but, confusingly, females are brown often with spots and streaks on their breasts. The bright orange-yellow beak and eye-ring make adult male blackbirds one of the most striking garden birds. One of the most common UK birds, its mellow song is also a favourite". (RSPB)

Their attachment to their mates in endearing: "This species is monogamous, and the established pair will usually stay together as long as they both survive." Snow, David; Perrins, Christopher M., eds. (1998). The Birds of the Western Palearctic concise edition (2 volumes). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN0-19-854099-X. p1215–1218

"A yellow bill and eye ring are usually obtained before or during the first breeding season and, once attained, remain as the bird ages. Bill colour is strongest during the breeding season and older individuals tend to be more strongly coloured than younger ones". (BTO)

The sound of Blackbirds from Hebridean Wild


I love birdsong, but I am very poor at identifying particular birds' songs - this is another learning project I have in mind! There are a few birds songs that I can identify immediately: House Sparrows, Herring Gulls, Fulmars, Oystercatchers, Magpies, Wood Pigeons; but many I don't recognise at all. It is important to know a range of common birds songs, as many birds in local environments are heard but rarely seen, this is especially true of birds like Nightingales

I find recording birdsong with a field sound recorder very relaxing. You can listen to the sounds of birds emanating from the trees and shrubs above by clicking here - recoded this morning on Whitework Hill

Greenfinch, 09.36, Whitehawk Hill.

This is a terrible photograph; below it is a better photograph of a small flock of Greenfinches, taken on 04/02/21 in the same tree on Whitehawk Hill.

Greenfinches are, I think, one of the most beautiful of all "garden" birds; although I never see them in my garden (where I see only House Sparrows, Blue Tits, Robins, Feral Pigeons, Woodpigeons, and Herring Gulls); bit I see them only on Whitehawk Hill regularly.

"Its twittering, wheezing song and flash of yellow and green as it flies, make this finch a truly colourful character. Nesting in a garden conifer, or feasting on black sunflower seeds, the greenfinch is a regular garden visitor, able to take advantage of food in rural and urban gardens. Although quite sociable, they may squabble among themselves or with other birds at the bird table. Greenfinch populations declined during the late 1970s and early 1980s, but increased dramatically during the 1990s. A recent decline in numbers has been linked to an outbreak of trichomonosis, a parasite-induced disease which prevents the birds from feeding properly." (RSPB)

Views of the Sea from Whitehawk Hill

Herring Gulls, 10.02, flying around the housing blocks of the Whitehawk Estate Extension (1964) known locally as the "Bird Blocks", (Swanborough Drive): Kingfisher Court; Kestrel Court; Heron Court; Falcon Court.

Herring Gulls are common in Brighton but they rarely elicit conversation, except for the ubiquitous, and often humorous tales of Herring Gull chip stealing from unwitting tourists in Brighton.

But their commonness (to Brightonians), and great size, and the fact that Brighton and Hove Albion FC's nickname is The Seagulls, could be used as a stimulus for engaging people (especially children) in conservation to promote ecological awareness; through exploring topics like: knowledge that Herring Gull numbers are declining nationally; where Herring Gulls nest; the aging Herring Gulls from their plumage; Herring Gull numbers decline, what Herring Gulls eat

Views of the sea from the top of Sheepcote Valley

Views of Sheepcote Valley

In Sheepcote Valley, I saw a Dunnock and some Great Tits; but none of them perched for long enough to photo. The valley can be full of birds to see; The Friends of Sheepcote Valley website lists birds that can be seen there:

"In all seasons you will see green woodpeckers, meadow pipits, stonechats, blackbirds and all the common garden birds. There are always small flocks of brightly coloured goldfinches and linnets with their jerky, flight patterns. Check out any puddles for wagtails, both pied and grey.

The managed meadow grassland gives good cover for ground-nesting birds such as skylarks. This is a major breeding area for these much-loved songsters. Keep a look out for birds of prey ­ kestrels, sparrowhawks, and maybe even a hobby. And then, of course, there are the Gulls ­ herring and blackheaded mainly.

Seasonal Visitors : As spring arrives so do the summer visitors : wheatears, black redstarts, common redstarts, spotted and pied flycatchers. The shrubs along the valley are soon alive with whitethroats, willow warblers, dunnocks, greenfinches and many others. There is always the possibility of rarer birds ; firecrests, ring ouzels, and even perhaps an osprey coming in from the sea, en-route from Africa on its way to a Scottish loch.

April and May see the huge influx of swallows, house and sand martins, and swifts. Sheepcote is their first landfall after crossing the Channel on the final stage of their journey from South Africa.

From July and August onwards everything goes into reverse, as the birds return to the Mediterranean and South Africa for winter.

September and October bring fieldfares and redwings from Scandinavia to feast on the hawthorn berries in the valley. Occasionally rare passage migrants stop by; wrynecks and tiny Pallas's and yellow-browed warblers sometimes cause a flurry of birdwatching excitement.

So, there is always something to see, whatever the season.

Good luck, and happy birdwatching!"

To date, all I have seen here are Stonechats, Dunnocks, Black-headed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Carrion Crows, and the odd Kestrel, but today I only saw a hiding Dunnock, Gulls, and Crows

Carrion Crow, 11.11, Sheepcote Valley

Crows, like all corvids, are curious and can problem solve. Their beahviour is fascinating to watch, I have seen them on the beach drop molluscs from the air (whilst flying up) to crack the shells to access the soft part to eat.

"The all-black carrion crow is one of the cleverest, most adaptable of our birds. It is often quite fearless, although it can be wary of man. They are fairly solitary, usually found alone or in pairs, although they may form occasional flocks. The closely related hooded crow has recently been split as a separate species. Carrion crows will come to gardens for food and although often cautious initially, they soon learn when it is safe, and will return repeatedly to take advantage of whatever is on offer." (RSPB)

National Geographic - 0912.24

"ANYONE WHO HAS watched crows, jays, ravens and other members of the corvid family will know they're anything but "birdbrained. For instance, jays will sit on ant nests, allowing the angry insects to douse them with formic acid, a natural pesticide which helps rid the birds of parasites. Urban-living carrion crows have learned to use road traffic for cracking tough nuts. They do this at traffic light crossings, waiting patiently with human pedestrians for a red light before retrieving their prize.

Yet corvids may be even cleverer than we think. A new study suggests their cognitive abilities are a match for primates such as chimpanzees and gorillas. Furthermore, crows may provide clues to understanding human intelligence.

Published tomorrow in the journal Science, the study is co-authored by Nathan Emery and Nicola Clayton, from the departments of animal behavior and experimental psychology at Cambridge University, England.

They say that, while having very different brain structures, both crows and primates use a combination of mental tools, including imagination and the anticipation of possible future events, to solve similar problems. They base their argument on existing studies. Emery and Clayton write, "These studies have found that some corvids are not only superior in intelligence to birds of other avian species (perhaps with the exception of some parrots), but also rival many nonhuman primates."

Increasingly, scientists agree that it isn't physical need that makes animal smart, but social necessity. Group living tends to be a complicated business, so for individuals to prosper they need to understand exactly what's going on. So highly social creatures like dolphins, chimps, and humans tend to be large-brained and intelligent."

Woodpigeon, 11.39, East Brighton Park

Black-headed Gull, 11.42, East Brighton Park

Black-headed Gulls, especially in their non-black headed winter plumage, are I believe the prettiest of the common gulls. They are less common than Herring Gulls in Brighton; although nationally they have amber conservation status rather than the red status of Herring Gulls. From my observation of them in the sea on heavy seas, they are the best gull at surfing heavy seas.

"Not really a black-headed bird, more chocolate-brown - in fact, for much of the year, it has a white head. It is most definitely not a 'seagull' and is found commonly almost anywhere inland. Black-headed gulls are sociable, quarrelsome, noisy birds, usually seen in small groups or flocks, often gathering into larger parties where there is plenty of food, or when they are roosting." (RSPB)

Woodpigeon, 11.44, East Brighton Park

House Sparrows, 11.48, Marlow Road

These birds appeared to be looking for nest sights.

"Nests are often placed in holes and crevices within buildings and they will readily use nestboxes. Free-standing nests are also frequently built, in creepers against walls and in thick hedges or conifers. Pairs often remain faithful to their nest site and to each other for life, although a lost mate of either sex is normally replaced within days. A hole is filled with dry grass or straw with a nesting chamber lined with feathers, hairs, string and paper. Feathers may be plucked from a live pigeon! The main nesting season is from April to August, although nesting has been recorded in all months. Most birds lay two or three clutches, but in a good year fourth attempts are not uncommon." (RSPB)

Starlings, 11.52, around Marlow Road

I often see Starling on aerials, chimney pots, and telephone wires in East Brighton, and on tables eating cake crumbs at Carats Cage, Southwick. And of course I see them in Brighton's famous Palace Pier and West Pier murmurations. Whilst I enjoy murmurations I prefer them close-up, as their iridescence is extraordinarily beautiful; they are to me Britain's Humming Birds - in terms of plumage.

"Smaller than blackbirds, with a short tail, pointed head, triangular wings, starlings look black at a distance but when seen closer they are very glossy with a sheen of purples and greens. Their flight is fast and direct and they walk and run confidently on the ground. Noisy and gregarious, starlings spend a lot of the year in flocks. Still one of the commonest of garden birds, its decline elsewhere makes it a Red List species." (RSPB)

Starling numbers have declined markedly across much of northern Europe and the UK. The decline in the UK started during the early 1980s and has continued ever since. Recent data from the Breeding Bird Survey suggest continuing population declines affecting starlings in England and Wales since 1995. The cause of the starling decline in the UK is unknown. Long-term monitoring by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) shows that starling numbers have fallen by 66 per cent in Britain since the mid-1970s. Because of this decline in numbers, the starling is red listed as a bird of high conservation concern. Starling Population Trends and Conservation - The RSPB

Starlings are sociable and gregarious birds. During autumn and winter, they gather in communal night-time roosts in places such as reedbeds and on buildings. They spend the day feeding in smaller flocks but as dusk approaches, they fly to these communal roosts. Several thousand birds or even hundreds of thousands of starlings make spectacular scenes whirling around above the roost site. New flocks arrive from all directions all the time, before all the birds finally fly down to roost still chattering away to each other. The sudden disappearance of starlings from an area in winter could be caused by a major roost site becoming unavailable to the birds. This forces them to relocate, resulting in the abandonment of some feeding areas. This is often the case in cities, where they are actively discouraged from buildings. The UK Starling Population | Where Have All The Birds Gone? - The RSPB

I think Starlings are something very special, like White Rhinos, Kakapos, and Arctic Wolves: something one day we may loose altogether: Starlings in the town. These are East Brighton Starlings - between Wilson Avenue and Whitehawk Road, on aerials, telephone wires and on roofs. This used to be a very common sight, but for some people, in some places, they never see a Starling in a town now. I know we see a lot in murmurations in Brighton, but murmurations are much smaller than they used to be. I never see Starlings in my back garden: when I was a child they were ten a penny in our back garden. The decline in Starling numbers is mostly due to changing use of land - reduction in their foraging habitat (same issue for Lapwings). Whilst global warming is a threat to abundance and diversity, changes to land use - including building on green and brown-field land, destruction of wetlands, and intensive business-led monoculture farming, that destroys hedgerows and does not include fallow land/crop rotation - is responsible for the decline in abundance of many UK birds and insects, and the national extinction of some, e.g. the short-haired bumblebee.

How to help Starlings by the RSPB Starling Nest Box Plans | DIY Startling Bird House - The RSPB

Put up a starling nest box in your garden and give them a safe home where they can roost and raise their chicks.

Our starling populations have plummeted by about two-thirds since the 1970s. The good news is that they readily take to new nestboxes we put up. You can put up a starling box whenever you like, but early spring is ideal - ready for the nesting season, which starts in April. Watch them taking in twigs and straw while nest building. And then listen for the loud chicks once they hatch, clamouring for attention as their parents bring in food! If you don’t have time or the DIY skills, why not buy a box (or two! Starlings like having neighbours).

What you will need

  • A plank of FSC timber 18cm x 1.6m x 1.5-1.8cm thick

  • Pencil and tape measure