Honey-buzzard in Sussex

Like the Isle of Wight, Sussex is also well known in Honey-buzzard circles for its migrants. Lying due S of Northumberland, undoubtedly many of our birds overfly the county for their arrival in spring or their departure in autumn to/from the UK. Scottish birds may also follow a route through Sussex, being steered through Northumberland by the physical geography of the Borders. Indeed from April 2011 to October 2020 a total of 154 records comprising 172 birds were noted on BirdGuides, with 95 records (111 birds) in East Sussex including birds at 6 sites on the High Weald plus 59 records (61 birds) in West Sussex including birds at 12 sites in the South Downs. East Sussex does seem to be the more significant migration route, with Beachy Head comprising 28 out of the 95 records. The larger number of records inland in West Sussex may be linked to the not insignificant breeding population on the South Downs. NR stayed in Petersfield, Hampshire, at the Premier Inn there in spring 2019 from 29/5-5/6 with a number of forays into West Sussex on the South Downs and one visit to the coast. NR also visited West Wittering, West Sussex, in a day trip on 29/09/2012. Some references, particular to Sussex, are given in full below; other references can be found in the main collection of References to Honey-buzzard Information.

A map of NR's sightings of Honey-buzzard in central southern England, including Hampshire, Sussex and Isle of Wight, from 2012-2019 is available here.


John Walpole-Bond, A History of Sussex Birds, volume II, pp.312-315, HF & G Witherby (1938).

G des Forges & D D Harber, A Guide To The Birds of Sussex, Oliver & Boyd, 1st Edition, (1963).

Michael Shrubb, The Birds of Sussex: Their Present Status, Phillimore, 1st Edition (1979).

C M James, The Birds of Sussex, Sussex Ornithological Society, James, Paul, (ed), digital version pp.201-202 (1996). Available at https://www.sos.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Birds-of-Sussex-James-1996.pdf.

The Birds of Sussex, Sussex Ornithological Society, Adrian L R Thomas (Ed) (2014), based on Sussex Bird Atlas 2007-11 project.

Sussex Bird Reports, Sussex Ornithological Society.

Increasing Presence in County

des Forges and Harber (1963) summarise the status of the Honey-buzzard in Sussex as follows:

About sixty have been recorded since 1837. There have been only three records since 1938, the most recent being of one seen at Beach Head on August 27th, 1960.

There is one record for May (26th, 1925, near Eastbourne) but all other spring records are for June. Autumn records are from late August to early November with most in September and October.”

John Walpole-Bond (1938) gives more details on the early records:

Concerning Sussex. Up to about the year 1850 Pernis appears to have passed through almost annually, albeit always in extremely limited numbers and nearly invariably in autumn only. But thereafter its visitations – as of yore chiefly confined to the fall – have been much more intermittent, though perhaps the position is apparent rather than real. “ Incidentally Borrer’s [B Sx p.19] remark in 1891 about the bird being “a regular summer visitant, receiving additions in autumn” could read, the first part of it, as if in his day it was an assured annual nester in the county. But this clearly was not intended. Nor could the statement have been meant to apply to Britain as a whole, since in almost the same breath we are told [B Sx p.20] that the species did not breed therein. Which, of course, was quite incorrect. Quite frankly, I do not know what he did mean. “

The few immigration notices I possess all but one go to June, and there are in addition a few records bearing on ostensibly non-nesting individuals – at least as such must they be classedwhich have taken up residence within our midst for the whole or part of a summer. So scant are these records that I had best set down the whole series. To begin with, in the summers of 1837 and 1841 specimens, one each time, were shot at Ashburnham and Newtimber. Follows in 1858 a June bird from Plashett Wood, which, however, is not in Firle Parish as Borrer said but in that of Isfield. Then shortly before June 17th, 1867, one was caught alive, near Eastbourne, and on June 6th, 1891, another “died” at Tortington, near Arundel, as I was informed by Mr E.J. Mostyn, whilst during June and July, 1923 and 1924, a Buzzard, which from its wasp-raiding propensity, was doubtless of Honey persuasion, rented some large woods at Stanstead [C Smeed, in litt, fide a keeper] . On May 26th 1925, Mr R Morris saw a Honey-Buzzard near Eastbourne, and on June 28th, 1927, Charles Bryant and I identified one at fairly short range as it flapped out of a plantation on Court Hill just south of Charlton Forest. And lastly, there is every reason for believing, after what I was told by Tester, one of the keepers there, that an apivorus frequented the Forest of Dallington throughout the summer of 1931.”

Seeing how the Honey-buzzard sometimes has eggs at the end of May, some of my readers may maintain that the above remarks do relate to nesters. But, as strongly against this, it must be remembered that the species passes through Britain in June nearly as often as it does in May, and, further, never forget that in no instance was more than one bird met with. In fact, putting aside indeterminate rumours (how I hate them!), there is no nesting notice for Sussex. Howbeit – though it is far from conclusive that they were of Sussex origin – John Hill’s [Hist Anim (1752) p.342] “dusky purple” eggs found in tall trees (prior to 1752) may have been Honey-buzzard’s despite the grievously garbled account appended thereto. Here it is. Styling the bird “The Hen-Harrier – the Falco with a brown back and a variegated brown and black tail”, he continues: “We have this species in some of our large woods. I killed some years ago in Charleton Forest, in Sussex. They feed on all kinds of fowl and on the lesser quadrupeds. They will seize on young hares and rabbits. It builds in high trees and lays four or sometimes five eggs. They are large and blotted all over, as it were, with a dusky purple, the white hardly appearing anywhere through it … We call the female the Ringtail, and the male the Hen-harrow or Hen-harrier.” Very positively were these birds no Harriers of any sort or kind, inasmuch as – and we needs say no more – never by any chance do those of the genus found in this country inhabit woodlands, nest in trees or lay eggs of a “dusky purple”. But Honey-Buzzards do both of the first two things habitually, and if one can get over their size and alarming number – for this species’ are not particularly large and seldom exceed two to a set – the eggs could at a stretch, I suppose, at any rate some, almost be rendered as “dusky purple”. Though personally I should never so describe them. The food given, however, is all wrong for apivorus, which lives principally on wasps and their grubs, cockchafers and other insects, only every now and then indulging in birds and mammals, and these always small. All the same I do not see what else these birds can have been. Then, too, may well have been assured or potential nesters the pair of Honey-buzzards shot prior to 1849, in Shillinglee Park, which, though given in the Letters of Rusticus [1849 pp.12 and 157] as being just over the Surrey border in Hampshire, is very clearly just over the Surrey border in Sussex, since in Hampshire is no place of that name, at any rate, not as indicated. Moreover, it is just conceivable that the three juveniles secured at Sompting Abbots, not very far from Worthing, on September 3rd, 1896 [H. Wells in litt] had been reared within our precincts. But that is all I can say. As far as likely haunts go, however – huge hursts, I mean, which the birds delight in for nidification, almost exclusively – there are still left to us wherein they could very reasonably be visualised as settling down, and now that keepering is at a distinct discount I should never be really surprised to find or hear of a county case of nesting. “

Emigration dates fall to late August [3], to September and October, and -- though very rarely – to the first half of November [4] whilst actually there is a record for December (II/xii/1905, Mountfield) [5] . A Practical Handbook [6] I perceive, only apportions the months of September and October to this species’ departure from Britain. “

[3] Almost assuredly there is one bird for early August (1926), unless of course it had been with us since the preceding spring. This was seen at Goodwood by THB, and recorded by him in the Field (12/viii/1926) as a Golden Eagle.

[4] For instance, an example was killed near Goodwood in the first week of November, 1863: W. Jeffery, Zool, 1864, p.8875. Borrer errore (B Sx p.21) gives the year of the bird’s demise as 1864.

[5] HESN i p.18

[6] 1st ed vol ii p.178

Seeing that fully sixty Honey-Buzzards have made county history since 1837, it is hardly worth enumerating in detail more than the few extras I shall have to give when broaching plumage and so on, though I may mention that in the autumn of 1881, at least four of these birds assisted the taxidermist’s trade. Customarily, of course, we only hear of one per annum what year the species is reported from Sussex at all. “

Walpole-Bond clearly thought the Honey-buzzard had bred on a few occasions but that the evidence left much to be desired. Compared to my own studies for historical Northumberland, the timings of immigration and emigration seem very similar with equal distribution between May and June in spring; in autumn a small exodus in late August is followed by main movement in September with some still in October and very small numbers in November. In Northumberland we also found a peak in numbers around 1830 with numbers very low from the 1910s to the 1940s. In both counties there is contemporary evidence from the 18th century for a breeding population, stronger in Northumberland than from Sussex, but always qualified by identification facilities of the day.

Shrubb (1979) recorded the status as: Rare passage migrant. Although the number recorded has greatly increased in recent years, no real change in status may have occurred. He added to the account of des Forges & Harber:

Between 1961 and 1976 there were 35 records for: May (four), June (three), August (five), September (21), and October (two). Spring dates fell between 9 May (1971, Beachy Head, the earliest county record), and autumn dates between 16 August and 24 October. All but seven of these birds were seen at or near Beachy Head, where watching for passage raptores (sic) has been carried out regularly since 1965. Probably Honey Buzzards are regular passage migrants there, at least in autumn.”

Shrubb clearly suspects that the increased numbers in the 1960s and 1970s may be due to increased observer effort at Beachy Head, rather than representing a genuine increase in numbers. However, rather ambiguously he does record in Table XII (p.333) Honey-buzzard as a passage migrant, with change in status – increasing in county – with the reason being 'British population increase ?'. So there was some uncertainty as to the status of the Honey-buzzard in Sussex, even though numbers recorded were increasing.

By the 1990s significant Honey-buzzard passage in Sussex was well established. James (1996) reported that between 1962 and 1994 there were published records comprising about 80 birds. Most were from localities on or near the coast and 23 of those up until 1976 from the Beachy Head area. However, only ten were recorded there between 1977 and 1994, perhaps suggesting some observer bias with more effort by keen observer(s) from 1962-1976. The Beach Head totals in the 1960s were boosted by three together on 12 September 1965 and two, possibly four birds, on 16 September 1968. For 78 migrants from 1962-1994 the clear peak month was September with 37, followed by May with 14 and June and August with 10 each. Extreme dates were 9 May and 1 November. The peak year for counts was 1993 with 13 birds, coincidentally the year that Northumberland was colonised. The number of accepted records from 1962-1994 is only 2.4 birds/year. The BirdGuides total indicates 172 birds in 10 years, 17.2 birds a year, with interestingly Beachy Head still maintaining its pre-eminence. While the BirdGuides total may contain some unacceptable records to a Records Committee, this is surely a major increase. The seasonal pattern does not seem to have changed with only one April and no November records in the BirdGuides total from 2011-2020.

However, Sussex is also increasingly important for its breeding population. While Shrubb (1979) noted “There is no evidence that this species has ever nested in Sussex”, James (1996) reported on the release of previously secure data, indicating that one locality was occupied from 1971-1976 with in 1976 a pair of adults earlier in the season and 2 juveniles on 26/8, suggesting breeding. In another area 1-3 birds were seen from 1976-1982 with 3 different birds seen separately in 1982. Single birds were recorded at other localities in the interior of the county in 1981, 1982, 1984 and 1994 while in 1990, a bird was seen in Ashdown Forest, in the High Weald, on 3 June. All this does suggest breeding at a low density throughout this period. The BirdGuides data from 2011-2020 contains records from 6 sites in the High Weald and 12 in the South Downs, all very suitable habitat for the Honey-buzzard with its mixture of habitat, including woods, pastures and hills giving ample opportunities for orographic lift. Groombridge (2012) examined the Sussex Bird Reports from 1997-2011, reporting that “remarkably, breeding has not only been confirmed in every year since 1997, the number of recorded pairs rose to between 3 and 4 after 2003, and to 7 in 2009 and 2010. This recent count is about half the estimated total of 12-15 pairs in the county, according to the Sussex Bird Report for 2010.

More recently in the Sussex Bird Report for 2019 it is reported that Honey-buzzard were present at at least 16 sites in the breeding season, with at least 6 successful pairs: 3 broods ringed of 2,2,1, giving total of 5 young; at 2 further sites, 2 juveniles were seen at each on 22/8 and 25/8 respectively; at another site the male and female were seen carrying food in August and almost certainly had young, giving the 6 confirmed-breeding pairs; all 3 nests found were in Douglas Fir. In addition, a male was seen carrying food and a pair were present at 1 site in August and at another a male was also seen carrying food in early August, two pairs seemed to be summering, single males occupied 5 sites and a single female 1 site. In 2019 the 1st displaying bird was a male on 13/5.

In the last few years the recorded county population has risen markedly with this quote:

Increasing in Sussex

Mr Mallalieu continued: "The national survey in 2020 and 2021 was the incentive to find out more and this increased effort continued in 2022 and 2023. In 2023, we found 20 pairs – almost three times the highest previous annual total. Amazingly, some 60 adults were seen in breeding habitats over the summer, hinting at additional undiscovered pairs.

"Is this increase real or just a result of better coverage? The short answer is that we just don't know. But given the numbers of honey buzzards seen flying in off the sea in Kent in the middle of the breeding season, it is possible that younger birds that cannot find territories on the Continent are coming to Britain. Not all pairs breed. For example, in 2023 there were 14 breeding pairs out of the total of 20 pairs, while some of the other adults detected were definitely unpaired. In Sussex, these unpaired birds are usually males. European Honey Buzzard sites to be made public in Sussex

NR's Observations

NR's observations are summarised in the table below:




Number birds

Number sites

South Downs





Coast (West Sussex)



2 (migrant)


Coast (West Sussex)



1 (migrant)


Total -- distinct sites for breeding





These are very much opportunistic sightings in a single visit of just under a week and a day trip.

Details of migrant records (NR):

Chichester 29/09/2012 15:20: 2 Honey-buzzard juvenile at Chichester, slowly circling and moving S at moderate altitude, mobbed by many Corvids. Suspect they had lost height, seeing the Channel ahead and were looking for somewhere to spend the night.

Bosham 01/06/2019 13:49: highlight of the day was a male Honey-buzzard flying N at moderate height, a migrant who had just crossed the Channel 1  2  3  4  5  6  7 (9040).

Details of records of birds in breeding habitat (NR):

Petersfield Durford Wood W 30/05/2019 13:10: from 13:04-13:13 adult male Honey-buzzard up over Durford Wood W, joined by a female at 13:07 for some vigorous chasing for 2 minutes. The male then went very high over the site hanging in the SW breeze and was lost to sight in the base of a dark cloud at the end (9101).

Midhurst 31/05/2019 12:50-15:10: highlight was a female Honey-buzzard arriving from the E at moderate height to raucous alarm cries from all the Crow in the area. She was carrying a prey item, maybe a chick of some sort at 12:48, coming down to W of town 1  2  3  4  5  6  7 (9030). At 15:10 from Cockling while looking back to Midhurst, picked up a male Honey-buzzard over woodland to W of the town circling slowly at great height; he was mobbed by Corvids and lost height steadily before landing in the same woods to W 1  2 (9031).

Colworth Down 31/05/2019 14:15: had a pair of Honey-buzzard up over woodland hills to the S, maybe at Colworth Down; it was typical display with the male high-up and the female much lower down, closer to the woodland; it was all very orderly with no overt diving and chasing (9035).

Uppark/Harting Downs 02/06/2019 11:15-13:30: The Honey-buzzard were noted as follows: male up from 11:15-11:20 due S of Hall, climbing high and hanging far above the site 1  2  3  4  5  6  7 over habitat 8 (9042); pair up at 12:51 and 13:28 to SE of Hall, doing mutual circling without much activity 1 (9043).


Sussex is clearly an important county for Honey-buzzard with rising numbers of migrants (17 birds a year) and a steady increase in known breeding numbers (16+ pairs). NR quickly located 4 pairs in May/June 2019 in the South Downs, the year of the last Sussex Bird Report discussed above, but of course the secrecy over breeding sites in Sussex prevents any attempts at correlations. What can be said is that NR was finding a high density for Honey-buzzard in NW Sussex, suggesting the county is well colonised, at least in this area of the South Downs, which of course continues into Hampshire and effectively the Isle of Wight.

The big difference in the county's data for 2019 between confirmed sites (6) and total sites (16+) is a familiar one in many areas, including Scotland. Again I wonder how much effort is put into the post-fledging period. Searching woods where the species has been present earlier in the season into September can be productive, locating juveniles, sometimes still accompanied by females at the start of the month. Of course there are questions about whether a juvenile is locally bred but with experience, some judgment can be made. For instance locally bred juveniles are attached to the immediate vicinity of the nesting area and, lacking the secretive methods of their parents, can readily give away the copse or group of trees in which they were reared. If put to flight they often retreat to the nesting area, giving valuable clues for the next breeding season.

Sussex has one feature in common with Northumberland: it lies on a major Honey-buzzard route with Sussex as a transit point for birds from/to the continent and Northumberland as an entry/exit point for Scottish birds. It is argued that this may assist in successful colonisation as the relatively high numbers passing through each season may facilitate filling of gaps in sites and of vacancies for partners. Walpole-Bond clearly thought the Honey-buzzard had bred on a few occasions in Sussex but that the evidence left much to be desired. Compared to my own studies for historical Northumberland, the timings of immigration and emigration seem very similar as detailed above and the peak in numbers around 1830 with numbers very low from the 1910s to the 1940s is similar in both counties. In both counties there is contemporary evidence from the 18th century for a breeding population, stronger in Northumberland than from Sussex, but always qualified by identification facilities of the day.

Nick Rossiter 2012-2024

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