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.


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.”

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.

NR's Observations

NR's observations are summarised in the table below:




Number birds

Number sites

South Downs





Coast (West Sussex)



1 (migrant)


Coast (West Sussex)



2 (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.

[This account is to be expanded when earlier material on Sussex birds has been received and analysed]

Nick Rossiter 2012-2021

Honey-buzzard Home Page