Birds Of St John The Baptist Church Sutton-at-Hone

by nickupton

Find out about some of the birds that can be found in the churchyard of St John The Baptist Church, Sutton-at-Hone in Kent.

Churchyards, with their variety of mature trees, are often good places to see local wildlife and St John The Baptist Church of England churchyard in the village of Sutton-at-Hone in north west Kent is a great example of this.

I have been visiting this churchyard for over thirty years and the number and variety of birds which can be seen at this location has remained high, where in many places they have decreased. Most of the bird species that can be found in this churchyard are relatively common species, but a few locally uncommon and rare birds are reliably found here. however, it is the variety of species and relative ease of seeing them, in pleasant and peaceful surroundings, that make Sutton-at-Hone churchyard an interesting place for local wildlife enthusiasts.

Here I will talk about the birds of Sutton-at-Hone church and mention some of the things that make them interesting. I hope you enjoy reading about them and that if you live in the area, you will go and look for some of these species in the churchyard.


Let's start with one of Britain's most-loved birds - Robin. Churchyards are always a good place to see Robins and Sutton-at-Hone is no exception.

Robin, Perched on Pussy Willow, UK
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The European Robin has become a familiar bird of gardens and has won the hearts of many bird lovers, featuring on Christmas cards. Robins often begin singing in late Autumn and continue through the winter as they begin to defend their feeding and breeding territory.

Sutton-at-Hone churchyard is home to several pairs of Robins and if you sit on one of the benches around the cemetery you will see one sooner or later.

My father's ashes are buried at Sutton-at-Hone and the memorial stone carries an engraved Robin!

Birds Hiding In The Undergrowth

Two species of birds that live in the churchyard are fairly common garden birds but are often hard to see due to their habit of skulking around in the undergrowth. Another thing they have in common is that they are both predominantly brown, however, they both have great songs which they utter in the Spring.

Dunnock - Although this species used to be called Hedge Sparrow it is not a sparrow at all. Some people may find them a little dull but if you look closely at them you will see that they have beautiful but subtle colours.

Dunnocks famously exhibit some quite promiscuous behaviour, not very appropriate for a religious setting but a few pairs make St John The Baptist Church yard the place they nest.

Wren - This is one of the smallest birds in Britain and also one of the commonest. If you have never seen one or have only seen them a couple of times it is because of their secretive behaviour.

A good way to spot one of these tiny birds is to sit on one of the seats in the churchyard in Spring and wait for one to emerge from the undergrowth and start singing, although winter is also a good time to see them when fewer leaves provide hiding places.


Five species of thrush are regularly found in Sutton-at-Hone churchyard. If you have visited the church you may not have noticed them all or even realized they were all species of thrush! Please take a look at them here and look out for them in future.

Blackbird (Turdus Merula) Male Singing, Helsinki, Finland
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Blackbird - For those that were not already aware, the news is that Blackbirds are a type of thrush; if you look at their shape and behaviour the similarities become apparent.

The distinctive black males are a familiar sight and sound in the spring and summer, singing from high points around their territory; one can sometimes be seen singing from the church roof. The brown females are often more secretive, their brown plumage camouflaging them when incubating their eggs.

Blackbirds are resident in Sutton-at-Hone churchyard and several pairs raise young every year but in the Autumn, particularly in October, flocks of blackbirds can be seen here with migrants from further north arriving to feast on elder, hawthorn and yew berries. Many of these move on when the berries have been exhausted, but some birds will stay and spend the winter in the churchyard along with the resident blackbirds.

Fieldfare - This migratory thrush is a winter visitor to Britain and flocks of them start arriving from Scandinavia in October, usually starting to depart in early March. The churchyard at Sutton-at-Hone is an excellent place to see these birds in autumn and winter as they feed on berries and shelter in the coniferous trees. When the weather is at its most harsh, these birds are forced out into the open to feed just like the one in this video I recorded nearby.

Redwing - This is another migratory thrush that visits UK from Scandinavia. This is the smallest British thrush and the red (well, orange) flashes can be seen under the wing as the birds fly, which is what gives this bird its name. Again this species is easiest to see in the autumn feeding on the many berries in the churchyard. Check out my video about Redwings feeding habits in winter.

Song Thrush - This species is a resident in the churchyard, although like the other thrush species, its numbers are swelled by winter visitors from further north. Song Thrush used to be a familiar sight in all gardens in the Sutton-at-Home and Hawley area but not any more. Song Thrush numbers have seriously declined throughout the country making them a red list species. However, this species still nests in the churchyard and its wonderful song can be heard in Spring and early Summer. Listen for yourself in this video.

Mistle Thrush - This is the largest thrush in Britain and is another of Sutton-at-Hone's breeding birds. These days mistle thrush is commoner than song thrush and it is often easier to see, flying noisily around; listen out for its harsh rattling call as it chases other birds from its territory. Like other thrushes, this species is more abundant in winter.

Mistle Thrush
Mistle Thrush

If you want to know more about thrushes this fantastic book is the resource you need. Stacked with information and illustrations of all the world's thrushes this book is great wherever you do your birdwatching.

View on Amazon

 One of the reasons that the churchyard at Sutton-at-Hone is home to such a wide variety of bird species is that there is a similarly wide variety of tree species present.

This variety of species creates a high level of biodiversity with a large number of invertebrates able to live on them, which provide food stocks for many birds. Many different tree species means a lot of different feeding, nesting, sheltering and perching niches for many different bird species, making St John The Baptist Church one of the best places in the area to observe birds.

With at beech, hawthorn, elder, ash, Scots pine, yew, larch, elm, holly and at least three species of Oak, this is one of the best places locally to see a wide variety of trees too.

Trees In Sutton-at-Hone Churchyard

English Oak
English Oak
Scots Pine
Scots Pine

Tits - Oh Come On, No Laughing

Tits are some of the most active and ingenious birds to be seen at Sutton-at-Hone churchyard; with four species regularly occurring there they are fun to watch as they go about their business.

Blue Tit, Perched on Berries
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Blue Tit - Blue Tit is probably one of the most familiar birds in Britain, famous for their milk bottle-opening feats in the 1970s and 80s, however, they usually eat small invertebrates such as caterpillars.

The churchyard at Sutton-at-Hone has a healthy population of these colourful birds and they are easy to see all year round and quite vocal - in late summer to winter they form feeding flocks with Great Tits and Long-tailed Tits.

Great Tit - This is another colourful, common and noisy bird of the churchyard and easily spotted on any visit. This species is quite aggressive and you can often see it chasing other birds around who have joined it in a feeding flock.

Long-tailed Tit - These are really cute little birds and less often seen in gardens than the previous two species, so if you have never seen one, the churchyard is a good place to look for them. Long-tailed Tits often join flock of other small birds.

 Coal Tit - This little tit is really quite an uncommon bird in the Darenth valley and the churchyard at Sutton-at-Hone is one of the few local places where it can reliably be seen.

Coal Tits seem to like conifers so look out for them in the Scots pine and yew trees. However, they will also join flocks of other tits, particularly in the Autumn and Winter.

Great Tit (Parus Major) in Apple Tree, Bielefeld, Nordrhein Westfalen, Germany
Long-Tailed Tit, Aegithalos Caudatus, Yorkshire, UK
Coal Tit, Perched on Wild Currant Blossom, UK
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Finches are seed-eating birds, more or less sparrow-sized and all have bills adapted to the particular types of seeds they eat. Several species can be seen at Sutton-at-Hone churchyard.

Chaffinch - This beautiful finch is one of the commonest birds in Britain, although perhaps not in the local area. However, there are always a few to be found in the churchyard with the male being much brighter than the female with his blue/grey, pink, black and white plumage to her brown and white colours.

In Spring you can hear the male chaffinch singing, usually from near the top of a tree, but in winter there are often small flocks of chaffinches feeding with other small birds.

Goldfinch - The fact that a group of goldfinches is known as a "charm" tells you everything you need to know about this beautiful bird.

Often people talk to me about how tropical birds are so much more colourful than British ones. I can only think that they have never seen a goldfinch!

Goldfinches like to eat small seeds and are particularly fond of thistle and teasel seeds, so look out for them on these plants in autumn.

Chaffinch Perched in Pine Tree, Scotland, UK
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Goldfinch Perched Amongst Blackthorn Blossom, Hertfordshire, England, UK
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The Church Of St John The Baptist - Sutton-at-Hone

St John Baptists Church
St John Baptists Church

The church of St John The Baptist at Sutton-at-Hone was established by the Normans in, it is thought, 1077; however, the church was extensively rebuilt in the 14th century. In the 1600s extensive restoration occurred again after someone fired a gun at a bird inside the church and set fire to the building! Thankfully there is no bird shooting occurring there now.

The church is set back from Church Road, which is a quiet country lane, making it a peaceful and picturesque spot. The church itself is an attractive building, constructed mostly of local flint - if you are in the area it is worth making a visit.

Some More Photos of the Church
St John Baptist ChurchSt John Baptist ChurchSutton Church DoorSt John Baptist Church
St John Baptist ChurchSutton ChurchSutton ChurchSt John Baptist Church

Green Woodpecker

Green Woodpecker Male Alert Posture Among Apples on Ground, Hertfordshire, UK, January
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If you are walking around the churchyard you are likely to scare off a Green Woodpecker at some point. These birds will probably surprise you by flying up off the ground where they would have been feeding on ants. As they fly away green woodpeckers will probably utter their noisy laugh or "yaffle".

These colourful birds are a real treat to see and quite easy to find at Sutton-at-Hone churchyard.

Collared Dove

Collared Dove at Water's Edge, Alicante, Spain
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In my lifetime collared dove has gone from being an uncommon bird to being one of the commonest species in the country.

Collared doves can be seen in the trees, flying around and even on the church itself these days and their cooing is a familiar sound in the Spring and early Summer - watch out for the parachuting display flight of this attractive species.


A Subspecies of Eurasian Jay Unique to Hokkaido Island, Garrulus Glandarius Brantii
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People often ask me about an exotic bird that they have seen in their garden. It can be pink, blue or multicoloured but the answer is always that it is a Jay that is creating the excitement and confusion.Sutton-at-Hone is one of the best places in the locality to find this beauty.

Jays love acorns and will store them underground, but their memory is not so good and many of these acorns will germinate after they have forgotten where they buried the seed!

Why Are There So Many Birds At Sutton-at-Hone Church?

The short answer to this is that the churchyard has a high level of biodiversity. 

I mentioned in the section about trees that there is a wide variety of trees present which are home to a wide variety of insects and other invertebrates as well as providing seeds and berries; this is a lot of bird food!

Quite a large part of the churchyard is managed sympathetically to wildlife, with selective mowing, which results in a lot of wild plants being able to grow which in turn host even more insects and provide more seeds, increasing the size of the bird's shopping superstore. 

A look at the photo below gives you some idea of the wildlife habitat available at St John The Baptist Church.

Sutton-at-Hone church

Some people may think that the churchyard looks messy, but if you view it with a more open mind and think about what wildlife requires to do well, you will see that the less manicured look suits the birds well.

Areas of grass that are not mowed through summer allow wild flowers to flourish, providing nectar to insects; patches of nettles are excellent for caterpillars - vital food for young Blue Tits; thorny brambles and hawthorn provide berries in autumn for migrating birds and patches of thick undergrowth provide nesting places for Wrens.

The churchyard here has all of these in abundance, hence the abundance of birds.


Genesis 1:28 says - And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

I have often thought about this and think that changing the word "dominion" with "stewardship" would be far more in keeping with Christian values. The low impact management regime at the churchyard at Sutton-at-Hone certainly goes some way to providing stewardship over the local wildlife, particularly birds.

Join me on a Birding Tour

Calidris Birding Tours

Join me on one of my international birding tours. I lead tours to South Korea, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan, Morocco and Thailand (where I live). 

On these bird watching tours we see a wide variety of amazing birds at a pace designed to be able to enjoy them and their habitats as well as having a good time and a few laughs along the way.

 Take a look at the list of planned bird watching itineraries. I add new trips to the list regularly - Birding Tours.

Some Local Links

Sutton-at-Hone & Hawley Parish Council
The website of the local Parish Council with information on all local issues.

Sutton-at-Hone & Hawley
The Wikipedia entry for the parish.

More Photos Of Some Of The Birds In the Churchyard Of Sutton-at-Hone

Robin Sitting on a Garden Fork Handle Singing, Hertfordshire, England, UKBlue Tit on Branch, Cornwall, UKSong Thrush Drinking from a Puddle
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Coal Tit (Parus Ater), Taking Sunflower Seed from Feeder in Winter in the GardenEurasian blackbird foraging berries from treeCollared Turtle Dove Perched on a Tree Limb
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Great Tit on a Snowy Branch (Parus Major), Pyrenees, FranceChaffinch, Fringilla Coelebs Male Singing from Small Branch, S. YorksGoldfinch on Teasel, UK
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Birding With Nick Upton

Read about my latest birding trips & join my future tours in a variety of countries.
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Updated: 05/19/2023, nickupton
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MBC on 10/26/2015

We have the Eurasian Collared Dove here in Colorado now too. Great read.

sheilamarie on 11/17/2012

Beautiful photos, Nick. It's great to learn of the birds you see at St. John's.

JohnTannahill on 11/11/2012

Some familiar birds to me, the Green Woodpeckers are great to see. I love their undulating flight.

dustytoes on 11/01/2012

It's so interesting to see the differences in the birds over there compared to here in the US. I wish we had pretty Jay's and green woodpeckers! And our goldfinch does not have a red face. So amazing, and an amazing place. I'd love to visit in person. Congrats on the EC Award too.

whitemoss on 11/01/2012

What a lovely page of photos and information. I love our churchyards, and your looks like a beautiful location.

chefkeem on 10/31/2012

Informative and very pretty article, Nick. Editor's Choice! :)

HollieT on 10/31/2012

Love the images, they're really striking, but the Goldfinch and Green wren are my favourites. St John's, what a lovely church, too.

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