St Catherine’s Hill is a chalk hill on the south east side of Winchester, rising to 97 metres. It is a popular recreational area for the city’s residents but is also designated an SSSI for its chalk downland flora and butterflies and is managed by the Hampshire Wildlife Trust. Regular watching in recent years has also shown its importance as a site for breeding and migrant birds.
The best areas for birding are the south side of the hill and the large dry valley, known as Plague Pit valley. Typical resident birds of the hill include Buzzard, Kestrel, Green Woodpecker, Bullfinch and Linnet. From late March the valley is filled with the sound of Yellowhammers, joined in mid-April by Whitethroats and a few Lesser Whitethroats. A few pairs of Spotted Flycatchers arrive to breed from May, but are easiest to see from late July, when young have fledged the nest. Winter can be very quiet, but one or two pairs of Stonechat usually overwinter, as well as small numbers of Meadow Pipit and roaming flocks of Redwing and Fieldfare.
Spring migration is typically light, with just the occasional Wheatear or Cuckoo, however autumn brings larger numbers of passerine migrants. Good days in August and September can produce large numbers of warblers moving along the valley, mostly Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Whitethroat, as well as smaller numbers of Lesser Whitethroat and Garden Warbler. Redstarts are regular (mostly late August-early September) along with Tree Pipit and the occasional Whinchat and Wheatear. Recent years have also produced Pied Flycatcher (three since 2012), Dartford Warbler and Hawfinch.
The Itchen Navigation runs to the west of the hill and typically holds Little Grebe, Kingfisher and Grey Wagtail, while Little Egret, Grey Heron, Cetti’s Warbler, Sedge Warbler and Grasshopper Warbler (mid-April to mid-May) can be seen or heard on the adjacent water meadows.
Large numbers of Chalkhill Blues can be seen in July and August. Other notable butterflies that can be seen on the reserve include Silver-spotted Skipper (August), Small Blue (May-August), Adonis Blue (May-June, August) and Brown Argus (May-August). Roe Deer are common and Otter has been seen on the Itchen Navigation a few times in recent years.
There is a reasonable size car park off Garnier Road (SU483280). From here is it is possible to climb the north side of the hill via either a set of steps or a steep path. Alternatively, take the footpath south alongside the Itchen Navigation. After around 600m, there is a gate to the left from which there is access to the valley and another set of steps for those who wish to access the top of the hill.
Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust – St Catherine’s Hill
Tom Jordan, October 2018