RXbirdwalks in December

Posted in Uncategorized on December 6, 2019 by cliffdean

If you’d like to join any of these walks please contact me on rxbirdwalks@gmail.com

Saturday 14th: Ashburnham Place

A beautiful 18th century landscaped estate with lakes & towering old trees, many still showing damage from the 1987 storm. Mostly woodland birds but with several aquatic species too.

Mostly level, a lot of surfaced paths but some muddy bits too in the woods. Not so muddy you’d disappear though.

PS This is Ashburnham PLACE not Furnace. There has been confusion in the past…

Saturday 28th: Brede Valley

Flooded fields and reedbeds around Doleham. Wildfowl, thrushes, raptors

Sunday 29th: Combe Valley CP

With Crowhurst Environment Group. 10-1. No booking necessary. Park at Crowhurst Recreation Ground.

More flooded fields! Lots more wildfowl! Some mud!

Away from the mud

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on December 3, 2019 by cliffdean

In a retreat from muddy, slithery woods, and with sun and cold but light(ish) wind forecast, I opted for a tour around the only-slightly muddy Pett Level, beginning in the relatively sheltered areas around Toot Rock then along the canal where you can keep up a steady pace. The previous day I’d got very chilled on a telescope-based walk at Rye Harbour so was keen to keep moving; telescopes have their uses but they do tend to keep things static.

As usual there was a good range of passerines around the rock, including a lot of Blackbirds & Song Thrushes, a few Redwings and a Mistle Thrush. there was a confiding Goldcrest in the hawthorns and the call of an invisible Treecreeper. A low-level Merlin shot past  at high speed but a Kestrel was a bit more obliging.

Along the canal we encountered a few Stonechats and a Great Egret flew in past us to sit on a nearby field till seen off by a Grey Heron. Clouds of Lapwings & Starlings suggested the presence of a Peregrine, which we finally saw, clutching prey while being seen off the premises by one of 3 Marsh Harriers. As the Lapwings swirled in the sky we could pick out 7 Ruff just below them.

A brief diversion to the Pannel Valley hides proved more interesting than I had expected with several species of duck visible at close range. Fieldfares flew out of the willows but more unexpected was a Nuthatch calling from the trees on the old cliff-face – something I don’t recall ever hearing there before (though regular just at the top of the hill).

The footpath across to the sea wall doesn’t offer too many distractions so is always an opportunity to warm up at a Brisk Pace. Two interesting birds though: a Water Pipit bursting up from the usual ditch and doing the usual flying-into-the-distance trick and a lethargic Buzzard flapping from fence-post to fence post.

Onshore winds have washed away shingle to reveal once more this area of old peat digging. How old is a matter of conjecture. Apparently peat was dug during the Second World War but I think that at that point the shingle beach was more extensive and would have covered this area.

Back along the sea wall the tide had already covered the beach but we found Turnstones feeding on the pasture, the usual diving ducks on the Pools and distant Gannets out to sea. Although Fulmars have been back at the cliffs (the rock faces streaming with water)  for a couple of weeks we couldn’t see any and this was just one of the common birds we didn’t catch up with but nonetheless found 67 species.

This pile of peat blocks seems to have been abandoned at some point in the past. My theory is that a storm buried them beneath a bank of shingle before they could be collected.

Bird’s Eye Views

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on November 27, 2019 by cliffdean

A few years ago, at the Kino cinema in Rye, I saw the Spanish thriller “La isla minima” directed by Roberto Rodriguez released in the UK as “Marshlands”. It’s a great film but what really excited me were the titles, superimposed on vertical drone footage of the Guadelquevir estuary, Forms of creeks and sand-banks were rendered at first abstract and unrecognizable by the use of the unfamiliar viewpoint.

I was not new to this landscape, have spent many frustrating teenage hours attempting to cross the intertidal labyrinth of saltings in North Kent at  but was still, in the early 70s, representing it as flat. I often stayed with my friend Maggie  who lived in Upchurch,close to the Medway estuary, where I enjoyed low-tide hikes down the echoing channels to Milfordhope Island. One morning I’d been drawing the tide rising up a a creek looking towards Kingsnorth – essentially an uninterrupted horizon. Maggie’s partner, Keith, who had for some time lived on a barge in Twinney Creek, took one look and said, “That’s not how I see it at all. I see it more like this -“

He indicated her wallpaper which (it was the Seventies) was an Art Nouveau design of serpentine plant stems. I knew straight away what he meant: it was the contrast between prospect & usage.

A short while after “Marshlands” my friend Tim urged me to take a look at a film of the Woodland Trust’s Brede High Woods. When I saw it I was astonished at the transformation, when seen from above, of a place we both know very well. Especially in that low winter light, with raking tree shadows across the forest floor and the uncrossable reservoir reduced to a silver sliver in the frosty forest. Immediately I emailed the film-maker – Sam Moore – and asked him to shoot a promotional film for Friends of Rye Harbour NR.

Sam scrutinised the weather forecasts to select the perfect dawn: a luminous, glassy July sunrise which preceded the hottest day of the summer. The 2-minute cut below was edited for showing at the Rye Kino where the high quality projection and sound made an audible impact on audiences. This film has been shown and meetings and presentations, where its effectiveness has been quoted in the planning approval for the Discovery Centre project and in our application for a major HLF bid.

Conscious of the need to avoid disturbing breeding birds, we approached cautiously and kept the drone high, watching for the birds’ reactions. Conscious too of the need to reassure visitors that this filming was undertaken by an accredited drone pilot and with the Reserve’s permission, we made sure that Sam was accompanied at all times and engaged passers-by to explain our motives.

Uninvited drone activity can be intensely intrusive, irritating and potentially disruptive to wildlife so is otherwise unwelcome on the Reserve.

Enthused by the reception of the “Summer film”, we wanted to shoot one in winter, to encourage a wider spread of visitors throughout the year (there’s no shortage in the warmer weather but local accommodation and catering experience some slack in the cold). There were. of course, issues with the weather, but while a snowscape would be ideally picturesque it might present difficulties of access and, moreover, snow is no longer typical of our winters here. Having said that, it did snow and there were access problems but Reserve Manager Barry & I nonetheless rendezvoused with Sam on a foggy thawing morning when I was recruited to introduce Human Interest to the beginning & end of the cinema cut.

With no nesting birds to upset, this “Winter film” incorporated some ground-level footage and emphasized more the mechanical intervention of beach-feeding with a lugubrious pan across huge yellow shingle-shifters slumbering in the mist. Sequences also showed farming and fishing activities as part of the landscape.

For both films, Sam had created a soundtrack based on an electronic score sensitively selected from stock sites overlaid with bird recordings from the RHNR sound archive. They work very well but I was always interested in producing sounds derived entirely from environmental recordings, edited and manipulated to defamiliarize them in the same way that the aerial views had defamiliarized the visual landscape.

I can trace this back to my early teenage years when someone gave me a set of Ludwig Koch’s bird recordings on 78rpm vinyl. These were beautiful and instructive in their own right but it was when I experimentally slowed them down to 33rpm that the sounds seemed, astonishingly, to well up from an ancient, alien world. The next revelation came many years later when I discovered Olivier Messaien’s “Catalogue d’Oiseaux” in which familiar bird songs are unpacked and integrated with the moods of their habitats to make me hear them as if for the first time.

I’d also become increasingly impatient with the soundtracks to films about landscape or wildlife: cheery, soothing, “inspirational” or elegaic. Maybe I was seeing the wrong films (and, to be honest, I don’t see many since I avoid them) but the approach seemed cliched, unimaginative (in much the same way as the lazy application of stock “birdsong” to TV dramas, so often wrong in either season, locality, historical period or even continent).

Lacking either the musical vocabulary or technical means to realize this ambition, I contacted Brighton University’s Dept of Digital Music & Sounds Arts where the then Senior Lecturer, Maria Papadomanolaki eventually found me the right kind of student to take on the project.

Jamie Moore (no relation to Sam) made a series of recordings around the reserve, not just of birds but wind, water, machines and human voices (early on we crossed paths with a member of the village sea shanty group, who sang us several verses of “Blow The Man Down”) which he’s then treated and overlaid to produce an atmospheric soundtrack in which elements are sometimes recognizable & sometimes not but all have their origins on the reserve. It’s best to listen through headphones – or maybe better go along to the Kino!

We still have a superfluity of unused visual material and I’m in contact with some other sound artists to produce more evocative new films.

The Occasional Adventure

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on November 20, 2019 by cliffdean

Most RXbirdwalks are pretty straightforward outings, avoiding tricky terrain, too many steep slopes, unruly livestock and inclement weather. Sometimes though there’s a bit of steam-jumping, clambering through unexpectedly dense woodland in the hope of a short-cut or floundering across flooded ruts in the dark as the memorable conclusion to a Nightingale walk. Or there were those two crop-related incidents this summer on Romney Marsh, one of which ended with a fortunately able-bodied participant falling into a ditch. On the whole though – few “adventures”. Honestly.

We had a slightly different one last Saturday on our first excursion to Marline Valley, an interesting SWT reserve made all the more special by the fact that it’s just yards from the busy traffic of Queensway along Hastings’ western edge, invisible to all those passing motorists thanks to the belt of woodland which flanks it.

Marline Valley follows the stream of that name along its sharp descent southwards from the rainy, misty Ridge. Like the other streams which you can trace as you look westwards it has cut through clay and sandstone to form a steep-sided ghyll, unsuitable for ploughing or even, on its most precipitous slopes, for grazing so remains as woodland. There are more of these characteristic valleys to the east but they’re now cluttered with housing, retail & light industry. Sainsbury’s stands where, not so long ago there were unimproved meadows growing orchids & Dyer’s Greenweed.

Old hay meadows, running along the east side of the Marline Valley are at their best in summer and are now subject to different mowing regimes to benefit the widest range of plants & invertebrates. Hedges & shaws between them have been allowed to sprawl and open up a little while the woodland edges are buffered by thick margins of bramble.

At most times of year the birds here are typical rather than exceptional, and not great in variety so I don’t think we saw/heard more than 20 species but these included a few Marsh Tits – declining in some places but not in our area – and 3 Ravens.

The woods are, however, very interesting. And very muddy. I’m not the only person to notice that it has been raining rather a lot this autumn and the valley sides are clay. So the rainwater is quickly repelled and rapidly trickles, gurgles, gushes and splashes down the sharp gradient as it further incises the V-shaped valley. Running parallel to the little tributaries are mossy old wood-banks while other earthworks denote the boundaries of former farmland and the presence of previous tracks. Into the mix of typical Wealden tree species such as Oak, (sickly) Ash, Field Maple, Hazel, Alder, Hornbeam, Holly & Sweet Chestnut are added Beech, then Poplar, Aspen & Sycamore toward the road, while a few decorative conifers beside the meadows suggest a former parkland aesthetic.

Disaster Zones in a few places are characterised by extraordinary trees flattened during the Great Storm of October 16th 1987 yet continuing to thrive in incongruous vertical format.

Not all of the water runs off; plenty is retained in muddy paths and -as we discovered – muddy slopes. Because we followed the valley up as far as the housing estate, an unfortunate westward sprawl which now occupies the ghyll’s headwaters so we could easily drop down to the stream itself with the intention of following it downwards. It was nice to meet a couple of families out with little children, introducing them to old-fashioned pursuits such as Getting Wet & Dirty.

This is where we reach the Adventure Element. Since the streamside vegetation became rapidly too dense for onward progress, obliging us either to retrace our steps or brave the very steep side of a bowl beneath a huge and golden Beech from which a traditional rope-swing dangled. Although I had advised all to bring walking poles I was the only one to take notice so mine was brought into action along with Group Effort involving strategic grabs of roots, Holly saplings and twisted Honeysuckle stems.

Had I not been so occupied in clambering and slithering I might have taken some entertaining photos of these undignified minutes but you’ll just have to use your imaginations. We took a sensibly diagonal route up to the path, arriving at a bank of brambles… But no-one was lost or particularity inconvenienced. In fact the struggle had warmed us up nicely on a cold, grey morning.

I’ll run another walk here when the flowers are out, the weather warmer and the ground conditions drier. But in the meantime I think I might return alone to explore the amazingly deep cleft of the lower ghyll. It looks like an Adventure.



Posted in Uncategorized with tags on November 16, 2019 by cliffdean

On this blog I’ve tended to avoid writing about my role as Chair of the Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, something which has occupied an increasing amount of my time over the last four years as, together with Sussex Wildlife Trust, we’ve realised the project to build a new Discovery Centre. I’ve focused instead on other aspects of local birding and sometimes on foreign trips.

However, after about three years of preparation the centre has this year been built. I’ve walked past the site many times, from the demolition the old Lime Kiln Cottage to its gradual replacement by a concrete slab, hoardings, pilings, superstructure, massive heavy windows moved by a buggy with suction cups, roof, Sweet Chestnut cladding…but until this Tuesday had not been inside. Following this visit I wrote this article for the FoRHNR Newsletter (coming out soon but you get a preview):

“It was emotional. I hadn’t been paying attention as we climbed into the building, still struggling to recognise familiar faces transformed by hard hats and hi-vis jackets into anonymous Playmobil people. Then I looked up…and…there, by contrast, was something I knew very well from years of sketches, plans, designs, projections, animations. But now it was real, and I was standing inside, part of it, enclosed within it. Solid, spacious, light; as we’d been telling everyone it would be. Decades of pipe-dreams, discussions, meetings, promotions, talks, lengthy cross-country drives, had finally materialized.

As Alan Leigh, Baxall’s Contracts Manager, was describing his firm’s creative approach and the structure’s characteristics I was distracted again, looking beyond him through the huge and heavy panes to the saltmarsh where a smoky wisp of Golden Plovers was wheeling. This is what we’d been telling people it would be like! Perhaps architects and builders get used to bringing concepts from the intellectual into the material world but it’s not something I’m used to and the effect was – as I told everyone – overwhelming.


It was meant to be a guided visit but as soon as the introductions were done, the group of SWT staff, Friends committee and major donors dispersed as eager explorers, like children in an indoor play-park, trying to match the angles and spaces with the rooms we thought we knew so well from repeated perusal of plans. More than one person whispered to me, “It actually looks bigger inside than out, like the Tardis!” It’s still a building site of concrete, wires, frames, pipes and lonely-looking toilet bowls, the windows criss-crossed with tape to guard against bird-strikes; there are still to be installed polished concrete floors, the ceilings and wall panels, doors and furniture. Still to be fixed are the folding doors which will give us three generous permutations of space in the education area, which will be named after the Layton family, whose huge bequest was catalytic in bringing this long-dreamt project to fruition.

While we had always pictured the view from here out over the reserve, windows onto the river came later in the design. The way the Rother is now framed, however, encourages a new appreciation of that tidal landscape. An even better one is gained up ladders to the roof level which, however, will not be accessible in the finished building. It was bright, blue-sky morning as I looked downriver on a shimmering flood tide together with Robbie Gooders, whose husband John, as one of my predecessors had, ten years ago, passionately advocated a new centre (he wanted a tower). It hadn’t worked out then but the ambition continued to smoulder and there we were, on top. Not a tower, it’s true, but no longer abstract. A glowing Kingfisher dashed past.

I’ve been thinking about what this building will mean to the Friends – as a community.

Up until now we’ve been able to get together more formally at meetings and walks and often too by chance – in hides for example and at the cabins. By next year though there will, for the first time, be a permanent place for us all to drop in, meet up, exchange news and get to know one another better, in other words to create a community that is closer, more coherent and will include those who up till now have had difficulty in accessing the reserve.

We will constitute a major presence within the county-wide wildlife community of the SWT and beyond that the nationwide network of Wildlife Trusts. Within this wider context, however, we will represent a strong local identity and pride in our outstanding reserve in its historic and wildlife-rich landscape.”

RXbirdwalks in November 2019

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on October 24, 2019 by cliffdean

With migration dying down, we’re getting away from the coast to little-visited sites inland! Get in touch if you’d like to know more or to join a walk.


Saturday 2nd: Brede Valley

Flooded fields and reedbeds around Doleham. Wildfowl, thrushes, raptors

Saturday 16th: Marline Wood, Hastings

A new walk based on this interesting SWT reserve comprising old unimproved meadows and ghyll woodland tucked away behind Queensway. to be repeated in summer when the meadows are in flower. Not a long walk but with some steep slopes and slippery in parts.

SUNDAY 24th: Darwell Reservoir

Through old wealden woods to the edge of the reservoir at an abandoned farm site. Woodland species and wildfowl.

Saturday 30th: Ashes Wood, Netherfield

Old lanes, deciduous and pine woods, farmland and a mill pond produce an interesting variety of habitats therefore birds.

Another Purple patch

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on October 21, 2019 by cliffdean

It’s suddenly like a proper autumn. That is, COLD, especially after a week in pleasant Italian sunshine, but also with ongoing visible migration, the kind of which I’ve lamented the absence over the last six weeks.

Even as I arrived at Cliff End, a big flock of Goldinches was rushing eastwards through the treetops and a dark young Marsh Harrier was flapping resolutely in the other direction up over the hill. On the seawall the Goldfinches continued, alongside Chaffinches, Linnets, Meadow Pipits & Pied Wagtails, fewer Siskins & Reed Buntings, a couple of Redpolls. Skylarks, in their usual contrary fashion, were coming in off the sea, moving inland.

Picking at the red haws along the old military road were more than usual Blackbirds & Song Thrushes, a few of the latter doing what it says on the tin, but no Ouzels or winter thrushes. Passing northwards over the back were frequent flocks of Stock Doves, up to 100 strong. I don’t normally expect Woodpigeons to be moving before November & in fact there were none among these.

Multiple Blue Tits were passing along the reeds of the roadside ditch, continuing east beside the vigorous pinging of Bearded Tits at the Pools, where there didn’t seem to be much at all in the way of waterbirds, other than Coots.

At the back of the first Pool, however, a Bittern was sitting hunched out on the front of the reeds. I couldn’t see it very well but was pleased enough – my first of the autumn – though there was something not quite right about the lightness of the breast and warmth of the colour. Luckily, Graeme Spinks was further along, with a telescope and I suggested he might like to stroll back for a look while I walked along to Three Gates. Within five minutes he phoned: “Cliff – it’s got a really long beak.” “Oh. What colour?” “Yellow.” “Ah…”

With a rapid crunching of shingle I was back down there; a quick glance through the scope confirming what Graeme had already concluded – that it was a juvenile PURPLE HERON. Another one. By now it was helpfully stretching out, turning sideways, giving views which could only be described, by birdwatchers anyway, as “cracking” (as long as you had a scope).

Just as I was texting out the news, the bird flew off westwards, soon pursued & harried by local corvids whose attentions made it twist & turn giving flight views which many would also term “cracking”. It circled over Toot Rock, flew on to Cliff End but then turned back to eventually drop down in a ditch, The precise spot in the marshland labyrinth could be identified by memorising the exact gate and by the continuing presence of Crows. Engaging the assistance of John Newton, over whose house the heron had been circling, we gave chase and saw it a couple more times before similar memorisation and a stealthy approach drew a blank.

The obvious question is this: was it one of the birds seen at the Pools in late August? Too much of a coincidence that ti should have started off in exactly the same spot, especially bearing in mind that I’d never seen one here before in 40 years.

If so, where had it been in the intervening period?