Pett Circular in Four Acts

Posted in Uncategorized on September 19, 2021 by cliffdean

RXbirdwalk Saturday September 18th

  1. You could hear the Sandwich Terns creaking, even from the land side of the seawall, and upon climbing the steps could see crowds of Cormorants bobbing on the incoming tide, with terns above them and many more out to sea. Gannets were cruising past, with news on the phone of many more along towards Rye. It looked as if they were hunting through shoals of Mackerel, which in turn promised a Miraculous Draught of Whitebait like two years ago when thousands of little fish were driven onto the shingle. So far though, no sign of that, nor of the skuas which should have built on the food chain.

2. With the Toot Rock bushes appearing devoid of life, we headed along the canal where, just before the 3rd Gate, we came across a Whinchat sitting on top of a tall thorn laden with crimson berries. A f Reed Bunting sat beside it and then the first of 3 Stonechats. All 4 chats then dropped down to hop around on the gate, along with the odd Whitethroat & Chiffchaff, as Cetti’s Warbler & Water Rail called from the ditch beside us. Meanwhile, over the tree-line of the nearby land-locked cliffs, a pair of Ravens, at least 2 Kestrels, a pair of Marsh Harriers and a Hobby were gliding, the smaller falcons persistently harassed by Jackdaws.

3. As we opened the flaps of the Pannel Scrape hide, I heard a Greenshank call but it never reappeared. However, among the lines of lounging Teal, we could soon pick out some Snipe, out in the open, and a couple of Ruff (6 flew in later). A female Shoveler was hustling a brood of very young ducklings – mid-September seems late. One of the group picked out a Green Sandpiper on the far side, which helpfully flew over to right in front of the hide. So tantalising: I watched a big dark bird flapping heavily over the distant marsh, circling against the light on downward-bowed wings but never banking enough to show what must have been white undersides till it disappeared behind the trees. Plainly an Osprey but…

4. The tract along the canal and across to the seawall is relatively birdless so gives everyone time to chat and by the time we can once more scan the water neither high tide nor onshore breeze have kept the previous birds ; the fish must have moved off and all the Cormorants are lined along the easternmost bank of the Pools, accompanied as ever by the Identity Crisis GBb Gull and a little cluster of Wigeon in the far corner. The 40+ Pochard of earlier in the week had mostly decamped, presumably to Castle Water along with all but one Tufted Duck.

65 species but lacking these Birds of Shame: NO Little Egrets, Wheatears, Yellow Wagtails, Egyptian Geese…just one Blackbird. But as I always say: It’s Not A Zoo.

80+

Posted in Uncategorized on September 7, 2021 by cliffdean

The RXbirdwalks route from Dog’s Hill to Castle Water is the most productive with regard to the variety of species to be found yet is one rarely taken by other birders or, indeed, by the general public.

By yesterday we had, at last, emerged from the period of grey skies into a beautiful dewy, hazy September morning with lots of birds on the move. Having picked up a few Whinchats, Wheatears and assorted warblers alongside the Haul Road, we really started to hit Migration Mode through the Beach Field, which was buzzing with little birds darting in streams from bush to bush. Although the usual Very Frustrating rules applied, we were all able to get very good views of Reed & Sedge Warbler, Whitethroat & Lesser Whitethroat, Willow Warbler & Chiffchaff. LWs were the most conspicuous so that some people, for whom this had been a new species just last week, were soon able to pick them out from the briefest views or in flight. Blackcaps were ticking but keeping a low profile, one confirming its presence by a fragment of song. Several Chiffchaffs were singing but no Willow Warblers. “How about Garden Warblers,” I hear you ask. Well, I hardly ever see them these days on migration. It never used to be like this, nor for Spotted Flycatchers, of which I saw one for a fraction of a second but later we all saw well perched on a dead twig at the top of a dying Ash.

The famous “Slow But Sure” group, who had started earlier from the Rye end, delighted in tantalising us with reports of the exciting birds they had already seen at Castle Water, most of which had moved on by the time we sat down in Halpin Hide. The exception was an adult Spoonbill straight in front of us – asleep of course though it did awake later. However, where the water level has dropped to reveal many islands, crowds of waterbirds (Mallard, Gadwall, Shoveler, Wigeon, Teal, Tufted Duck, Pochard, Greylag) and Lapwings provided cover for the small number of waders still present: Green & Common Sandpiper, Dunlin & Black-tailed Godwit. Every so often, dense packs of Swallows & Sand Martins were moving through and in one of these flurries I picked out – so briefly – the dark & dashing form of a Swift cutting along the front of the reeds. In the past it was not at all surprising to see Swifts through September.

Yellow Wagtails were also passing overhead much of the time though were hard to see on the ground though I did catch sight of one right on the tide-line, incongruously alongside a Turnstone. We only found one pair of Meadow Pipits however (in a few weeks’ time there will be hundreds) and no Skylarks at all.

Altogether we saw & heard 80 species – and another 3 if you want to count Feral Pigeon, hybrid ducks & geese.

The World Turned Upside Down

Posted in Uncategorized on September 2, 2021 by cliffdean

A dull, traditional English summer draws to a grey close, and an unceasing north wind courses across a countryside in which our allotment is dry yet the Dungeness islands lie still underwater. But at least the towns are not flooded – no-one sees their car bobbing off down the street on a torrent of sewage, nor are the crops dying of drought, nor forests on fire, as yet. Nor are thousands fleeing from their homes in fear. It’s a normal English transition into autumn.

So around here that means a few small migrants glimpsed with tantalising brevity (at least no-one is netting them, except in the pursuit of scientific research), a few waders scattered in the distance and, if we’re lucky, the occasional passing raptor (at least no-one is shooting them, at least not around here). Perhaps it’s best not to look at the Facebook pages of hordes of mixed waders in Italy or streaming thousands of Honey-buzzards in Georgia.

The bird voted Best on our RXbirdwalk last Sunday was Lesser Whitethroat. To me, this was surprising since other species had included Glossy Ibis, Great & Cattle Egrets. These latter, however, are big birds which move slowly, spend quite a lot of time immobile and, once arrived, stick around for a while. Lesser Whitethroats, tend not to sit in the open even when singing, and at this time of year are cautious and fugitive. If you can differentiate their softer tick from that of a Blackcap, you’re at least aware of their presence Deep In The Bushes, and if you can distinguish their silvery throats in microsecond glimpses, you can go home happy enough but otherwise they remain incognite.

So when, after a few minutes in silhouette-only mode in the shadows and obstructive twigs of a small bush a LW popped out in the open, and long enough for all to see, admiration was unbounded for the smooth, dense grey of its head, ending in a rakish mask, the brilliance of its throat and the dullness of its back without a hint of rusty flight-feathers. (I remember the first I saw, a mile away and 60 years ago as Bob Scott extracted one from a Heligoland trap; with that mask it looked like a shrike.)

So, for some, that was a revelation, and a worthy one since now they’ll be looking out and will start to see LWs of their own as I did on return to Darkest Sidcup following that teenage trip to Dungeness. But at that time, birds like those herons I began with existed only as fabulous pipe-dreams. Browsing James Harrison’s “Birds of Kent” in lino-floored Sidcup Library, I had come across just one record of Glossy Ibis – at Blendon Hall!! – a nearby suburb covered since the 1930s in bungalows. Such an exotic bird in such a banal setting intensified my sense of a lost world beneath the crazy-paving, pebble-dash and privet (at least good for moths, and we got Stag Beetles too).

It was another example of yesterday’s rarities becoming today’s everydays and yesterday’s common birds suddenly eliciting gasps of admiration. I think I wrote here before about a Dungeness group who were fairly indifferent to a Bittern booming close at hand but were thrilled at the sight of a Cuckoo.

RXBIRDWALKS IN SEPTEMBER 2021

Posted in Uncategorized on August 31, 2021 by cliffdean

All the walks this month are on or close to the coast, to make the most of the autumn migration.

If you have not been on an RXbirdwalk previously, please look at “About RXbirdwalks” on this blog for general conditions.

SUNDAY 5TH: CASTLE WATER

There should be plenty of small birds along the way and low water levels at Castle Water are attracting a good variety of ducks and waders.

SUNDAY 12TH: HASTINGS COUNTRY PARK

We’ll be looking for passerine migrants – warbler’s chats, pipits, wagtails, hirundines – in the bushes and flying overhead. We can also call in at the new “Bale House” Visitor Centre for a coffee! Its veranda has a great view.

SATURDAY 18TH: PETT LEVEL

This can be a longer walk or one of two halves, depending on weather, tide and clientele. At any rate, we’ll be looking around Toot Rock, scanning the sea, beach and Pett Pools for a wide range of birds.

SATURDAY 25TH: COMBE VALLEY COUNTRYSIDE PARK

There should be plenty of migrants in this under-watched valley and, if it has rained between now and then, waders in the pools.

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

RXbirdwalks Carry On Up The Rother

Posted in Uncategorized on August 25, 2021 by cliffdean

The Sussex Border Path up the eastern side of the Rother usually offers some interesting birds and at this time of year is a good place to find waders just on the outskirts of Rye. Before you set out, however, it’s a good idea to check on the tide because a high one can flood the footpath beneath the railway bridge. If you find it blocked on your outward journey you can always change plans and go downstream towards Camber or take an inland route via Point Hill but should you find your way underwater on the return route there’s no real alternative to retracing your steps.

This section of the river is all that remains of a great sea-arm that ran up the western side of the marsh into the 17th century. It had extended as far as Appledore where, in the mediaeval period, it culminated in a capacious indraught which accumulated seawater at high tide to then be released down the Rhee channel, flush silting from the harbour at the Rother’s mouth at Romney.

In subsequent centuries the channel has been progressively constricted by a succession of embankments, marked as dark red lines in the Romney Marsh Soil Map above. Towards the top you can make out the containment of meanders while towards the bottom the former creek system is apparent and the red line on the left charts the present route of the A259, a major road winding along a mediaeval wall.

Those same meander banks are shown on this Victorian OS map. Joining at the top is the Union Channel which conducts the waters of the Five Watering and White Kemp Sewers, which drain the northern part of the marsh and Walland respectively.

Meanwhile, back to birds… Before we had even left Rye we were seeing Common Sandpipers fluttering over the water and hearing rapid whistles from others ahead. Black-headed Gulls, Redshanks and a Little Egret were also foraging on the exposed mud of the river banks.

Suddenly, the tide was coursing upstream and the mud getting covered. A big flock of 100+ Redshanks went rushing past us, there were many more Common Sandpipers and a relatively confiding Little Ringed Plover. On the saltings we disturbed 25 Magpies – way beyond the scope of the rhyme, and probably many more Pied Wagtails, though our attention was on other birds. A constant background wailing came from an unseen young Buzzard.

The dry creek above is a truncated relic of those which once drained the riverside saltings. You can see it marked blue on the map below. I was trying to explain the significance of this dusty gully when 2 beautiful Greenshanks cruised past and dropped into the Union Channel.

Across the river, one of the group spotted a Kestrel perched on wires. Shortly afterwards crowds of local Linnets, Starlings & Jackdaws went up as a Peregrine laboured from Saltbarn (valuable commodity!) Lane hauling away a victim and seen off the premises by a Buzzard.

We spent a fruitless half-hour at the Union Channel, stalking a very dark wader which we took to be a Spotted Redshank until it flew, revealing the white trailing edges of a Standard Redshank which had maybe been contrasted against the shiny mud. Yes, mud, because although the river channel was by now pretty full, the Union is fed only slowly through leaky wooden locks and is therefore often a high tide wader refuge. Other colourful species here were Kingfisher, Yellowhammer and Wheatear (alright, not that colourful).

At Scots Float, the saltwater flood downstream scene contrasted vividly with the freshwater above the lock, green and dominated by Himalayan Balsam, its dominion dammed up by the salt below. Apart from another Kingfisher at the lock, there were many small birds in the undergrowth, especially the row of fruiting Elders. They were (it’s autumn again!) exasperatingly hard to see, with only non-specific leaf-warblers and a Whitethroat glimpsed and a Reed Warbler heard.

Beyond this, the track across to Brook’s Bridge ran alongside a field of rough vegetation crowded with Linnets, House Sparrows & Goldfinches. Following a tip from David B, we scanned the battered cast-iron post & rail fence for a Redstart which soon appeared, tail quivering.

We saw no new species after the bridge (Mute Swan & Coot!) but returned to East Guldeford across meadows rippled with what I’d always taken to be narrow tidal sand-banks, but looking once more at the endlessly instructive Soil Map, I wonder if they might be formed by centuries-old drainage grips, maybe still exploiting natural formations such as I’ve seen in the Danube Delta.

Unreliable forecasts

Posted in Uncategorized on August 13, 2021 by cliffdean

This is a week late too!

Last Saturday my daughter & two of her friends wanted to visit Dungeness. The forecast was apocalyptic and I pictured us blown about, soaked with rain and occasionally struck by lightning. In fact, we missed most rain and there was not even a rumble of thunder but the wind roared across the open landscape so that most little birds kept their heads well down.

Little compensation came in the form of larger species since, as you may have heard, the water level is so high that most islands are submerged along with their wader-friendly muddy margins. In addition, some of the hides remain closed for repair while Scott Hide has vanished completely. Dennis’s & Christmas Dell are open but are usually the least productive watch-points. In spite of the efforts of cheery meeters’n’greeters, the whole place felt forlorn, with a trail of litter along the edge of the car park towards Dennis’s Hide giving an air of neglect.

(Even as I was writing this, RSPB issued a helpful post giving the wider context to present conditions on the reserve. )

https://community.rspb.org.uk/placestovisit/dungeness/b/dungeness-blog/posts/updates-from-dungeness

Never mind. The Pilot, by contrast, was as busy as anything, so much so that a minder at the car park was checking we weren’t just dumping the car & going off to gawp at Prospect Cottage. Since last I was there, the snoutcasts’ lean-to has been upgraded to a proper extension and the garden expanded. I always warn people that the heroic Haddock & Chips is going to be too much for them but they never listen…

Or visitors wanted to have a look at the legendary Patch so we proceed past many more parked cars than usual (it’s lockdown-style explosion of domestic tourism) to the crowded area by the old light-house and thence to the steep shingle bank of the shore, looking down onto a heaving grey sea. From the lee of the hide, two local birders were scrutinising the switchback of gulls sitting straight into the reflected sunlight. They told me they were watching a Sooty Shearwater and generously offered a look through a scope. At first I just could not make it out till suddenly, it flew – a sleek dark form skimming briefly over the waves then dropping down with a flap of the wings to reveal the diagnostic pale underside. Amazing! They normally speed past in the distance… I say “normally” but I’ve never seen one around here. I’m sure I’ve seen them…ages ago…maybe in Australia. But this was a completely unexpected UK lifer!

Sunday – a better forecast. Showers, naturally, for while great tracts of southern Europe are on fire, the UK has Taken Back Control of miserable summer weather. I had an RXbirdwalk around the green folded forest ridges of Burwash. Well, they were green some of the time but grey quite a lot of it as curtains of rain (not “showers”) trailed across the countryside. An interestingly mixed group with much to say to one another, especially after the relative social isolation of recent times…and what do we say now about Bateman’s, about Kipling? (apart from the cakes, apart from the luggage). A different light now shines on these heart-warming, Swallow-twittering, country homes and their celebrated owners. I don’t reject Kipling’s work because he was, like so many others, a white supremacist, because I wonder how our firmly-held beliefs and convictions will look in a hundred years’ time. Or maybe ten. But what do you say about a man so powerfully patriotic that he fiddled the entry requirements to push his short-sighted youngest son into the Army, onto the Front where the boy very soon vanished?

And what to make of Holton Lane? (The rain is now unremitting, though the outgrown hedge of Hazel & Hornbeam affords a little shelter.) It runs along the ridge as a broad, forgotten, highway yet halfway along dwindles into a narrow gully filled with mud. How did that happen? Could it have been that vehicles approached only from either end in order to cart material (clay? sandstone? it was too wet to consult iGeology on my phone but I now see it’s the former.) from the deep pits which plunge down to the northward side.

We didn’t see a lot of birds, mixed gangs of insectivorous species along the Dudwell, the odd Buzzard & Kestrel, but neither did we meet many other walkers nor, from high points see many buildings through the rain. Notwithstanding the dense web of footpaths, this is Deep Country, the green heart of the Crowded South-east.

Among the Sequential Hermaphrodites

Posted in Uncategorized on August 9, 2021 by cliffdean

This was a week ago – August 1st but, after a year or so with an empty diary, life is busy – too busy. For the first time, the Discovery Centre was opened early for RXbirdwalks to partake of a coffee & snack before setting off round the Beach Reserve. I have rarely run walks here because it’s too well-known and, until Covid, there were regular events led by SWT (they’re starting again soon!).

However, on this short walk there is so much to see. For instance, littered along the tideline are the spiky remains of hundreds of Spiny Spider Crabs and among them many thousands of the Fornicating Slipper Snail – we usually leave out the lurid stuff and call them Slipper Limpets (Crepidula fornicata). The steamy romps (do you remember News of the World?) begin when a male attaches himself to the back of a female, then another male joins the queue and so on, maybe up to twelve individuals. All goes well, it would appear, until the female dies and drops out of the cluster, whereupon the next male in line obligingly changes sex and the orgy recommences. (Well…”orgy”….)

I know what you’re thinking. Look it up for yourself.

At the top of the beach still stood, at that point, the skeleton of Joseph Williams’ “Beacon”, most of the sails detached. It had proved such an attraction that efforts were made to retain it for the whole of the holiday period but regrettably this could not be arranged.

In the still and somber morning, glassy water inverting gloomy clouds as they dragged curtains of rain across Romney Marsh, the dominant sound was the screech of Common Terns announcing their return from the bay bearing glittering fish. At this signal, previously unseen chicks, buff and spotty, rushed out from the plants among which they’d been hiding from predators, to sit begging on the edge of the nesting islands.

Saltmarsh colours continue to present a marvel of subtle zonation; here are golden flowers of Sea Purslane.

I’m not clear what the pink plant is here…

…but this one I do know, and it’s luring in photographers right now. It comes from Sicily but is called Rottingdean Sea Lavender. To find out why, how it got to the Rother, the threat it might pose to native plant species and the redeeming qualities which stay its extirpation, join the Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve and read my article in our forthcoming Newsletter!

Check the Sand, Sea and Gloomy Cloud colours on the Discovery Centre crockery!

Moving Pictures

Posted in Uncategorized on August 3, 2021 by cliffdean

The Rother saltings are subtly coloured now as the blue-green leaves of the Sea Purslane are complemented by golden ochre ripples of their flower heads. The taller, darker green leaves are those of Sea Aster. Labyrinthine creeks are half concealed by the toughly woven blanket of plants.

As a stiff breeze blasts across towards the river it’s hard to hold the phone still and Purslane leaves flick up in silver waves but as bars of cloud shadow pass, the colours collapse though the camera loses no time in adjusting. It’s best to view these videos without sound, the rumble of which is distracting.

Meanwhile, on the South Downs, those areas of grassland sufficiently trampled or grazed to permit patches of perfumed Wild Thyme are crowded with Chalkhill Blues. As the day warms, males emerge to patrol the open rides on pale, silver-blue wings, then after a while, females begin to appear and quickly attract males, often more than one. An orgy ensues until cloud obscures the sun when they all take a break and sit in the grass awaiting the return of a bit of warmth to reawaken their ardour.

Meanwhile, closer to home, our front lawn passes from Ox-eye Daisies and Yellow Rattle to Lesser Knapweed and Yarrow among tall, swaying grasses full of grasshoppers and taller-than-usual ant-hills of friable material scaffolded by grass stems. Not just taller but more of them than usual. Between the flower-heads there’s a constant traffic of flies, hoverflies, bees and butterflies: Large White, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Common Blue, Painted lady. But apart from the piping of a wandering Nuthatch and the twitter of young House Martins, the soundtrack is a constant drone of neighbours’ mowers as they strive to replace all this kind of nonsense with stripes.

I paused putting out seed and fat-balls since these were being quickly demolished by raiding parties of corvids, mostly Jackdaws, usually Magpies but regularly Rooks and Carrion Crows which normally seem shy of dropping down into this comparatively confined space. At any rate, the little birds didn’t get a look in whereas the corvids could easily go and probe about in the recently mown hay-field. So I paused for a week and, by the time I restarted, the crows seem to have deleted it from their daily schedule. So we now have a big bunch of sparrows plus Blue & Great Tits and some Goldfinches. But for how long?

John Nash at the Towner

Posted in Uncategorized on August 2, 2021 by cliffdean

This exhibition is on until September 21st. My photos here are not great since taken through glass, often with lights reflecting from behind, but they serve the purpose.

British war artists depicting the First World War usually did so through landscape since they worked within a context censorship. Even scenes of devastation are strangely beautiful, with the luminous sky above offering a sense of possible redemption.

Soldiers are represented as anonymous small figures in the middle distance or as closer men marching with tired, blank faces.

One of the exhausted troops here is marching with eyes closed. In other paintings, men have decently fallen but there is little hint of the terror and mutilation they faced.

Otto Dix, working for himself six years after the end of hostilities was able to more truthfully articulate the nightmare visions that continued to haunt him.

His landscape subjects offer pitiless scenes of corpse-strewn bleakness.

Like his brother Paul, like Ravilious, like Wadsworth, he made powerful, unpeopled compositions of military architecture expressed in warships and dock installations.

Post-war landscapes of scrawny winter trees and flooded pits recall splintered woods and shell-craters from the Front.

Although I’d seen Nash’s war work and some later landscapes, I was unaware of his beautiful book illustrations of botanical motifs, sporting and travel subjects..

You can’t go wrong with a Hoopoe.

RXBIRDWALKS IN JULY & AUGUST 2021

Posted in Uncategorized on July 24, 2021 by cliffdean

In view of the uncertainties of weather and Covid guidance, these arrangements may be subject to change.

Thursday July 29th: Friston Gallops.

This is outside the usual RX area but it’s so beautiful at the moment, with chalk flora & butterflies that we won’t see on our side of Pevensey. I don’t plan to diverge much from the immediate Hastings/Rye hinterland but think this will be worth it, especially since autumn migration has yet to get underway. We’ll take in grassland and part of Friston Forest in a walk of about 4 miles. It will be a good idea to bring a picnic lunch. The approach is steep and stony, so may not suit everyone’s abilities. This walk will start at 9am.

Sunday August 1st: Breakfast at Rye Harbour Discovery Centre

This walk too is a bit unusual since we normally avoid the crowds by sticking to Castle Farm. However, if you haven’t yet visited the new DC, the fruit of many years’ labour, this is your chance. Cafe manager Leah is opening early just for us to have a drink & snack before setting out for a shortish, level walk around the Beach Reserve where migrant terns and waders are already passing through. This walk will start at 8.30.

Sunday August 8th: Burwash

More typically RXbirdwalks territory, albeit out on the edge of the known world, this is a 5 mile circuit through fabulous High Weald meadows and woods towards the headwaters of the Dudwell. We’ll pass Bateman’s and follow an ancient, mile-long ridge trackway. The paths are well-defined and there are some steepish slopes. This walk will start at 8.00am to avoid the heat.

Saturday August 21st: Rye – Iden Lock E Guldeford

Previous walks have followed the Rother downstream but this time we’ll go up, searching the muddy banks for waders such as Redshank, Greenshank, Common & Green Sandpipers while watching over the farmland for hunting raptors. We’ll be able to see the succession of features which transformed this area from a broad mediaeval bay to a 17th century sea-arm, to its presently confined river. The walk is 4 miles long and level, with some rough paths across grazing land. This walk will start at 8am.

Saturday August 28th: Dengemarsh

Quite a short, level walk along the back of the RSPB reserve, but one during which you can expect to see a lot of birds. This walk will start at 8am.

If you’d like to join any of these walks, contact me on

rxbirdwalks@gmail.com