The tail-end of Storm Doris

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 26, 2017 by cliffdean

Strong SW winds determined the course of today’s RXbirdwalk (from the relief of one sheltered spot to another) and our observational abilities, since we found it hard to keep our binoculars steady. It was quite cold too. And although I like to boast that this walk usually gets more than 60 species (usually more than 70 and in fact up to 85) today’s tally was a lowly 53, thanks to little birds sensibly keeping their heads down, roaring wind drowning out calls and a rough sea hiding most birds which might be floating upon it.

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Details of upcoming Reserve map by Pete Smith of Picturemaps

Having made all those excuses, the walk was not without reward, starting with a trio of handsome Fieldfares feeding in the lee of bushes right beside the path at Winchelsea Beach. Emerging from a near-birdless (but sheltered!) Beach Field to scan The Ocean, I noticed a small grebe with a white front bobbing out in the middle but soon diving, never to resurface.

“Did you say a Little Grebe?” “No, it was a small grebe.”

(You have to make that clear because capitals – which would make it a proper noun – can’t be heard. There are two main schools of thought about writing species’ vernacular names: a) all words capitalized e.g. Lesser Black-backed Gull b) no capitalization except when proper nouns are involved e.g. Dartford warbler, Bewick’s swan. The latter is the convention adopted by SWT and The Times. It’s generally no problem, though it make species harder to pick out when you’re scanning a page, but ambiguities can occur, mostly with “little”. In a recent Times article advising a walk around Rye Harbour a sentence began, “Elegant terns hovered over the water…” Were these terns just elegant – or were they Elegant Terns, a very rare species in Europe and one that would see a good few people jumping into their cars and heading south-east. Capitalization would eliminate the ambiguity. To be honest the latter case would merit caps & bold: ELEGANT TERNS. (!!! too))

Anyway, once a grebe reappeared near that spot it was a brown and fully capitalized Little Grebe. So I must have imagined (blame the wind) the white front……HOWEVER, on the way back, I spotted it again, spending more time under than upon the water, slowly,slowly, closer and closer..a Black-necked Grebe. Vindication.

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Photos in this post by Peter Matthews & Stuart Barnes

Emerging then from the renewed shelter of  The Wood and heading for the lee of Castle Farm,a large number of wagtails were spotted bouncing up & down from the filter beds over at the Water Treatment Works. I’d never been over there, though the shortcomings of local sewage provision had been the subject of a very interesting chat with someone from the IDB just this week. Why, I wanted to learn, was the road blocked with tankers & traffic lights outside the Co-op every time it rained?

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So we made a diversion, past Curlews & Egyptian Geese, to the shelter of the pines treatment structures where there were not only 20++ Pied Wagtails but Woodpigeon, Stock Dove, Dunnock, Chaffinch, Starling & Wren. What I really wanted to see/hear was whether there were any Grey Wagtails,which breed in every other WTW in the area so why not this one. No sign however.

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Upon arrival in the Halpin Hide,we were confronted with a great crowd of understated Gadwall backed up by more clearly heraldic Mallard, Shoveler, Teal, Wigeon & Shelduck while Cormorants cruised over bearing sticks. No waders though apart from Lapwing & Oystercatcher, and no raptors at all. There were a lot of gulls about, on the fields and on the islands, giving an opportunity to sort through species and plumages of Black-headed,Common, Herring, Great & Lesser Black-backs, the latter two in fabulous breeding form. Although there have been plenty around since last weekend we only saw one – adult –Med Gull later on beside West Nook Meadows where we were also most surprised to see a large (for around here) flock of Barnacle Geese which had not been there earlier. The compactness of the group, the strengthening wind and their habit of suddenly chasing one another made it hard to get an accurate count but we settled for 55. Probably just hopped over the border from Scotney.

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Too many birds!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 22, 2017 by cliffdean

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Not a huge number of species – 33 I think – but an awful lot of birds. Not just Robins, Blue & Great Tits (which were everywhere) but Goldcrests, Treecreepers & Nuthatches too. I’ve said before & I’ll say it again: birds for which you have to hunt in “wild” woodlands are packed into Alexandra Park and easier to see too.

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Treecreeper by Stuart Barnes

On a warm sunny morning, the trees were full of song and flitting, hard-to-focus-on bird-shapes and shadows, from the  stiff-winged display flight of Stock Doves to the silvery trill of Firecrests. The first of these latter was singing in the very place we saw one last year – was it there still or again? We found at least 5 of them, 3 above the road bridge where we also saw the only 2 Grey Wagtails, a characteristic bird of the park which I expected to find more widely.

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Following photos by Peter Matthews: Grey Wagtail

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 Cormorant

On Shornden Reservoir, a fine sinensis Cormorant and 4 species of gull: Black-headed, all adult,  on their way north; Herring adults & immatures, maybe resident locals; 3 Lesser Black-backs just arrived back from somewhere down the  Atlantic coast, maybe still en route, maybe planning a summer on St Leonards rooftops; finally a single Common Gull – the first I’ve seen in the park, not really the kind of place Common Gulls like.

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Lesser Black-backed Gull

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A bit of Park news: a grant has been obtained to renovate the greenhouse, which is now covered in plastic, protecting Prince Albert from the weather.

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Firecrest by Stuart Barnes again

The other side of the road

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 18, 2017 by cliffdean

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I’ve made quite a few excursions SW of Lydd but yesterday was able to visit Glebelands, NW of the town, thanks to involvement in the NE Silver Meadows survey. The idea behind this is to plot all the low-lying farmland prone to winter  flooding and therefore of potential benefit to waders and wildfowl. When  this survey was planned, however, there was no way of knowing that we’d enjoy an exceptionally dry winter with very little flooding to be plotted.

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All was not lost as far as I was concerned since  this fascinating  area which, lacking any public footpaths, would be normally be inaccessible to me.

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Its unusual character is immediately apparent from satellite photos which show small, mostly rectilinear, fields separated by rather straight, tree-lined ditches, all orientated SW-NE following to the old shingle beaches upon which they and the town itself are situated.

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The ditch-side trees in question are principally big Willows, formerly pollarded but now collapsing and sprawling into the waterways or across field edges and richly furnishing the area with feeding and nesting sites for Blue & Great Tits, woodpeckers and Little Owls. They, and the post & rail fence, are crusted with lichens. Fallen branches which would normally be tidied up have been left to rot. New Willows have been planted but the protective netting and  iron supports left in place to get absorbed into the bark.

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More or less parallel banks of silver shingle lie beneath a thin skin of turf, the pebbles exposed on ditch banks and in a small gravel pit hard alongside the nuclear-waste railway from Dungeness. The Google maps image, taken when summer drought emphasises the desiccated grassland on thinnest soils, shows this clearly.

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That small pit held 25 Teal while 6 Gadwall flew up from the adjacent Westbroke Petty Sewer. The presence of several Grey Herons was unsurprising since there’s a nesting colony in the nearby rookery. Stones from the pit are piled in 5m high mountain, from the summit of which I was keen to take in the panorama of the surrounding marsh.

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To the left of the railway, pasture; to the right, arable, from which Skylarks sing.

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To the right of this arable you can just make out the rushes of a real Silver Meadow, but one outside our survey area.

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This field is rather different, with its gorse clumps and a stand of Hawthorns, perhaps grown out of a patch of scrub. Dozens of Redwings & Fieldfares fly from the orange tops of the Willows and 3 Buzzards display overhead.

The older houses in this area all stand sensibly on shingle banks, the Rectory in its own green island of mixed tall trees from which issue continuously calls of Rooks & Jackdaws and the drumming of GS Woodpecker. I was surprised to find Butcher’s Broom on a ditch bank until I noticed that the whole of the Rectory garden appeared to have once been hedged with this species, presumably to exclude grazing animals. There were Goldcrests feeding in the Ivy and a Grey Wagtail in a shallow, overshadowed ditch, one Sparrowhawk in circulation being mobbed, now by Jackdaws, now by Goldfinches.

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Some alien tree species give a parkland appearance to some fields,with Horse Chestnut, Turkey Oak, White Poplar and even Monterey Cypress in places.

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As I wrote earlier, the ditches are quite straight, indicating that some formal organization had been undertaken in the past – but how long ago? A couple of irregular watercourses towards Caldecot Crossing can be seen, from the ghosted lines in satellite photos, to be the truncated remains of a former ditch system.

Another old island

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 15, 2017 by cliffdean

If you’ve driven the kinked road alongside the canal from Rye to Appledore you must have noticed an isolated hill to your left. You’re unlikely to have looked at it for long since you didn’t want to drive off into a ditch at the next kink but you may have felt that isolated hummock merited further investigation.  So did I, for about 40 years, without ever getting further than that until the other week Bob Greenhalf recommended I should have a walk in that direction since he had found a lot of farmland birds over there. This seemed surprising since the farmland all around is intense arable, looking pretty sterile but, according to him, large strips game cover doubled effectively as songbird cover.

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If you check the OS map,Chapel Bank, as this hill is called, is topped with a curious hexagonal enclosure where once the eponymous chapel once stood until it was transported to the more reachable location of Reading Street.

Intriguing, then, for a number of reasons so we set off from the Ferry Inn on a very cold, grey and miserable morning westwards along a broad farm track, disturbing a few Skylarks from the fields, Yellowhammers & Chaffinches from lines of willow pollards, Heron & Little Egret from the Reading Sewer.

A rising muddy path led up towards the wooded summit of this marsh mountain but before the top we reached a ring of wet, rough grass and wilted game cover from which rose first groups of Meadow Pipits totalling at least 60 and then a single flock of 40 Yellowhammers. It’s quite some time since I saw so many of the latter, and we’d already seen about 10 on the way across.

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Graveyard enclosures have protected from grazing sheep not only the lichen-crusted tombstones but also the Ash saplings which have sprung up in thick clusters,their grey bark engulfing the rusty railings round them.

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Returning along the northern shore of Oxney via Ebony, Odiam & Luckhurst we passed old orchards hopping with Redwings, deserted holiday lets and second homes, both neglected and resplendent. The scents were of fermenting windfalls and ripe manure, the sounds of white vans and Range Rovers approaching at menacing speed, hundreds of Fieldfares hidden behind a 15m leylandii hedge and the bleats of new lambs from inside a passing trailer.

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Since all morning gunshots had sent up clouds of Woodpigeons from the Shirley Moor direction, I looked forward with confidence to a lunch of pan-fried pigeon breast at the Ferry Inn. It was the one item deleted from the menu…

 

Something nasty in the woods

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 5, 2017 by cliffdean

In a radical departure from the routine, we convened after lunch to avoid rain during the morning. I normally avoid afternoon birdwatching apart from the occasional look at roosts because, on the whole, there are fewer birds and more people. And so it proved to be at Ashes Wood where we met a lot of the latter plus barky dogs while the former were represented by little more than Robins, Blue & Great Tits until a Coal Tit joined in from the pine-tops.

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Along the old estate road it was pretty muddy but when we branched off, in order to avoid the dog-herders, the impermeable Wealden clay really came into its own, providing squelchy, rutted fields and deeply puddled gateways. The “Adventure” section of the walk involved our attempt to hop across a stream which is usually no problem except that it was swollen with rainwater running straight off that impermeable clay and a bank had collapsed.  A hop would not be adequate to guarantee reaching the other side so we made out way through brambles & alders upstream where another crossing might be found. In fact, the cleft got deeper & deeper but just as we reached the uncrossable gurgling water we came across a macabre tableau.

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In a space where the Pendulous Sedge Had been flattened lay the skull of a youngish Fallow Deer stag, bound and tangled in yards of green webbing. Other parts of the skeleton lay at the edge of the clearing. The free ends of the webbing were wound around a pole. The complexity of the tangle contradicted initial theories of some unfortunate accident but what had been the purpose? Had the unfortunate animal been bound up alive? Left there to die? Sacrificed in some pagan rite?

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Giving up on the stream-crossing plan, we retraced our steps towards the mill pond, pausing in a grove of Western Red Cedar to try for Firecrest, which seems fond of this species. One duly appeared, hopping around in the bushes beside us. The pond has had much of its marginal vegetation removed and a bunch of farmyard geese installed so had rather few other waterbirds on it, just a few Moorhens, Coots, Mallards and a single m Tufted Duck. A brief excursion onto Beech Farm was more successful, however, with c180 Linnets (so scarce on the coast this winter) and a few Yellowhammers.

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By this time, the sun had come out,bathing the landscape in golden afternoon light and throwing long shadows across the ancient, hornbeam-lined hollow lane back up towards the road. As sunset approached,we came across the third pair of Mistle Thrushes we’d seen, Song Thrushes could be heard all across the valley and the welcome crooning of a Blackbird was about a fortnight early.

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At the heart of the Level

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on February 4, 2017 by cliffdean

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A few hours of sunshine saw me getting re-acquainted with the miniature landscapes of gate-posts, each unique in its pattern of growth-rings, cracks, stains, lichen incrustation and bird droppings, all interrelated.

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Immediately, an unseen raptor put up a great cloud of Lapwings & Starlings – goodness knows how many there are at the moment – with a line of 14 Ruff rushing past at its base and the piping of Golden Plovers at the back – not a regular bird at Pett but 110 today. A Raven jumps up from the field too.

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The rain has left snakes & crosses of electric-blue floodwater among the yellowing grass.

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Processional shingle-shifters trundle across the skyline.

The horizon is once more smudged with great flocks of birds as first a low-level Sparrowhawk speeds across in front of me, then I disturb a Peregrine from its perch.

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Squelchy mud-music enlivens the densely-printed gateways.

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A Water Pipit flies up from a muddy ditch-edge and squeaks away to another, atypically not too distant. This is the only one I’ve seen at Pett this winter so, with optimism overcoming experience, I decide to quick-march over towards the spot where it came down then make the final approach with Extreme Stealth. Eyes fixed, no blinking allowed, I side up to this new ditch, closer, closer, searching for some movement till suddenly, out of nowhere, the bird is up and heading off across one, two, three, four ditches and down again. The usual field characteristics: call, pale flanks, irritating behaviour.

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Turned out nice again?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 1, 2017 by cliffdean

Week after week accounts of RXbirdwalks are prefaced in true British fashion by reflections upon the unreliability of weather forecasts. Same this time: the clouds promising a miserable dark and maybe rainy morning quickly and unexpectedly peeled back to reveal a clear sky which reflected in the fabulous ink-blue water of Dengemarsh and shone from the pale-gold reeds.

So that’s got the meteo out of the way. But – year upon year these reports are of necessity repetitive: the seasons turn bringing with them more or less the same birds to more or less the same places. I could forget all that and go for the unexpected, joining the glum cavalcade of rarity chasers but that does not appeal to me. What does change, most often & most interestingly, is the human context. This has always interested me: the personal/family/social/political backdrop to these birds trips, bird walks, birdsong, bird sightings.

Exemplary writing of this kind is found in “Adventure Lit Their Star” by Kenneth Allsop.

But there’s also a well-known intention to use birds as an escape  from all of that – a reviving reconnection with the non-human world. I do this of course but in the same breath, as it were, criticise those who wilfully fail to notice the impact of politics upon the wildlife that they imagine to be free of all that. So…apart from the weather Saturday’s RXbirdwalk was influenced by this:

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…and I’m really not sure that that’s going to turn out nice.

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So while we were wandering the Dengemarsh trail enjoying the birds, the light, the soundscape, the future was blighted for hundreds of people who believed they were flying to a better one and it was Raining In My Heart. Apart from the beautiful Marsh Harriers, the fabulous ice-coloured Smew, the acrobatic male Bearded Tit Showing As Well As Anything my spirits were lifted by a scabrous cartoon by Steve Bell, standing on the shoulders of the giant James Gillray.

I would post it here,but since this is a Family Blog…

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…though I’m not sure what’s on the TV. More acceptable in those days perhaps…