Bath-time Birding

Posted in Uncategorized on September 20, 2022 by cliffdean

Arriving home after a long train journey from Tynemouth, scattered with nut-flakes and dusted with sugar from the best-ever almond croissant supplied by Pink Lane Bakery, what better way to clean up and relax than in a hot bath? Our bathroom window has the best view from the house, northwards towards Icklesham, across farmland and woods, so one of the first things we did upon purchasing the property many years ago was to replace the inexplicable ribbed glass with clear.

You can’t see the land when you’re lying in the bath but you can get additionally immersed in the cloudscape, especially when northerly winds blow the clouds towards you in from the sea, where they start as mighty architectonic form but soon stretch, curl, lean, roll, collapse and disintegrate as they rise over the warmer land, often vanishing altogether. Today, they were less distinct: grey and scumbled like a Dutch painting from the Golden Age, maybe Cuyp.

Looking upwards at those clouds, I usually see the local hirundines skidding about, maybe some gulls sailing over and perhaps the odd Jackdaw or Woodpigeon perched on the conical top of a neighbour’s threadbare Thuja, which just about makes it into the window’s lower right hand corner. But that’s it – until today, when I noticed lots of little birds flitting out of the shadows and into the sunshine.

They looked like warblers so, for the first time I called for binoculars, which weren’t so great looking at an angle through slightly steamed-up double glazing, and soon attracting their own condensation but in the meantime allowed me to identify – yes- Chiffchaffs but also Blue & Long-tailed Tits, a Robin and…a Willow Warbler!! Other birds not requiring magnification were Collared Dove, House Martins, Jackdaws, Swallows, Starlings & Woodpigeon.

I feel it would be a dangerous move, however, to start a Bath Life-list.

BT, CC,, CD, HM, JD, LT, R, SG, SL, WP, WW……..

A month of Sunlit Flatlands

Posted in Uncategorized on September 1, 2022 by cliffdean

Hoyorredondo – more questions than answers

Posted in Uncategorized on August 31, 2022 by cliffdean

Sierra de Gredos: Hoopoes are pulsing before daylight, while at dusk, Iberian Magpies converge with harsh squeals along the stone-lined lanes to the cluster of stone houses.

Halfway up the mountain, houses huddle and byres lean against granite outcrops. When did they first come here and for what purpose? The soil seems too shallow to grow much but grass, so was it a halfway house for transhumant herds and flocks moving up during the spring? Too cold in the winter, desiccated later?

Drystone walls, based on massive boulders and culminating in a loose assemblage of stones that let through points of sparkling light. Everywhere you can hear the nasal calls of Rock Sparrows, but they stay hidden away in cracks, holes and crevices.

At regular intervals, lanes no longer travelled lead off from the the spine road. Cirl Buntings flick over the brambles, attended by dozens of spectacular butterflies: Queen of Spain Fritillary, Purple Shot CopperWoodlarks flute from the dry paddocks.

From the shady interiors of Pyrenean Oaks, Bonelli’s Warblers are rattling and streamlined Golden Orioles dart across the gaps.

But the disposition of fields is not an organic one determined by the random distribution of the outcrops: the walls are straight, the areas regular. At some point, the terrain, rather than being carved out by hand, has been lotted up on a map, the project of a wealthy landowner. Who? When? What were the circumstances that made it worthwhile? Were inhabitants recruited, incentivised?

The answers don’t come readily to a casual tourist.

It’s not now; cows and a bowser occupy just one enclosure; farmsteads, their habitations, barns and fine gateways are collapsing once more into heaps of granite. Few remaining seem to be permanently occupied, others are holiday homes, another is our hotel.

Hardly intended as a temporary structure, with what pulleys, levers and labour was this dolmen-like lintel lifted? Hidden in the tree opposite, a Subalpine Warbler is singing.

Looking for inland migrants

Posted in Uncategorized on August 30, 2022 by cliffdean

A search for flycatchers seemed a good idea at Ashburnham. It wasn’t a terribly good idea, but we searched the farmland fences and branches of dead trees anyway. There were a few Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers, Blackcaps and Common & Lesser Whitethroats zipping between and inevitably deep into the bushes so we tried a hedgerow which followed a ditch originating in a hillside spring.

Crunching across crisp stubble on a field crazed with polygonal fissures, we found that the birds diving ahead of us were Yellowhammers, a species now so restricted in the largely inhospitable arable landscape that it’s a surprise to see one at all, but here there maybe 15 moving about and perching in bushes above vegetation greened by the spring and pink with invasive Himalayan Balsam.

Down at the lake another colourful yet invasive plant I identified, with the aid of Google Lens was Nymphoides peltata Yellow Floating Heart. I couldn’t recall having seen it before – maybe since I don’t usually visit this site at this time of year – but the plant atlas shows it as widespread, especially along the RM Canal E of Rye.

The yellow theme continued along the lakeside with Crab Apples and through the Woods with the eponymous Chicken…

…but birds were few though the silence was leavened by the sounds of hymn-singing which floated from the house through an open window and of laughter as young girls cartwheeled across the stable yard.

Far From Rottingdean

Posted in Uncategorized on August 21, 2022 by cliffdean

I continue to be fascinated by this invasive alien which occupies the riverside shingle between the Red-roofed Hut and the Riverside Blockhouse. Last year, I wrote a short article about it for the Friends’ Newsletter. Since a bit of time has now passed, perhaps I’ll repeat it here:

FORTY MILES FROM ROTTINGDEAN

…and very much further from Sicily, whence it originated, a little purple flower has travelled, first with assistance of humans then, putatively of gulls, to find a home by the rivermouth at Rye Harbour. Just beyond Norton’s Hut you can see the colourful curvilinear mats of Rottingdean Sea Lavender (Limonium hypblaeum) hunkered down in a hollow behind a fresh bank of pebbles thrown up by the latest over-topping tide.

It was cultivated as a garden plant at the White Horse Hotel, Rottingdean since at least the early 1950s and first recorded as an escape on the nearby chalk cliffs in 1979. It was first noted on the nature reserve by the Rother around 2002 but its UK distribution remains very limited.

This low-lying plant grows in dense rosettes that smother the shingle and has spread quickly in this one spot on the reserve. As with many alien species, it has the potential to become invasive, which it has in other countries. There were initial concerns that it would compete for space with the native Sea Heath (Frankenia laevis ) which was formerly restricted to a small patch of the same habitat. However Sea Heath has now spread across large parts of Flat Beach and the new saltmarsh habitat on the far side of the path, so is no longer in jeopardy. That’s unless Rottingdean Sea Lavender should follow…so there’s a watching brief on its progress. But for the present it can be appreciated as a photogenic plant favoured by insects (including the scarce Saltmarsh Horsefly, Silvery Leaf-Cutter Bee & Brown-banded Bee) in summer and birds (including the rare Twite and Shore Lark) foraging its seeds in winter.

I’m intrigued by the sharply defined limits of its growth areas and by the vigorous flowering at the colonising edges. I’ve only noticed the latter this year, but that could be my lack of attention. You can see both features in the photo above, where the marginal tufts are larger and covered in flowers whereas older plants within the patch remain as deep crimson leaf rosettes, perhaps with much reduced flowering.

My guess is that those vigorous lines are the expansionist vanguard, dumping loads of seed onto ground as yet unoccupied. If anyone knows one way or the other, I’d be pleased to be confirmed or corrected.

The palest, freshest, most disturbed shingle is generally where the river over-topped on an exceptionally high tide (as in the foreground of the photo below) perhaps burying the existent plants, but I’m puzzled about the curving area in the two photos above. It looks too far from the river to result from a tidal wash but is too wide and discontinuous to be an animal track.

Within the growth areas, the rosettes bind the shingle, stabilising it so that animal and human trampling has little effect. In the photo above you can see that the pebbles look whiter than those surrounding it. The dead foliage provides the beginnings of a soil and the undisturbed stones are more readily encrusted with lichens.

A characteristic which hardyl shows i na photo but is evident to the eye, especially in raking light, is the way plants follow and therefore emphasise contours otherwise too subtle to notice in a rhythmic mesh of curves and diagonals.

Nostalgie de la Boue

Posted in Uncategorized on August 8, 2022 by cliffdean

One hot day follows another in this suddenly golden land, from which we sometimes see distant clouds but rain remains absent from the forecast.

The soil cracks, the streams shrink, the lawn-mowers are thankfully silent and at Pett Pools the receding water reveals a slim silver sliver of mud to which a meagre selection of passing waders is attracted: Avocet, Black-tailed Godwit, Common Sandpiper, Lapwing, Little Ringed Plover, Little Stint.

It wasn’t always like this. No, in recent years the level has held, the mud submerged and the waders went on their way. But from 1975 to 2000 the Pett Pools Project gave them cause to pause.

Every mid-July, a team of SOS volunteers operated a pump with which water from the “Roadside Pool” (which soon became the “Wader Pool”) was transferred to the pool behind – the “Back Pool”, to leave a broadening muddy margin upon which a variety and number of waders now inconceivable would feed. Hopes were pinned on the reassuring chug of the pump borne on the night wind but it was hired only for the initial draining, after which we were at the mercy of the elements. Hopes could be blasted by an early downpour while a prolonged dry spell, albeit mitigated by returning some water from the back pool, would reduce the feeding area to cracked mud, revived by no amount of subsequent rain.

Southern Water Authority staff electro-fished the shallows to rescue floundering Carp (the whole project had been inspired by such an initiative.

There followed a season of hypnotic hours bearing witness to the season’s turn, with waders tugged back & forth by the tide’s lunar drag while birdwatchers remained suspended between twin gravities of birding and domestic responsibility, like players on poker machines, waiting for that one last bit of luck…

Apart from flocks of commoner (but not that common) birds, some rarities were WW Tern, Sandpipers: Pectoral (where, + Temminck’s Stint in 1995, that Joan Medlock told me of the availability of the house where we have lived ever since), Baird’s (where, in 1989, Bob G told me of Kitty French’s suicide), White-rumped, Least (we were in Australia for that one and only heard about it later by letter (no email then)).

Was the early morning better because of lack of disturbance – maybe something that had flown in overnight? Or was high tide the deciding factor, whatever the time of day? Or evening, when birds flew in to roost and the still air echoed to the piping of…well, sandpipers…..

If daylight allowed on return from summer holidays in foreign parts – Pett Pools was the first stop, for birds, for bird news (no mobiles then, no internet).

By October, summer showers and equinoctial storms had refilled the pool, leaving huddled Dunlin hopping between last marginal lumps of rain-wet mud, a huddled tern perched on the depth indicator, a late warbler working its way through the wind-tossed reed.

A report was produced each year.

All this was years ago before Canada Geese, before Ruddy Ducks, before Birdline, when the Pannel Valley was still growing potatoes and there were jetskis on Castle Water. When you saw WW Terns once a year and Sparrowhawks twice. There were Tree Sparrows then but Little Egrets had not yet been invented.

It was Before Barry Yates and the first year was Before Cliff Dean.

Every year, we saw so many wader species, in such a variety of plumages, at such close range, that we were all experts, more or less. Yet when a Stint turned up this week, we really had to think and discuss which it was because we’re now out of practice.

Here’s a roll-call of people from that era. Some are still with us, others not, and I’m sure I’ve missed some: John Ashbee, Cliff Barwood, Kevin Blackman, Pat & Mary Bonham, Trevor Buttle, Alf Davies, Mick Erends, Bernard & Diana Flack, John Gale, John Goodman, Andrew Grace, Stan Grant, Bob Greenhalf, Ralph Harbord, Robin Harris, Geoffrey Harrison, Ted Kennard, Phil Luffingham, Dave Pankhurst, Pete Rouse, Steve Rumsey, Alf & Iris Simpson, Tim Thomas, John Trowell, John Willsher, Malcolm Wilmshurst. On the marsh and beach: Laurie Cooke, William Dunlop, Babbo Osborne.

Old iron

Posted in Uncategorized on August 7, 2022 by cliffdean

To the north of Camber Castle, just past the Honeybee Tree, is scattered the brickwork of an old Looker’s hut. In autumn, migrant Wheatears and Yellow Wagtails seem to like the vicinity, probably recognising the perpetual aridity of the site as attractive to the insects on which they feed. Right now, the whole landscape is desiccated so that the old shingle ridges show up more clearly than usual as they contrast with the greener grass growing inthe silt of the former estuary.

This aerial photo shows with reasonable clarity the hooked spurs at the end of each successive storm ridge where the stones were swept round by the surge of the flood tide. The well-drained shingle shows as brown, the creeks and river course green. The Honeybee willow is where the paths meet and the hut remains show as pale patches of disturbed sand to the north.

The former tidal landscape is shown well in this map from 1590 in the British Library, but what struck me is the house shown more or less where the Looker’s hut stood. I has assumed that remote position on the estuary foreshore had never been occupied by more than a humble 19th century hut but this suggests a building had stood in that spot three hundred years before. It looks like a more substantial house as well but, comparing it with urban representations on the map, it could just be a symbol. Whatever it was, it was there forty years before the Castle was decommissioned.

I’ve walked past this spot hundreds of times but, until the other week, paid no attention to the bits of rusty agricultural machinery scattered about. It’s obvious enough but I’d just never looked. We were actually trying to count a group of Egyptian Geese half-hidden by the slope of the ancient shore when I paused to search for the usual manufacturer’s name embossed in the metalwork. I could trace B A U.

I knew at once that This Was A Job for my old friend Tim, for whom no oxidising junk in a bramble thicket is anonymous. I sent him my photo and next thing I knew he had been down there and scraped back the dry soil in the cause of Industrial Archaeology:

“A closer look at the wheels hubs and the cutter bar at the old Shepherds hut to the north of Castle Water,” he emailed me.

“The finger bar in my opinion is nothing to do with the wheels etc and is a separate article and part of an old mower.”

“The two sets of wheels and axles have cast iron centres with the name of the manufacturer which is  H C Bauly of Bow, Wagon & Wheel Works, London. This company went into liquidation in 1932.”

“The axles have the remains of leaf springs, but the wheels appear to have plain metal rims which would suggest that this was from a trailer as driving wheels would have a grip pattern, however there could have been  a solid rubber band on the outside of the rim common to steam lorries that have disappeared over time.”

So that was one mystery cleared up. But not so simple:

“As most agricultural trailers don’t have springs I guess these come from an industrial past such as aggregates which the area is known for.”

As far as I’m aware, no-one has taken any interest in this stuff before. Reasons for that are generously offered by those who, for instance, do not follow the Facebook “Corrugated Iron Appreciation Society” page. If you are one of those people, here are some examples to whet your appetite:

On the doorstep at Winchelsea Beach. This lean-to leans against a very much more solid concrete WWII blockhouse.

…while this barn near Knepp is not only the beneficiary of vigorously gestural Abstract Expressionism but also bears the sign of a manufacturer new to me: CROGGON.

Dispatches from Bilbao

Posted in Uncategorized on July 23, 2022 by cliffdean

Heatwave

Posted in Uncategorized on July 20, 2022 by cliffdean

Too hot to sleep well. Awake at 4, in the garden for sunrise for what promises/threatens to be a very warm day.

Though the papers have, for a week, shown UK maps in molten yellow, orange & red, the politicians are oblivious. Or indifferent as, in air-conditioned rooms, they bicker of how much more they can cut from taxes, from public services whose employees, currently struggling with heat, with fires, with a continuing epidemic, can be paid in claps and rainbows.

On the seawall, Sandwich Terns creak over the flat sea while on the other side of the road Wrens, Sedge & Cetti’s Warblers sing from the shadowy ditches to a roaring background of ewes as they’re rounded into the stockade.

The public have been strongly advised to stay indoors but thousands have chosen instead to head for the beach, having now discovered the cynical betrayal of their obedience during the Pandemic. Overnight, the sun-seeking tide ebbs, leaving a jetsam of plastic spilling from roadside bins.

Rabbits, Magpies and dark Starlings scour the crisp monochrome of desiccated pastures over ripples of long-forgotten beaches.

Where the ancient shorelines have been abandoned to their own devices, however, they are vivid with deep-rooted plants, most notably Common Ragwort & Teasel. In the past, the former would elicit loud demands for its removal from those who believed the health or even survival of their livestock was jeopardised by its presence. Much of this fear has now been shown to stem from misinformation, leading to a new breed of Ragwort Warriors who denounce its removal in the strongest of terms. It is not clear how many of those shouting from their keyboards have any experience of land management, of the compromises required to retain the goodwill of neighbours.

Ragwort is indeed an attractive plant to many pollinators, most typically the cunningly adapted Cinnabar Moth whose larvae can deal with alkaloids capable of felling much larger beasts.

Although a Pheasant dominates the soundscape, the onshore breeze over rapidly heating stones sweeps in with it calls of Oystercatchers, Common & Sandwich Terns from the beach. Small birds moving furtively are Whitethroats, Robins, Wrens & Blackbirds while those less afraid of showing themselves are a Song Thrush, Linnets, Goldfinches and, surprisingly, a few Greenfinches, which I’ve not seen here for maybe 2 years thanks to their own epidemic.

While the stony storm ridges are full of colour, birdsong and reflected heat, the silty, water-retaining hollows in between offer respite within thickets of dark Damson, Blackthorn & Hawthorn.

Back in 1991 I made a series of paintings of Beach Field: maps of which the above was based on the biggest Blackthorn dome at TQ922170, clasped between two fans of shingle from about the 17th century. Over the intervening years it has spread out to absorb some of the discrete islands of vegetation and conceal the historic pattern of tidal swirls.

Just this year the path which hitherto skirted it has been absorbed (though that one replaced another which had cut between two previously separate thickets. (The blue dot at the bottom denotes a pile of Blue Boulders, once harvested for the ceramics industry.)

The low light glows through tall, pale-gold seed-heads of False Oat-grass. In the distance a Red Kite languidly patrols the wooded cliffs of Winchelsea.

Grassland relics, from the rear: 16th century castle, stranded by the moving coast; green from a 1930s golf course, closed at the onset of war; Herring Gull, casualty of 2022 Avian flu epidemic.

From the shade (and open, breeze-inviting door) of the Halpin Hide you look upon an archipelago of shallow islands exposed by the evaporating water. There seem to be few waders and the apparently resident Black-necked Grebe is nowhere to be seen but a circling Sparrowhawk prompts a burst of otherwise hidden Lapwings and among them a Spoonbill sails around on pure white wings.

You can hear Greylag Goose, young Cormorants, Chiffchaff, Coot, Magpie & Woodpigeon.

Ocean of grain

Posted in Uncategorized on July 10, 2022 by cliffdean

Vast undulations of ochre barley and pale lemon stubble, darkened by cloud shadow then flashing gold as a bar of sunlight slides across the crops. Cruising Kites – Red & Black – Booted Eagles & Griffon Vultures.

A horizon punctuated by belfries and silos. The open landscape suddenly squeezed into narrow streets echoing with House Sparrows, Feral Pigeons, Spotless Starlings, Jackdaws, grating Black Redstart song and the squealing of Swifts.

The uniform grainscape is threaded with dark trees tracing the course of narrow waterways. From one grove, shading a rare herd of grey cattle, a Spanish Imperial Eagle detaches itself. The whole huge panorama is crushed beneath massive architectonic clouds which leave barely a gap beneath their dark bellies and the earth.

Crunching along gravelly, sandy tracks we make frequent pauses to listen into the shimmering chorus of larksong: Crested, Short-toed & Calandra, and scan the quivering heat-haze for raptors. Two distant Great Bustards ripple into oblivion.

Wires bearing Kestrels, Bee-eaters, Iberian Grey Shrikes. Posts bearing Buzzards.

The churches are like lighthouses on the heaving arable sea, and Madrigal is especially proud of its Altas Torres. Just to the right there appears to be monastery, flanked by perhaps a baptistery.

But the walled town sits in a dip, and those two buildings are actually perched upon grain silos, hidden from a distance. The illusion must be intentional since so perfect, and why else would you top your stores with basilicas? The eaves are alive with House Martins and windows have been roughly punched through the walls of one building, presumably in the process of gentrification.

Great walls ring the town; although now, to us, it seems a remote island it must once have been a regional centre from which roads radiate to lesser settlements boasting inferior torres. What would it have been like, hundreds of years ago, before the advent of industrialised farming? Still an important arable area but perhaps the grain closer to the towns while beyond would have been great sheep-grazed grasslands. The town website notes the disappearance of woods – now restricted to the thin streams. Would the roads have been as straight or as bare? Would they have been lined with trees to shelter workers, travellers and livestock? Would more people have lived out in the country then – albeit with recourse to the defensive town when under threat?

There were certainly hundreds of people living, in this mighty extra-mural convent, like the silos hidden in the hollow, with its heart of giant granite blocks ringed round with brick. Wall with holes = Lesser Kestrels, floating and twisting above their nest-sites, on the look-out for crickets.

Also largely gone from the plains are wetlands. We search out a laguna hidden in a fold and invisible until you’re almost on top of it when, suddenly, there’s a ring of dark, dark reeds around a glittering patch of water above which are fluttering dozens of white birds. Too much haze but they must be Black-headed Gulls. The approach is difficult: narrow farm tracks which hardly show on the map and have to be followed with satellite view, but as we turn onto one which seems to take us right there, we find the birds are hawking over farmland and are in fact Gull-billed Terns. It must be miles and miles to the nearest other water. how do they find it? Have they followed ancient migratory routes dating from a time when wetlands were many?

The narrow track is indeed direct – down between walls of reed to open water – Black-winged Stilt! Redshank! Mallard! Gadwall! Coot!!

Water! Across the track!! No way through……… A kilometer in reverse…..