I’ve led several bird walks for people from Crowhurst but last week they led me to an area hardly 200m from my usual route but new and unsuspected. In fact, I had heard of Quarry Wood but had lacked the curiosity to find out more. From close to the car park where I’ve often been we took a turning up Sampson’s Lane which I’d also never noticed.
I was struck by the tall hedge-bank to one side, indicating that although it has dwindled away in usage it must have once been a more travelled thoroughfare. Later reference to the 1787 Yeakell & Gardner map showed that this lane was then part of a network serving Green Street and linking to the big north-south routes at Crowhurst Park & Breadsell Lane.
My perception of this part of Crowhurst is distorted by a major earthwork serving something which has come & gone since the Y&G map: the Bexhill Branch Line. Towards the top of the lane we turned right onto the abandoned railway track part of which now forms a local nature reserve, managed and documented by Paul Johnson & Lorna Neville on their excellent website Tales From Quarry Wood.
We were supposed to be looking/listening for birds,and there were plenty of Goldcrests in the ivy and Treecreepers on the old oaks, with regular Mistle Thrushes proclaiming from the treetops, but features of landform and tree use soon predominated. Parts of the track are dry whereas others run through an ill-drained cutting and the whole length is enclosed by tall woodland. Parallel to the regular profile of the railway runs a sinuous old wood-bank topped with gnarled Field Maple, the ditch on the uphill side suggesting that the steep bank below was in the past reserved as a copse. Some trees had plainly once been pollarded yet untended long since while others had been coppiced, but more through casual exploitation than any more coherent woodland practice.
This spectacular group of Scarlet Elf Cup was growing on some felled branches.
Further south we came to the eponymous quarry – of unknown date or purpose it seems – which is backed, just as the track passes through a fine railway bridge beneath Sandrock Hill by the equally eponymous Sandrock, a beautiful north-facing exposure of sandstone beside which grows a varied profusion of ferns. Look at the website for more information and much better photos than mine.
This area was a clearing in relatively recent times, to judge from the post-colonial presence of hawthorn, blackthorn, elder and birch.
Once through the arch, there were notable differences in the trees, with spindle and Sycamore present but also, more conspicuous since closer, tall lines of Railway Poplar. To remind myself about this widespread and culturally significant hybrid I read the entry in Owen Johnson’s remarkable Sussex Tree Book where I was once more struck by Owen’s fluent, informative style which encourages one to flick through the pages as much for the pleasure of reading as for the search for knowledge.
Shortly before reaching the Link Road the path sweeps down past more quarries – this time overgrown – to the lonely Adam’s Farm, for centuries a busy site on the banks of a lovely valley but now forlorn and uninhabited beside a busy road.
On the shrinking edge of Oukaimeden snow, visitors disport themselves on skis and snowboards hired casually at the roadside, where a procession of mopeds and taxis splashes through the meltwater. Their excited shouts and laughter are tiny in the mountain landscape compared with the combined calls of hundreds of Red-billed & Alpine Choughs which swirl in the blue sky or march among the litter on the damp meadows.
Red flags flutter, bottles glitter, plastic tumbles in the mountain breeze.
Alongside the puddles are lined sellers of refreshments and souvenirs, skis & snow-boots for hire are randomly ranked on the roadside gravel. French, Spanish and Moroccan visitors take selfies against the receding white. Sounds of tinny radios, yells from a gesticulating quarrel over a usurped pitch.
But we’re checking the wires.
This photo by Ralph Hobbs
In summer Crimson-winged Finches are to be found high up – or probably not found, given the vast and inaccessible terrain. In winter however, they drop down to the snow-line and in this case swap from wild and elemental to everyday with notes of squalor as they glean bits of sustenance from among the visitors, retreating onto the wires when alarmed or perhaps flying a few metres more to vanish completely among the rocks.
They drop to hop among the shells from a walnut-vendor who sits on the roadside wall next to a purveyor of Marrakech-themed merchandise. I’m just too slow to catch a sublime-to-ridiculous image of a Crimson-winged Finch alighting briefly on a batch of terracotta Koutoubias.
Up on the soggy slopes of snow-pressed turf, new lambs are requisitioned as family-selfie ornaments. Atlas Horned Larks are walking about the grass, a Black Wheatear is singing from the stone compounds and a small flock of Rock Sparrows flutters – predictably -about the rocks.
There’s a cool breeze but the sun is warm. Expecting “snow” this high up (and it was snowing four days previously) I realise that I have packed a lot of warm clothing I’ll no longer need….
Compresssed remains of sea creatures now otherwise vanished from our planet form the shadowy mountain rising behind a pink village where schoolgirls in white shirts and headscarves are dawdling home. Lunch time in the hot sunshine. The ground is pink too, and scattered with shiny black boulders except where they’ve been cleared to provide a dusty white football pitch, at present unoccupied. A Laughing Dove calls from a shaded garden and a Hoopoe sits silently at the end of a builder’s plank.
We’ve stopped to look for Fulvous Babblers which, though noisy and well-distributed, have so far declined to greet us in a series of crazed-mud palmiers. Here though we can hear their shrill and piping…er…babbles from the roadside and eventually catch sight of a clan diving through dense and shady acacias to vanish completely until one drops to the floor in long-tailed silhouette or others flutter and glide to the next cluster of concealing foliage.
In attempting to communicate their new location an imaginative recourse to improvised landmarks is required: “Left of the grey door with crosses!” Then in the darkly shaded scrub beneath the trees there’s smaller bird;the landmarks are easier here: “Just behind that yellow rubbish!” “Near the sardine can that’s catching the sun!” It’s a Subalpine Warbler moving through. Then another movement confused with the passing shadows of Babbler flying above. This time a brief excursion into sunlight reveals a more local Spectacled Warbler and then the red-eyed black hood of a definitely local Sardinian Warbler pops up by the pitch as the Babblers – how many? – one after another dive across the clearing into more distant Acacias. You can see why they’re supposed to be related to Bearded Tits.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Following photos by Peter Matthews: Grey Wagtail
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.
Lesser Black-backed Gull
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.
Firecrest by Stuart Barnes again
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To the left of the railway, pasture; to the right, arable, from which Skylarks sing.
To the right of this arable you can just make out the rushes of a real Silver Meadow, but one outside our survey area.
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.
Some alien tree species give a parkland appearance to some fields,with Horse Chestnut, Turkey Oak, White Poplar and even Monterey Cypress in places.
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.