Lottery Time!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on January 12, 2020 by cliffdean

I’ve never previously led an RXbirdwalk in the main part of Rye Harbour NR. It is, of course, excellent for birds but the reserve runs its own programme of walks, which I would encourage anyone to attend, and there are always lots of bird-watchers there whereas one of the purposes of RXbirdwalks is to visit those many wonderful places otherwise little-visited. Just the other end of RHNR, for example, there are dog-walkers, runners and cyclists but very few bird-watchers and at Castle Water you can often have the place to yourself.

However…yesterday I had an appointment at The Cabins at midday to assist the inaugural draw of the 833 Lottery, set up last month to provide an additional income stream for the new Discovery Centre. That left three hours to look for birds on a grey, windy morning.

Since some of the group did not know the reserve’s backroads, we set off anti-clockwise, along the new bund into the wind. There were Brent Geese (new this year!), Shelducks & Redshanks on the marsh while over on the Salt Pool, masses of Lapwings, Golden Plovers & Wigeon, with Reed Buntings & a Stonechat along the fence-line. Passing Coots & Little Egrets we cut across to Corner Pools and along the puddly, pot-holed Ridge (out of the wind!) to the Barn Pools where we soon found 4 Goldeneye, including a four-eyed drake.

Connecting to the beach at Gasson’s Ruin, we walked back (with the wind!) past a huddled group of high-tide Grey Plovers, to the shelter of Denny Hide for the Smew which has been there. It wasn’t, but there were plenty of other waterbirds, including point-blank Dabchicks (giving wide berth to a hungry Cormorant) and rather more distant Pintails.

It had been quite a short walk in less than ideal conditions but we had nonetheless found 48 species by the time midday was approaching. Back in the Cabins, Mike Wilkins, who has taken on running the lottery, plugged in our hi-tech Random Number Generator. In large, friendly red letters, the screen unnervingly spelled out “FAFFLE“. With a few more knobs pressed, however, it was ready to go!

82!!! 17!! 38!

If you would like to support the reserve you can do so by buying up to 5 numbers – the more entries, the bigger the prizes! In formation below:

The Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve have established a small lottery to support the running of the Discovery Centre.

833 refers to the maximum number we can play under rules governing Small Society Lotteries.

Numbers cost £24 for 12 monthly draws and can be purchased from the information cabins or by emailing

The draws will be monthly, with the next one taking place on Feb .

Each month 60% of the stake money goes towards the development and on-going management of the Rye Harbour Discovery Centre, while 40% goes into the Prize Pot which is subdivided into 60%, 25% & 15% of the total.

Numbers are selected with a random-number-selecting machine and prizes will be sent to winners by cheque.


Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on January 11, 2020 by cliffdean

  It’s eleven years today (I’ve been telling people it’s ten – my maths is terrible, but I do remember the date each year and don’t like to miss the opportunity to boat)) that I found a KING EIDER at Pett Level, my sole claim to fame. It was the first for Sussex and none have been seen since. A very rare bird in Southern England and those that do stray this far tend to be females or subadults whereas this was a hallucinatory adult male.

In italics is the account I wrote at the time, to which I’ve added some contextualizing comments.

January 11th 2009

Up a bit late after a jolly evening with the Friends of Brede Valley, (The valley was then threatened by plans for a Hastings By-pass to run through it so Phil Newton had organised a fund-raising dance at Winchelsea New Hall) and family commitments calling (my Mum was still alive then, and I’d invited her over from Bexhill for lunch with us), so just time for a brisk walk along the seawall – no scope, no camera, strictly roots.

Wind changed, frost thawed, a different feel to things. (I don’t emphasise sufficiently IT WAS FREEZING) And just west of the pools, a bird in close to the shore, flapping its wings and showing a black belly. A badly oiled Guillemot. Except that when I looked through binoculars I could see it was an Eider. I don’t see so many of those these days, especially a male with subtle boreal washes and…a great big………..beak……….

This is where it got seriously strange because, just the previous evening, I’d been looking at an article on about a Kerstdag twitch for a Koningseider in 1981. And here, straight in front of me, seemed to be a drake KING EIDER, in fact a better one than on the Dutch website. Such a dark and unfathomable synchronistic twist that I really wondered if I was seeing what I thought I was. Anyway, how did I know what it was? What did Steller’s Eider look like? Not expecting to see either eider, I’d never paid any attention to their details.

Then I found my phone wouldn’t work: Now press * Press. Now press* Press. Now press* …
Too cold, I suppose. Nobody else around.

Better do what people used to do, before mobiles and digital cameras: a field sketch!
It’s truly terrible; I blame frozen fingers. (For Christmas my thoughtful wife had bought me a pair of nice Barbour fingerless gloves. They were doing me no favours)

But I could note the beautiful, soft, subtle blue-grey on the crown, the warm, unlikely orange-pink of the breast, and the not-so-subtle mad beak.

Still no luck with the phone. It unlocked, but then tried to call unrecognizable numbers.

There was a birder back by the pools. I considered running back to tell him, but worried that by the time we returned there would be no sign of this Alleged Rarity. Luckily, he drove along and chose to stop nearby, so I slid down the seawall and blocked his view, requesting a field guide which he graciously supplied.
I figured King Eider must be right at the end of the ducks, the baroque ultimate model of evolutionary producktion, but I couldn’t find it. There were scoters & Long-tailed Duck, but my numb fingers were unable to separate the pages until…there it was – I was right!
We climbed up over the wall to where the duck was still swimming and Stuart Pemberton was my first corroborator, the second person to witness the improbable sight of a King Eider in Sussex. (That’s the only time I’ve met him. Never since. Maybe he went home and Signed the Pledge.)

Following some vicious stabbing of buttons, my phone woke up, enabling me to contact Barry Yates but, as usual, Pete Rouse had his phone switched off or was just not answering.
By this time, the duck was swimming out into bigger waves, was beginning to dive and get lost among the hundreds of grebes and dozens of divers offshore. (It’s the only time I’ve seen Great Northern at Pett, but I was distracted.) By the time Barry arrived, it was distant though still recognizable, (enabling him to get photos good enough to substantiate my improbable claim and, once home (phones then not like they are now) disseminate them online, provoking a stampede.)

But by the time Pete Rouse, Graham Rhodda and Andrew Grace got there, we had lost sight of it.

Anyway, I’d got things to do. (Regain my circulation, recover my composure, make my way to Bexhill…)

This bird was seen during that afternoon, in fact rather better and more enjoyably than when I’d found it because those gathered were not wrestling with a combination of cognitive dissonance and uncooperative phone.

Richard Thompson, Robin Harris, John Trowell & Pete Rouse on that day. The latter three I met almost as soon as I arrived in Hastings in 1976. John T, as Membership Secretary of the SOS, wrote me a warmly welcoming letter (remember letters?); he’s now Secretary of the Friends of RHNR; I first met Robin along the Royal Military Canal; much later our daughters shared a house; he now sits on the RHNR Management Committee); Pete & his brother Alf recognised us in the Conqueror and came over for a friendly chat; I still have those chats most weeks); Richard came later to RSPCA Mallydams and I taught his children at Winchelsea (one morning in class his daughter said,”Dad asked me to tell you he’s got a Scops Owl at the Centre.” Later there was a Red-footed Booby; He’s in the rival “Tin Tabernacles” quiz team at the Royal Oak)…. All are still birding locally.

About a week later it was found again and tracked along the coast as it drifted eastwards, getting ticked off in three successive Bird Atlas tetrads (if you look at the Atlas, E Sussex appears to be a good place for wintering King Eiders), the Rye Harbour NR list, the Camber WeBS survey and the Kent list. I think around that time it also flew past the Point, adding itself to the DBO list.

Pete can still be found as a Living Sculpture on Pett sea wall, from which he sees everything and has never, to my knowledge. alleged a dodgy sighting.

BTW: the title of this piece was a typically misremembered quote from a song on Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album, mixed up with a photo of snake-wrestling worshippers at an evangelical church.

New Year’s Walk

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on January 7, 2020 by cliffdean

Saturday January 4th: Ten people signed up for the traditional walk at Pett Level. I’m not sure since when this has been traditional but RXbirdwalks have now been going for 10 years! One of the participants – Jane – was on the very first walk, in the Brede Valley, all that time ago and therefore deserves the highest order of Smiley-face Sticker and probably a Loyal Customer discount.

The New Year’s Day walk used to take place on…er…New Year’s Day but that slot has recently been usurped by Friends of Rye Harbour NR so the Traditional Date has been slipped to the 2nd. This year though the forecast for the 2nd looked pretty miserable (then it wasn’t that bad) so I shifted to Saturday which looked better (and was).

We walked along the Canal for small birds (a sign of the times: the highlight was a m Greenfinch) then cut across past the empty Smuggler to the beach. After a quick check of the Fulmars, we followed the edge of the shingle on a falling tide to watch for waders returning from their high-tide roosts onto the moorlog. There were the usual Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Curlew, Redshank, Grey Plover & Dunlin, with flocks of GC Grebes bobbing out on the sea.

Choosing a gentle incline in the steep shingle bank, we regained the seawall just before Pett Pool to scan a great mass of Lapwings for Ruff, and when they flew up in a spectacular flurry, picked out the 13 Ruff again in flight, typically staying just below the main flock. Shortly afterwards, one of the group picked out some Bearded Tits feeding in reeds right by the road so spent some time enjoying those as cloud gave way to bright sunshine, showing up their beautiful colours.

Further along, there were all the usual dabbling ducks minus Pintail plus Tufted Duck & Pochard while Marsh Harriers kept them all on their webbed toes. Up till then we had been unable to pick any Whitefronts out of the hundreds of Canada & Greylag Geese but a visiting birder was onto 2, which then flew off. 2 Shelduck could be glimpsed on a scrape further over. Surprisingly, the trio of white Farmyard Geese, dumped by a Well-Wisher several weeks ago, had missed recruitment for Christmas Dinners.

Cutting across from the rubble-heap of the old “Ship” to Newgate, we were passed by an ad Med Gull and then disturbed a Great Egret from the deep & muddy gully of the Dimsdale Sewer. Back along the parapet of the RM Canal, we came across a flock of Meadow Pipits and later disturbed 2 separate Water Pipits from the banks. Quite a few common birds were missing. We had to struggle to find a Little Grebe on the Marsham Sewer yet next day a dozen were chugging about on the pools. In our strange new world we saw Great but not Little Egret (one next day) and missed a Glossy Ibis which has been regular but appears to spend the day away from the crowds up in the Brede Valley. More shamefully, we neither saw nor heard a Reed Bunting. Nonetheless we saw 66 species, some in dazzling numbers & variety.


Posted in Uncategorized on January 6, 2020 by cliffdean

Saturday 11th: Rye Harbour Beach Reserve

I don’t usually run walks on the main parts of reserves because a) they do their own programme b) too many birdwatchers! On this occasion however I need to be present for the inaugural draw at midday of the RHDC 833 LOTTERY! (And on Sunday I’m busy with a PLPT work party).So – we can have 3 hours looking at the mass of birds – waders, wildfowl, gulls, skylarks, rock pipits in this amazing area. 

SUNDAY 19th: Alexandra Park, Hastings

This great urban park, a wonderful example of Victorian vision, holds a dense population of winter birds owing partly to its varied structure and partly to all the surrounding households that feed them. Specialities are Firecrest & Grey Wagtail, with possible Kingfisher & Water Rail as well as a supporting cast of tits, woodpeckers, Nuthatches etc and a few waterbirds on the lakes.

SUNDAY 26th: Ashes Wood, Netherfield

I think I’ve made my feelings clear about Wealden mud. This wood is served by (for the most part) by surfaced forestry tracks. The woodland is a mix of deciduous & evergreen, there’s a mill pond and we can divert onot nearby farmland for some extra species.

(Saturday Feb 1st: Dengemarsh)



Downstream from Brede Bridge

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on January 2, 2020 by cliffdean

RXbirdwalk Saturday December 28th: Options for the avoidance of mud are few at the moment. Away from the seawall and shingle, some forest tracks are firm (though often not for long) or you could walk along the quieter lanes but another option is the river bank of the Brede. The northern side is stable grass, apart from a few sludgy gateways though the south, turning up the Doleham Stream, is heavily poached by cattle therefore Not Recommended.

Either side of the river, the fields were flooded when we walked east on Saturday although the level had dropped from earlier in the week, when for several hours the river had halted traffic as it flowed across the A28. Maybe a thousand Black-headed & Common Gulls were gathered there.

Further down the valley we could hear the piping of massed Teal from the Doleham reserve and eventually hundreds of mixed waterbirds burst up and wheeled overhead, alarmed by the appearance of a Marsh Harrier. there were Mallard, Gadwall, Wigeon, Shoveler & Pintail but, as usual at this site, it was hard to get more than a rough idea of the numbers since they kept heading off, coming back (or were these new ones?) and dropping down out of sight. One group of 8 Pintail was in the air for quite a while and at one point I thought there were another 5. A flock of 50 Greylags had flown off down the valley where we later found them with 2 Egyptian Geese. Seven Grey Herons adorned the skeletal boughs of the drowned Oak and in the background the reserve’s herd of 12 Konik horses grazed on terra firma, having been rescued from deep floods just a few days previously.

Further down stream, a Water Pipit flew up calling along with 10 Meadow Pipits but down towards Snailham a greater surprise, though unfortunately an unresolved puzzle, lay in store when one of the group caught sight of a wader in flight over a patch of waterlogged soil. Apart from Lapwing & Snipe (it was clearly neither of those) the options are limited to Redshank, Ruff or Golden Plover but this was plainly grey, with a faint wing-bar and paler tail with no legs projecting, very pale beneath & a medium length bill, It looked like a Knot – but in completely the wrong location and habitat. I dropped onto the mud. A struggle ensued to get a scope view but before this could be achieved, an unhelpful Jackdaw chased it off again. The mystery bird circled in the gloom, looked as if it might return but then headed off coastwards till absorbed into the gloom.

Altogether we saw 51 species.

Further afield

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

Every so often a few RXbirdwalkers manages to organise an outing beyond the usual 20km-from-Rye radius. Most have been to Spain but in early November four of us spent a few days in N Morocco with guide Brahim & driver Hamid of the excellent  Gayuin Birding Tours to look for some specialities of that area. We flew to Marrakech & then drove straight up to Rabat, where our hotel was 5 minutes away from the souk.

Depressingly, heavy rain was forecast for Day 1 but Brahim had worked out that we could miss it by swapping for the Day 2 itinerary & driving north to Merdja Zerga.

From a small boat on this tidal lake we had great views of the ranks of birds crowded onto the sand-banks. At first there were gulls: Yellow-legged, Slender-billed & Audouin’s and Terns: Caspian & Sandwich.

Then, dense packs of waders. Many had their heads tucked under their wings and an unfamiliar context can be a challenge but we could pick out Grey Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Whimbrel, Dunlin, Turnstone, Redshank, Greenshank – and among those a Marsh Sandpiper. Flamingos in the distance … Osprey overhead, Little & Great Egret etc etc.


After an ample fish lunch in the village, we drove around the far side of the lake, through a village to some polytunnels then scrubby farmland where Brahim (who speaks Berber & Arabic plus at least 4 other languages) enlisted the help of the local shepherd, who indicated that we should stand & watch while he & his son quietly skirted around the back of some scrub

In the background were Cattle Egrets, Southern Grey Shrike, Crested Lark, Zitting Cisticola, Black-winged Kite…

Surprisingly quickly an African Marsh Owl came flying over and settled not far from us among dry vegetation. Then another, and more..some shifted around and we noticed other owls sitting like big cats watching us. Five or six in all. Like Cattle Egrets, they’re not too bothered by people; they just shift out of the way.

Next day we started out early for the displaced Day 1 programme, beginning at the Zaers -the King’s Forest – low hills wooded with Holm & Cork Oak and maquis. It was a pleasure to hear a chorus of birdsong: Robin, Woodlark, Sardinian Warbler, Serin & Common Bulbul as well as the squawks of Barbary Partridge and our target bird – Double-spurred Francolin. This, however, as close as it sometimes was, just the other side of a Juniper, remained out of sight. There were other, more familiar species like Blackbird, Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Linnet, Woodpigeon, Great Tit & Sparrowhawk.

Breakfast in a roadside cafe where the smell of charcoal smoke and the dramas of everyday life were as interesting as the birds, then on to a linear lake, Sidi Bourhaba, a beautiful place and full of birds but spoilt by the amount of litter. In fact plastic waste is ubiquitous in Morocco, even out in the desert, and it’s difficult to see how it can ever be collected up.

There were White Storks overhead, Black-winged Stilts in the shallows and many more waterbirds up ahead so we walked through the lakeside woods towards a picnic ground which gave a good view over the central section. along the way were Blackcap, boldly-marked N African Blue Tits  and a surprise flock of Siskins. The waterbirds clarified as Red-crested Pochards, White-headed Ducks & Marbled Ducks as well as Mallards, Shovelers, Teal & Tufted Ducks. On the far bank, Little & Great Egrets, Spoonbills, Flamingos & an Osprey.

Families were feeding the ducks…which turned out to be Red-knobbed Coots.

Returning to Rabat through massive urbanisation projects (the rubble-strewn areas between smart apartment blocks grazed by free-lance flocks of sheep) we were back in time for another hour in the atmospheric press & hubbub of the souk.

Day 3 we headed south-east through the Middle Atlas, stopping off for lunch in Azrou, once more savouring not only the Moroccan food but the human spectacle from the roadside veranda: the whistle-blowing attendants trying to bring order to the busy parking as mopeds & kittens dashed between cars, carts, trucks & coaches. Across the road, the green-tiled minaret was inhabited by a great flocks of Jackdaws which dived around like whirligig beetles, the sun flashing off their black wings. A particular panic heralded the appearance of a Peregrine carrying off one of their company, seen off by a Lesser Kestrel.

Among towering Atlas Cedars (familiar from English parklands) & golden maples to search for Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Ravens kept watch as Nuthatches, ST Treecreepers, Firecrests, Crested Tits & Chiffchaffs flitted through the branches until we tracked down the elusive woodpecker, Woodland bird calls were joined by those of the shepherd leading his flock to forage among the dry leaf-litter.

Further along the road was squalid, littered area where people had stopped to feed over-priced bananas to Barbary Apes. Yet further, alien red-tiled roofs denoted the French-colonial hill station of Efrane, an incongruous sprawling garden city of European style houses.

More incongruity: high in the mountains, a shallow lake harbouring a curiously high-altitude population of Ruddy Shelducks among pastures picked over by sheep and Red-billed Choughs.

Meeting up with Brahim’s brother on the stony plains of Zaida with enough light still to avoid a cold dawn search, we combed apparently birdless scrub until the brother raised his hand to signal he’d found a Dupont’s Lark. It was a famously skulking bird which I didn’t expect to see but whose extraordinary song I hoped to hear. In fact, we had good views of one as it scuttled between the tufts of vegetation. Silently.

The light in Morocco is not green but the tinted minibus windows make it look that way.

On the last morning, with a long drive ahead, we made brief stops on rocky arable land for larks, quickly finding Thekla, Calandra, Greater Short-toed and Skylarks. There were also Corn Buntings and, on an outcrop, a Black Wheatear

From a lay-by look-out, occupied by vendors of fruit and fossils, high above a sterile reservoir the urgent search for a suitably modest Comfort Stop was momentarily distracted by N African Chaffinch, Black-winged Kite…then…Moussier’s Redstart! Down the arid slope below were noisy flocks of Common Bulbuls and a watchful S Grey Shrike. Further scanning turned up Thekla Larks, Sardinian Warblers, and a Rock Bunting.

Another brochette out the front of a truck-stop at a strategic service station/mosque with constant arrivals of crowded family cars and the imminent departure of the massive white 14.20 to Marrakech, honking to speed the convergence of tardy passengers.

Last stop is beside the main road, where a breach in the  mud-brick wall permits access to a bit of neglected farmland which looks much the same as a lot of others. Immediately, Stone-curlews fly up in front of us, then there’s a pair of Moussier’s Redstarts, thought the male vanishes leaving the female on the wall. Then blue-eyed Maghreb Magpies, a S Grey Shrike and a speedy Laughing Dove! Crested Lark…Kestrel…Sardinian W… Greenfinch…and finally, a Black-winged Kite cruising over as we return to the minibus. “How did you know about this place?” I ask Brahim. “I didn’t; it just looked good. “

That’s it. Back to Marrakech with a few hours in the morning to tick off House Bunting (Little Swifts not playing) and a quick circuit round the souk before it gets busy. Midday flight and home in time to discuss the week’s adventures over steaming mugs of cocoa. If you want to go birding in Morocco, Brahim is your man. Locally-based tours are cheaper too, not having to support UK premises, flashy brochures etc. And you get to travel with someone who speaks the language(s) and understands the culture.


Out of the wind

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

Saturday December 14th: Ashburnham Place. (you can see previous posts about the history & wildlife of this site by clicking on the tag at the foot of thos post)

The photos were taken a few days previously on a still, frosty morning whereas during the RXbirdwalk a strong wind developed. This didn’t make a lot of difference to us since the estate lies in a bowl sheltered by hundreds of tall, ancient and protective trees.

We first made a brief diversion westwards across the bridge to the farm track from which, in previous years it has been possible to see farmland birds such as skylark, Meadow Pipit & Yellowhammer as well as the Stock Doves which frequent the twisted parkland Sweet Chestnuts but were disappointed to discover that our way was barred by a locked gate flanked with newly installed fencing.

By that time, however, we had seen several flocks of Redwings passing back & forth between copses and had followed a flock of at least 20 House Sparrows – a larger number than I had seen on previous occasions.

The flock of Canada Geese, which is usually to be found on the lawns, had moved off, leaving just a few on the Front Water, along with 40 Mallards and a couple of Coots. 4  Cormorants and a single GC Grebe swam on the Broad Water where a crowd of Mallards lurked close to Reed Buntings in the reeds.

A rare pleasure was to have some excellent close views of small birds feeding on the ground where, for once, they were neither moving in all directions nor silhouetted so we could more easily enjoy a Goldcrest and a Marsh Tit without the usual straining. The latter species was present in good numbers; I wasn’t counting carefully but estimated 10, which provoked the Red Stripe Of Disbelief (“Unexpectedly high count in Sussex”) when I later entered it onto Birdtrack. Okay…reduce it to 8….same result. This response would be based on average counts through the county but in ideal Wealden habitats like Ashburnham it’s likely to be exceeded.

Many of the towering trees bear wounds from the Great Storm of Oct 1987, resulting in a rich provision of standing and fallen dead timber, holes and peeling bark – ideal conditions one might think for flourishing populations of woodpeckers yet this does not seem to be the case. I’ve commented before on the disappointing numbers of these and on this visit we saw just one GS and two Green Woodpeckers, no Treecreepers but a few Nuthatches.

At the muddy top end of the lakes we came across a small flock of finches in the Alders. Besides Goldfinches I could hear and see Redpolls while others saw a Siskin. Both of the latter species have been in short supply in recent winters. Previously I had seen a pair of Mandarins here but today they’d gone into hiding. Other species here were Buzzard, Jay & many more Redwings.

One of several initiatives to increase biodiversity in the grounds has been to install bird feeders close to the house, where we hoped to add Greenfinch to the list. Although we missed this rapidly decreasing species we’d already enjoyed watching a pair of Bullfinches by the lake. The one bird we added around the buildings was Pied Wagtail and a Grey was heard earlier by the kitchen gardens. Altogether we saw 44 species.