A change from mud

Posted in Uncategorized on January 12, 2021 by cliffdean

A frosty walk to Castle Water on Sunday & I’m one of the few people on the Haul Road not in Hi-vis. The shallow floods are frozen over, their usual customers either loafing on the sea (Wigeon – a Pitfall for the Unwary), huddled around the edge waiting for a thaw (gulls, Lapwings, Curlews, Redshanks) or gone in search of open water (other duck species)

As the tide begins to ebb, waders are dispersing from their high-tide roosts: the usual Oystercatchers plus a few Turnstones, Dunlin and a surprise Sanderling (they tend not to stray this far from the rivermouth), Further out are GC Grebes and horizon Gannets – later in the morning at least 100 gliding & plunging. Later in the day, strollers at Rock-a-Nore are treated to the Wildlife Spectacle of many hundreds splashing into the water just offshore.

An offshore mystery, emphasised this winter, is why Kittiwakes are seen daily in good numbers off Dungeness and sitting on the sea off Fairlight yet are much more rarely recorded at RHNR and almost never at Pett Level. The answer may be that, as a mainly pelagic species, they take a direct route between headlands but follow fishing boats to the mouth of the Rother.

Few songs: Robin, Dunnock, Song Thrush, Collared Dove. In the scrub: Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Blue & Great Tits, piping Bullfinches. The low temperature confers one advantage in that the churned up paths (all these locked-down people taking exercise! Some of them even from their “own area”!) are rendered more rigid so you’re less likely to slip over but you might sprain your ankle.

The deeper lakes remain unfrozen and harbour their usual diving birds: Tufted Ducks, Pochards, Coots, G C Grebes, I’m rather hoping that the Goldeneyes will have been frozen out from Barn Pools but if they’re here, they’re right at the far end.

These days, both Green & G S Woodpeckers are regular in The Wood, as well as Treecreepers though Nuthatches do not seem to have returned this winter. In the recently published report on birds at RHNR (& close environs) there are very few records of Coal Tit, most of these from The Wood, yet Catherine E, who lives not 100m away, tells me that she sees them in her garden. I suspect birdseed may lie at the root of this mystery.

Another arboreal species increasingly encountered (as the vegetation matures) is Grey Squirrel, which I now seen even i nthe blackthorn thickets of the Beach Field.

As a COVID precaution, all hides on the reserve are closed including that at Castle Water. So no opportunity for a sit down, though most of the waterbird species can be seen from the banks north of the lake, just past the Bees-nest Willow,

A Peregrine is perched on the Castle and a Buzzard flaps through the lakeside willows. I’m intrigued by the little flocks of Pied Wagtail & Meadow Pipit that hang around on the turf close to the Castle walls. Does the building off them immediate refuge, in this open landscape, from predators? Or could it be a roost site, furnished with many nooks and crevices in sandstone walls, sheltered from cold winds and sun-warmed even in winter? Some Pied Wagtails roost in reeds close to the Viewpoint just a short flight away, but maybe that’s a different group?

The pebbly field to the east of the Water Treatment Works, a relic of old beaches between curving creeks. is always worth a look. This morning there are a dozen Song Thrushes running about in the thin grass, a trio of alert Mistle Thrushes, a few Skylarks and a solitary Stock Dove, blue-grey in the frost with the green iridescence on its neck catching the weak winter sun.

Along the main road there’s an ambulance howling towards the Conquest. Has someone slipped on the ice, or is the latest COVID victim struggling to breathe? When my children were little they attended Guestling School, right beside the A259 and when they heard the siren passing their Infant Class teacher paused the lesson so they could all pray for the sick passenger.

In Ruins

Posted in Uncategorized on January 12, 2021 by cliffdean

The Taming Power of the Small

Posted in Uncategorized on January 4, 2021 by cliffdean

An hour before lunch at Pett allotments, with sleet sweeping in on a NE wind.

The usual birds: 24 species including Marsh Tit and a Kestrel which, surprisingly does not appear on my Birdtrack list for this site though I’ve seen them before. Before, perhaps, I started keeping an Allotment List to ward off Lockdown Ennui.

A moving object, which I took at first to be a thrush on the adjacent horse paddock, revealed itself to be a Stoat, which raced across the grass to disappear into the far hedgerow. I don’t see these little mustelids very often, though only the other day I’d been watching a Weasel at Dogs Hill Road, with the cold-water screams of Dryrobe swimmers as a soundtrack.

A short while later, as I energetically deployed the Wolf Garten Soil Miller, I heard a more high-pitched scream, this time from a young Rabbit, pursued at high speed across the field towards us by the Stoat – such acceleration for such short legs! – which brought the rabbit down. There ensued a long, rolling wrestling match as the Stoat – not half the size of its squealing prey – sought to deliver the coup de grĂ¢ce.

Before the struggle had been concluded, the two Horses grazing nearby began to take an interest and ambled over. The approach of these huge beasts proved too much for the Stoat (you’d think it would be totally involved in the skirmish but clearly one eye continued to survey the wider world) which beat a retreat toward the sheds and compost bins.

As the Horses arrived, the Rabbit was still twitching. For reasons unclear to us they nuzzled it for several minutes during which time it expired. We tried to see exactly what they were up to. Their diet and dentition would seem to exclude a carnivorous interest (though I’ve never felt confident of this while in their company) so what was left? Compassion? Mere curiosity?

As you can see in the photos above, one horse even used its hoof to flip the dead Rabbit over. To what end? Feeling for a fellow herbivore?

Difficulty At The Beginning

Posted in Uncategorized on January 2, 2021 by cliffdean

Deaths attributed to COVID-19 have exceeded 70,000 and infection rates are rising rapidly, increased partly by new, more infectious strains of the virus. In spite of supposed restrictions, and with no visible enforcement, large numbers of people congregate on the coast where the going is easier than in the Wealden World of Mud.

With Gatwick still little-used there is no return to the morning criss-cross of incoming vapour trails. To the north are aircraft heading for LHR while high overhead pass the transatlantic flights, this one LUX-JFK.

On calm mornings, lines of tiny dots – unidentified auks – speed westwards just below the horizon while Gannets wheel above it, sometimes in hundreds. Flocks of GC Grebes are now out in the bay, accompanied by a group of Common Scoters & small numbers of Rt Divers. Not a mile away, Kittiwake flocks are regular but here we hardly ever see them.

Around Toot Rock, lots of Blackbirds, Song Thrushes & Redwings devour haws along the old Military Road as a Mistle Thrush sings in a taller tree at the back of the marsh. In the scrub there are Blue, Great, Long-tailed Tits, Goldcrests, Chaffinches, Bullfinches & Goldfinches. Great Tits presently constitute a large part of the songscape.

Green Woodpeckers attack ant-hills while GS Wooodpeckers confine themselves to garden conifers.

On the canal, Coots, Moorhens, Mallards, Grey Heron, Kingfisher & Cetti’s Warbler though the Goosander seems to have taken its leave.

Fulmars sail around the cliffs and at low tide Oystercatshers, Curlews, Redshanks, Turnstones, Grey Plovers & Dunlin poke around the moorlog pools, sometimes with Grey Herons & Little Egrets, usually with Herring, Black-headed & Great Black-backed Gulls.

On top of the shingle bank there are Pied Wagtails & a few Meadow Pipits, but the Rock Pipits seem to have moved on.

The marsh itself is crowded with birds : among the more numerous gulls are roosting Common and often Mediterranean & Lesser Black-backs (though hardly ever the Yellow-legged & Caspian Gulls seen regularly at other sites along the coast – is it a) through lack of observer competence or b} do they not stop here? (a) probably b) why not?))

At high tide the packs of Lapwings & Starlings on the waterlogged pastures are bulked out with Curlews. A scan of the Lapwings reveals Golden Plovers & Ruff, half-hidden in the grasses but easier to pick out when startled flocks erupt into the sky, the Golden Plovers twinkling & silver compared with the pied flapping of the Lapwings.

Further along , all the way to Winchelsea Beach, are scattered geese, totalling several hundred, nearly all Canadas & Greylags but among them Whitefronts (sometimes 100+), Egyptian, Brent and a single lonesome Tundra Bean – still in residence. A scan of the background Large White Birds will usually distinguish upright Great Egrets from more horizontal Mute Swans and the Spoonbill is still around (usually beside a pool).

If you want to see some great photos of the birds mentioned, look at Dave Rowlands’ recently established blog:


On the water are Coots, Little Grebes, Tufted Duck, Pochard, and further along, Gadwall, Shoveler, Teal & Wigeon. Plus a few white farmyard ducks & geese ( do they deserve Bold type?). Marsh Harriers cruise over the reeds and, these days, Buzzards come closer and closer to the road, above which there’s likely to be a Kestrel. If everything flies up there’s likely to be Sparrowhawk or Peregrine in the area, both swift-moving, neither always easy to pick out.

When the weather is still, you can hear Bearded Tits, Water Rails & Cetti’s Warblers, maybe see a Reed Bunting flitting across of catch sight of a cryptic Snipe on the edge of a ditch. In the background, a Skylark could be singing.

Birdwatchers ask, “Anything interesting?”

And I reply, “The usual stuff.”

…and for those of you who like Christmas puzzles:

We Need To Talk About Dryads

Posted in Uncategorized on December 22, 2020 by cliffdean

On the Level

Posted in Uncategorized on December 17, 2020 by cliffdean

Saturday December 12th: It has been a challenge to steer between Covid restrictions and weather fronts but a gap in both allowed the maximum six of us to do a circuit of Pett Level, the clockwise route determined by tide, wind and human timetables (steering between the Dog-walking Hour and the Bracing Family Walk).

The calm sea showed up good numbers of GC Grebes (having returned to the bay a fortnight ago), diving Gannets and auk-dots speeding west along the horizon. Against the low light, Fulmars could be made out on the dark cliffs.

We didn’t spend much time at Toot Rock – just enough to note the increased arrival of immigrant Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and a single Fieldfare – but almost immediately one of the group spotted a Buzzard sitting on its usual Alder down at Carter’s flood and, much closer, a brilliant Kingfisher perched on a twig overhanging the Canal. However many you see, Kingfishers always seem like a visitor from another world; in my experience people always say “Ooh! Kingfisher!” though I admit there may be jaded souls who leave out the exclamation marks.

Very soon, as we scanned the pastures full of Curlews, Starlings & Gulls, someone noticed a lone goose, a fact odd in itself since the hundreds were all at the far end of the marsh, but this bird also showed a small, dark head & bill, very different from a few lumbering, pink-billed Greylags in view. In fact it was the Tundra Bean Goose, first seen a week ago by Dave Rowlands, whose photo it is below. This is a scarce species in Sussex but at present one of a number in the county since they arrived with exceptional numbers of White-fronts a couple of weeks ago. Flocks of those are scattered across the county in an unusual abundance and they have even arrived on Clapham Common. In fact 120 were counted at Pett this same morning but – I might as well admit it now – not by us.

We saw just one, but not for want of searching. We could see loads of Greylags, Canadas, a few Egyptian but…. I think they all had their heads down in a rill, some mediaeval creek-bed. (Other excuses are available.)

But we did see lots of other birds – 73 species in the end – and the next in line was a fabulous Red Kite gliding languidly up & down the old cliff-line. By now, everywhere west of Brighton this would be unremarkable but it’s still a buzz to see them this far east, even in the May Wandering when they drift through in small flocks.

There were Reed Buntings, Meadow Pipits, Stonechats & a few more Fieldfares along the Canal and we dropped in at the Pannel Scrape for a few more ducks and squealing Water Rail. Buzzards & Marsh Harriers we patrolling the fields and something more threatening caused clouds of Lapwings to repeatedly erupt though we could never locate the culprit.

By the time we got to the Pools, cloud had come over and it was too windy to hear Bearded Tits but the usual diving ducks were present and the Farmyard Quotient of hybrids continues to increase by the gate where well-wishers lob bread at them. I couldn’t see the white domestic goose; it and mate survived last Christmas, the latter vanished during this year… I guess it was in the reeds.

As the Lapwings continued to tower above us, we could pick out Ruff & Golden Plovers amongst them

My calculation proved correct that by this time the ebbing tide would reveal moorlog to waiting waders and we watched Curlew, Dunlin, Grey Plover, Oystercatcher, Redshank & Turnstone return from their high-tide roosts. With Kingfisher & Kite already in the bag, I was angling for Knot & Kestrel to complete the Family of Ks but had to make do with the latter.

Our car smells of cabbage

Posted in Uncategorized on December 13, 2020 by cliffdean

The blue one, that is, the unsexy-but-useful Bipper Teepee which, since the start of the lockdown has served as a mobile Garden Shed, ferrying tools and produce between home and Pett Allotment. This corner of a horse field, just to he east of the Two Sawyers and Pett Village Hall, was subdivided 10 years ago into 52 plots, initially tended with enthusiasm which gradually dissipated until, at the start of this Plague Year quite a few had been neglected for a long time.

But with the anti-COVID restrictions on movement a renewed interest has been taken by people looking for outdoor activity, exercise and general distraction, with the result that many overgrown patches are now back in production. Our own is more organised than ever since previously we’d get everything sorted in early spring then go away for a week or two, to return to find the orderly geometry of paths & tilled earth rewilded into a profusion of vigorous weeds. That still happens, of course, more or less as soon as you turn your back.

Each time I’m there, I keep a bird list, the addition of species giving me the same kind of opportunity to have a short break as people used to by lighting a cigarette. so if you see me looking at my phone, it’s not because I’m checking Facebook but entering Those BTO Codes: B, BZ, C, CH et

Not a lot of birds use the allotment itself (maybe when nobody’s there) but at either side is good habitat. To the west, beyond a productive tall hedgerow of mature Oaks (B, BT, CT, GC, GS, GT, MT, NH, TC) there’s a bit of scrub then, beyond the pub, a substantial rookery which provides a day-long chorus and traffic of JD, RO.

In the past I have advised passing bird racers to pause in the village hall car park for a quick intake of woodland birds before they get out onto the coast where Marsh Tits & Treecreepers will be hard to come by.

To the north are deciduous preceded by an even taller hedgerow, harbouring LT, M, RE, ST, stand woodlands (BZ, SD, WP). Immediately to the east, beyond the compost bin occupied by unnervingly large yet peaceable Hornets, is the horse field (B, C, G, K, MG, PW), beyond it an avenue (CH, GO, GR, which attract regular sorties by SH.) Then across the road to the south is a row of houses and a shop which are home to HS & SG.

In summer those houses are also home to a colony of more than a dozen HM nests, their inhabitants joined by twittering SL, presumably from nearby stables. At that time there are also singing BC & CC, in the hedgerow with occasional LW & WH, while there could be W on the paddock or MU yelping overhead.

Just now, the birds drifting overhead are BH, CM, HG, MP & RN, the autumn passage of CR, LR & SK over. Another excuse to pause turning topsoil with the Wolf Garten Soil Miller in favour of time-wasting phone consultation had previously been to co-ordinate the movements of birds in the sky with those of the many aircraft beyond them by reference to FlightRadar24 but with LGW closed for most of the year this has become a less enticing pastime.


Posted in Uncategorized on December 12, 2020 by cliffdean

Those of you who know where to find the Wrecked Yellow Jeep will also recognise this antique roadsign, a relic from the days before cars terrorised neighbourhoods and CHILDREN could play in the streets. It warns drivers to beware of CHILDREN rather than the other way round, which soon took over via the Green Cross Code etc.

The image is also historic inasmuch as the aforementioned young people are depicted with realistic silhouettes. The black segmented diagonal to the lower right represents a kerb, the boundary of the child/traffic interface while the black sun at the top signifies a “ball” – a non-electric plaything. I’m tempted to go into heavily ironic mode, spattering the text with inverted commas for terms like “play” but feel partly redeemed by recent reports of a return of “play streets” through the introduction of 20mph limits in some areas. The shopkeepers and drivers who fiercely opposed these initiatives discovered that unexpected advantages included an increase in custom to local shops from people who walked t0 them.

Post -war road signs, designed by Margaret Calvert & Jock Kinneir, and introduced in 1965, are the more formalised ones we’re used to now

Though can be a bit puzzling, as in this one where the “animal” is a duck. Birds are of course animals, but I’d expect to see a big one, as below.

(I’m trying to download the Polish equivalent, in which the cow is geometrical, with a right-angled udder, while the School sign has led to some problematic interpretations.)

The sign outside my primary school was of a different order, being entirely symbolic: the Torch of Learning. This noble image has stood me in good stead over the years, compared with the deadbeat vocabulary of “Curriculum delivery”, more appropriate to pizzas.

Wrestling with maps

Posted in Uncategorized on December 5, 2020 by cliffdean
Plunging down northwards from the Ridge, this lane displays many of the features of ancient north-south trackways, graven into the hillside through centuries of wear from feet, hooves and wheels.

A Buzzard circles overhead and a pair of Ravens croak nearby.

No longer an artery, it continues to branch access to the poor pastures on cold, north-facing clay.

But how far does it travel out across the Weald? Does it still show as a coherent long-distance thoroughfare, a mediaeval pigway, or is it of mainly local relevance?

The Yeakell & Gardner map from 1787, is a constant point of reference. Remarkably accurate and depicting a landscape remarkably unchanged, many features can be easily recognised on it and paths followed from it still today. But how far can you rely on it? Buildings have vanished but so too have major lanes while the overall pattern of the network is confused by stark differentiations on the contemporary OS map where one old route might now appear in one part as a main road, another as country lane, elsewhere diminishing into a footpath, fence line or disappear altogether. Woods in this area have also changed their shapes, through planting or expansion into abandoned pasture rather than through being grubbed up.

Winter sunlight bars the track with shadows of outgrown hedges.
Serpentine roots clasp green-gold sandstone.
Alder, Birch, Field Maple, Hornbeam, Oak, Sweet Chestnut

Diverting into a wet wood where multiple springs are attested by a dense ground cover of Pendulous Sedge. The track is long unfrequented other than by rootling badgers, cluttered with fallen branches and littered with twigs, carpeted with soggy leaves from which flutters up a startled Woodcock.

Hidden memorial at the confluence of two ghylls: Hornbeam, Fallow Deer antler, dedication enhanced by a quote from Kipling.
Birch, Field Maple, Hornbeam, Oak.
Chicken wire, corrugated iron, motor mowers
Beech, Birch, Sweet Chestnut, Turkey Oak
Outgrown Hornbeam hedge
A string of ponds follows the road, originating, I guess, as brick-pits.
Level and broad, lined with tall Hornbeams

But then you pitch up at the brink of a deep, flooded, wooded quarry, no doubt a brick-pit since artisan brick-makers persist nearby. This pit is shown on the old map too, so more than 200 years old. But was it cut straight into the lane, truncating it? On Y&G it’s shown skirting the it eastwards into what’s now called “Lane Wood”

In The Jungle

Posted in Uncategorized on November 30, 2020 by cliffdean