Posted in Uncategorized with tags on October 16, 2018 by cliffdean

Unexpectedly, the phone rang in our hotel room. It was the travel agent from London, “We just wanted to check you were alright.” “Yes? Yes, thanks.” “…because of the fires in your area.” “Really? We’ve been out in the countryside all day but have seen no smoke nor heard sirens. Are you sure it’s round here?” “Between you and Cascais.” “Oh, well thanks for checking, I appreciate it but we haven’t been affected.”

Half an hour later, the local agents called for the same reason. I was impressed that they were keeping track of us but a bit puzzled.

Next morning we were moving on. The taxi driver taking us to the starting point told us, “You’ll find it very sad. The whole zone is burnt.” “Can we still walk through there?” “Yes, it’s all put out now but it was a big fire. We think it was started deliberately because it began at night when there was a strong wind, and in more than one place. They knew exactly what they were doing” “Why?” “People who want to build houses….hotels…”

The starting point was green enough but there were fire trucks on the road and a helicopter overhead, filling a bucket from the swimming pool of one of a row of empty second homes, attended by a column of white vans from which handymen checked out the villas before reporting back to their absentee owners. In this arid landscape one workman was hosing ashes off a newly laid drive as a sprinkler irrigated a newly laid bright green lawn.

Though the flames had consumed all around, right up to their garden walls, the plate-glass houses had been protected

Downhill however, everything was scorched, the alien Eucalypts singed, Prickly Pear flaccid. The helicopter swung back and forth between the blue pool and black, smouldering patches yet to by fully doused.

It all looked like abandoned farmland, on which dry grass had flared up quickly allowing the fire to sweep uphill leaving stands of carbonized canes and scrub.

The birds which inhabit this coastal scrub – Robins, Great Tits, Dartford & Sardinian Warblers – are usually hard to see but on this occasion no leaves remained to hide them as they picked around for barbecued insects.

The white skeletons of mature pines littered the hillside, victims of previous fires, while the blackened remains of their progeny stood around them. As the climate changes, summers become hotter and drier, fires are a regular occurrence.

The bare ground is hotter and more arid, young oaks and pines might get in a few years’ growth at most. Only the invasive Hottentot Fig sprawls across the landscape undeterred.

As far as I could tell though, this was not a bad fire by Portuguese standards. , Dozens of fire trucks had been deployed to protect property and forests and, unlike last year’s terrifying blazes, no-one had been killed or lost their houses or possessions. 


On Foot In Portugal

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on October 13, 2018 by cliffdean

Birds, bees & seals, but mainly egrets

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on October 1, 2018 by cliffdean

Another lovely morning for this RXbirdwalk, another amazing bird list – 70 sp – plus military archaeology & Ivy Bees.

Things started well even before everyone had arrived, as I got to the top of the seawall and noticed a long-winged bird approaching us with Jackdaws in pursuit – a Red Kite! Still infrequent here. There weren’t a lot of warblers around Toot Rock – all difficult to see, but other common species, Sparrowhawk overhead (the sky behind dotted with hirundines), Kestrel on the wires and an indeterminate number of GS Woodpeckers on the telegraph poles. Only I could hear the Siskins passing over but we saw regular flocks of Goldfinches & Linnets which, once we got out onto the seawall, were revealed as eastbound migrants. About time too.

Most birdwatchers visiting Pett Level stop off on the seawall, have a look at the Pools, but few have a look around the Toot Rock area. It could be because from the road much of it is hidden by Alders or the tall hedge of Blackthorn, but it’s very good for birds, offers fantastic views of the marsh from the top of the rock and contains interesting military structures from WWII.

Since time was getting on, we drove along to the Pools, where the rising tide had driven an interesting collection of roosting waders: Curlews, Redshanks, Lapwings & single Oystercatcher & Bar-tailed Godwit. Then there were gulls and the usual waterbirds on the pool itself – and a Water Rail pikking in the reeds.

As so often happens, all the landbirds kept going up in alarm, accompanied by packs of Starlings. At first the disturbance seemed attributable to patrolling Marsh Harriers (4 of these) but eventually we picked up the suspected Peregrine high against the clouds, getting hassled by gulls until it got down to business and stooped stupendously down to the shore. In a different modus operandi, a distant Hobby was snatching insects over towards Hog Hill.

And then there were the egrets, for the first time at Pett (for me at least) 3 species. 5 at the side of the easternmost pool turned out to be Little but then we picked out some little white shapes – wobbling in the heat haze – at the back of the marsh with a group of cattle they seem to favour above the many others on offer. Only clearly Cattle Egret when in flight, they appeared to number 5 again. Then a large white bird with a long neck was spotted some way off, which I insisted was a swan until I got it in the scope when I had to apologize on account of its big yellow bill. And Great-Egret-rather than-Mute-Swan shape. As we watched that, 2 Wheatears appeared on the fence below us while Sandwich Terns and a Gannet were feeding over the sea behind us, sometimes passing over the glossy heads of Grey Seals.

RXbirdwalks in OCTOBER

Posted in Uncategorized on October 1, 2018 by cliffdean

If you would like to join any of these walks please email me for details on

Saturday 13th: Hastings Country Park

Apart from many migrants overflying and following the coastline, this weekend is the most promising for finding Ring Ouzels, big, wild, streamlined, chattering blackbirds on their way south from their moor & mountain breeding grounds to S Europe & N Africa. Some years we miss them, other years we only hear them and other years see a lot. Whether we do or not, there’s bound to be lots going on. Though the route depends on where the birds are, it won’t be more than 4 miles, quite likely less. There are likely to be some short steep slopes, but always on paths.

SUNDAY 21: Combe Valley Countryside Park

A variety of habitat: arable, woodland, freshwater lakes, ponds & streams, scrub, rough grass & reedbed. Usually more than 50 species. Interesting issues regarding management and the effects of the Bexhill-Hastings Link road Mostly flat, 4 miles max.

Saturday 27th: Dengemarsh 

Across arable land to the back of the RSPB reserve; a wide range of wetland species with the possibility of Bittern, Marsh Harrier, Bearded Tit & Great Egret. 4 miles again, even flatter. If people want we could have a look at the ARC pit afterwards.)





Landscape With Egrets

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on September 29, 2018 by cliffdean

Actually I have no pictures of them, in fact I’m not sure whether anyone has good ones because at first they were a long way off, then afterwards very close but by then the excitement had died down.

A wonderful day though, dawning misty and golden, heating up into the low 20s, the bay an intense blue, hardly like home at all.

Three of us walked from Cliff End to Castle Water via the Conqueror, during that time finding 93 bird species – none particularly rare and as always missing several common birds that should have been there but just – weren’t: the Birds of Shame. This great variety which can be matched in few other parts of the country, is owing to the range of habitats along this stretch of coast. And although we saw a fair spread of migrants most were represented by a single individual – so no flood of birds then.

Back to the egrets though – Cattle Egrets, whose arrival has been exceptional this autumn. they have been scattered around the RX area as singletons, pairs, flocks small & large, the largest so far 19 at Combe Valley. There have been two near Pett Pools for a few days now so when we notice two little white heads poking up from a ditch just N of the Pools we assumed them to be the same. Until there appeared 4 more to the right, still rather far from us but all the same looking like Cattle rather than Little. And then they flew off to the back of the marsh – all the same size, looking good – and we took a farm track to get a better view.

Long before we arrived at the group of bullocks we’d identified as the landmark, we could make out even more white heads – 11 actually – but soon 5 of them flew back past us showing, in the lovely sunlight, the yellow bills and green legs of definite Cattle Egrets. Another 5 headed back toward the seawall, leaving just one on its own…unless there were more left in the ditch.

By the time we had walked back to the road, these birds were right beside it. wandering among the livestock hardly 50 m away.

Apart from that, what? For me the biggest surprise was a single Little Tern flying past Winchelsea Beach as we took a rest on a convenient memorial bench. And a lot of Stonechats on the reserve – I’d have said 20 but we just hadn’t counted until it was plain there were a lot passing through. Several Rock Pipits alongside the Rother….

Wonders of the Internet

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on September 28, 2018 by cliffdean

Too rarely I join in the monthly Beach Cleans at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve but I was there on Wednesday when Warden Dave drove us down to the Winchelsea Beach end from which we worked back towards the old lifeboat house.

I was heartened  by the relative lack of rubbish which would seem to indicate the success of the “little & often” approach to removing it. I could also conjecture that a fair amount of littering would have been inadvertent – the empty crisp packet bowling away from a breezy beach picnic – though I share everyone’s exasperation at the witless dog owners who go to the trouble of bagging up their pets’ faeces only to leave it as a non-biodegradable memento by the roadside.

One item even bore its address – see the photo below. A quick search on my phone revealed four businesses with this name, Those in Inverness & Birkenhead seemed unlikely sources, in Riga & Venice even less so but there was another, closer & upwind, in Selsey, so I messaged them on their Facebook page, expressing my hope that their place was not the balloon’s source in view of the problems caused by such releases.

The owners graciously explained that balloons were presented as a treat to children at the restaurant but that this one seems to have escaped their young client’s clutches. A little while later they informed me that they had sourced a supply of biodegradable balloons.


Mary Stanford, mud & moonlight

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on September 27, 2018 by cliffdean

An evening walk among long shadows and rich sunset colours across the shingle ridges to the old lifeboat house

Past pools puzzled with irregular polygons of desiccating, fractured mud. Probing the surviving ooze are Redshanks, a Greenshank, and a Spotted Redshank.


To the cracked walls and peeling paintwork of the tragic and long-abandoned lifeboat house. 

Along the reserve road an unexpected fire engine is parked, while the flashing blue lights of further emergency vehicles can be seen approaching. There’s no fire. The crew have been called out to liberate a couple from the sludgy embrace of a muddy gully between sand bars on the beach.

These unhappy people seem to be submerged not even to their knees and are sinking no further, it looks to me, because their weight is resting on firm sand. The tide is a long way out.

I think they could pull their feet out, though they might lose their shoes but I suppose they don’t understand that so the public purse furnishes an ingenious raft slid out to rescue them.

We walk back to the sound of Curlews flying to roost and the ghostly forms of Little Egrets overhead, converging in the dusk to lakeside willows.

Meanwhile, on a nearby hillside overlooking the bay, Tim is setting up his camera to record the dramatic rise of the golden full moon.

Moonrise photo by Tim Waters