Carpinus & Coccothraustes

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on November 10, 2017 by cliffdean

In most of Europe Hawfinches are a typical woodland species, in E Poland for example hardly worth a mention, but on this side of the water they are scarce, shy, treetop birds, detectable only by their sharp, metallic ticking contact note and for the most part visible only as fat little silhouettes moving rapidly through the twiggery.

Equipped with massive bills adapted for cracking seeds as hard as cherry stones and taking chunks out of bird-ringers’ fingers, they are attracted to Hornbeams so flocks have been seen locally, attracting even rarer birdwatchers into the jungles of the High Weald.

In the last month, however, here has been an extraordinary southerly movement on the continent and an unprecedented influx into Britain with large flocks noted in many places where one would normally struggle to see them. Most of those I’ve seen have been singletons, appearing out of the blue, but I saw a couple of flocks of about 30 way back in the 70s. One was at Lullingstone Park near my home in SE London, where they gathered around ancient knotty Hornbeam pollards such as those drawn by Samuel Palmer.

The other was at Parham Wood, a square island of trees in an ocean of arable farmland. I could often hear the clicking there but it was tantalisingly hard to get a glimpse. It was at the time that East Anglia was blighted by the presence of the USAF but on that one occasion we had reason to be grateful to them for were standing in a ride when suddenly a huge transport plane roared low overhead, flushing a stream of Hawfinches across the gap.

Killingan Wood by Martyn Comley

For various reasons I’ve been unable to get to those sites where they’ve been most reliably seen but there’s so much Hornbeam around that many smaller woods might hold a few so I’ve been looking at places they’ve turned up before. Foremost among  these is a small area to the north of Sedlescombe where they also appear to have bred in recent years, so last Saturday’s RXbirdwalk convened there in the hope of tracking them down.

No luck, unfortunately though the woods look fabulous, with golden leaves backed still by green even at this late point in the year, many intriguing historical features, frequently varied leaf litter according to the dominant tree species (Hornbeam for charcoal, Sweet Chestnut for hop poles) and plentiful woodland birds such as Marsh Tits. Early in the walk we had seen great flocks of Woodpigeons either heading on glittering wings out to the coast or swirling around in search of a crop to ravage. Down at the reservoir there were Tufted Ducks, GC Grebes, Gadwall, rather fleeting views of Teal & Mandarin and even a glowing Kingfisher, while the walk back along narrow lanes included 4 Buzzards overhead and a brilliant Grey Wagtail strutting about on a cottage roof.

On Monday, in  I headed for another potential site at Ashes Wood,but even as I came out of my house a huge crowd of Woodpigeons swept overhead, then during the drive westward I was dangerously distracted by the spectacle of long ribbons of birds coming in from the Weald and taking a left at the Ridge to exit over the sea. Though this spectacle is typical of bright frosty mornings in early November it’s a few years since I’ve seen it and was tempted to give up on the Weald and stop instead at Hastings Country Park to savour its splendour. Instead, however, I crept along in morning traffic, keeping one eye on the car ahead and the other and the other on clouds of pigeons arriving over the rush-hour.

Although the coast had remained green, a mile inland car windscreens were frosted and the further I went inland, the whiter the fields. Beyond the colourful foliage of Ashes Wood (most of which was very cold & silent) the tiny boxed-in meadows shone silver, with long wriggling blue shadows stretched across them from outgrown Hornbeam hedges. At last, as I stared into Western Hemlocks for a glimpse of a Goldcrest, I heard Hawfinches clicking behind me where at least four were moving around in the tops of Birches (where two were feeding in the open) and Hazels (where more were shifting among the big yellow leaves).

Down by the mill pond, I’d just admired a smart new stile replacing its challengingly rickety predecessor when I met the new owner of the site who’d installed it. Unlike the previous incumbent whose management resembled that of an urban park, this lady hopes to make more of the property’s wildlife potential and to that end has already sought advice from SWT. shortly after her patient dogs had pleaded with their eyes to move on, a couple of Hawfinches appeared out in the open, perching in the tops of the Field Maple (for food) and Swamp Cypress (for surveying the scene) in the photo above. After that, however, no more sign and what’s more the footpaths to the west have fallen out of use and are overgrown with brambles, obstructing access to more interesting Hornbeam woodland up a once-dammed ghyll.

Yesterday I was carrying out a Sussex Winter Bird Survey near Beckley Woods, another occasional site for Hawfinches and about a mile away, several had been seen in an old abandoned orchard in Beckley itself. When 2 flew over me near Starvecrow Lane it wasn’t the best of views since I’d got my binoculars over my shoulder, had a notebook in one hand and had just got something in my eye, but had evidence at least of their presence.


Heiligenschein time

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on November 4, 2017 by cliffdean

A still and misty morning at Lydd.

Entering Potato World, the dew-heavy grass has in no time licked the wax from my boots and within fifteen minutes I can just feel the freshness seeping in…

Overhead, a Great Egret emerges from the dazzle.

The prospect of wading through a big field of glistening leaves persuades us to take a drier route along the crest of a huge old seawall where a Barn Owl is snoozing beside a crimson hawthorn.

From this elevated viewpoint, the low sun casts a silver halo around our shadows but by the time I think about it the iridescent beads have begun to evaporate and no convincing photo is to be had.

It’s about a quarter of the way across

Since the diversion has taken us some way off our intended path we cut back in the shadow of a long tall hedge. In the shadow – that means the green cereal shoots are still wet. But from a pretty birdless beginning, we’re starting to flush Blackbirds, Song Thrushes & Blue Tits from the mass of twigs. Then a Goldcrest, and some Redwings which tower up away across the fields. But also there’s the significant dot of a small raptor which has shot past us to alight on a branch.

A f Merlin, which not only ignores us but makes a sudden pounce onto a hapless insect which it proceeds to consume. Once done it sits there, looking about and permitting a number of Cracking Shots.

There’s nothing at all on the fields but these ditchside lines of bushes secrete dozens of birds.

And approaching the overgrown island of an abandoned farm we can hear Tree Sparrows, Corn Buntings and many more thrushes, including Fieldfares.

It’s quite hard to count them as they flee from bush to bush, split up, double back, fly off, return, but there must be 50 each of Tree Sparrow & Redwing, 20 each of Fieldfare, Blackbird & Song Thrush and 10 of Corn Bunting as well as Blue & Great Tits, Reed Buntings, Robins, Wrens & Goldcrests.

You can see why: in this lonely, deserted space there is little disturbance and the thorns are heavy with berries.

Death In Lviv

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on November 1, 2017 by cliffdean

Walking out along the avenue from the city centre, you pass between bigger gardens, with calling Robins & Blackbirds, until you reach the hill of the beautiful Lychakiv Cemetery, earlier but similar in purpose to the necropolises  of London and, like them, arboreal through neglect. Unlike then, though, in that the site was abandoned or vandalised for ideological rather than financial reasons as successive occupying powers sought to selectively celebrate or erase reminders of Ukrainian identity.

Through gaps between the tall trees there appeared a few Steppe Buzzards & a Lesser Spotted Eagle circling south towards Crimea.

Like Highgate there are poignant memorials to lost sons & daughters…


…and national heroes, none of them known to me and Cyrillic inscriptions revealing nothing more. Woodland birds – tits, woodpeckers and Jays – call in the yellowing foliage. Emergent tree roots and Japanese Knotweed are elbowing monuments aside.

There are themes of exile, recalling the mass deportations which have marked Ukraine’s history.

In the green hilltop silence, away from the city traffic, with sunlight slanting through the autumn leaves, we pause by a field of steel crosses bedecked with red & white ribbons, commemorating the Polish-Ukrainian War of 1918. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker creeps up a nearby Ash.

Another warm walk past a pleasant park and a right fork then a left into Bryullov Street brings us to the undistinguished brown door of the Lontskoho detention centre, now the National Museum-Memorial of Victims of the Occupation Regimes. Inside, a guard waves us through a much heavier door into corridors painted a chipped institutional green. In the first room, a custodian is delivering a very lengthy lecture to a group of police cadets in big hats.

Inspection hatches – patriotic red berries of Guelder Rose have been left on this one – give a view of cells lit by one small high window. There’s an interrogation room furnished with one table bearing a lamp, a typewriter, a stack of papers, an ink-stand and a telephone. there’s a chair on one side and a stool on the other. Another room is equipped with a camera on a tripod and developing equipment.

The condemned cell has no window.

In 1941 the NKVD were caught out by the rapidity of the German advance and had to decide what to do with the 4,000 political prisoners in Lwów, as it then was. They killed them all. the 1,600 in this centre were shot in the small adjoining yard and buried in shallow graves. Once the Nazis arrived they publicized the atrocity, blaming it on Jews who they required to disinter and lay out the corpses for identification by family members.

The new administration then, with the eager assistance of the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police set about the extermination of the 150,000 Jewish population, in massacres and at the camps of Janowska & Belzec. Of 30 pre-war synagogues just one survives. The site of the Golden Rose synagogue is preserved as a memorial.

Across the street, people eat and drink as always. Little children play among the slabs and two teenage girls swig wine from a bottle.

It doesn’t stop there. Back in Lychakiv Cemetery, we’d noticed down the hill, through the sunlit leaves, some bigger crosses.

War graves in this country tend to be discreet, bearing only a name & regiment and, with painful exceptions, relate to a previous era. Here we found ourselves looking into the shockingly fresh faces of the dead from the recent Russian incursion into E Ukraine, some of the boys younger than our own…

…while in the furthest corner giant teardrop wreaths marked the graves of this year’s victims.

When I’ve told friends about all this, they respond that it must have been a pretty depressing trip. While that’s true – and there’s much, much worse – my response is that it’s “thought-provoking”. One of those thoughts is that I’ve been supremely lucky to have lived in a relatively peaceful and democratic country ( I know, “at whose expense?” and “so far so good”) and another is that this happy state is extremely fragile. Yet another is that such a life has made us cosily complacent. Last night, as I watched “The Death of Stalin”, I was speculating that its wit and irony was only possible in a country that had not, in living memory, suffered such levels of oppression.


Low water

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on October 30, 2017 by cliffdean

Sunday, Darwell Woods: the dense streamside vegetation close to Cackle Street was busy with birds, initially small flocks of Goldfinches & Siskins in the treetops (Redpolls audible but hard to see), then several Marsh Tits, both vocal and visible, accompanied by Blue, Great, Coal & Long-tailed tits, Goldcrests, Nuthatches, a Treecreeper and a GS Woodpecker.

Thereafter, the action was more sporadic, though still with regular Marsh Tits, as we made our way eastwards alongside an ancient hedgerow, At first, the path was ploughed up by horses (it’s a bridleway after all), then deeply incised through former usage by off-road vehicles. In both cases, the return to slithery, sticky Wealden  conditions was, I suppose, a seasonal delight.

East of the Conveyor Belt and past The Yellow Jeep, the deep & unwelcome carpet of Crassula helmsii was visible through the sprawling waterside willows, denoting a water level lower than I’ve ever seen it. This doesn’t mean that the level is unusually low, rather than that I don’t come here often enough to see it. Edging out of cover to see if any birds were frequenting the silted headwaters, we were surprised to see a Great Egret standing in the stream, with a Little Egret asleep to one side. This could be the first record of Great Egret for the site., perhaps unsurprising since they are quickly increasing and spreading in the area.

Just as interesting was the exposure of an old dam which I suspect held back the hammer pond for the nearby furnace. The bank of iron slag is topped by sandstone slabs to which are attached clusters of Zebra Mussels. So, side by side we have two very problematic invasive introduced species: a plant and a mollusc.

The view out onto the lake is normally much obstructed by trees, so it was rather exciting to walk out across this old dam to scan the open water. Apart from Tufted Ducks, Great Crested Grebes & Cormorants, there were Black-headed & Herring Gulls and Canada Geese on the far banks as well as some other ducks just too distant for identification without a telescope.

Unfortunately this was also the case with a tantalising small grebe keeping company with half a dozen distant Tufted Ducks. In spite of prolonged and squinting we were unable to get a clear enough view of the head pattern to decide for sure whether it was Black-necked or Slavonian – another good record in either case.

Heavy chunks of iridescent iron slag are bubbled and rippled like lava.

On its way…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on October 26, 2017 by cliffdean

For more than a year four of us from the Friends’ committee have been working on “The Shingle Shore”, a photographic book about Rye Harbour Nature Reserve. Sheena Morgan designed and edited the book; she and Barry Yates wrote most of the text while Alan Martin and I contributed to discussions concerning its format and contents as well as supplying photos and, in my case, the introduction.

It’s been a long haul and a steep learning curve, with more organisational difficulties than anticipated and some frustrating technical glitches but today I got an email from the “Avocet” Gallery with the exciting news that the proofs were back from the printers! And the quality is even better than we expected – really encouraging to have something material after so much work, so many discussions!

The book is strongly visual in character, uniting the work of about a dozen photographers who’ve been working on the reserve, but organises text in themes, the sequence following a route around the reserve to cover essential habitats & operations and characteristic species. It’s written in a way that is informative and accessible and designed to be full of interest even to those not able or inclined to read.

We’re hoping “The Shingle Shore” will prove a strong advertisement for the reserve, will serve as a promotional publication and will be purchased as a souvenir or gift. To that end it should be available in a few weeks’ time, ready for the Christmas market (or in my case for a very late birthday present!) It’s a 128-page soft-back retailing at £15 with all income feeding back into the Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve.

(Incidentally, it’s not loose-leaf! There’s nothing wrong with the binding – the photos show the unbound proofs.)

On the move

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 18, 2017 by cliffdean

On the Winchelsea Beach seawall, as we set off last Saturday, we were passed by constant flocks of Goldfinches which often fluttered down onto the roadside teasels. And if you turned your head in the other direction you could see Gannets gliding and diving on the horizon while from overhead came the trilling of Skylarks making landfall. I had made this walk a couple of times already in the last week and was surprised at how much had changed: the numbers of Chiffchaffs had decreased and House Martins, so very numerous before, were entirely absent, both species having plainly made their way south.

Among the passing Goldfinches we could often hear Siskins and Redpolls. While the former stayed in the air we were lucky to have good views of the latter as they alighted in bushes on the Beach Field. This is more than can be said for the several Goldcrests we came across, which typically hid in high canopy, showing mostly in silhouette.

The Fairy-ring Field by Castle Farm held its usual crowd of Pied Wagtails and just after one of the group asked if it were too late for Yellow Wagtails, two of them appeared – quite late in the season – both washed-out looking juveniles. Towards the Castle we found a couple of Stonechats though no Curlews or Egyptian Geese.

As we approached Castle Water, something greatly disturbed the birds upon it, which rose up in a great honking of Greylags and a range of ducks disappearing into the distance so we prepared to be disappointed but, whatever had caused the panic, things had settled down by the time we got into the hide. As usual there were hundreds of birds though not the range of waders there has been, nor the celebrated Little Gull. We did, though, have excellent views of hunting Marsh Harrier and a more distant Buzzard.

On the way back we ran into a Treecreeper on one of the big, gnarled willows in The Wood and at the southern end of The Ocean found a Great Egret feeding alongside a few Littles, providing a useful direct comparison of size, structure and stance.

As usual we saw a good range of species, numbering 67.


Life & Trams in Lviv

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on October 17, 2017 by cliffdean

My strongest motivation for visiting Ukraine was reading “East WestStreet” by Philippe Sands.