Archive for Combe Valley Countryside Park

Combe Valley: dull day = no dazzle

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on March 28, 2019 by cliffdean

An encouraging sign as I approached along the narrow, winding lane was a Red Kite hanging overhead though I could only squint at it with one eye while the other watched for approaching traffic.

The first section of the Powdermill Valley south of Crowhurst is pretty depressing at the moment since the network of hedgerows has been pared back and interrupted to leave only the scrawniest of skeletons and little home for the birds which used to inhabit it. However, from the woods and gardens at either side of the valley comes a chorus of Blackbirds – on stream by now – Song Thrushes, GS Woodpeckers, Chiffchaffs & Blackcaps.

The warblers which usually inhabit the streamside scrub (that which has not been eradicated) are still on their way but I was intrigued to hear, for the first time, 2 Cetti’s Warblers there, one of them only 200m S of the recreation ground. So they are gradually creeping up the little tributaries now. Another outlying explorer was a Collared Dove singing from the northern stub of the old viaduct, quite a way from the main population in the village itself. Apparently it’s “always there” which makes me wonder how I’ve missed it.

The footpaths are all open thanks to the secateur-wielding Crowhurst Snipperati, the trampling feet of appreciative-I-hope walkers reinforcing their public-spirited efforts. My follow-up against resurgent briars led inevitably to a bloodbath.

Much of the valley bottom remains shallow-flooded and what a privilege it is, to stand there sandwiched between populous suburbs yet among several pairs of squeaking, tumbling Lapwings, their splayed feathers going whump-whump-whump as they dive past. Not just them, but a trebling Redshank, three pairs of Shelducks and 3 plumed Little Egrets.

Yet again I was thinking how, with the right management, this could be an amazing nature reserve. The new formation of a Friends group (see Friends of Combe Valley News on Facebook) could be one step in achieving this.

Water Pipits should, at this point in the season, look fabulous but the only one I saw dived down into juncus not 20m distant where it nonetheless remained invisible.

There are still plenty of ducks further up the valley and on this overcast morning it was possible to see more than silhouettes even though they were still half-hidden among the ridges of grass. I could see Mallard, Teal, Gadwall, Shoveler & Wigeon, though I was told some Pintail and a Garganey were also present. A Green Sandpiper whistled out of the ditch.

63 species is pretty good for this site; the last of these back at the village – a Raven cruising through the gardens, maybe wondering why gibbets had to go out of fashion.

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Combe Valley

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on March 1, 2019 by cliffdean

In the recreation ground car park, I found Lorna busily scraping ice from her windscreen and felt pleased that I’d opted for warm layers and lined trousers. A couple of hours later I was once again regretting my choice of outfit as I sweated in bright, warm sunshine.

Once you get away from the houses, the arable land, which once served as a gateway to farmland birds, is now a dead zone thanks to the brutal stripping back of hedgerows and field margins. The only bird of interest – maybe the only bird – was a Coal Tit in the catkin-laden alders, a habitat where I’ve not previously seen them.

The lake was a disappointment too: nothing there but  few Coots & a Heron. I was expecting a load of ducks, but had this capricious weather sent them off northwards?

I’m pleased to say that they are still here – hundreds of birds were on the shallow floods on the south side of the stream, the majority at the western end. That’s the good news; the less-good is that they were against the light – a factor exacerbated by the water’s glitter – and that many were asleep,merging in with the grassy banks where they lay. So – without  telescope an accurate count was impossible but I reckoned around 100 each of Wigeon, Shoveler & Teal with smaller numbers of Gadwall & Mallard. I could make out a single Pintail but there were likely more.

Further downstream I could hear the calls of excited Lapwings and found a large flock – again about a hundred – along with 5 Little Egrets and 160 Black-headed Gulls.

Although Meadow & Water Pipits can sometimes be found in the same habitat they seem at the moment to be quite distinct: the former frequents grassland alongside the Greenway whereas the latter are among rough flooded pastures further down the valley. It remains a mystery just where these birds come from, since they breed in high European mountains.

I a walk just around the top of the valley I found 54 species, this variety and the numbers of wildfowl continuing to suggest that, with the correct management, this could be one of the best wetlands in Sussex. There’s progress on this front, reported by David Dennis on the Friends of Combe Valley Facebook page:

Victory! Having talked to the Charity Commission at length today, they are pleased to see the conversion to an Association of Members go ahead without delay. The Friends of Combe Valley National Charity No 1163581 will have the central aim of preserving wildlife and landscape and anything connected with it, that helps to keep Combe Valley free and beautiful. So if you do feel that you would like to become a member at a cost of £10.00 a year, then please email me on davidbexhill@live.co.uk and I will put you on the list for a membership application as soon as they are ready. Each member will have a vote. Please DON’T send money yet! All I need now is your first name and second name and email address and a short sentence expressing interest. Your details will be kept confidential under the Data Protection Act. Please excuse any delay in contacting, as we are still ‘prepping up’ but it would be good to know how many people are really interested.”

January: The Story So Far #1

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 26, 2019 by cliffdean

I’m no nearer getting our WiFi fixed. It’s been 3 weeks now of slow, intermittent or absent function with BT offering a series of explanations. First it was definitely the wiring in our house. Then the problem was 40m away, up a pole they couldn’t reach but when they did they though the fault must be up the road. Then under it, requiring  permit to excavate. Whether this has been dug is not certain but there’s still no improvement. I get a series of apologetic texts from poor people in call centres, often contradicting one another. They asked me how I would rate the service, from 1 to 10…

Apart from all that very very frustrating and irritating stuff, lots of wildlife interest continues but writing this blog has been a slow and haphazard process, with items disappearing without trace. How much of this post you will see is uncertain. I’m about to hit the “Publish” button…


Combe Valley, formerly known as Combe Haven, where large flocks of dabbling ducks, including the once-scarce Pintails, are now regular, along with Marsh Harriers. I was there with Pete Hunnisett, who wanted to get a look at Water Pipits, which is not easy. In the event we found one that perched in bushes beside a flooded area, and when it was not against the light or sitting behind Alder catkins we got some good views of the salient features. You can see Pete’s photos on his Facebook page “Combe Valley Wildlife”. We saw Water Pipits in four places but whether that represented four birds if a moot point, given their propensity for flying distances, unlike the 5 or so Meadow Pipits we encountered beside the Greenway, which flew just a few yards and perched most obligingly on a nearby fence.

An RXbirwalk to Darwell Woods & reservoir. Along the stream from the car park there were masses of Siskins trilling in the Alders – unfortunately not always in the trees closest to the path but flying about, with Redpoll calls also emerging from the flocks. The light was grey so colours or markings pretty hard to make out. Lots of other small birds in the tangled stream course along there, including Marsh Tits and at least a dozen Great Tits together foraging for Beech mast, flinging up leaves like people throwing clothes bout at a jumble sale.

Shortly after I commented that we were unlikely to see Crossbills on account of the lack of Scots Pines, I looked up to see a red bird at the top of a Larch, one of at least six quietly twisting at little cones.

A dog-walker back at the car park had saved me the trouble of lugging a telescope to check wildfowl when she told me that the water level had come right up among the willows whereas only last week it had been possible to walk out onto the shelf of silt, which is what I had planned on doing. So, through the trees we could see Tufted Ducks and hear Teal but the one Goldeneye made its escape before most of the group could get a look.

Tagged

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on October 23, 2018 by cliffdean

Non-harrier photos by Martyn Comley

An exceptionally warm and still morning for Sunday’s RXbirdwalk made it convenient to stand looking and listening, watching to see what birds would appear while tuning in to contact calls from the landscape and from birds passing overhead. The first species of interest was Yellowhammer, a couple of which we found along the ravaged hedgerows along the Powdermill Valley, an area with a good population of this declining bunting until the Link Road was built bang through the middle of it. Since then a few Yellowhammers have hung on here and others are still to be found around the edges of the Combe Haven valley.

Approaching the lake, we noticed a few dabbling ducks there but paused to look at a Buzzard sitting on a T-post on the far side. Then a second raptor glided across the reeds, at first glance another buzzard until grey mid-wings and black wing-tips distinguished as a 2nd-year male Marsh Harrier.

Photo by Pete Hunnisett

Then people began to notice that it bore a green tag on either wing. Previous to this I’d only ever seen birds bearing white tags from Sheppey,  so was not sure about this one’s provenance but as it cruised about Pete H was able to get some photos clear enough to read the code on the tag. He later learnt from the NW Norfolk Ringing Group that it was tagged as a male nestling near Great Yarmouth in June 2017. After several sightings in Suffolk it was last recorded in Normandy last December.

Photo by Pete Hunnisett

FJ12784 tag code 7P Reserve naturelle du Domaine de Beauguillot, Normandy 4 December 2017
Photo Jean-Luc Frontval

Above is a photo of the same bird in France last winter, when you can see it shows much more of the chocolate-brown and cream head of a juvenile bird.

Photo by Pete Hunnisett

While we watched the harrier quartering the reeds, a Water Rail fluttered out briefly and the ducks, which had drifted into cover at our approach swam to open water for a clear escape should the raptor take too much interest in them. There were just a few Wigeon, Gadwall & Mallard, the weather still too mild to send them down from NE Europe.

The main entertainment in the Combe Haven valley were several perky and confiding Stonechats. It’s a bird that does breed in the valley and pairs often continue to hold a territory throughout the winter, but these individuals could equally have arrived from northern Britain while the offspring of local pairs could by now be in Spain and even pass the winter in N Africa.

Another, female Marsh Harrier drifted over S, pursued by Jackdaws and a few Buzzards gave good views as did 2 Kestrels. There were Chiffchaffs, Reed Buntings & Meadow Pipits in the neglected SSSI grazing meadows and right up near Acton’s Bridge came the shrill call of a Water Pipit though the bird declined to reveal itself.

In all, we found 54 species, including Coal Tit which could be heard from the pub garden afterwards.

Frost & fragmentation

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

Emerging from the narrow footpath out of Crowhurst, the prospect, in frost and fabulous sunlight, is nonetheless depressing. The hedges, important wildlife corridors down the Powdermill valley and nesting places for Yellowhammers & Whitethroats have been flailed to a sliver. They will regrow, if allowed but this reduction, coupled with the generous gaps created for the passage of arable machinery, is likely to lead to a progressive elimination for the sake of tidiness.

The eastern bank of the stream has also been flailed, removing most of the wildlife habitat. A licence is required to carry out any works this close to a watercourse but it is not clear whether one has been obtained in this case.

The lake is placid but harbours few birds. As yet, the winter wildfowl are still hundreds or even thousands of kilometres distant, but as the air warms it becomes alive with hundreds of House Martins & Swallows. Having been battered by the weekend’s storms they are making the most of this period of calm to vacate the country.

The rough grass and scrub so favoured by migrants is once more accessible thanks to Citizen Action by Crowhurst Environment Group whose members have been wielding hand-tools to good effect.

The opened paths just need frequent trampling and guerilla secateur-work to remain unobstructed by brambles.

Alongside the Combe Haven stream between 3 Bridges & Acton’s Fm I belatedly came across a single Cattle Egret. This is a species which used to be very rare but, like other egrets (Little & Great) over the last 20 years has appeared in the UK with increasing frequency. This autumn has seen an exceptional influx, with a record-breaking flock of 19 located in the Combe Valley CP a few weeks ago. This flock moved on after a few days but a couple of birds have remained.

A flock of 60+ Linnets formed the basis of a mass of little birds feeding on the gravelly Greenway leading up to Acton’s Farm, with c20 each of Goldfinch & House Sparrow, a couple of Meadow Pipits & single Wheatear & Whinchat.

Back round in the rough fields, 3 pairs of Stonechats sat along the fence-lines.

Snagged

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

A warm, overcast morning. I’d not been to the Crowhurst area for a while so was interested to see what migrants there were, my curiosity piqued by news that some neglected meadows in the valley floor had at last been mown and set up for overdue grazing.

The lake is now only a few inches deep, which should be good for waders except that that great and exciting group was represented only by one Green Sandpiper. Otherwise, a few Coots, Moorhen, Little Grebes, Mallards & Herons. Looking at this photo I see 4 Cormorants which I didn’t notice at the time (on the left-hand pole).

The convenient path which follows the Powdermill stream round beneath the northern end of the former viaduct is now impassable since the brambles either side and only separated by trampling have, now that more walkers take the Easy Way Out along the Greenway, joined forces.

This is a real nuisance since it precludes a nice circular route past a scrubby area attractive to migrants. I dropped down into this selfsame tangle of hawthorn, black thorn, elder, rose, the odd self-sown oak and even a dogwood, optimistically believing that blackberry-pickers’ trampled tracks would skirt round the obstructions. They didn’t. Pausing in frustration however gave me a chance to look at the many little birds whizzing between the bushes: lots of Whitethroats & Lesser Whitethroats, fewer Blackcaps, invisible phylloscs with Chiffchaffs helpfully singing. And then in the willows & sedges on the wetter ground, Reed, Sedge & Cetti’s Warblers and Reed Buntings. There was of course a supporting cast of Blue & Great Tits, Robins, Wrens, Dunnocks and a surprising flock of 10 Bullfinches.

So I had to retrace my floundering steps to 3 Bridges and west beside the stream. The path here too is only a year away from impassability as briars reach out to one another above and below. Gentlemen are advised to avoid shorts. Casual snipping with secateurs will not save this path: a vicious machine is called for.

Nor is the fight against the invasive Himalayan Balsam ever completely won, however much pulling ans spraying is directed at it. In the photo above, however, you can just about see progress in a field of mown rushes. As I was taking it, a pair of Little Ringed Plovers flew past, presumably disturbed from one of the pools where there were 3 Little Egrets & 6 Teal among the few other waterfowl (though a flock of 16 Gadwall had flown past too).

Young Buzzards were calling from all directions and a Raven croaked overhead.

Further round, these two pictures show the mown area, where the fence-posts provided look-outs for 3 (no doubt locally bred) Stonechats & 4 (Africa-bound) Whinchats to pounce upon hapless insects in the cut grasses.

It’s great to see these fields being taken in hand, though only a third of the area that needs remedial treatment. And then there are the willows springing up everywhere that promise soon to obstruct the views of the wetlands… One thing at a time though.

Late Arrivals

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on May 24, 2018 by cliffdean

The first one was me. Having advised participants on last Saturday’s Combe Valley RXbirdwalk to bring secateurs I was, at the last minute, unable to lay my hands on any in our own house. They’re the kind of thing that are always lying around until you need them. And then I’d got less than a mile down the road when I realised I’d left my phone on charge in the kitchen… I am normally well organised. This is not the Real Me you are seeing.

Also late, and much more worrying, have been Swifts this year. So much so that people were posting anxious messages, anxious that following a period of inexorable decline, The Year With No Swifts might suddenly, and finally, arrived. You read the frightening articles about mass extinctions and tell yourself it can’t really be happening but in the background lurks a science-fiction headline: The End Of Swifts/Turtle Doves/Spotted Flycatchers – so many to choose from.

But the previous day, over the Sussex Highlands at Brightling we had seen a steady trickle passing north a fortnight late and now they were whizzing low past us, finding plenty to eat above the green wetlands. Not swarms, but better than nothing which, a few days previously, had seemed a desperate possibility.

Another sign of the season’s turn, if more punctual, for another declining bird, was the harsh sound of brown young Starlings, just out of the nest and noisily begging for soggy black invertebrates which their dutiful parents ferried back from the fields. They won’t hang around; in a few days they’ll have moved out to feed in packs, leaving hectic nest-sites silent for another year.

Since the clear night had left a heavy dew, we took the route along the old railway line, through a green tunnel of overhanging trees echoing with birdsong. End-to-end Robins & Wrens with matched-up Chiffchaffs & Blackcaps.

Out in the valley a Cuckoo was calling, Lapwings displaying and we listened in to Reed Buntings, Whitethroats, Sedge Warblers and eventually, as we moved from scrub to phragmites, Reed Warblers. A single Lesser Whitethroat sang invisibly from bushes just east of Acton’s bridge.

As we followed the river, 2 migrant Common Sandpipers fluttered along in front of us.

The path round beneath the stub of the old viaduct looks set to be lost to encroaching brambles. In spite of the best efforts of those who wielded secateurs, it needs more forthright management to be kept clear. However, it’s not a public footpath and it’s not clear who owns the land so how will that happen?

While snipping, however, we were accompanied by the fluttering of dozens of Beautiful Demoiselles, the sparkling iridescence of their wings at rest like intricate Tiffany glassware. Just one Yellowhammer remained in this area which once held several pairs before the road wiped out their habitat. Whether they have left the area or merely dispersed is not clear.