Archive for Farmland

Between Rye & Winchelsea

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on May 19, 2017 by cliffdean

Synchronising with the Freccia della Palude at Winchelsea Centrale on a morning cooler than it ought to be, thick with the night’s rain and scented with fading hawthorns, are two Cuckoos, ever more precious for all their louche wing-drooping as they promise to vanish from our world.

Along the lane,where the fly-tipped junk is engulfed by springtime weeds, Chiffchaffs sing from the willows and golden Yellowhammers skim the field-edge. Within the withered branches of the spring-fed oak just beyond the junction a dot is moving; moving in a way that reveals it as a Spotted Flycatcher. Another bird now reduced to a dot like the one that used to shrink to nothing as you turned off the television. And the Little Owl that used to sun itself on the rabbit-grazed bank has upped sticks ever since I told people this was a good place to see Little Owl.

Along the misty cliff-line though, the air is so crowded with voices welling up from prehistory  – Blackbird, Song Thrush, Chaffinch, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Whitethroat, Dunnock, Reed Warbler, Wren…. concentration is required to unravel the soundscape.

Deep and percussive pulses of Nightingale song issue from the shadows by a rope-swing beneath a clump of taller trees.

Max Ernst: Deux enfants menacés par un rossignol

Rossignol translates not only as Nightingale but also, magically, as “skeleton key”. The song is the key which unlocks deep and forgotten doors.

Usignolo di fiume, River Nightingale, Cetti’s Warbler, also deeply hidden, announces its presence in brief and blatant blasts. For a long time just one or two here, last year nine, this morning five.

Both end and beginning, this extensive dung-heap S of Dairy Cottage attracts much favourable attention from Yellow Wagtails, Jackdaws, Rooks, Greylag Geese, Stock Doves, a Herring Gull, Pied Wagtails & Swallows, the latter three commuting from nest-sites on Cadborough Cliff to profit from its fertility.

Joan Miro: Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement

Efforts have been made, across the arable fields, to impose productive uniformity and erase history by levelling out the snaking hollows of former creeks.  Comparatively birdless maize last year has been superseded by other cereals, currently inhabited by a couple of dozen Skylarks and four pairs of Yellow Wagtails. While one Mute Swan continues to incubate, two other pairs already have cygnets. Four Sedge Warblers are grating from scrubby ditches toward the Antient Towne, above which yet more dots denote the hanging on of the relic Swift & House Martin populations.

Only the surface of the ground is wet but by the time I reach the lane again I’m hobbling on high pattens claggy soil.

Beyond Scotney

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

Two days out last week in sunshine & Skylark song along the quarried shingle beach SW of Lydd then turning in to the interior as far as a couple of derelict farms. A similar trail but slightly different results.

Once away from the town’s Rook-chorus, the regularity of Cetti’s Warblers becomes apparent, maybe a dozen alongside the road but none at all once we turn inland.

A raised spur of white pebbles betrays the old shore line.

From beyond the first shining rape field come the songs of woodland birds in the trees at the edge of the army camp: Blackbird, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Great Tit, Green Woodpecker and further along the buzz of the first spring Sedge Warbler is in competition with hurtling motorcycles.

Parties of Shelduck strut about the grassland while on the banks of the lakes there are still a few Wigeon & Teal not yet departed northwards. More surprisingly there’s a lone Brent; it looks healthy enough but has somehow become detached from those streaming up-Channel not far away.

The sunny weather guarantees plenty of coastal traffic and light aircraft from Lydd, their droning counterpointed by yelping Med Gulls, white-winged in the sunlight.

More white wings, long ones this time, show newly arrived Common Terns out with Black-headed Gulls on a spit.

On the Thursday, brilliant Yellow Wagtails are running among the cattle but on Sunday are frustratingly nowhere to be seen, until later when territorial birds are flying over the crops. Against the light but easily heard from the gravel pits are Avocets. A falcon flies up with prey and dashes away across the fields – it looks like aMerlin but was just too quick. A f Marsh Harrier is quartering the fields.

From rough grass alongside the track burst up Corn Buntings and one sings from an isolated willow just yards away. On Thursday, we had just one feeble view of this usually common bird

On the other hand, Tree Sparrows had been noisy and easy to see around an old cottage now uninhabited but for bees. there had been a brief flutter from a Little Owl too.

On Sunday we had to work a bit harder but managed to get good views of some alongside the concrete farm road.

After crossing big rape fields our clothes are mottled yellow with pollen.

At this junction repairs to the barn wall tell a story.



The other side of the road

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


I’ve made quite a few excursions SW of Lydd but yesterday was able to visit Glebelands, NW of the town, thanks to involvement in the NE Silver Meadows survey. The idea behind this is to plot all the low-lying farmland prone to winter  flooding and therefore of potential benefit to waders and wildfowl. When  this survey was planned, however, there was no way of knowing that we’d enjoy an exceptionally dry winter with very little flooding to be plotted.


All was not lost as far as I was concerned since  this fascinating  area which, lacking any public footpaths, would be normally be inaccessible to me.


Its unusual character is immediately apparent from satellite photos which show small, mostly rectilinear, fields separated by rather straight, tree-lined ditches, all orientated SW-NE following to the old shingle beaches upon which they and the town itself are situated.


The ditch-side trees in question are principally big Willows, formerly pollarded but now collapsing and sprawling into the waterways or across field edges and richly furnishing the area with feeding and nesting sites for Blue & Great Tits, woodpeckers and Little Owls. They, and the post & rail fence, are crusted with lichens. Fallen branches which would normally be tidied up have been left to rot. New Willows have been planted but the protective netting and  iron supports left in place to get absorbed into the bark.


More or less parallel banks of silver shingle lie beneath a thin skin of turf, the pebbles exposed on ditch banks and in a small gravel pit hard alongside the nuclear-waste railway from Dungeness. The Google maps image, taken when summer drought emphasises the desiccated grassland on thinnest soils, shows this clearly.


That small pit held 25 Teal while 6 Gadwall flew up from the adjacent Westbroke Petty Sewer. The presence of several Grey Herons was unsurprising since there’s a nesting colony in the nearby rookery. Stones from the pit are piled in 5m high mountain, from the summit of which I was keen to take in the panorama of the surrounding marsh.



To the left of the railway, pasture; to the right, arable, from which Skylarks sing.


To the right of this arable you can just make out the rushes of a real Silver Meadow, but one outside our survey area.


This field is rather different, with its gorse clumps and a stand of Hawthorns, perhaps grown out of a patch of scrub. Dozens of Redwings & Fieldfares fly from the orange tops of the Willows and 3 Buzzards display overhead.

The older houses in this area all stand sensibly on shingle banks, the Rectory in its own green island of mixed tall trees from which issue continuously calls of Rooks & Jackdaws and the drumming of GS Woodpecker. I was surprised to find Butcher’s Broom on a ditch bank until I noticed that the whole of the Rectory garden appeared to have once been hedged with this species, presumably to exclude grazing animals. There were Goldcrests feeding in the Ivy and a Grey Wagtail in a shallow, overshadowed ditch, one Sparrowhawk in circulation being mobbed, now by Jackdaws, now by Goldfinches.




Some alien tree species give a parkland appearance to some fields,with Horse Chestnut, Turkey Oak, White Poplar and even Monterey Cypress in places.


As I wrote earlier, the ditches are quite straight, indicating that some formal organization had been undertaken in the past – but how long ago? A couple of irregular watercourses towards Caldecot Crossing can be seen, from the ghosted lines in satellite photos, to be the truncated remains of a former ditch system.

In the middle of nowhere

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on January 21, 2017 by cliffdean


Oakhill Fleet lies just half a mile within the eastern boundary of Sussex (but that’s not it in the photo) and for the last few months has harboured an unusually large (for these days) congregation of Corn Buntings in company with a smaller contingent of Tree Sparrows. Just how large is a matter of conjecture since they are not easy to count, either hidden in rough vegetation on the ground or clustered in a couple of small willows or in transit between the two with at least half the flock doubling back as the others arrive in view. And then some whizz off elsewhere to Destination Unknown. Since they’re all mixed in together you can only make a rough species estimate based on the proportion of small to big blobs.

The significance of all this is that both species are now very restricted in the county (along with Yellow Wagtail, which is also present here in good numbers in the summer).

Last Tuesday, after a period of counting, recounting,recounting, the others reckoned on a total flock size of 150 birds comprising 120 CB: 30 TS but I was convinced there had been more like 200, since I’d counted 60 in a bush immediately before a flock of a good 100 came dashing off a nearby field.

I thought it might be a good idea to return at some point and take more time over it, but whereas I just thought about it Alan Parker -a man of action – was back there a couple of mornings later. Best laid plans – there were only 20 CBs there, but he did come across a couple of Lapland Buntings – much scarcer.


We had walked out from Lydd across fields blue with frost,eventually following the route of two massive mediaeval sea walls: the Nod & the Tore. I’ve previously found it hard to do credit in photographs to these phenomenal bits of civil engineering, but in the low winter light, and coming from a different direction it was possible to give some idea of their scale and of the dramatic difference in field levels either side.

There were lots of nice frozen puddles, Strictly Jugendstil, but I think I’ve written enough about those for the moment.


Along the way were Lapwings, Golden Plovers, Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Stonechats,a few gulls including one adult Mediterranean and 9 Bewick’s Swans.


Apart from a male Marsh Harrier, there were at least 4 Buzzards, including a strikingly pale bird – photo below by Dave Rowlands.




Past poignant deserted farms towards Oakhill Fleet,where there were 18 Egyptian Geese (we’d already seen 2 near Lydd) and 6 Brents,both just within Sussex.


I always feel warmly towards the long-departed Moorhen which chose to wander 50m along this concrete road when newly-laid shortly after the war.

Back by Scotney Court,we could see a distant flock of White-fronted Geese, number uncertain since the Telescope Monitor had wandered off into the distance, and finally, at Quiet Life! Pits, 2 red-head Smew. On the way home,we had a quick look at the goose flock at the S end of the big pit and found 2 Tundra Bean Geese, which turned into 3 once a Greylag had shifted its bulk and 4 when they flew off.

Tired but happy… etc.



Watchers & Shooters

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on December 18, 2016 by cliffdean

I covered the area S of Salehurst (TQ72L) for the BTO Bird Atlas during which period I recorded 67 species for Winter and 57 (surprisingly fewer) Breeding. Since then I’ve entered 7 lists for that tetrad on Birdtrack, almost entirely in winter, often on RXbirdwalks, getting tallies mostly between the high 30s & high 40s. Yesterday, we found 49 species of which, unexpectedly, 3 were new.


In spite of the miserable forecast (once more) it was a still morning of misty sunshine casting long equinoctial shadows. Cold in the shade but you could feel the sun’s warmth on outstretched palms. Our arrival coincided with that of many mud-spattered vehicles bearing ruddy-faced men clad in expensive green Country Clothing, reminding me that we’d be sharing the farmland with pheasant-shooters.

The first fusillade scared off the finches we hope to see on the hop-gardens. From the calls, they were all Chaffinches & Greenfinches. A Buzzard, a Kestrel & several Blackbirds also decided to vacate the area at that point.


Rough ditch edges by the track to Salehurst Park Farm had attracted a pair of Stonechats, a single Yellowhammer flew past and we could hear Skylarks overhead, but the fields were not flooded as the have sometimes been, so no chance of wetland birds there.

At the lake, however, we managed by peering through the beech-hedge, to add 9 species of waterbird, the most surprising of which was a juv Goldeneye (the others were:Little Grebe, Greylag & Canada Geese, Mallard, Teal, Tufted Duck, Coot & Moorhen).

The woods were typically empty for the most part with sudden, varied crowds of small birds appearing: Blue, Great, Coal, Marsh & Long-tailed Tits, Nuthatches, Treecreepers & Goldcrests. The Darvell community, who now own these woods, are doing a good job of diversifying the structure with extensive clearings and rides, promising good breeding habitat for Nightjars & Tree Pipits, though this does render its landscape suddenly unfamiliar, sunny glades interrupting the previous gloom

No-one eats apples any more, it appears from the discs of glowing windfalls that lay in so many orchards which do however benefit Blackbirds & Fieldfares, which we enjoyed watching before we made a quick march to lunch at the convivial Salehurst Halt.




Swan Dramas – with added Corn Buntings

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on December 1, 2016 by cliffdean


Wednesday, Lydd: a fine, cold, still day, the wind turbines unmoving. And overhead, suddenly, white against the blue and too high for Mutes, a flock of 7 Swans (1 juv) – Bewick’s – whooping softly westwards into the distance. Another two a little later.


Blue frost thawing fast. In the rape fields, purple shadows and golden, folded, fading, frosted leaves.


Another “swan” in front of us turns, once someone bothers to look, into a GW Egret – and there’s another along the ditch, with a Buzzard – monarch of the spoil-heap – beyond.


Just this week there was an unusual court case in the news in which a local farmer was convicted of killing two Mute Swans. His morning had got off to a bad start with a ewe & lamb injured by an unknown predator. And then, there were the swans – again – loafing about his field as if they owned the place. He tried to drive them off his crop. They stood their ground. Something snapped and he laid about them with his shepherd’ crook.

As luck would have it. a Coastguard helicopter was overhead on a training flight, saw what was going on, filmed it and alerted the police.


The marsh and it huge sky were completely still but not silent.


Vapour trails marked the arrival of London-bound passenger jets over the coast, cars, lorries, buses & motor-bikes contributed a chorus from the A259 and reversing tones piped from the quarries. Lapwings, Golden Plovers & Skylarks were calling.




West of Red House, a heavily dotted willow enticed us back over the Sussex border towards Oakhill Fleet where a mob of Corn Buntings squizzled merrily in the sunshine. They moved between three bushes, with extra birds fluttering up from the field and a confusing admixture of Reed Buntings & Tree Sparrows.  Attempts to count the flock were temporarily put on hold as a Marsh Harrier glided past, then pursued by a smaller, slimmer Harrier which must have been Hen though we just couldn’t pick out the white rump.


As groups dashed back & forth, the counts grew until it looked like 100 Corn Buntings, though for Tree Sparrows we never got further than the odd call.


Back towards Scotney Court, a Merlin shot across in front of us and right round at the end of Brett’s Pit was a Black-throated Diver, the star of a good few Cracking Shots in recent days.



Well- do you! Apart from the A259 rumbling past, the crackling of the pylon overhead and the machine guns of the Range opposite, it’s as quiet as anything.


Back in the bean fields

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on June 25, 2016 by cliffdean

20160625_110740This shed, a long way from any trees, has Tree Sparrows nesting in it, their chicks cheeping from straw and plastic strips stuffed between a steel strut and corrugated asbestos. A family of Pied Wagtails was strutting about the dung-plastered floor and young Starlings lined the roof.


A fortnight ago, in a different world, during an exploratory walk into Walland Marsh  near Jury’s Gap, we found a surprising number of Yellow Wagtails, of which I neglected to make a careful count. This morning Peter Matthews & I got sunburnt in one (2kmx2km) tetrad at the eastern limits of Sussex to map out the territories of these, Corn Buntings, Meadow Pipits & Skylarks.

Although there are rights of way out there, they are poorly marked, if at all and it can be hard to orientate yourself among the labyrinth of ditches, old seawalls and unexpected barbed-wire fences. Too little information is conveyed by Google maps on the phone but a switch to Satellite view places your blue dot amid dark greens indecipherable in bright sunlight.

For entertainment I persist in trying to relate the marshland humps and bumps with the features colourfully delineated on the Romney Marsh Soils Map, trying to identify ancient storm ridges and repair loops among the names of long-vanished farmhouses.


If you were to look across from a passing vehicle you might think that the land is flat and pretty birdless but you’d be wrong on both accounts. The earth beneath you feet rolls according to the beaches, creeks and sand-banks that lie beneath the crops wherein dozens of birds are nesting. I didn’t count the many Linnets, Reed Buntings and Reed Warblers, but as far as I could make out there were no fewer than 16 Yellow Wagtail territories (several pairs carrying food or with well-grown fledglings), 14 of  Skylarks, 8 singing Corn Buntings & 3 Meadow Pipits.


There were also 4 pairs of Tree Sparrows occupying deserted buildings. Just in one tetrad. In Sussex, Yellow Wagtails and Tree Sparrows are almost entirely confined to this eastern extremity.