Archive for Farmland

Waterlogged

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

 

I’m rethinking next week’s walk at Mountfield after a recce yesterday.

I had not fully taken into account the amount of rain that had fallen during the night. The village pond had spread across the lane to a depth of about 20cms. and all the fields were very very wet, not just in the valleys but even on slopes (where they were also very slippery). Shaggy cattle had poached gateways into deep wallows.

It’s a pretty place, it was a nice morning, but it was hard work, with few interesting birds by way of distraction (though the chestnut avenue was as fascinating as ever). In the alders you can see below a mixed flock of Siskins & Redpolls made a buzzing twitter that could be heard a couple of hundred metres away but it was hard to see just how many there were.  Nearby, a busy pair of Ravens was croaking. Apart from that, the best place was around the Village Hall car park, with lots of  common birds.

The upshot is that I’m going to re-schedule this walk in April, by which time it might have dried out a bit, there’ll be some migrants and more song.

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Dengemarsh clockwise

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

In a radical new approach, we walked a little way down Dengemarsh Road from Lydd before branching off left down the footpath through arable land to the back of the reserve. It adds just a mile to the usual circuit and was more interesting than I anticipated. To our left, flocks of Snipe erupted from the frosty rape fields while on the other side were hundreds of Lapwings, Golden Plover & Starling as well as Egyptian Geese and one out-of-place Brent. The path is broad and easy to follow, though the first footbridge has (livestock-proof?) bars across it rendering it fairly human-proof as well. Gymnastic and limbo-dancing skills are required at this point.

A small bird diving into bramble revealed itself as a wintering Chiffchaff. A blue jumble beside the bush revealed itself as a retired scarecrow, the baler twine employed to secure its plastic-bottle head disturbingly reminiscent of the ligature around the neck of Tollund Man, the spilling straw guts adding to the sense of sublimated sacrifice.

What with this and the nearby Concrete Corpse, a narrative is emerging…

In opting for a clockwise circulation I had realised that we’d be looking into the low winter sun for much of the time but this provided opportunities to sharpen identification skills through studying silhouettes and discounting colour distortions arising from strong shadow. Otherwise the blue sky was a fabulous backdrop to flying WigeonGreylag Geese, Marsh Harriers and twinkling flocks of Lapwings & Golden Plovers. Bitterns, Bearded Tits & Water Rails, however, kept their heads down.

Back on Dengemarsh Road, when one of our group picked up a distant flying flock of white birds the long necks and rapid wing-beats distinguished them as 13 Bewick’s Swans – on tour, presumably from Darkest Horsebones. As we followed their progress down the peninsula they passed at least 5 Marsh Harriers before swinging round and dropping out of sight somewhere near Scott Hide. When they passed us again, much closer, I was, unfortunately, looking in the other direction so only got a back view.

Two more mysteries. Once you pass the farms there’s nothing much down Dengemarsh Road and yet there’s a constant stream of traffic. The vehicles could be those of anglers or dog-walkers but a surprisingly large proportion braving the potholes and puddles were expensive white SUVs; what can it all mean? Then, an odd rumbling sound preceded the appearance of two teenage lads cheerfully hauling trolley-cases down the corrugated concrete road, one clutching a print-on-canvas of a fast car (not a white SUV) as if planning to set up home. But where? The only potential accommodation was a caravan beside the chicken sheds. Seasonal pluckers perhaps.

  In the fields beside us were crowds of Golden Plovers, colour and details brilliant with the light now behind us. Lobbed into the roadside crops lay a Prosecco bottle. It occurred to me that ten years ago this would have been no more likely than the Egyptian Geese, both Signs of the Times.

On the way home, two of us made a diversion to Hastings Cemetery in search of Hawfinches, 7 of which had been seen the previous day, and after a bit of strolling among the funereal yews, spotted one sitting in a bare tree – Showing Well, as they say tough, as usual, my attention was taken by tombs – the Robertsons (of the eponymous Street), the Ionides (formerly of Constantinople, late of Windycroft).

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.

Hill of Prumes

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on June 28, 2017 by cliffdean

Looks boring, doesn’t it? Nobody goes there. In other words the quintessential venue for an RXbirdwalk. Broomhill; where’s the hill, where’s the broom? Though the latter might once have grown here, a hill is hard to imagine let alone a bustling fishing port – which it was until 1287. According to Judith Glover’s “Sussex Place Names” the earliest version of the name, dating from the late 12th century, is Prumhelle, from Prume-hyll “Plum-tree Hill” – but using an unusual dialect word rather than the South Saxon plume. That’s got that cleared up, but still no sign of a hill, let alone plum trees.

I guess the hill could have been a tall shingle bank, since truncated by the 1287 storm among others. On the soil map below you can see the settlement’s position on a spur to the south of the great (yellow) sweep of the Wainway. The remaining farm buildings and an abandoned cottage are perched on the pink band of shingle to the right.

The plan for this RXbirdwalk was to see breeding Yellow Wagtails, restricted in Sussex to this eastern extremity. Though weather mid-week suggested we’d run the risk of heat-stroke the morning itself dawned gloomy and windy, though the rain held off till midday. I usually have a look at the beach to add a few gulls & waders to the list but on this occasion all birds had been cleared out by massed kite-surfers thrashing through the grey summer waves.

This & other bird photos by Peter Matthews

There were indeed loads of  Yellow Wagtails and loads of Reed Buntings too, though the former favoured wheat and the latter oilseed rape. Last year the YWs were in the same location among beans, leading me to mistakenly assume that the crop was the significant factor whereas I now suspect it’s something to do with the soil since nearly all wagtails were situated between the former seawalls (now ploughed out) in the soil map below. As much as I love this map’s pretty colours and historic boundaries I can’t claim to understand much about the soil, I’m sorry to say.

These RSPB articles on their Breeding Ecology and Advice to Farmers are informative

While we were differentiating males, females and juveniles, a strikingly different male popped up then vanished again. It had a blue head – like the continental subspecies but of a pale blue-grey hue and with a white supercilium, suggesting the hybrid “Channel Wagtail” but I just didn’t get a good enough view.

There were plenty of other birds around, including Skylarks, Linnets & a pair of Corn Buntings as well as big crowds of House Sparrows & Starlings commuting between the interwar bungalows of Jury’s Gap and the fragrant sewage works. In the background, a pair of Marsh Harriers were quartering the fields. There were, of course, no other people around apart from two horse-riders and a distant dog-walker.

Just to the east of this chainlink fence, below the crops, below the soil, lie the remains of Broomhill’s church whose skeleton still stood into the early 16th century though flooded centuries before.

Beside Jury’s Gut loafed a few moulting Mallards in company with a small, dark duck with a clearly yellow bill. In size, shape and flight appearance it resembled a teal of some sort and upon reference to some more expert observers turned out to be – wait for it – a Yellow-billed Teal which now seems to be regarded as a geographical race of Speckled Teal, a South American species escaped from a collection.

As we approached the Kent Pen Wall, a Cuckoo flew over us then while we had a look along the sheltered and scrubby north side of the bank for Whitethroats & Linnets I took notice of the tree species for the first time. Beside two species of Willow, a hunched Oak and a fluttering White Poplar I was surprised to see a fruit tree – bearing, in fact, unripe…plums! Hardly possible it could remain from Prume hyll days, perhaps planted as an historical reference or jettisoned from a picnic. Strange coincidence though. Further along was a flowering Privet.

A further revelation came as we continued westward into the wind and towards Corn Bunting song. An isolated pond fits neatly, on the map,  into the vanished repair loop on a lost seawall; an ancient scour pool now tranquil enough but a relic of drama, danger and fortitude from the past.

Over-exposed

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on June 27, 2017 by cliffdean

Last Friday – a 6 mile walk from Berwick to Berwick via Firle Beacon, Bo-peep & Alciston, looking for chalkland plants & maybe a few farmland birds.

Nice and sunny with interesting flowers & Marbled Whites on the scarp but once (panting) on top it was monocultured and windy.

Swift calls over Berwick Church but none to be seen – for they came from a lure set in the tower, part of a scheme to encourage these fabulous birds to nest there. The local school or maybe Sunday school has been involved, to judge from the streamlined cut-outs embellishing the Bloomsburied interior.  Good luck to them all; at our end of the county we still have several pairs putting on a breathtaking display around the ruined arches of St Thomas’ Winchelsea.

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS IMAGES OF THE SOUTH DOWNS.

Yes, beautiful. Yes, inspiring. Yes, over-represented and misrepresented. I recently had the misfortune to see a film called “South Downs – England’s Mountains Green” which featured a pretentious vicar striding through deserted landscapes (drone-filmed in early morning to keep the shadows gorgeous and the people out). Whenever I go to the Downs there are plenty of people walking, running, cycling, riding horses or flinging themselves into the air, in addition to those attending livestock, ploughing or driving in fence-posts.

This film was in the timeless/changeless/unspoilt/ vein, as oblivious to ideological battles over farming & conservation as it was to the busy coastal conurbations that flank the chalk ridge. Not only do they feel obliged to perpetuate this consoling myth but they have to find a Character to front the whole charade – in this case a wholly unconvincing Celebrity Christian called Peter Owen-Jones. I’d never heard of him, luckily missed him, but soon discovered he’s a media darling. A refreshing dose of realism can however be found on Mumsnet discussions which include reassuringly (not just me, then) sober comments such as:

“And also kind of naff, with his cuban heels and his slightly dirty FE lecturer circa 1986 clothing.”

“On the contrary, I think he’s a bit of an arse. And, frankly, a heretic. <lights pyre>”

“Sometimes I think he looks like a weird old woman, other time surprisingly fit in a sincere-but-silly kind of way.”

I’m fed up with the cliché of “unchanging landscapes”. At Wadi Rum, for instance, absolutely nothing happens day upon day, year upon year  (apart from the 4x4s full of Europeans wearing Arab headdress and chucking out litter) and then you find rock drawings of all the animals that once lived here – when there was still vegetation.

I’ve just spent a few days with good friends in the Lake District – Unchanging By Popular Demand of holidaymaking Wainwrighters who insist on sterile fells inhabited only by Meadow Pipits (alright then, the occasional Skylark or Wren). I’m with George Monbiot on this one: its Romantic cultural heritage has the area in a stranglehold.

And as for over-exposed – My God, the paintings, the poetry, the novels, the guides, the sculptures of Herdwick sheep, the artful photos of fells, reflective water and dry-stone walls with never a military jet nor a traffic jam to be seen… Yes, it’s beautiful, yes, it’s inspirational, it’s moody too and features a number of steep slopes leading up small hills traversed by retirees with rucksacks and walking poles.

‘This wonderful film captures the great British countryside in all its glory.’ Daily Mail

But as much as the Lakes are filtered through an early 19th century lens, I have to confess to seeing the South Downs through a Raviliousian framework. I’m cautious about it though.

What about the wildlife? Oh, I don’t know. I’ve forgotten. The usual stuff. The flowers I have to relearn every year or whose names resurface slowly in the Lava Lamp Of Recall.

I do recommend the “Cricketers Arms” however, which is changeless. Apart from the prices.

A Symbolic And Meaningful Photograph.

Kitestrike

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on June 6, 2017 by cliffdean

I had not visited this farm in the lower Brede Valley for a few months but on Saturday was interested to see how the breeding birds were getting on, especially the Corn Buntings which, a few years ago, were numerous there – the last, isolated, population between the Rother and the Downs. The bad news is that they seem to have gone – why or where a mystery.

But there was plenty of good news: apart from a lot of singing Skylarks, Linnets, Reed Warblers & Reed Buntings, there were several each of Whitethroat & Sedge Warbler. Whereas just a single pair of Yellow Wagtails was disappointing, a Cetti’s Warbler was the first I had recorded there and I was particularly pleased to find a family party of Stonechats. (Several years ago I had seen a young Stonechat in this locality but was cautioned that they’re very mobile once hatched, so didn’t count it as breeding record.)

Apart from some fields of hay & rye much of the area lies fallow this year ranging from mixed recent crops grown up tall together to stretches of bare earth and this latter has attracted several pairs of Lapwings to nest. These brave birds are the few in our area not breeding behind electric fences but their chances of raising young seem poor when faced with the range of predators on the prowl, including Buzzards, Marsh Harriers and…2 Red Kites which came flapping down the valley.

Just recently the now traditional late-May Kite Walkabout has provided many sightings of small flocks across the county ( and many, many more in Cornwall). Having seen none, in spite of hours enjoying the nice weather in our garden, I was starting to feel a bit left out, especially when my daughter texted that she was watching a flock of 6 at Chanctonbury Ring. so I was pleased to see those two.

When we had another look at the farm on Sunday, the grass which had been rowed up the previous day had mostly been packed into shiny black bales. The tractor driver carrying them to the yard pulled over and opened his cab window to announce, “You’re too late. You’ve missed the twenty Red Kites which were here yesterday!” After I had left that morning, silage harvesting exposed vulnerable little beasts beneath the cut grass and Kites appeared out of nowhere, swooping and diving in among the tractors. “How did they know?” the farmer asked.

There was still baling to be done so we kept an eye on the proceedings but just one Kite glided over, to join a Kestrel and a Buzzard, but soon drifted away.

 

The path less travelled by

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

Following our success last week in finding lots of the supposedly-vanished Yellow Wagtails in the extreme east of the county, I returned to check the adjacent tetrad behind the pleasure-domes of  Xamber. It was warm and humid as I left the seawall along a supposed bridleway with a wagtail-free pea-field on one side and sunny spots of greenery lining the caravan site on the other.

At a certain point my way was blocked by the broad and still waters of Broomhill Creek. My map showed that I had passed unknowingly a crossing place, having fallen victim once more to the Tall Summer Vegetation Menace which completely concealed not only the bridge but also, it seemed, any path on its far side.

There was little alternative but to meander with a mazy motion, following the creek back round towards Broomhill Farm. There was just one Yellow Wagtail out among the peas, quite a few Skylarks & Reed Buntings, a distant Marsh Harrier and the same Barn Owl we’d noticed the previous week. Plus various greenery-birds, including Lesser Whitethroat, along by the caravans. And, for much of the time, the calls of Sandwich Terns & Med Gulls coming from beyond the seawall. I wasn’t very happy though.

As I passed the cottages, the fungicide-spraying gentleman we’d chatted to the previous week came out to ask how I’d got on. He insisted that there really was a crossing place over there – lots of people used it – and a clear mown track the other side too. So it looked as if I’d have to blame my own oversight rather than ESCC RoW…but opted to blame the tall reeds instead.

So I shifted my sphere of operations westward to Pound Lane, where I was grateful for a bit of cloud cover until it got a bit cold. Once you’ve got past the retirement bungalows re-purposed as grey-painted designer hideaways you emerge into open sheep-grazing, unsuitable for Yellow Wagtails, There were, however, a couple of singing Corn Buntings on fence posts in pasture picked over by massed Jackdaws, Rooks and noisy young Starlings. To the north of the Wainway Wall, whose curving course follows the early mediaeval  Rother, a few shrill Yellow Wagtail calls came from vast arable fields. In spite of red dots on the OS map and even ESCC waymarkers there was not the slightest gap in the tall crops. Access would be a battle for anything less than an expedition armed with jungle knives and so I mapped the birds as well as I could.

On the way back, I called in on a derelict in which, a few years back, we’d found a Tree Sparrows’ nest stuffed between flimsy layers of wall. No sign of them now though, and I left with legs tingling from nettle stings.