Archive for Farmland

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.

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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.

Yellow

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on May 25, 2017 by cliffdean

The Sussex Bird Report for 2015 concluded: “There seems to be no sign of Yellow Wagtails seeking to breed in arable areas of the county.”

In fact, there are loads of them, but mostly east of Rye, in arable land that looks unappealing to the birdwatchers speeding hopefully towards Dungeness.

Yesterday, Alan P & I mapped them in TQ91Z, a tetrad covering Broomhill Levels. We couldn’t reach all of the square containing suitable habitat and didn’t bother with some that looked unsuitable but nonetheless found 37 birds at 31 sites. There were 6 established pairs and no doubt some of the other individuals will prove to belong together but it’s fair to say there was no shortage and, although there’s yet to be “proof of breeding”, there was little doubt as to what was on their minds. In bright sunlight, some of the males were truly dazzling.

The majority were crowded into oilseed rape fields in the SW corner of the tetrad while those in cereals were distributed more loosely. A pea-field was not grown up enough to provide cover.

In additions to the Yellow Wagtails we counted 5 singing Corn Buntings but did not attempt the many Skylarks, Reed Buntings, Linnets, Reed & Sedge Warblers.

The 37 species recorded in total included Marsh Harrier, Buzzard, Whimbrel, Barn Owl and a couple of Sand Martins – our first autumn migrants. A group of 3 Brown Hares was, as the tractor-driver put it, “A sight for sore eyes.”

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.

RIP LITUL RABIT U R IN HEVIN NOW WIV DA ANGLES AN CHUK BERE