Archive for Grasslands


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.


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.


High on chalk

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on July 19, 2014 by cliffdean


Why does it feel so different on the Downs? I’m sure something changes in the light. Maybe there’s less moisture in the atmosphere thanks to the absorbency of the rock beneath.


There are high points in the Weald too – Brightling for example – but you look out from there upon a prospect blanketed with forest, ridge after ridge of treetops, buildings and operations hidden in the oaken jungle.

From the Downs though everything is exposed. From your turf-scented belvedere you can inspect with serene detachment  the everyday movements of the mortals below. It reminds me of an intricate model railway lay-out (albeit with just the one straight line): the soundless traffic crowding the A27, twinkling windscreens in Drusilla’s car park, the cloud of dust raised by a combine hidden behind a hedgerow, a tractor converting as it crawls shapeless hay into geometrical bales, a slab of incongruous colour where a paraglider is unfurled  beside a distant hill-figure.


In the sunshine there’s little motivation to move on. Immersion in the mesmerizing movements of butterflies, bees and beetles seems sufficient. A few runners struggle up the steep white track, a millennial intaglio of trade, travel and transhumance, their skin gleaming with sweat, their journeys validated numerically by instruments strapped to their arms.

Chrysotoxum bicinctum[1]

Chysotoxum bicinctum. Photo by Alan Parker

The air nearby is textured with songs of Skylarks & Meadow Pipits combined with faint Blackcap carried up from the combe on warm, weak currents. There’s a constant flickering dance of Marbled Whites & Chalkhill Blues.


Moving on. Eventually. Stop to talk to a fencing contractor as he tensions barbed wire. Beneath his truck, his dog lies sensibly in the shade. He explains his powerful post-driver, armed with a spike that can drive through solid chalk. His hands, hugs and scarred, prompt a series of tales on the theme of fingers lost to the hungry gears and blades of agricultural machinery.


And then – I’ve never been just here before – an unsuspected alignment of headlands: Norman’s Bay, Galley Hill, East Hill; a Martello Tower, Marine Court, Hastings Harbour Arm. It’s the reflection of “A Distant View of Pevensey”.

Three young Ravens are croaking in the updraught, and as we drop down to skirt the scarp back towards Wilmington. their hoarse voices can be heard among the herd of cackling Jackdaws. The begging mew of a fledgling Buzzard issues from the trees. Earlier a juvenile Peregrine was scouting across the slopes.


Lunch in the “Giant’s Rest”. Local beer from the Long Man Brewery. Rabbit pie is on the board, suiting my “Eat Your Way Through The Problem” policy. (“Where’s your rabbit from?” “The car park”. Zero food-miles.) Great filling; fine crust. Nice pub.

Later I check this pub on Trip Advisor and find to my surprise that the reviews are all over the place. That’s the trouble with TA: when the reviews are unanimous you know what to do. I’ve found it very useful in choosing accommodation once I’ve discarded the bilious opinions of discontented Americans. But when it comes to contradictory reports on eating places I end up worrying that I’ll be one of the unlucky ones. Without it, I’d just pick a place (the first on the left seems to be a good strategy) and enter with optimism and good will.



Appetite sated, thirst slaked, desire for exercise minimal, we negotiated the labyrinthine streets of Seaford to visit the Kittiwake colony. I’m ashamed to say that I’d never been here before in the breeding season (I blame the A259) but now concur with ” Birds of Sussex” in calling it “one of the county’s natural treasures”.

On such a hot afternoon, the promenade was packed with vehicles, the beach busy with bronzing bathers and as soon as you opened the car door you heard the chorus of Kittiwake cries. We never hear this in the Far East. These days we rarely even see them.

It’s not just the singular soundscape nor the spectacle of slim-winged gulls swirling around the dazzling chalk-face, but the heady aroma of guano (so rare in Sussex! Only here and Ternery Pool!) wafted over the vertiginous white crags, laced with just a hint of shingle-based barbecues.


Although in recent years this limited site has held more than 1000 nests, a recent post on the SOS sightings page expresses concern that both numbers and productivity are falling. Though I lack previous experience for comparison, the ledges looked pretty hectic and the proportion of  young healthy enough, so long as they clung on with their big black feet.


Photo by Alan Parker


Posted in Uncategorized with tags on July 7, 2014 by cliffdean

Friday: a hot day on the Downs above Jevington, a loop round through Friston Forest and lunch in the Eight Bells.



In the forest, Agrimony was sagging in the heat, leaves of other plants dull and flaccid.


But on the fragrant, rabbit-grazed turf of the eastern slopes, plenty of butterflies and a brand-new young Buzzard flopping about in the trees.






Silent, but for singing Meadow Pipits, a distant sigh of A259 traffic and the buzz of chainsaws felling mature trees (in July??), seemingly to reclaim the view from a big house in Friston.






War memorial



Leptura maculata – the long-horn beetle formerly known as Strangalia…or Rutpela…..


At least 2 pairs of Swifts were swooping up under the eaves of the church not-very-steeple and House Martins were twittering somewhere down the S end of the village.

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Those of us brought up on I-spy books mourned for the many points we could have scored for this swing-gate.


East Side

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on June 29, 2014 by cliffdean


It’s a long way round to the Camber side of the Rother so I very rarely go there. However I was encouraged by reports of numerous Pyramidal orchids in the dry grassland alongside the river.


The area bears scars originating from reinforcing works to the eastern bank: pits and rubble. this photo was taken from a 2m mountain of stones abandoned for many years, by the looks of it.


A block of Portland Stone from the 18th Century Smeaton’s Harbour. Their presence in the Rye area is widespread, usually in the role of traffic bollard.


The site is apparently managed by Rye Golf Club, once served by a little railway whose track runs along one side, still with rails visible in some places. Still largely grass, it is invaded by bramble (with Whitethroats) in some parts and there are thickets of Sea Buckthorn & Willow. A Cuckoo was still calling from further into the golf course.


Viper’s Bugloss

Although my interest was in seeing the orchids (too late, it seems, for other species), I still failed to get any decent photos of them in large groups.


Pyramidal Orchid



Wild Carrot


Although quite a few people walk there later in the day, in early morning it’s a tranqil place where you meet only panting runners and the owners of dogs (mostly well-behaved).

On the beach, crisp-packet tumbleweed rolls past while among the grass the debris of former holidays is slowly absorbed in to the vegetation.


From a distance of less than 100m and the greater elevation of the river bank, you get a novel view of the Nature Reserve.



Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on June 3, 2014 by cliffdean


Saturday: a fine morning for the latest RXbirdwalk through the neglected western end of Rye Harbour NR. Neglected not by reserve staff or operations but by reserve visitors, who deviate minimally from the usual approach through Rye Harbour village.

And yet, from just east of Winchelsea Beach, you can find a broad range of birds using the shallow pools and rough grassland. The sound-track is of Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Lapwings, Redshanks & Little Ringed Plovers, joined by skreeking Sandwich Terns as the tide rises.

We had great views of a Hobby directly overhead as it circled before picking up speed to snatch an aerial insect, displaying all those characteristic movements that allow you to identify the species even at long range. We later saw 2 regularly over Castle Water.


Moving on through the fascinating non-reserve zones of Beach Field and The Wood, we emerged on to the ancient tidal landscape of Castle Farm where former storm-ridges are mummified beneath a thin covering of turf, at this season striped pink with Sheep’s Sorrel on the drier fulls, vivid green and gold where more water is retained by finer particles.

We were after Linnets, Corn Buntings & Yellow Wagtails, all of which nest in this part of the reserve. 2 Corn Buntings sang consistently, though were a little shy, but the others were easy to see. Well, we could see the Corn Buntings alright but they kept their distance. If you didn’t know the easy-to-learn song you wouldn’t think to search for their tubby form topping a distant thorn bush.


Warbler songs can need more practice to distinguish them, and the bushes & reed alongside Castle Water is a good place to start since it holds 7 species in close proximity. Easy ones to recognize are onomatopoeic Chiffchaff and vociferous Cetti’s Warbler; Lesser Whitethroat is easy too, but people don’t seem to know it. Which leaves Whitethroat & Blackcap – pretty simple really, and Reed & Sedge Warbler which people fuss about but are very different if you just take into account tempo, timbre, pitch & variation, not to mention habitat and the song flight of the latter. All you have to do is listen attentively and maybe track the bird down for visual confirmation – often the more difficult part of the exercise. Garden Warblers used to nest in The Wood too, but I’ve not heard one there for some years.

A better class of mammal is visible out here too, in the form of lolloping Brown Hares rather than the massed Rabbits of the Beach Reserve.


The grasses and flowers smell wonderful in the sunshine but the same cannot be said of the Cormorant colony, whose chicken-shed stink was wafted in through the hide-slots by a gentle northerly breeze. The high water level on the pit leaves few small islands, so the variety of birds visible from the hide is not great, but we could still enjoy the sunlit silver-winged male Marsh Harrier and passing procession of elegant Common Terns.

Just after we left the hide, Stuart B noticed a large bird low overhead, buzzard size but straight away its shape and flight made me realize it was a Honey-buzzard! At that point the strong barring beneath the wings was visible, as were the bars on the outspread tail, though as it drifted away SW, the long-necked, small-headed, long-tailed silhouette and flat or down-bowed wings continued to be distinctive. The first we’ve seen on one of these walks! Checking on the internet later I found one was seen at Dungeness about 15 minutes later while Mike S-H emailed to say he’s seen one in the Pett area the previous day.

Altogether, we saw 69 bird species but just 3 other bird-watchers.



“Spits & Spots”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on May 26, 2014 by cliffdean

…as they say on the weather forecast. Hoping to avoid the rain promised at 11am I set off in nonetheless gloomy conditions for a quick walk from Dog’s Hill Road to Castle Water. It’s an easy walk that usually produces a wide range of birds but there were some surprises too.

A relief rather than a surprise was a Turtle Dove feeding on the ground (rather than, as usual, sitting on wires) at the Beach Field. Their status is now so threatened that every sighting is a cause for celebration. A mass twittering from at least 60 Linnets on dry fields by Castle Farm was a pleasure to hear – another bird with a depleted population, maybe profiting from the rough grasslands on offer along this bit of coast alongside handy strips of gorse for nesting.

2014-05-26 08.19.21

The camera on my phone is terrible. What looks orange should be pink.

A sort of surprise in that, year after year, I never get used to them, are the sumptuous colours and sharp zonations of the grasslands on the historic shingle ridges towards the castle. In dry springs the contrast is provided by the desiccation of grasses on the fulls but vivid green from this year’s rain is what now so strongly distinguishes the slacks. That and the buttercups.

2014-05-26 08.21.22

The straight edge betrays the position of a green on the former golf course.

The real surprise was a burst of Corn Bunting song from along the barbed wire fence. I’m not sure whether I’ve ever seen them at Castle Farm; certainly not in recent years. While approaching this bird I put up 2 more from the grass by the cattle feeders where they landed, one giving a quick jingle. On my return from the hide I investigated once more and found there was one (that one) singing from the fence with another in long grass nearby, then another two on the rough ground around the feeders. So that’s (sophisticated maths coming into play) 4 birds with 2 of them males. Following on the disappointing count (0) at Rye Marsh the other day, this was encouraging.

But while I was investigating these, I heard an anxious call from a Yellow Wagtail. There aren’t a lot of these about these days so I sidled up in a subtle kind of way until I could see there was in fact a pair, acting as if they had a nest nearby. So I left them to it.

The last surprise, but one to make my heart sink, was the sight of some stubby hirundines among the whirling mob of low-level Swifts. Sand Martins. Going back to Africa. Already. A month before the solstice, the summer hardly started.

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Sheltered valleys

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on June 15, 2013 by cliffdean


Today’s RXbirdwalk took us down into the deep and silt-flattened valleys near Penhurst. (there’s a lot more about the history of this area on previous posts – click the tag at the bottom of this post.)


From an old dam, lined with WWII road-block obstacles, we could look down on the iron-stained water in the leat flowing past this former mill. Further up the Ash Bourne, a Grey Wagtail dashed past us.


Overhead, a strong wind roared through the treetops, above which Buzzards soared. Down below, it was quiet enough to hear the cheeping of nestlings in the hedgerows. From the woods came songs of Chiffchaff & Blackcap.


The ancient meadows were white with Ox-eye Daisies. Beneath them were Common Spotted Orchids.


Though warned of an approaching school party, we had Bunce’s Barn to ourselves, to sit outside in the sunshine watching Buzzards while a Yellowhammer carried food to its nest a few yards away.


Uphill, past outgrown Hornbeam hedges and through woodland stippled with mine-pits…


…to spot, on the far side of a bean field, a most unusual thing: another person not in a car.

Notebook! No binoculars…looking downwards a lot, but not too closely. Another naturalist!! A botanist I think.