Archive for Pett Level

It’s not a zoo

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

Dawn over Pett Level. Flocks of Yellow Wagtails move west through twittering whirls of Swallows & House Martins. A Greenshank calls overhead and the young Buzzard commences its day’s begging. In the still air, the calls of Sandwich Terns, Curlews & Oystercatchers drift in from the beach.

The sky is scored with trails from dozens of westbound flights originating from cities now busy in daylight.

I don’t usually schedule RX Birdwalks in August since people are away or busy getting bronzed or dragged down into the grandparenting vortex and anyway the migration is only just starting. But over the last week or so there have been a lot of small migrants as well as a variety of waders passing through. On Tuesday I found no fewer than 74 species at the west end of Pett Level (though my record is 76) including my first (and last?) Swifts for 3 weeks, while on Friday morning I saw more warblers at Winchelsea Beach than I can ever recall seeing before. Local bird-ringers have been catching loads of birds this week but not so much that morning. Puzzling. There must have been hundreds of Whitethroats flitting around gardens and horse paddocks, with many Lesser Whitethroats and Willow Warblers, slightly fewer Blackcaps, several Spotted Flycatchers and a Redstart.

So Saturday’s walk would be an excellent opportunity to catch up with all these species, the only problem would be keeping up with them all.

Not so. Was it the clear night that encouraged all these little birds to lift up into the heavens and steer by the stars southward? No doubt, for few remained and were hard to see. Typically, you catch sight of them as they whizz across a gap or hop out onto the surface of a bush, but even as you raise your binoculars and attempt to fix the spot with a lightning memorization of shadow or twiggery they are gone. Maybe you can follow a trail of quivering leaves or a silhouette in the depths and, if lucky, catch enough of a glimpse of a diagnostic fragment to know what you’re looking at.

Beside the canal the Pett Level Preservation Trust maintains rich and varied habitats full of flowers, insects and birds. During the last week a Kingfisher has been regular here as well as a hunting Sparrowhawk.

So it was hard work but we did see nevertheless a reasonable range of species (59) by lunch time, the first of which was a Hobby hurtling through the Coastguard gardens in pursuit of hirundines but making do with a dragonfly. Also prowling through the gardens, now sufficiently wooded to merit their presence, were a couple of Jays, which used to be quite scarce birds here. A couple of days previously one of these Jays had departed from the usual keynote squawks to mimic the hungry keening of a young Buzzard. Jays can be disconcertingly accomplished mimics (check Xeno-canto) but for most of the time settle for Default Raucous. The Buzzard itself was hunched on a derelict owl box while its ragged parents soared overhead.

Following clearance last winter by the Trust, this sheltered glade in front of Toot Rock has attracted many small insectivorous birds.

Following my plan to find bushes full of warblers, we repaired to the beach where the rising tide should (next plan) edge waders off the moorlog and straight past us. Which it did, but they were all Turnstones. Nothing wrong with Turnstones, especially at this time of year when there are still adults in fabulous tundra-tortoiseshell breeding plumage, except that recently on an ebb tide both at Pett and Rye Harbour, I’ve seen instructive varieties of species and plumages at close hand as hungry birds have converged from their high-tide roosts. Curlew Sandpipers even.

However, the stones were warm, the sunshine warmer; it was like being on holiday with a soporific sound-track of ericking Sandwich Terns.


Definitely Spring

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

Considering it was only the very beginning of April, the amount of birdsong on Saturday’s RXbirwalk was amazing. All resident species but for numerous Chiffchaffs and  the wave of Blackcaps which had arrived in the area just two days before, the complexities of the soundscape kept us busy from the very start, where busy cawing from the Two Sawyers rookery provided a constant background for the many other species round about.

Drifts of Wood Anemone whitened the floor of Guestling Wood as Blue, Great and a surprising number of Coal Tits fluttered overhead while loud calls of Nuthatches and GS Woodpeckers came in from trees further away. Out in the open, Skylark song was pitted in unfair competition against a crowd of Med Gulls on a freshly tilled field. Coots have consolidated their hold on the few small ponds in the area and Grey Wagtails could be heard at both Water Treatment Works and Pickham Mill but were very shy and hard to see. We saw & heard 41 species.

This Treecreeper, photographed by Stuart Barnes, was not only singing but dancing!

I’ve been in this area too long; I’ve got too used to it and take for granted the ease with which I step into a landscape others will travel long distances to experience. I get spoilt and lazy. On Sunday I went on my first longer Pett Circular for months, looping round the back of the village to Pannel Bridge, thence down the valley and across the marsh to the seawall. Loads of birds of course.

I must recommend at this point both current exhibitions  at the DLWP. While Elizabeth Price’s pretentiously titled show is very, very interesting and thought-provoking, that most relevant here is George Shaw’s,  of  woodland interiors, bearing traces of (illicit, transgressive) human occupation, so very reminiscent of the suburban woods where I played as a child yet infused with classical references owing to the works’ origins in a residency at the National Gallery.

At Pannel Bridge I was delighted to find a Yellowhammer singing from the  hedge. In decline nationally, they have all but disappeared from the lanes around Pett/Fairlight/Guestling and, although this has been a traditional site, I’d not seen a bird here for some years.

Ironically, this was more exciting than the Marsh Harriers, Med Gulls, Avocets and multiple Cetti’s Warblers in the rest of the valley.

As I was cutting across to the seawall, two shepherdesses driving ewes along the track towards me flushed a Cattle Egret from a nearby ditch. At first it dropped out of sight behind the Pools but soon flew back past me to perch on a post, where I took this poor photo, before it moved off once again,to content itself, in the absence of cattle, with a flock of sheep. From a serious rarity, this has become a scarce but regular bird in the RX area and has now bred in England. This all-white individual is however in non-breeding plumage.

At the heart of the Level

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


A few hours of sunshine saw me getting re-acquainted with the miniature landscapes of gate-posts, each unique in its pattern of growth-rings, cracks, stains, lichen incrustation and bird droppings, all interrelated.


Immediately, an unseen raptor put up a great cloud of Lapwings & Starlings – goodness knows how many there are at the moment – with a line of 14 Ruff rushing past at its base and the piping of Golden Plovers at the back – not a regular bird at Pett but 110 today. A Raven jumps up from the field too.


The rain has left snakes & crosses of electric-blue floodwater among the yellowing grass.



Processional shingle-shifters trundle across the skyline.

The horizon is once more smudged with great flocks of birds as first a low-level Sparrowhawk speeds across in front of me, then I disturb a Peregrine from its perch.



Squelchy mud-music enlivens the densely-printed gateways.


A Water Pipit flies up from a muddy ditch-edge and squeaks away to another, atypically not too distant. This is the only one I’ve seen at Pett this winter so, with optimism overcoming experience, I decide to quick-march over towards the spot where it came down then make the final approach with Extreme Stealth. Eyes fixed, no blinking allowed, I side up to this new ditch, closer, closer, searching for some movement till suddenly, out of nowhere, the bird is up and heading off across one, two, three, four ditches and down again. The usual field characteristics: call, pale flanks, irritating behaviour.


From the seawall

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


Friday: Frosty morning, bright sun on the mass of geese assembled on Pett Level. Trundling trucks, their headlights visible since before sunrise, trail pale clouds of dust down to the moorlog where hundreds of Dunlin scuttle across the pickled trunks of prehistoric oaks.


Cold fingers focusing binoculars on bright but distant Greylags until the white front of a Whitefront catches the light,then one by one a dozen more. A few hundred Lapwings wheel up squealing with 5 Ruff mixed up among them. Then the pale grey back of a Pinkfoot catches my eye. No sign of the Taiga Beans though.


At the half-frozen Pools the Wigeon numbers are up, dense herds grazing the crisp grass then bursting up with a roar of wings as a dark young Marsh Harrier glides towards them. Yet more Lapwings up in the air.


Back at Toot Rock, I’m just approaching the Glenview bridge when thin, metallic trilling fills the air and a flock of  c40 Waxwings passes in front of me. This is exactly the same place they frequented 6 years ago. Ringed birds further north return to the same sites – could older individuals recall this spot as the location of a former winter holiday? (I looked up longevity of WX – unknown – oldest ringed bird just over 2 years.) But this time they didn’t hang around – no berries on the Hawthorns – but kept flying north along the canal. I looked at the bushes there – no sign – and alerted people in Winchelsea & Rye but no luck there either.


Hostages to Fortune

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 11, 2017 by cliffdean


Perhaps a title more apt than “Slow But Sure” for our Bird Race effort. Yes; we decided to do the usual route on foot – 18km Fairlight to Castle Water, 07.30 – 16.30, and found 97 species. Which is not bad but for the fact that so many other birds were present along that route but opted not to show themselves.


The most galling of these are the Birds of Shame – those common, common species which, for some cruel reason, cannot be found. Marsh Tit is pre-eminent in this category though, to be fair, is often reclusive anyway. But we pass through a few known habitats including a small wood where they live (they are famously sedentary) in which one can never be much more than 150m from a Marsh Tit yet sometimes they show, sometimes not. Yesterday was a “not” day. The other major BoS was Goldeneye, which can always be found on the Barn Pools at Harbour Farm except that yesterday they weren’t.


Then, we didn’t get any owls. Or Brent Goose. Or Linnet. Yet Linnet was not a typical BoS since, this winter, we knew of nowhere along the route where we might see one. And the long-staying RB Merganser was nowhere to be seen.


Having got the complaints out of the way, I should list the taken-for-granted highlights of this exceptionally bird-rich area. The only bird which came as a surprise was a solitary Snow Bunting which came flying along the beach towards us, settled a few metres way just long enough for people to struggle with their cameras before heading off again.


Everything else was expected: Chiffchaff, Firecrest, Taiga Bean, White-front & Barnacle Geese, Bearded Tits, Peregrine, Marsh Harrier, Ruff, Black-necked Grebe


There were great spectacles as well: rafts of GC Grebes out on the sea, swooshing masses of waders(Dunlin, Knot, Grey Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit)  swirling around Pett Beach and great crowds of calling Lapwings & Wigeon filling the sky above Flat Beach.


In addition, our team’s flâneur character was maintained with coffee in Dave’s cliff-top garden (Jay, Red-throated Diver) and a restoring lunch in the Norman the Conqueror ().


PS Speaking of Norman – this was the name given to the errant which pitched up on St Leonards beach some months ago. Following a great deal of care at RSPCA Mallydams Wood, repatriation was arranged to Little Cayman. Sadly, Norman did not thrive once delivered there and departed his ocean-going life on Christmas Day. A sad ending and a great disappointment to those who had looked after him.


Goose Chase

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on January 7, 2017 by cliffdean

Was it only last Monday – the last day of the long and disorientating holiday? Following the New Year’s first RXbirdwalk in bright, cold sunshine to watch the massed birds on Pett Level, I was back home eating lunch when my phone bleeped a message. Pete R told me he was watching 4 Bean Geese so I hurried back down to find him ensconced in the lee of a very useful EA container on the seawall.


Bean Geese are very infrequent visitors to Sussex so I was keen to have a look. The telescope views were not great: I later measured the range on Magic Map – it was 800m – and the low sun made coloration hard to assess on the Dark Side of the Geese. In addition, they were at first lying down, partly behind rushes, in among hundreds of Greylags & Canadas. When they deigned to look up we could, however, see that they had long necks and long, narrow beaks, though I couldn’t make out any bill colour at all. Eventually one flapped its  wings – dark brown – and then they got up and walked about – large, yellow legs. This for me was enough to distinguish them from the commoner, feral species round about and from the next scarcest contender – Pinkfoot. In response to some scare, they eventually flew up but were quickly lost among hundreds of other birds, after which we were

The interesting thing is that Pete & Roy G had seen these birds the previous Tuesday but too distantly to be confident if the ID. No-one had reported them in the meantime (not me neither – I rarely can be bothered to carry a scope so tend to miss out on subtle & distant birds).

Once home again I sent off a rather sparse Birdtrack description which, in no time at all generated an email from the County Recorder enquiring what race these birds had bean. I hadn’t even thought about it. In common, it gradually transpired, with an awful lot of people, I was just not up to speed on Bean Goose ID and needed to do some revision.


In normal times very few people watch birds at Pett Level – not even half a dozen regulars, among whom Pete has been the most steadfast over many years. This week though, ever since the Bean News got out, the seawall has from dawn to dusk been spiked with Tripod People who have discovered or claimed quite a variety of geese, not all of which fitted into a coherent pattern. The most interesting group, confirmed by diligent & well-informed observers (not me) was one of 5 “Taiga” Beans a race very rarely recorded in Sussex. 4 “Tundras” – the less rare, but still rare, race were also reported, as were 4 Pinkfeet. A few days later there were also some Whitefronts in addition to the more regular Greylags, Canadas, Barnacles & Brents.

There were also a lot of bird-watchers, many taking the opportunity to get a lot of scarce birds (Fancy Grebes, Ring-necked Duck) under their year-listing belts in a Via Dolorosa tour of Romney Marsh.


As the metaphorical fog cleared, it appeared that reports of 4 “Tundras” could have actually been the similarly structured but actually pretty different Pinkfeet (certainly the case with a couple of people I spoke to). The “Taigas” remained at 5. Which brings me to the question: what were we looking at on that Monday?  They had the long necks and bills of Taigas but there appeared to be just 4 birds.

Anyway, as a result of the confusion a lot of people are now much better educated than they were this time last week. The goose flock – not only varied but safely visible from a number of vantage points – has been the subject of much friendly and helpful sharing of knowledge up on the wintry seawall. Some people were lucky enough to see 3 Bewick’s Swans fly in – another very scarce bird at Pett. Who knows – even as I write this – what other species might have arrived overnight? We all cast our minds back to…er…2010? Red-breasted, Black Brant, Light-bellied Brent…



Pett various

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on December 28, 2016 by cliffdean


The first “hard” frost of the winter for us provided a new look to the Old Marsham Reedbed which, at this time last year, looked like this:


…having just been cleared by the National Trust after about 40 years of neglect. The work incurred vociferous protests from a few neighbours who preferred the willow swamp into which it had developed but as the reed, rushes, sedges and wetland flowers have grown up most people have come to appreciate the improvement.


During the last year, the inexorable march of the Grandiose Designs has continued, each bigger than the last. As the sun rose over the misty sea this morning, this one must have been recognised as a heliograph from the French coast. A few Red-throated Divers floated among the wisps of vapour and Fulmars skimmed the surface while a lone Peregrine watched from a blasted oak on the cliff-edge.


You can’t see it well in this photo, but this section has changed too over the last twelve months, thanks to work by the Pett Level Preservation Trust whose contractors and volunteers have cleared a large blackthorn thicket, thinned out the tall trees and opened up an overgrown pond.  This morning, 6 bright Bullfinches sat in the winter sunlight and just below the “Glenview” bridge a Water Rail was creeping about. We sometimes hear this secretive species squealing invisibly in the reeds but it’s rare to see one in the open.


A little up-country in the Marsham Valley yesterday morning there were large numbers of common birds (42 species in 3 miles), benefiting from the intricate patchwork of habitats, the most interesting being a pair of Firecrests in a woodland holly thicket and Meadow Pipits, Reed Buntings & Song Thrushes flushed from a rape field, where they had been feeding unseen, close to Pett Rec.


Noisy incoming geese arrived on the frosty pastures where they fed alongside Lapwings & Curlews. I though I had examined carefully the flocks of Canada & Greylag Geese  to single out any wilder species but it was not until I looked at this photo later that I noticed I had completely missed half a dozen Barnacle Geese (in the foreground). (They’re no wilder – feral species too, coming all the way from Scotney, but not all that frequent here.)


Suddenly, the sun rose out of the mist and heated the air so quickly that my still-cold binoculars steamed up. East-facing banks abruptly thawed into bright green, contrasting with the glaucous turf around them. A male Marsh Harrier scared up crowds of Wigeon from the far bank of the Pools. A lone Bar-tailed Godwit sat with roosting gulls, Oystercatchers & Redshanks. A breeze had sprung up and Gannets cruised above crests of the choppy, ink-black waves as distant auks rushed through the hollows. (60 species in 1.5 miles between Cliff End & 3 Gates)