Archive for Toot Rock

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.


Call of the Wild

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on October 9, 2016 by cliffdean

It’s been a fantastic week for Ring Ouzels – those wild mountain blackbirds that drop in – if you’re lucky – during October, passing through briefly, some years absent and other erratic, from European uplands down as far as North Africa.

Wary, streamlined, silver-winged, with that resonant chuc-chuc! contact note and shrill flight call, they favour downland hilltops but around here have to make do with Fairlight (a reasonable enough upland), Cliff End (a small lump) and Toot Rock (scraping the barrel).


Bird photos by Kirsti Matthews

Most autumns you feel fortunate to cross paths with one or two. Sometimes you don’t see them, just hear the call from the dark depths of a thorn bush or cathc sight of a slim dark thrush diving into cover. A couple of years ago I felt elated to see 4 on Cliff end only to learn later that 300 had made landfall on the Firehills. But that was a once-in-a-lifetime event and, as lifetimes go, this week has not been too bad. I’ve lived at Pett Level for very nearly 40 years but have never seen so many Ring Ouzels there, nor so consistently nor Showing so very Well.

I suppose that last week’s strong easterly winds must have drifted migrants across the Channel. Numbers have been increasing over the last few days till this morning when there seem to have been about 15 – not just a glimpse but repeated close views even when we were slashing & burning at the PLPT work party they were whizzing back & forth. Often, Ring Ouzels are only present for the first hour or two: they drop into coastal cover, maybe feed for a bit then head onwards. These, however, have been hanging around all day, allowing even the undeserving late risers the chance to see them.


Yesterday – Saturday – RXbirdwalkers at Hastings Country Park found themselves assembling alongside the massed ranks of the Friends of HCP but the two groups took separate routes. We turned off downhill towards Warren Road – a traditional RZ site – and almost immediately heard calls. It turned out that maybe 10 birds were feeding at a garden Rowan hidden, unfortunately, behind an Atlas Cedar. so we could see birds swooping across but then they’d be concealed by the needles. When we sidled up to the garden gate for a better view the Rowan was empty, though we could still hear calls from various gardens. All this lurking around houses was a bit awkward since we didn’t want to intrude on the householders’ early-morning routines but those who emerged were interested to know what we were looking at and a fair bit of People Engagement was undertaken.

We found more, and had much better views thanks to proximity & improved light, on the north side of Warren Glen,where there were about 6, and then a flock of 8 flying from Place Farm. So maybe a total in the mid-20s. However Trevor F who lives nearby reckons he counted 31 in his garden – not all at once though.

Apart from the ouzels (also ousel, from Old English osle “blackbird,” from West Germanic *amslon- (source also of Old High German amsala, German amsel), probably from PIE *ams- “black, blackbird” (source also of Latin merula “blackbird,” Welsh mwyalch “blackbird, thrush,” Breton moualch “ouzel”). (I was wrong – I was sure it was a corruption of oiseau=uccello) the visible migration was weak on Saturday, but with the drop in temperature this morning it was pretty busy, especially LI,GO,SK,MP,PW, so looks fair for the week ahead.



A dull morning

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on September 26, 2016 by cliffdean

Saturday’s RXbirdwalk sought to replicate the variety and interest of my regular “short walk” from the western end of Pett Level to 3 Gates, just east of the Pools. this has recently produced 60+ species and earlier in the week had been teeming with migrants. Number had fallen off in the course of the week but I was not prepared for the utter lack of activity on Saturday. Chiffchaffs, present in dozens on Monday, were hard to find while other species were entirely absent.

In the hope of finding something, we crossed to Alice Brook, the little pond behind Toot Rock where in fact there were a couple of Stonechats and a Spotted Flycatcher on the Legendary Wire Fence but that was it. So we walked along the base of the old cliff-line there to look for Little Owls. There weren’t showing either.

As we turned back however, mentally shrugging our shoulders in resignation, I noticed a harrier flying across the field in front of us, slightly above the bushes therefore silhouetted at that point. Marsh Harriers don’t usually come along here and what’s more, this was a slim bird with a long slender tail, suggesting Montagu’s – a rare bird here (or anywhere in Sussex). It turned towards us, showing dark brown upperparts, a small, neat white patch on the rump and a barred tail – for sure a Montagu’s – the id conformed as it veered to one side and briefly hovered over the grass bank ahead of us, dangling long yellow legs, showing strongly barred flight feathers, the characteristic orangey undersides of a juvenile….and in the same instance two of us noticed the facial pattern of – unbelievably – a Pallid Harrier!

In a brief view we had both seen the dark vertical line – the “boa” – at the forewing, emphasised by a pale collar between it and the dark face. Of the latter we had no more opportunity to note details for the bird turned away, though from behind, the boa and pale collar could still be seen as it turned from side to side.  It floated along the edge of the bank and then apparently up the Marsham Brook, quickly lost to view behind the intervening bushes.


Pallid Harriers breed no nearer than Ukraine & Belarus and, until quite recent years, were fabulously rare. The only ones I’d seen previously had been over irrigated crops edging steppe near Palmyra, Syria in spring 2009, though then I’d been too dazzled by the silvery males to pay much attention to the more subtle identification features of females. Like some other eastern species (Blyth’s Reed Warbler for instance) they have been turning up more and more frequently, in the last few weeks in W Sussex, Dungeness & Sheppey. But it never occurred to me that I’d see one here, and on a morning otherwise so very, very, dull.


Le rappel a l’ordre…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 19, 2016 by cliffdean


…almost. Long. long ago, even before Little Egrets had been invented and winters were often quite cold, the coming of spring was announced by Chiffchaff song coming out from the catkins in early March.


At some point in the changing world order this harbinger role was usurped by Mediterranean Gulls yelping as they glided in overhead around Lupercalia, just as welcome but seeming a bit crazy.


This year though, the Med Gulls are yet to arrive; day after day I scan through the squadron of Common Gulls strutting behind our house but white wing-tips and dark eyes are there none.


And this morning a Chiffchaff was singing. I’m pretty sure it hadn’t just winged its way through the frosty night though, since it sang just upstream of the sewage works where a few pass the winter among wagtails, making the most of hatching midges and the communal warmth of bacterial throngs.


But it was backed by Song & Mistle Thrushes, Great Tits, Treecreeper and a drumming GS Woodpecker. And lambs, and the grazier whistling to his dog in a way that suggested some escaped exotic cage-bird.


Pond of Mystery

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 4, 2016 by cliffdean

pl 225I put this 1909 postcard on the PLPT Facebook page to show the pond but concluded that the one seen here seems too close to the Old Coastguards to be the one still in existence – that which we have been clearing over the last year. However, when I examined other old photos – and maps – from Phil Stringer’s invaluable collection I decided that this must be trick of the lens.

lix.nw s1872 r1897 p1899

In this 1872-99 map, a small pond is shown in more or less the position of the present one. The enclosure and building immediately to the NE does not look quite right for the present “Glenview”. The BSWDs refer to War Dept Boundary Stones, at least three of which remain in (prone) position (there are more along the beach).

r1907 p1909-1910

In 1907-10, the pond is bigger, and just beyond the shingle bank (marked with a whole series of boundary stones), supporting my suspicion that it originated as an intertidal slack.

pl 254

The pond is clearly visible in this postcard from the early 20s. Immediately beyond it is a pale strip which I take to be a wash of shingle resulting from a breach in the sea bank during a storm (1923 is hypothesized) – a much bigger one is conspicuous further away and still determines the vegetation in that area. It may also be the reason for the siting of “Tamarisk” and the concrete road, which formerly followed a diagonal route – as you see on the 1927-8 map below, which also shows the extent of shingle swept in towards the canal. The canal escaped getting blocked but a pre-canal drainage ditch was truncated into the little right-angle bit which still survives.

lix.6 r1927 p1929

pl 19

And so we come to two postcards from the early 30s, (extracts only shown here) in which the tennis court has been built across the N end of the pond. In the top image, you can see “Whispering Reeds” has been built (it still looks similar) and the parapet of the Royal Military Canal has been bulldozed, perhaps to open up that strip for development. The Canal itself full of reeds, is hardly discernible. The shingle wash – top right -is now partially vegetated.

pl 71

This later photo (another two houses have been constructed along Canal Bank and the kernel of “Tamarisk” further off ) you can detect reflections of the tennis court posts in the  water of the remaining pond. Toot Rock is being quarried (for footings for new houses?)

Pett Level today

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on October 13, 2015 by cliffdean

IMG_1663Photos by James Tomlinson

In a rather chilly north wind, flock after flock was still passing eastwards. Five of us enjoyed the amazing spectacle, picking out the various calls as different species passed over us. The mix was generally the same though with some of yesterday’s birds missing but others added.


Very soon we had a flock of 25 Crossbills passing “Stonewalls”. At PLPT, a Brambling in the bushes, fewer Blackbirds but more Song Thrushes (hiding in the thicket by the pond) and 2 Mistle Thrushes which came in as we stood in the lee of the Toot Rock observation post. A Woodlark fluted past and later a Merlin shot along the beach.

73 species this time.

On the Toot

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on March 21, 2015 by cliffdean

With the equinox one day past, a strong NE migration of Chaffinches was moving over Pett Level this morning, with flocks of up to 70 battling against the wind. As the morning progressed, they were accompanied by small numbers of Meadow Pipits, Pied Wagtails, Goldfinches, Linnets and, unexpectedly, Crossbills -unseen but calling up against the clouds.

22 people attended the RHNR walk to learn about the defence of Toot Rock from Martin King, himself armed with quotes and illustrations. The walk concentrated on structures remaining from WWII, though we did also look at the early 19th century Royal Military Canal and early 20th century New Coastguard Station.

The gun emplacement, (mapped on this very detailed website) which we’d previously cleared, provided welcome protection from the cold N wind as Martin pointed out the mounting for the formidable 6 inch gun which, it turns out had been fired only for practice or, ceremonially, to impress visiting dignitaries.

IMG_4116 b

Use of the Bofors anti-aircraft gun had, on the other hand, been frustrated by Luftwaffe pilots flying at a level below its minimum elevation. Troops at the look-out had assisted in spotting and assisting incoming Flying Fortresses, which crash landed nearby after sustaining damage during their sorties.

At the back of the hill, Martin pointed out the mounting for a Blacker Bombard spigot mortar, a weapon that appeared more dangerous to its crew than to the enemy!

2015-03-21 Toot Rock walk 025


(I mistakenly used this picture, attracted by its theatricality. It’s a Smith Gun (of course).

The battery on Toot Rock was operational for less then two years, after which an anti-aircraft unit was positioned on the hill behind in order to bring down Doodlebugs en route for London.

As we looked out from the hilltop towards the next observation post at Hog Hill, a Peregrine, then a male Kestrel glided past as Med Gulls called from the fields and a Chiffchaff sang from the canal side.