Archive for Urban

In the shade

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

On Sunday, shadow falling from the park’s tall trees cast a welcome cool on a day of mounting heat. Although at 9 Hastings was still pretty quiet, traffic noise built up as visitors poured into the town and after a while the detection of birdsong was enhanced by the identification by sound of arriving motorcycles.

There was a remarkable amount of song – a lot of Wrens especially (and they always make themselves heard) – but also Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Woodpigeons, Blackcaps & Chiffchaffs. A lot of Goldcrests too; we weren’t counting but it would have been interesting to have done so. My theory that the winter’s Firecrests might have stayed on to breed met with no support even after lengthy listening-in around ostensibly suitable habitats.

Caucasian Wing-nut – part of a shady stand of suckers by Shornden Reservoir

We spent a bit of time trying to identify trees. Out in the woods this is not too demanding but in this park it definitely is, thanks to the presence of about 400 different types, including forms & cultivars. As we moved around we passed through zones of musty perfume from flowering laurels.

The ponds provided interest not only from lazily cruising Carp but also a variety of spectacular dragonflies such as Emperor & Broad-bodied Chaser. At Buckshole Reservoir a Grey Wagtail seemed to be nesting in the concrete outflow structure and on Shornden the local Herring Gulls and a few Black-headed were joined by one Lesser Black-back.

From this open vantage point, a flock of Swifts could be seen wheeling over Bohemia.



Too many birds!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 22, 2017 by cliffdean

firecrest-2pngFirecrest by Stuart Barnes

Not a huge number of species – 33 I think – but an awful lot of birds. Not just Robins, Blue & Great Tits (which were everywhere) but Goldcrests, Treecreepers & Nuthatches too. I’ve said before & I’ll say it again: birds for which you have to hunt in “wild” woodlands are packed into Alexandra Park and easier to see too.


Treecreeper by Stuart Barnes

On a warm sunny morning, the trees were full of song and flitting, hard-to-focus-on bird-shapes and shadows, from the  stiff-winged display flight of Stock Doves to the silvery trill of Firecrests. The first of these latter was singing in the very place we saw one last year – was it there still or again? We found at least 5 of them, 3 above the road bridge where we also saw the only 2 Grey Wagtails, a characteristic bird of the park which I expected to find more widely.


Following photos by Peter Matthews: Grey Wagtail



On Shornden Reservoir, a fine sinensis Cormorant and 4 species of gull: Black-headed, all adult,  on their way north; Herring adults & immatures, maybe resident locals; 3 Lesser Black-backs just arrived back from somewhere down the  Atlantic coast, maybe still en route, maybe planning a summer on St Leonards rooftops; finally a single Common Gull – the first I’ve seen in the park, not really the kind of place Common Gulls like.


Lesser Black-backed Gull



A bit of Park news: a grant has been obtained to renovate the greenhouse, which is now covered in plastic, protecting Prince Albert from the weather.


Firecrest by Stuart Barnes again

Colonna sonora

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

It was the truth when I wrote in a review of our B&B in Rome that we awoke to the sound of birds rather than traffic noise. I failed to specify, however, that the birds in question were Yellow-legged Gulls which went KOKOKOKOKOKOKyeeOOWW! from the rooftops at break of day.


I had been impressed by the inclusion of these birds’ calls in the dawn rooftop scene of La Grande Bellezza because I had not understood their predominance in the city’s everyday soundtrack.


The second species to fire up at dawn, subtle by comparison, was the similarly ubiquitous Hooded Crow, then some time later Great Tits and crooning Blackbirds.


Though I heard none of the Robins which feature frequently in the film – their early-morning innocence serenading the homebound playboy – mellifluous Blackcap song backed up by chattering of Wrens issued from evergreen courtyards along with the throbbing of amorous Feral Rock Doves.




As we waited for the tram, silvery Firecrest song and the sizzling of invisible Serins came down from Holm Oaks overhanging the busy street.


In the pine-shaded parks they were joined by Short-toed Treecreepers & Greenfinches though it was the shrieking bands of dazzling green Ring-necked & Monk Parakeets that caught tourists’ attention.


Black Redstarts quivered from broken columns and fallen arches while high above the waving selfie-sticks Kestrels cackled from the ancient brickwork.



Considering the vast numbers of wild beasts slaughtered at the Colosseum, few of their bones have been recovered. Nor does there seem to be any evidence for the martyrdom of Christians there.




Jeb, the film’s protagonist shows little interest in, but perhaps some appreciation of, the bird song (Song Thrush, Blackcap, Robin) that accompanies him, as fresh as the water he splashes from a wayside fountain.


He fails to register Peregrines wickering from a crumbling aqueduct, no doubt distracted by the naked performance artist about to bash her head against it.


 Nonetheless he scores a remarkable Roof-garden Tick when he discovers a flock of migrant Flamingos roosting on his city-centre balcony.




Bones, ashes, shards & guts

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on March 20, 2016 by cliffdean


Although the ruins of Ancient Rome have been cleaned of vegetation (much to the regret of those who read the accounts of early travellers there who found heroic, shaggy architecture projecting from lumpy farmland) the briefest exposure to them leads into an endless entanglement of cultural associations.

Not far from here, in Brightling churchyard, stands the steep-sided tomb of John Fuller. I’d never previously noticed just how steep-sided it was; I always assumed the model to be Egyptian.


Now I realise it’s much more likely, especially in view of its date, to take its inspiration from the pyramid mausoleum of Caius Septimus (18-12 BC) (its own pointy design maybe based on Nubian monuments), embraced by red bricks of the later Aurelian Wall (271-5 AD) which stands by a busy roundabout not far from Ostiense stations (itself unaccountably generous for today’s rail traffic until you learn it was built to welcome Hitler into the city in 1938…)


Beyond those walls it used to be open country, partly dedicated to those activities excluded from the city itself. By the early 19th century those included the interment of non-Catholic northerners attracted to Rome by duty, light or archaeology but having the misfortune (or good fortune) to die there, along with rather a lot of their children.


The principal object of pilgrimage in the cemetery’s older, less crowded part is the anonymous grave of John Keats – a “YOUNG ENGLISH POET”, victim of a familial strain of consumption, over in the corner of a lawn patrolled by plump and arrogant cats, beneath dark cypresses inhabited by Serins & Firecrests. Black Redstarts quiver on the ancient brickwork  of the wall from beyond which comes the rumble of city traffic and the howling chorus of rooftop Yellow-legged Gulls.




Shelley’s ashes were eventually removed here, though to the congested new section, following the cremation of his rotting, drowned body on the beach at Lerici.


Besides the soldiers, diplomats, politicians, hedonistic gentry and sickly Grand Tourists there are buried painters, sculptors, linguists, optimistic convalescents and those who met an unexpected end in the Tiber: a group of mariners, a 16-year-old girl swept off her horse.


Leaving the shadow, warbling Blackbirds and grating Sardinian Warblers of the graveyard, you turn down some steps onto the cobbles of a shabby, graffitied back-street, lined with single-storey shanties. No tourists, no pilgrims, no selfies. Feeling a bit dodgy actually.


The scrub rising behind the squalid, impromptu buildings covers one of the biggest waste-heaps in the world: millions and millions of amphorae mounded up over some centuries. Monte Testaccio, the last resting place of Dressel 20 vessels in which olive oil had been shipped to the hungry city from southern Spain. Whereas most amphorae were reused this type, for reasons of contamination and structure, it seems, were simply discarded. Not all that simply – it was done in a very organised way.

This article gives an excellent overview of the logistics involved in building Monte Testaccio and places it within the context of World Dumps, their management and rehabilitation.


Dressel 20 is bottom left, I believe.


At some point, it was discovered that the porous shard-filled hill maintained an even interior temperature which was just right for keeping wine cool and so sprang up a ring of bars supplied from cantine bored through strata of terracotta.

The Roman Campagna from Monte Testaccio, Sunset 1819 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856


Then across the road is a fine neo-classical facade – topped by a crumbling cherub overpowering a justifiably resistant bull – also graffitied but in clear process of restoration – which turns out to have been the city slaughterhouse.


Behind the archway you see the stockades which once sheltered doomed beasts from the sun, and the overhead trackway designed to transport their carcasses from one part to another.


The installation is undergoing redevelopment, part of which is an arts centre which includes a music school.


P.S. Once I had published this post, people complained. “The title mentions guts but upon these you are silent. We’d like to know more about guts.”

I just forgot. It was taking too long. By implication the guts would be to do with the Mattatoio and so they are. Slaughtermen were paid in offal from which the rich Roman legacy of typical dishes descends, as explained interestingly in this article. Did I try any of them? Nope; I grew up in a generation only slightly less spoilt than my children. My mum, just one generation back, would eat chitterlings, hearts. brawn, kidneys, liver & black pudding. I continue to (uneasily) consume the last two.

The adjacent plot has been developed into a nice new market selling such grim stuff but also more photogenic vegetables.


“But, why, with all the glories of Rome to choose from, do you write about an old dump?” Well, it’s because it surprised me. Since I’d not been to Rome for many years there must be many other surprises lying in wait. The famous bits are so over-exposed that they’re hard to see clearly. The baroque churches I find heavy & bombastic (though making the Caravaggios they house look shockingly original and authentic).

There were, oddly enough, no other tourists the morning we went to Testaccio and, though it’s being gentrified quickly enough, the sequence down from Piramide retains the raw incongruity of Edgelandia.


Sprites in the shrubbery

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 21, 2016 by cliffdean

It was a dull morning yesterday, but having already dumped a series of proposed walks on account of miserable weather, I was determined to go ahead and the sheltered nature of this lovely park (click on the “Alexandra Park” link at the foot of this post for more on its history and our previous visits) protected us from the wind.

As I noted in a previous post, we were surrounded by Wrens, Robins too, just everywhere but the other member of the Scrub Trio – Dunnock only in the more open spaces. We were keen to see the Kingfishers which have been reported on Facebook etc but they were nowhere to be found. The streams & ponds did hold a couple of Grey Wagtails however.

What was really interesting was the number of Treecreepers – starting to sing now – Goldcrests (likewise) and Firecrests. We saw 4 of the latter, 3 of them together in one spot (with a male showing a brilliantly orange crown), all reclusive at first. I suspect there could be many wintering in the park.

Altogether, we saw/heard 32 species. Looking at past lists, this seems pretty standard for winter. A conspicuous absentee was Greenfinch, which has returned to many breeding areas in the last fortnight. In the past I have recorded them in the 20s in winter. There are 3 urban species too which frequent surrounding houses yet rarely seem to venture into the park itself: Collared Dove, Starling & House Sparrow. Though we could hear the latter from nearby back gardens, but no sign at all of the others.

Sunday in the Park

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 15, 2015 by cliffdean

Alexandra Park in Hastings is a very friendly place to go watching birds. During Sunday morning’s RXbirdwalk there we were often engaged in conversation by walkers or dog-walkers wanting to know what we’d seen or to tell us what to look out for. It’s clear that there exists a strong appreciation of this most lovely and tree-rich of Victorian town parks where the bird most valued was the Kingfisher, hardly surprising in view of its vivid colours, barely credible in an urban setting and dealing out a daily dose of the miraculous to those with eyes to see.

2015-01-11 10.54.21

Yes, we did catch up with one, glowing in ironic contrast to the sludgy water above which it perched at the top Buckshole settling pond. Work is going on there to improve the general water quality, a couple of bunds having been installed to trap silt and many trees cut back to throw more light on the many Moorhens scuttling around the dark and muddy pool. Unfortunately many plastic bottles embellish the outflow.

2015-01-11 10.53.54

In past winters, the Alders around the settling ponds have been visited by Siskins, Lesser Redpolls & Goldfinches, picking seeds from the little cones but we saw just a couple of the latter, for SK & LS seem to be nowhere this year. We saw no Grey Wagtails either, perhaps the park’s truly iconic bird but maybe preferring nearby rooftops around Morrison’s car park where I often see them.

What we did see, great plenty, were Robins, just everywhere, unlike Wrens, their usual companions-in-scrub, which were confined to marginal, brambly zones. There were numerous Blue & Great Tits too, with fewer but louder Coal Tits, one or two flocks of Long-tailed Tits and frequent high-pitched Goldcrests.

Just NW of Harmer’s Pond, we had fantastic close views of Treecreepers and then a dazzling Green Woodpecker which probed the turf of an enclosure indifferent to passers-by. Altogether we saw & heard 33 species, the last of which was a Nuthatch on trees right by Dordrecht Way.

Click the “Alexandra Park” link below to see other posts about this site.


The rise & fall of roof-nesting gulls

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on July 27, 2014 by cliffdean

Yesterday lunch-time I was looking down across the steep-pitched, orange-tiled Old Town roofscape. Apart from the grunting and cheering of a Tug o’ War on the Stade and the creams of a meager dozen Swifts, the air was as usual full of the sound of Herring Gulls: the young keening the adults howling.

When friends pointed out former nest sites on adjacent roofs that were this year unoccupied I suspected that my predictions may be correct: that with a sudden decline in food supply consequent upon the closure of Pebsham Tip, the local population would naturally diminish.

While I don’t foresee a disappearance – the cosy nest-sites along with continuing sustenance from fishing by-catch and untidy waste disposal practices guarantee a plaice for Hastings Herring Gulls – the fever-pitch years of inflated population may be at an end. Reference to the indispensable Birds of Sussex reminded me that roof-nesting in our county began in this town only in the 1950s. Even more surprising, the cliff-face colony, which I had supposed to be existent from time immemorial, was first noted between 1935/40.

A couple of weeks ago the Hastings Observer unreflectively reported that RSPCA Mallydams Wood had received an increased number of Herring Gulls injured through deliberate acts of cruelty. By referring to these birds “rats with wings” and “public enemy No 1” the paper has contributed to a consensus within which the birds have been defined as vermin and their inhumane treatment encouraged.

While watching the gulls I suddenly noticed a Black-back swoop down to a roof near the The Bourne. Although Lesser Black-backs nest in small numbers on roofs, I usually see them in St Leonards or on industrial estates. This one looked like Great Black-back though,which is a rare and recent breeder in Sussex. Slithering over polished floors, I extricated my binoculars from my bag to confirm that it was indeed GB and what’s more with 3 well-grown young. Back to Birds of Sussex to confirm that rooftop nesting in the UK was of recent origin, from the early 90s and that breeding in the county had first been noted – at Bexhill – in 2000. While the Sussex population – all roof-nesting – has expanded there seem still to be no more than 10 pairs.( There are more Avocets nesting in the county, though not on roofs, I hasten to add.)

PS Alan P reminds me that he reported these birds on RX a month ago!