Archive for Winchelsea Beach

Always a winner

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on April 23, 2017 by cliffdean

Not a long walk at all – just over 4 miles there & back, but the route from Dogs Hill to Halpin Hide passes through such a range of habitats that it never fails to deliver a number of species it would be hard to find in many other places in the county. Birds of Shame still remind you, however, that it’s not a zoo and a tantalising sense  of chance remains. Yesterday we missed common but typical BoSs such as Bullfinch (but they’re always in the same place!), Kestrel & Marsh Harrier (no so common elsewhere but here should be reliable). All the  same we found 76 species on a cold,dark, drizzly morning.

Migrants were at last a notable feature of the walk,with a good deal of time spent listening to and trying to get a look at Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Common & Lesser Whitethroat, Reed & Sedge Warbler. There was a Willow Warbler too, but a bit distant and feeble. We found flocks of Whimbrel feeding quietly on dry pastures as bubbling calls from above announced the arrival of further groups. Less expected was a single Curlew flying along the beach – most have by now departed.

Yelping calls of Med Gulls are such a part of the spring scene at Rye Harbour that it was hard to distinguish them as migrants apart from flocks of pure-winged adult corallini passing off-shore (with dark lines of Common Scoters flying beyond them) and although we had no luck in seeking out Lesser Black-backs on the roof of the caravan site club-house, a handsome pair settled for a while at Castle Water. I wasn’t sure what to make of a pristine pair of Common Gulls floating on The Ocean since the main northbound population went on north some weeks ago; were these late or thinking of sticking around to breed?

In the hide, another group pointed out to us a large brown raptor sitting with its back to us in the willows opposite which they thought was an imm Peregrine. Though at first unconvinced,  I had to agree with them once it turned to show its facial pattern. A Buzzard sat nearby, half-hidden in the leaves.

On the way back across the ridged grasslands we were treated to great views of a pair of Brown Hares and as we followed the fenceline looking for Corn Buntings, 3 Wheatears – all with differing plumage – jumped up out of rabbit holes.

The pools of West Nook Marsh were disappointing since the muddy margins are all overgrown by Crassula, offering little to the waders that should be dropping in there. Not even a Redshank.

Choosing to walk back along the shingle edge rather than the road, we came across a Ringed Plover and some confiding Turnstones but then the passing Swallows were joined by a few House Martins and as we watched them, a Swift passed across our field of view, way,way up.

Needless to say, the sun came out shortly afterwards.

 

The tail-end of Storm Doris

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 26, 2017 by cliffdean

Strong SW winds determined the course of today’s RXbirdwalk (from the relief of one sheltered spot to another) and our observational abilities, since we found it hard to keep our binoculars steady. It was quite cold too. And although I like to boast that this walk usually gets more than 60 species (usually more than 70 and in fact up to 85) today’s tally was a lowly 53, thanks to little birds sensibly keeping their heads down, roaring wind drowning out calls and a rough sea hiding most birds which might be floating upon it.

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Details of upcoming Reserve map by Pete Smith of Picturemaps

Having made all those excuses, the walk was not without reward, starting with a trio of handsome Fieldfares feeding in the lee of bushes right beside the path at Winchelsea Beach. Emerging from a near-birdless (but sheltered!) Beach Field to scan The Ocean, I noticed a small grebe with a white front bobbing out in the middle but soon diving, never to resurface.

“Did you say a Little Grebe?” “No, it was a small grebe.”

(You have to make that clear because capitals – which would make it a proper noun – can’t be heard. There are two main schools of thought about writing species’ vernacular names: a) all words capitalized e.g. Lesser Black-backed Gull b) no capitalization except when proper nouns are involved e.g. Dartford warbler, Bewick’s swan. The latter is the convention adopted by SWT and The Times. It’s generally no problem, though it make species harder to pick out when you’re scanning a page, but ambiguities can occur, mostly with “little”. In a recent Times article advising a walk around Rye Harbour a sentence began, “Elegant terns hovered over the water…” Were these terns just elegant – or were they Elegant Terns, a very rare species in Europe and one that would see a good few people jumping into their cars and heading south-east. Capitalization would eliminate the ambiguity. To be honest the latter case would merit caps & bold: ELEGANT TERNS. (!!! too))

Anyway, once a grebe reappeared near that spot it was a brown and fully capitalized Little Grebe. So I must have imagined (blame the wind) the white front……HOWEVER, on the way back, I spotted it again, spending more time under than upon the water, slowly,slowly, closer and closer..a Black-necked Grebe. Vindication.

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Photos in this post by Peter Matthews & Stuart Barnes

Emerging then from the renewed shelter of  The Wood and heading for the lee of Castle Farm,a large number of wagtails were spotted bouncing up & down from the filter beds over at the Water Treatment Works. I’d never been over there, though the shortcomings of local sewage provision had been the subject of a very interesting chat with someone from the IDB just this week. Why, I wanted to learn, was the road blocked with tankers & traffic lights outside the Co-op every time it rained?

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So we made a diversion, past Curlews & Egyptian Geese, to the shelter of the pines treatment structures where there were not only 20++ Pied Wagtails but Woodpigeon, Stock Dove, Dunnock, Chaffinch, Starling & Wren. What I really wanted to see/hear was whether there were any Grey Wagtails,which breed in every other WTW in the area so why not this one. No sign however.

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Upon arrival in the Halpin Hide,we were confronted with a great crowd of understated Gadwall backed up by more clearly heraldic Mallard, Shoveler, Teal, Wigeon & Shelduck while Cormorants cruised over bearing sticks. No waders though apart from Lapwing & Oystercatcher, and no raptors at all. There were a lot of gulls about, on the fields and on the islands, giving an opportunity to sort through species and plumages of Black-headed,Common, Herring, Great & Lesser Black-backs, the latter two in fabulous breeding form. Although there have been plenty around since last weekend we only saw one – adult –Med Gull later on beside West Nook Meadows where we were also most surprised to see a large (for around here) flock of Barnacle Geese which had not been there earlier. The compactness of the group, the strengthening wind and their habit of suddenly chasing one another made it hard to get an accurate count but we settled for 55. Probably just hopped over the border from Scotney.

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A Bigger Splash

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on November 3, 2016 by cliffdean

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Day of the Dead: a clear sky and sharp drop in temperature should provoke the kind of spectacular Woodpigeon migration we sometimes see in early November, but as I brush my teeth I scan from the bathroom window across the Wealden ridges from which no flocks approach.

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But what there is, what continues, is another spectacle, of a couple of hundred Gannets fishing all across the bay – after Whiting, hypothesized a couple of sea anglers, passive in envious contrast to the whirling and plummeting out at sea, sometimes in series like the strikes of a naval salvo. Sometimes the Gannets are floating as unfamiliar elongated silhouettes on the bright water, at other times surging up through a cloud of spray. The adults’ white wings blink in the sunlight as they wheel in search of the next victim.

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There were a few Red-throated Divers and flocks of white-necked G C Grebes, at the end of one of which was a smaller grebe. This remained the subject of we-should-of-brang-a-scope controversy until it paddled so close that its identity was confirmed as Black-necked. All the time we scrutinised it, hurtling Gannets provided a distracting backdrop.

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Day of the Dead: b the Old Lifeboat House we warmed the freshly-installed bench dedicated to Jimper Sutton, narrator, author & subject of many stories, a man of many parts. I taught two of his children at Winchelsea where, for a time, he was the school’s football coach. While visiting teams were accompanied by young teachers in shell-suits, Jimper clumped along the tough-line in fishing gear and wellies, roaring encouragement in local style.

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Following a fortifying Chilli con Carne on a Bed of Fries at the Norman the Conqueror (as someone calls it in an online review), we called in on the recently established little group of Common Seals alongside the Rother. As I watched them lolling about on the mud, I wondered whether I should lay off the pub lunches for a bit…..

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Ah yes, in the walk from Cliff End to Rye Harbour & Castle Water, we saw 88 species

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Interesting as always

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on October 15, 2016 by cliffdean

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It was a quick walk in grey weather, otherwise I could have spent a long time photographing the colourful aliens along and behind the Front Ridge, where garden plants spill out over shingle unvegetated since the early eighteenth century until they meet natives doing the slow and humdrum job of colonizing silts from long-gone tides.

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Off Dogs Hill, the sea was dark, the horizon swarming with Gannets and indeterminate gulls. Along the seawall, a thin stream of Swallows & small finches, including a few Redpolls. Robins are always wall-to-wall at Winchelsea Beach but they were ticking too from every other bit shelter including odd islands of gorse out by the Castle. Lots of Song Thrushes rushing about and by the Castle too a single Ring Ouzel – maybe the last of the influx.

Starved of rain, Castle Water has more than its fair share of islands lined with loafing Wigeon but without the waders that might spice it up. However, a brief show by a Bittern flying across the north end, a patrolling male Marsh Harrier to give the ducks a stir and a perched Merlin that made a lunge at a passing Meadow Pipit all added touches of drama.

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Beneath wires at the north end of  Beach Field lies a freshly dead Mute Swan, a crescent of blood from its slashed neck sprayed across the pebbles. Since the foxes have not yet attempted removal, the Time of Death I would estimate as “this morning”, but as I pass later a Crow is taking an interest from the safety of the deadly wires.The corpse bears no ring.

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75 species.

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A dismal day with two remarkable moments

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on September 27, 2016 by cliffdean

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Photo by James Tomlinson

Sunday, post-equinoctial & clashing with many other interesting events: The RX Bird Race! Team “Slow But Sure” has a proud history of high scores & low mileage for, rather than following the madding crowd on an autogeddon tour of reserves, we walk.

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Photo by James Tomlinson

From Fairlight to Rye Harbour it’s about 15 miles, threading though a rich variety of habitats which supply a wide range of birds. The first couple of years we found 104 species but since then it hasn’t been quite so good and this year it was the poorest yet at 92.

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We were favoured in one respect, which was the weather. It wasn’t good, until the afternoon but the threat of heavy rain, forecast in preceding days, had receded by early morning to the extent that we could risk dumping wet-weather gear at home.

It was a windy day, so hard to hear things and little birds kept their heads down. In addition it’s been warm, which has been great except that migrant populations have had little reason to shift. Clear skies and fair winds have assisted the departure of summer birds but those from the north have stayed put. Normally by this time there are many finches, pipits, larks and thrushes heading south.

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Photo by James Tomlinson

We probably started too early. 6am seemed fair enough but it was dark and breezy. In the first half hour we had just one species: Robin. At the end of that time a young Buzzard was wailing. Then it became light but there wasn’t an awful lot to see.

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Quite a few Gannets were fishing offshore, Sandwich Terns, the usual gulls. By the time we got to the end of the woods we knew we were in serious deficit for Market Wood had furnished us with just one species: Goldcrest.

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Bee photos by Mike Mullis

A pause at Toot Rock revealed the First Wonderful Thing: not birds but a rock-face swarming with Ivy Bees, returning from nearby globes of musty-scented Ivy.

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By lunch-time I was ready to give up; there was no chance of a respectable score.

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But after a fortifying plateful of tuna pasta bake flown in from Chick Hill (hard on the heels of a Full English Breakfast on the cliffs) I was persuaded to stagger on through the longueur of Winchelsea Beach.

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Photo by James Tomlinson

The tide situation suggested a route through Castle Water first, where we encountered the Second Wonderful Thing: in the smooth lee of Shingle Bank at the south end sat a vast flotilla of Whirligig Beetles, not whirling for once but just sitting, glittering like an armada of jet beads.

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Individuals would briefly shed their brilliance as they dived down into the shallows as fuzzy black blocks only to bob up to the surface once more blazing with reflected sunshine. If we let our shadows loom onto the them they hustled away in a series of arcs but the plop of a small pebble would send them into a frenzy of whirligigging, the bigger ripples rolling out through a hundred intersecting vibrations.

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Anyway…a few ducks at Halpin Hide then a long an terminal flog past inquisitive Egyptian Geese and down the road to Flat Beach for half a dozen new waders then collection and return to RSPCA Mallydams, entering wiggly ticks in the recording form on my knee. The winning team, The Pannel Beaters, had got 102 but although all the other teams had driven to Dungeness, our tally was not the lowest.

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However I think a fresh approach is due for next year.

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Dark & busy

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on September 18, 2016 by cliffdean

The hot summer has gone and conditions for the first RXbirdwalk of the autumn were inauspicious. As rain pattered against the kitchen window I wondered whether we should call it off, but in the end headed once more for the picturesque starting point of Dogs Hill toilets. In the event, the bird list came to a surprising 76 species.

Thousands of Swallows & Sand Martins were moving east along the seawall together with hundreds of Meadow Pipits. Beyond the luggers of the low tide mark and the leaden sea, turning Gannets were startlingly white against a sky as dark as a Lesser Black-back’s back – if only graellsi. The backs, meanwhile, of Common Gulls, in diffuse light and against the wet sand were blatantly pearly.

Large numbers of hirundines were gathered over The Ocean and Castle Water, below them a single f Pintail among the usual Coots & GC Grebes. In late morning House Martins began to appear and were in the majority by the time we finished. There seemed, however, to be no other overhead migrants apart from several Grey Wagtails.

Chiffchaffs predominated through the Beach Field – we spent several minutes watching them dashing about in an exotic mix of Sumach, Buddleia & Bear’s Breeches. There were Blackcaps too, especially at the north end, but few Common or Lesser Whitethroats. As usual, it was a challenge to get a decent look at any of these as they crossed the paths at high speed, only to dive straight into the deepest, shadowiest Hawthorns which were Alive With the Sound of Ticking.

With seed-clogged teeth, we paused to chat to anglers about birds, fish and blackberry crumble before moving on to Castle Water, where the rain has done little to reduce the islands. Good for waders, I imagined, but it wasn’t apart from a few Lapwings, 3 Ruff and a very little Little Stint. No sandpipers at all, no Marsh Harriers. But then we picked out a couple of Snipe on the far bank and a flock of brightly coloured Black-tailed Godwits went swooshing past. If this account suggests that the lake was deserted, that was not the case for there was a constant movement of Greylag & Canada Geese, Wigeon, Teal, Gadwall & Cormorants as well as visits by 5 species of gull and unremitting flurries of hirundines.

Back across the pallid Cynosurus prairies we disturbed just one Skylark and found a lone Whinchat. In the Wood were Green & GS Woodpeckers and a Treecreeper but the pools of West Nook Meadows, overgrown and contaminated with Crassula were almost birdless. At high tide, the sea was a lot paler then before, showing up the snouts of two Grey Seals, then the streamlined form of an Arctic Skua on its way south, ignoring nervous Sandwich Terns.

An unexpected warbler

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on June 23, 2016 by cliffdean

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Edward Blyth (1810-1873)

Around lunch-time last Friday Barry Yates forwarded me a video made early that morning by Mike Russell. I couldn’t play it on my phone but once home I could see that it showed a singing, unstreaked Acrocephalus warbler, which Mike thought could be Marsh. Since our broadband was very slow at the time the video rolled out erratically, the colour was quite bleached and I agreed that it looked good for Marsh Warbler. The song contained some mimicry though it lacked the usual hell-for-leather pace; the flight feathers seemed to have pale edging and though the wing looked short, the scrubby habitat seemed right. Marsh Warblers are always worth listening to but it was raining hard at that point so I determined to have a look the next morning.

By early evening however, more astute observers (Barry, Phil Jones & Paul James) had looked and listened more critically and were suggesting it could be a Blyth’s Reed Warbler– a bird that winters in India and migrates NW as far as Finland. Those few that make it as far as the UK are mostly autumn migrants in the north and are very difficult to identify. There was only one previous record in Sussex. I kicked myself for not having recognised that the song structure was wrong for Marsh Warbler and then again for not having paid more attention.

(On our last morning in Poland I had awoken to find a hand-drawn map pushed under our bedroom door: during the night our guide had heard a Blyth’s Reed Warbler singing on the very edge of the village, so I rushed down there (“turn right at the Cyrillic cross…”) but there was no sign. And now…right here…)

Though I knew they are night-singers, an immediate departure was precluded by rain + recreational use of amber vodka, so I spent a while checking ID features and listening to sound-files on Xeno-canto before getting an early night.

Road access to the site is not convenient. The last time I’d crossed the intervening fields the grass was short but this morning it was calf height and soaked from the night’s rain. So I arrived at 04.30 rather wet but cheered to find the bird immediately, singing strongly from a skeletal Elder in a tangled patch of low reed, nettle and bramble. It was only about 3m from me and although the sky was overcast the light was pretty good.

The colours looked different from the video, uniformly dull grey-brown but for warmer brown on the tail and secondary edges (but subtle – not the contrast in the video). The tail was noticeably abraded. Its underparts were paler, the breast a rather dirty grey (this because it was wet from the soaking foliage – they looked a cleaner off-white in dry conditions next day) this contrasting with a whiter throat & long undertail coverts. The primary projection was much shorter than undertail coverts.

The markings on the head were not symmetrical. While the supercilium on the left side extended clearly behind the eye, that on the right (as seen in Mike’s video) does not, explained perhaps by a vertical dark mark behind the eye. While there was a darker stripe through the eye, it was not as dark as books suggest. There was an eye-ring though I didn’t find it as obvious as Mike has said.
On the bill, the upper mandible was darker, but yellow at the base while the lower was mostly clear yellow – hard to tell if the tip is darker. Significantly, its legs were pinkish grey – not the straw colour of Marsh.

The bird was not at all difficult to see since much of the time it sang out on dead branches, on occasions flying up to a higher (3m) perch in a hawthorn. When it dropped into the scrub it only disappeared from views for short periods, returning to sing from a reed stem.

As much as the visual clues were subtle, the song was plainly and consistently different from the streaming mimicry of Marsh Warbler, clearly structured with a wide variety of discrete phrases divided by pauses of up to 4 seconds. It often starts with a very Chaffinch-like “creep creep” and Chaffinch was suggested too by “pink!” notes. Other mimicry suggests Blue/Great Tit, Whitethroat, Sedge Warbler, Great Reed Warbler, Greenfinch (trill), Fieldfare & Green Sandpiper.
What’s more there were several very distinctive phrases which seem to be all its own: a rising “didid du dee!” (in tone a bit like a Common Rosefinch) a rising “tutt-tit!” and a very characteristic fluting glissando.

It was a really interesting song. As much as I like Reed Warbler song, the one chugging along in the ditch behind me sounded rather unenterprising in comparison. I would however have appreciated a look at it, just to compare the plumage tones but it kept resolutely undercover.

As I stood there, many other birds were singing – you can hear them in the background – and a pair of Cuckoos were dashing back and forth. All this going on, this extraordinary and unexpected warbler, but still early in the morning and nobody else around.

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Photo by David Walker

Sam Smith called in briefly to take some photos. While I went for a walk to stretch my legs, an email came in from David Walker at Dungeness (to whom Barry had sent Mike’s video), saying that he thought it was a Marsh Warbler, even though the song was odd. I felt a bit deflated since he is someone very much more experienced and knowledgeable than I am, someone to whom I would defer, but by now I was certain that the song was objectively different. so I urged him to come and have a look & listen, while wondering who else might confirm this bird’s identity one way or the other.

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Photo by David Walker

Recalling that helpful map slid under my hotel door, I sent a message to Pawel Malczyk in Poland, attaching one of my videos…. which was too big to send. Standing out in the Fairy Ring Field (the same field in which I had once got a text from Andrew G that he’d found a Red-flanked Bluetail), I embarked on the steep learning curve of How to Reduce a Video. Having stupidly left my glasses at home, I stabbed hopefully at the screen until the message went….

…….Ten minutes, and one Little Owl, later the reply came “Hi! It sounds very good in fact! But I expected a little bit longer record to be sure it’s a BRW. Send me longer one on my email please.” ….More stabbing…sending….

……………“Yes, yes, yes!!! It’s Blyth’s! Congrat!”

By this time, Barry had taken photos and recorded the song, then later David came over and agreed that it was indeed Blyth’s Reed.

(But who was Blyth? Read about him here.)

It was still there first thing on Sunday morning but was not found subsequently. Although a lot of people would have enjoyed seeing and hearing this bird, news of its presence was not broadcast more widely because poor access to the site (on private land) meant that an arrival of large numbers of well-wishers would have been likely to cause problems with local residents and landowners.