Archive for Woodlands


Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on March 2, 2018 by cliffdean

In seeking shelter from the freezing wind I dropped down into the cliff-top Landslip Wood. Few passers-by notice it and nobody goes there.

In the years since I’d last visited this extraordinary site, blackthorn had closed up over its steep and obscure access tunnels but now the snow revealed the tracks of a previous visitor…


Exposed to relentless wind and salt spray, the stunted oaks that grow here crouch down into the incline but stretch out their limbs almost horizontally to grab at the seaside light. Negotiation of the tilted way requires a good deal of ducking and diving and, occasionally, some Limbo skills.

With the khaki sea pounding just below, the danger of approaching the cliff-edge is all too clear but from a distance you can recognise the skeleton tree where the Peregrine sits, while Fulmars skate past its roots exposed by previous rock-falls.

There’s nowhere else like this in the South-east nor, I suspect, in the whole of England.


Year of the Dog

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 11, 2018 by cliffdean

Five Minutes of the Dog was more than enough yesterday, when our arrival at Beckley woods coincided with that of a dog-herder who unloaded one lot after another of her yapping charges, walking them down the track a little way before returning to her big van to shovel out another contingent.

It took us quite a while to get away from the disturbance, but even as we regained sufficient calm to listen in, there were surprisingly few birds calling. It was only upon reaching deciduous plantations in the stream valley that some semblance of the woodland soundscape re-emerged. Besides Robins & 5 species of Tit, there were, beyond the branches, mewing Buzzards and croaking Ravens (neither of those present when I first started coming here). But the most refreshingly spring-like sound was that of Great Spotted Woodpeckers drumming.

A recent article from Rare Bird Alert  (08 Feb 2018) proposes that the drumming patterns of individuals, though sounding much the same to us, is different  from male & female birds. It’s only very recently that I learnt that females drum too. And yaffle, in the case of Green Woodpecker (which was calling a little way over).

Another article (06 Feb 2018) seeks to explain why woodpeckers don’t wreck their brains with all that hammering.

Another question is how Grey Squirrels – the presumed culprits – position themselves to gnaw at reserve signs, this one for the SWT Flatropers Wood where, as you can see in the photo below, active management has been carried out to open up a sheltered glade for the benefit of butterflies by thinning out a dense thicket of young birches.

The main interest of this walk lies in the intensely varied woodland structure, resulting from different purposes and histories.

For instance, in this spot you can see ,to the left, remnants of former oak, with colonising Holly & Silver Birch, backed by a more recent plantation of Scots Pine & Larch while to the right is an area planted with Beech. The ground flora either side of the path is very different as result.

As we paused here, with rain arriving two hours ahead of schedule, my thoughts turned naturally enough to Black Treacle. We were munching on flapjack thoughtfully provided by Eliza. This week it was enhanced not by cheese nor chili, but by the iconic Lyle’s molasses.

I was thinking even more of the classic tin design, enigmatically featuring a dead lion. I guess those of us who know, know. But to an outsider this must seem very odd. Beyond the Biblical reference however, is the curious belief in ancient & mediaeval times that bees generated spontaneously from putrefying flesh, an apparent bit of lazy confusion with bluebottles. Even more surprising was that, while Golden Syrup was first marketed (in the green tin) in 1884, and in 1904 became the world’s first brand, tins of Black Treacle were first sold only in 1950!

Moving out of the woods into deeply puddled Bixley Lane, we cut across some little meadows which were planted up some 20 years ago with trees. There were more bird here than anywhere else but on account not of the uniform & rather sterile plantations right) but the unruly, ancient hedgerows which enclose them (left).

You can see why, from this detail of an outgrown Ash hedge, with its nooks & crannies, ivy & bramble. But apart from that obvious food source, I wondered whether the finches, tits, Treecreepers & Nuthatches foraging there (and mostly ignoring the plantations) were not following ancestral pathways in a way similar to hefted sheep on the fells.

Definitely unhefted (though, I don’t know..because I used to see them around these lanes 20 years ago) was a Hawfinch which flew out of cover to perch conveniently for a minute or so. I could hear others and a few minutes later caught sight of at least 3 in flight. And I thought: is this the Year of the Hawfinch? It’s certainly the Hawfinch Winter like no other in living memory but what happens next? Will they all clear off back to wherever they originated? Or will some of these immigrants remain (lots of Hornbeam! lots of Yew!) to form the basis of a reinvigorated UK population? To become as unremarkable as Little Egrets?

Tammurriata nera

Deserted Orchard

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on November 17, 2017 by cliffdean

It’s very convenient. You can park by the Village Hall – best before Playgroup arrives – and scan the pagodas of seed hanging from the tall golden Hornbeams which line the ghyll behind it. There were two Hawfinches up there when we first arrived but they moved off quite quickly. Having seen them so easily we assumed they’d soon be back but that didn’t happen.

Just to the side, the Sussex Border Path leads you down into an extraordinary neglected old orchard whose broad trees are festooned with lichen and bunched with Mistletoe, therefore frequented by rattling Mistle Thrushes one of which was already in song – a month early – high in a Lime across the road.

The gaps are tufted with frosty rank grasses in the process of colonization by Bramble and Oak saplings. There’s a constant passing of Blackbirds, Mistle & Song Thrushes, Blue, Great & Coal Tits.

Mistletoe is a scarce plant in RXland but in this village it’s everywhere. I wonder if it was originally introduced as a crop for the Christmas market.

As the rising sun casts and amber light across the woodlands the rising noise from the road behind us combines with the rumbling of airbuses in the cold air, positioning themselves for a breakfast-time arrival at Gatwick, drowning out softer birdsounds such as the piping of Bullfinches, once so resented for their stripping of fruit buds from orchards like these that bounties were paid for their heads by Rat & Sparrow Clubs.

At Penhurst last week I talked to a lady who had come across the records of such a club based in Catsfield where, astonishingly, they once paid for the heads of Hawfinches too.

The village ghyll cuts a deep ravine which finally flows into a smaller stream lined with an outgrown Hornbeam hedge, its progeny distanced by a cordon sanitaire of shade.

We had one prolonged view of a single Hawfinch feeding busily in an Apple tree, though it was rather against the light until it flew over our heads. The only calls we heard were the soft flight-calls rather than the typical metallic clicks. There have been up to 6 birds in this orchard for a week now, with smaller numbers scattered around other orchards in the area.

RSPB Fore Wood

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on April 16, 2017 by cliffdean

This reserve at Crowhurst is a typical bit of Wealden Woodland,with all the usual features like steep-edged ghylls,old boundary banks, bell-pits and, at this time of year, beautiful ground flora of Wood Anemones & Bluebells, the latter perfuming the air.

There’s a lot of birdsong too, which is what we concentrated on during Saturday’s RXbirdwalk. The relative lack of habitat variation results in a limited number of species so the songs can be heard and compared repeatedly, but those species are present at what must be maximum density. This songscape is punctually embellished by the bass note of a train passing invisibly through the cutting on the wood’s north side.

Blue, Great & Coal Tit, Goldcrest, Blackbird, Robin, Wren, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Nuthatch, Chaffinch & Woodpigeon could be heard – if not always seen – everywhere, with smaller numbers of Pheasant, Song Thrush, Long-tailed Tit, GS & Green Woodpecker & Treecreeper.

Buzzards plainly had a nest in the vicinity, to judge by their constant presence low overhead,and above them, drifting Herring Gulls were howling. Oddly, we had just one fleeting encounter with Marsh Tits and heard Jays squawking just once too.

There was no sign at all of the LS Woodpeckers or Hawfinches mentioned on the info boards; I can recall seeing both here many years ago but don’t know if they are ever still recorded. But then, one never hears anything from this site. Plenty of local people walk here, exercise their dogs, a few children play but if any bird-watchers visit you hear nothing of it. Perhaps a dense population of common species is not seen as noteworthy.

Though there is evidence of rides being cut, coppice thinned and clearings opened up it’s all on a very small scale. We heard no Nightingales, probably since areas of dense scrub are limited, yet many Sweet Chestnuts look sick and could be cut back without much loss of amenity value.

A bit of variety was added during the short walk from the church (paying due respect to the very ancient hollow Yew in its raised churchyard),with a Whitethroat in the hedge right there, a Skylark singing from the cereal field beyond it, Jackdaws furnishing their nests with wool from a dead sheep, House Sparrows, Dunnocks, Collared Doves & Goldfinches around habitation, Yellowhammer, Mistle Thrush & Stock Dove on farmland around the wood itself.


Bad Dudes

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on April 15, 2017 by cliffdean

Deer trails through Dog’s Mercury

In recent years, my visits to the Darwell area have been in winter – from Mountfield or in summer, after dark, from Darwell Hole (for Nightjars). So our Good Friday walk from the latter as far east as Simmett’s Wood added a few new (summer) species to the default Birdtrack list.I should think we’ll be lucky to see any more Nightjars in the traditional “clearing”since it’s not really clear any more, having grown up very tall,no more Tree Pipits either. However……there were 4 Nightingales singing loudly there in the bright sunshine, accompanied by a Willow Warbler and a whole host of commoner species. 2 more Nightingales were singing a little further over just west of the Gypsum conveyor belt and a seventh at mysterious and magical Furnace Farm site. In addition, there were three females offering their support in the form of croaks and whistles. So – 10 Nightingales, arrived in just the last couple of days and already getting on with it.

Neglected and out-grown Hornbeam hedge

The woodland varies in species composition and contains the relics of previous usage in terms of wood-banks, ore zones pocked with bell-pits and outgrown hedges along forgotten lanes, yesterday all bathed in light filtered through fresh spring foliage. Songs of Blue, Great  & Coal Tit, Blackbird, Song Thrush and Nuthatch echoed off bare oak boughs and the poles of ailing Sweet Chestnut. Siskins were flying about the tops of tall conifers.

Goldcrests too were ubiquitious and we came across 2 singing Firecrests, one in ivy, the other traditionalNorway spruce.

We were surprised to find no Marsh Tits but stoical about the non-appearance of LS Woodpecker, which has been seen there recently, and Hawfinch, which has not. One rotten trunk displayed many suspiciously small peckings.

To the east of the conveyor belt, tracks and deep, deep ruts were signs of recent off-roading activity which had reduced the tracks in this unusually dry spring to slurry. On the bright side, they provided drinking place for birds and breeding habitat for some insects.

Debris from collisions was scattered about…

…and a flipped 4WD lay not far from the traditional Yellow Jeep (crumbling ever further into the forest floor).


Relics of human recreation included these bottles enfolded in a mossy, wind-thrown stump, Red Bull cans and scatters of McDonalds wrappings.While I usually just get angry about witless littering, on this occasion I brought my “High Weald: My Weald” re-usable cotton bag into  devastating play and removed these items from their adopted woodland habitat.

Even from among the trees, the barking of displaying GC Grebes and howling of Herring Gulls could be heard while from gaps in the lakeside willows, Coots, Tufted Ducks & Mallards could be made out. A Grey Heron drifted in over the treetops – but from where? It should be nesting now.

Surviving from summer-time cook-outs on the shores of the shrunken reservoir, a ring of sandstone lifted from footings of the vanished farmhouse lies temporarily drowned.

The paintings of George Shaw (at the De LaWarr till June 18th) have further sensitized me to the pathos of human traces, like this deliberately yet inexplicably scarred tree. deep within the woods,

The farm site itself remains as a progressively overgrown clearing, leggy, flowering blackthorn festooned with lichen and inhabited by secretive Bullfinches; an approach to the lake beneath the dark tunnel of a Yew; a sandstone wall; ashore  composed of heavy black iron slag and fragments of terracotta plain-tile; domestic rubbish that has had a few decades  to become charming.

Somewhere new

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on March 20, 2017 by cliffdean

I’ve led several bird walks for people from Crowhurst but last week they led me to an area hardly 200m from my usual route but new and unsuspected. In fact, I had heard of Quarry Wood but had lacked the curiosity to find out more. From close to the car park where I’ve often been we took a turning up Sampson’s Lane which I’d also never noticed.

I was struck by the tall hedge-bank to one side, indicating that although it has dwindled away in usage it must have once been a more travelled thoroughfare. Later reference to the 1787 Yeakell & Gardner map showed that this lane was then part of a network serving Green Street and linking to the big north-south routes at Crowhurst Park & Breadsell Lane.

My perception of this part of Crowhurst is distorted by a major earthwork serving something which has come & gone since the Y&G map: the Bexhill Branch Line. Towards the top of the lane we turned right onto the abandoned railway track part of which now forms a local nature reserve, managed and documented by Paul Johnson & Lorna Neville on their excellent website Tales From Quarry Wood.

We were supposed to be looking/listening for birds,and there were plenty of Goldcrests in the ivy and Treecreepers on the old oaks, with regular Mistle Thrushes proclaiming from the treetops, but features of landform and tree use soon predominated. Parts of the track are dry whereas others run through an ill-drained cutting and the whole length is enclosed by tall woodland. Parallel to the regular profile of the railway runs a sinuous old wood-bank topped with gnarled Field Maple, the ditch on the uphill side suggesting that the steep bank below was in the past reserved as a copse. Some trees had plainly once been pollarded yet untended long since while others had been coppiced, but more through casual exploitation than any more coherent woodland practice.

This spectacular group of Scarlet Elf Cup was growing on some felled branches.

Further south we came to the eponymous quarry – of unknown date or purpose it seems – which is backed, just as the track passes through a fine railway bridge beneath Sandrock Hill by the equally eponymous Sandrock, a beautiful north-facing exposure of sandstone beside which grows a varied profusion of ferns.  Look at the website for more information and much better photos than mine.

This area was a clearing in relatively recent times, to judge from the post-colonial presence of hawthorn, blackthorn, elder and birch.

Once through the arch, there were notable differences in the trees, with spindle and Sycamore present but also, more conspicuous since closer, tall lines of Railway Poplar. To remind myself about this widespread and culturally significant hybrid I read the entry in Owen Johnson’s remarkable Sussex Tree Book where I was once more struck by Owen’s fluent, informative style which encourages one to flick through the pages as much for the pleasure of reading as for the search for knowledge.

Shortly before reaching the Link Road the path sweeps down past more quarries – this time overgrown – to the lonely Adam’s Farm, for centuries a busy site on the banks of a lovely valley but now forlorn and uninhabited beside a busy road.

Something nasty in the woods

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 5, 2017 by cliffdean

In a radical departure from the routine, we convened after lunch to avoid rain during the morning. I normally avoid afternoon birdwatching apart from the occasional look at roosts because, on the whole, there are fewer birds and more people. And so it proved to be at Ashes Wood where we met a lot of the latter plus barky dogs while the former were represented by little more than Robins, Blue & Great Tits until a Coal Tit joined in from the pine-tops.


Along the old estate road it was pretty muddy but when we branched off, in order to avoid the dog-herders, the impermeable Wealden clay really came into its own, providing squelchy, rutted fields and deeply puddled gateways. The “Adventure” section of the walk involved our attempt to hop across a stream which is usually no problem except that it was swollen with rainwater running straight off that impermeable clay and a bank had collapsed.  A hop would not be adequate to guarantee reaching the other side so we made out way through brambles & alders upstream where another crossing might be found. In fact, the cleft got deeper & deeper but just as we reached the uncrossable gurgling water we came across a macabre tableau.


In a space where the Pendulous Sedge Had been flattened lay the skull of a youngish Fallow Deer stag, bound and tangled in yards of green webbing. Other parts of the skeleton lay at the edge of the clearing. The free ends of the webbing were wound around a pole. The complexity of the tangle contradicted initial theories of some unfortunate accident but what had been the purpose? Had the unfortunate animal been bound up alive? Left there to die? Sacrificed in some pagan rite?



Giving up on the stream-crossing plan, we retraced our steps towards the mill pond, pausing in a grove of Western Red Cedar to try for Firecrest, which seems fond of this species. One duly appeared, hopping around in the bushes beside us. The pond has had much of its marginal vegetation removed and a bunch of farmyard geese installed so had rather few other waterbirds on it, just a few Moorhens, Coots, Mallards and a single m Tufted Duck. A brief excursion onto Beech Farm was more successful, however, with c180 Linnets (so scarce on the coast this winter) and a few Yellowhammers.


By this time, the sun had come out,bathing the landscape in golden afternoon light and throwing long shadows across the ancient, hornbeam-lined hollow lane back up towards the road. As sunset approached,we came across the third pair of Mistle Thrushes we’d seen, Song Thrushes could be heard all across the valley and the welcome crooning of a Blackbird was about a fortnight early.