Archive for Woodlands

On top of the Weald

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on June 14, 2018 by cliffdean

Starting out from the peak of a great sandstone dome, we look out across a forest panorama to the line of the downs beyond. Skylarks & Yellowhammers are singing while overhead a string of Herring Gulls makes its way north – maybe just as far as Bewl Water but perhaps to the Medway or Thames.

Plant photos by Martyn Comley, bird & insects by Stuart Barnes

Scanning the wooded ridges for landmarks, we pick out communications masts, towers, spires true and false, an obelisk, an observatory…the temple is hidden down in the park landscaped for “Mad” Jack Fuller who himself resides within a pyramid in the churchyard.

However, we’re soon dropping down a scrubby lane where Whitethroats sing from the bracken, up to the wood edge where there’s more song from Willow Warbler & Chiffchaff into pine plantations, comparatively silent until a crossroads admits sunlight and a sudden chorus of Robin, Wren, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Dunnock, Siskin & GS Woodpecker

Over deeply incised streams and up, footfalls muffled by needles, into dark, dark, pine-scented stands of tall conifers from which trickle down the thin song of Firecrests. Struggling up towards any light are former inhabitants of the wood: Sweet Chesnuts. Neither they nor the cedars are native.

In a dramatic transition from dark, parallel trunks to greenery and sculpturesque limbs we enter a grove of massive sprwling beeches at the lip of a deep ghyll.

Perched in the sunlight is a scarce bird that such a short time ago was commonplace – a Spotted Flycatcher, and further on past sunny banks where Garden Warblers burble there’s another, very much at home around the sheds and phone lines of Glazier’s Forge.

Around the forge, the shrill song of a Grey Wagtail can be heard but it’s not till our return that it shows itself, brilliant yellow beneath and with metallic green Beautiful Demoiselles fluttering behind it.

Feeling the need to refer to the Historical Atlas of Sussex

A diversion into a field of cattle-poached clay baked hard and ankle-turning by the warm sunshine, our destination a small pond, its margins cloudy from the passage of a few dogs (them & their 4 owners, a horse and its rider were the only people we met in 4 hours). The surface is alive with with brightly coloured, busily copulating dragonflies.

Azure damselflies.

Large Red Damselfly

Ovipositing Emperor Dragonfly and (no pictures) Broad-bodied Chasers

It’s very quiet. Woods all around. No-one about. There’s a Buzzard overhead and then, like Zebedee in the Magic Roundabout reminding us it’s time to go, the midday sky-whale of the incoming Dubai flight.


Steamy in Beckley

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on May 29, 2018 by cliffdean

On Saturday evening there was an extraordinary electric storm with constant rumbling and flickering, lightning wriggling among the clouds yest never a strike or detonation. It reminded me of accounts from the First World war, when coastal towns could hear the barrages from the Front. The absence of loud thunderclaps allowed me to go to sleep before the rain started, but when I arrived in Beckley Woods the next morning it was plain there had been a lot of it

Mist was hanging in the air, the trees were dripping and a lively flow rushed down gutters and streams.

This walk was a repeat of a circular route we’d followed in the winter, to notice the contrasts, but once the group had arrived, we set off in the opposite direction in order to seek some interesting species I’d located shortly beforehand. First was a singing Firecrest – one of 3 – which was close to a Goldcrest so we could hear the difference. Although the treetop Siskins had fallen quiet, we found a Garden Warbler burbling on the edge of a clearing with comparison again provided by a nearby Blackcap. A little further on, we came upon a Raven’s nest in a pylon, the 2 fledglings perched high on top.

Speckled Yellow

Now that the leaves are out, it takes a lot of patience to get a look at some birds. Whereas Marsh Tits will come out to see you off their territories, we heard a Treecreeper singing very close to us but just could not see it. We heard 4 more Garden Warblers, lots of Blackcaps, a Willow Warbler and a Whitethroat along the way, none of them visible. So it only remains to learn the songs, which is pretty difficult when you are confronted with several at once. Thank goodness for Entry-Level Chiffchaffs. 

’87 survivor

This is the time of year when you can easily locate GS Woodpeckers’ nests, owing to the noisy begging of their nestlings, and in fact we found two nests within 100 of one another.

Alder Buckthorn

Guelder Rose is Ukraine’s national plant, its vivid scarlet berries a frequent sight and symbol. These formed the hedge around an old wooden church I visited last year.

There was a lot of other interest, for instance two less common shrubs Guelder Rose & Alder Buckthorn, both perhaps introduced into Flatropers Wood by the SWT for their wildlife value, the latter perhaps an older planting for the manufacture of gunpowder  – more certainly the case around Powdermill Reservoir.

Flatropers hosts some mighty Wood Ant mounds. Braving trouser-invasion, I tried out this trick with a late Bluebell which the ants turn pink by spraying it with formic acid. Strangely, there seem to be no Wood Ants at all in the nearby and apparently similar Brede High Woods.

Photo from British Dragonflies

The night’s storm had left deep puddles in trackside ruts, now patrolled by dragonflies. We had fantastic views of courtship, mating and ovipositing by a pair of Broad-bodied Chasers.

In the open areas of Beckley Woods, the sunshine was now strong and humidity high, making us glad to get back to our vehicles.

Mining Community

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on May 22, 2018 by cliffdean

Out In The Crowded South-East

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on May 21, 2018 by cliffdean

Friday; an up-country expedition to listen for Firecrests – and anything else of interest – in the forests west of Brightling. The satellite view shows dark patches of conifer plantation but when you get there, it’s all Scots Pine – the Wrong Sort Of Conifer – until you get in deeper. Away from the loud radio playing from a truck in the field where otherwise one might strain to hear Skylarks (scarce inland), Yellowhammers & Whitethroats.

And there are belated Swifts overhead, moving steadily northwards.

While the farmward side of the track was light enough for birch and bramble there were the odd Willow & Garden Warbler, both of which count as Interesting to those of lacking both on the coast.

Down, down deep green declivities lined with forgotten hedges outgrown and overweight, stretching for sunlight but slowly sinking. It looks as if there should be Wood Warblers, but they are no more.

Frequently there are the distinctive reminders of October ’87: tipped-up root-plates anchoring wind-thrown trees still aiming skywards.

Across a garlic-tinged stream meandering musically between interlocking spurs and up the other side to The Right Kind Of Conifer, and sure enough there’s a Firecrest singing; just up the slope are two more. Goldcrests too, in  ratio of about 3:1.

Further on, at the lip of a steep bank, there are mighty Beech outgrown pollards incised with crowded initials

Great rotten stumps, ravaged by GS Woodpeckers, crawled over by Nuthatches and sprouting massive bracket fungi.

Multiple thrushes echo their repetitious song through the trees. There should be Nightingales, there should be Turtle Doves but instead we are dominated by the drone, urgent and unceasing, of a motor-mower: it’s Friday so stripes must be sheared across the doll’s-house lawns of weekend hideaways in readiness for the arrival of occasional occupants.


At Glazier’s Forge there have been beleaguered House Sparrows in the past. None now, but Swallows, a handsome m Grey Wagtail singing on a dung-heap and a very nice small pond, with tadpoles, leeches and Broad-bellied Chasers. From the spiky conifers behind us comes the chatter of Crossbills.

You get the idea. It’s Rudyard Kipling country, still feeling ancient, still connected by converging thoroughfares running down the ridges between a crow’s foot of deep Wealden ghylls. You don’t meet anyone.

There’s no-one to ask if, even with the aid of OS map, GPS and waymarkers, you still lose your way.

And where once-working farms have become toytown models planted on a dais of sterile green turf, those waymarkers seem to have gone missing.

Then there are confusing forks in the path.

So you just have to rely on helpful livestock. Firecrest score was 6, the last shimmering song issued from Completely The Wrong Kind Of Tree – a roadside shelterbelt of deciduous species.


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.