Saturday, 28 February 2009

Pegwell Bay

Jeremy Paxman, in his series on Victorian art, highlighted William Dyce's Pegwell Bay painted in 1858. It illustrated the recent awareness that the earth and its nature is far older than previously thought, by showing fossil-hunters, the cliffs which were formed during history rather than at the start of it, and a comet in the skies.
On Dyce's cliffs (seen across the bay from the nature reserve) a weekly meeting is held of the High Command of East Kent birding, convened to determine whether or not various sightings should be accepted or struck from the records. Few are accepted, unless accompanied by DNA analysis. As it may be imagined, the meetings are held with great seriousness.
The night was clear, with Venus in conjunction with the moon, followed by a glorious afternoon.
Dr Ray (rtd) managed to catch up with a Great Grey Shrike in Pannel Valley, nicely following up a sighting of a Dartford Warbler and a flushed Short-eared Owl.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Old fossils

A different day saw some of us scrabbling on the beach and over rocks at Folkestone's Copt point. The geology of the area provides easy pickings as the sea and rain wash out the soft blue-grey Gault clay, between the harder Lower Greensand (below it) and the chalk above.
I was inspired in the seach by reading the relevant chapter in a book found in a second-hand bookshop: Some Aspects of the Natural History of the Folkestone District - a little gem. It describes the coast here as being 'a cross-section through much of the Cretaceous system'.
The Gault clay was laid down in the Albian (or Selbornian) stage of the Cretaceous period, about 100m years ago, when the seas and rivers were warm and slow, creating a murky sedimentation. The old continent of Pangea had by now split into sub-continents, but the current pattern was still far from completed, and the Yukutan catastrophe was some tens of millions of years ahead, so the dinosaurs were still in charge.
Our finds were of smaller animals of course - ammonites being the most easily recognisable.
The area is an SSSI, so excavation is not allowed, but it's not necessary as finds were laying on the sand where the clay had been washed away. It is very squidgy, especially where streams passed through it, and the cliffs ran like lava flows in places - a good description of the site is here.

At the water's edge, the usual flock of Mediterranean Gulls stood, calling noisily. This is usually the best place in Britain for this species in winter - I counted only about 20 though, so maybe they have started back to the breeding grounds.
As an antiodote to the grey fossils, clay, sea and sky, here's a reminder of spring:

Winter Aconite, with an early bee.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Doing what we do best

There are not many pubs where you can sit enjoying a pint, watching Hen Harriers hunting around you. One such is the Ferry House Inn at Harty, overlooking the Swale, which has a prospect that stretches across salt marshes, inter-tidal mud and the river.
Having dipped on three rare birds we were disheartened and repaired to the pub, to sit in the late winter sunshine and watch the birds in comfort. Another customer, seeing the binoculars, asked what we were looking for, so we told him that we'd given up and were doing what we do best. And very tasty it was too.
The day had started very well, with early sunshine (which was to last until dusk), an immediate sighting of a ring-tail Hen Harrier and a close view of a Marsh Harrier flying up from a reed bed, close enough to admire her talons. And there were birds everywhere in the sky....Golden Plovers, Lapwings, ducks, geese and more raptors.
There were Pheasants and Red-Legged Partridges, and plenty of Hares - we even watched a stoat.Yes, there were Merlin and Peregrine, sitting immobile on a distant posts. But wherever we went, we had 'just missed a Rough-Leggged Buzzard/Bittern/etc' and the Hooded Crow was nowhere to be seen.
But our intended path to a possible viewpoint was barred by high water-levels. So we went to the pub.
The sunshine, rest and a pint had the desired effect, so we tried for the Hoodie again, and (with a little help) we eventually found it. This (or a similar) bird has been seen in this area every year since the winter of 2003/4.
So, that's probably the last 'winter' birding, as from now on we can pretend it's spring!

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Ash to ashes

A walk in Kingsdown Wood revealed that the old Witches' Tree has fallen this winter. It was the subject of may tales among the local children (or, more probably, among their doting parents) but now it is no more. Ash to ashes, as they say.
It has been ailing for decades, not helped by fires lit against its trunk, but it will now rot gently into the loam, to provide life for new generations.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Hollow Lanes

Gilbert White, writing in 'The Natural History of Selbourne' describes 'two hollow lanes' which 'are, by the traffic of ages, and the fretting of water, worn that they look more like water-courses than roads. In places they are reduced sixteen or eighteen feet beneath the level of the fields'.
'These rugged gloomy scenes affright the ladies when they peep down into them from the paths above, and make timid horsemen shudder when they ride along them; but delight the naturalist with their various botany, and particularly with their filices with which they abound.'
This hollow lane (from Kearsney up to Scotland Common) must have been used for hundreds of years, the base wearing lower and lower over the ages. It is, of course, 'abounded by filices' or ferns.
Water levels in the valleys are high, and the Stour burst its banks, after the rain and snow.
An early flower shows inconspicuously on Butchers Broom,
and the Stodmarsh flock of Lesser Redpolls, Siskins and Goldfinches has grown to some 40-odd in number .
Tom Tit

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Throstle (a one-man crusade)

The NW Nature Nut has asked what a Throstle is - and yes, it is indeed a Song Thrush. But Throstle is a good name and I'll try to use it in future. Many good country names have been lost as the world becomes homogenous.....the bird was also known as a Dirsh, Drush, Mavis, Thirstle, Whistling Dick, Trush Dush and Throggie, depending on where in England you were.
Rather less inventive, it was apparently known as Grey Bird in Sussex and the south west. I owe this information to All the Birds of the Air by Francesca Greenoak.

Hedge Mumruffin

Ouzel Hen (per Shakespeare in Midsummer Night's Dream)

On another matter, it's a conundrum that Dover (like most ports, a bit of a dump) can look quite beautiful at times. Blue skies help, I suppose.