Reports

1st April 2014 - Friston Forest on All Fools’ Day

There were twenty six of us for the first outdoor meeting of the year; we met in the Forest-side car park at Exceat. It was a beautiful day with the sun shining and a gentle breeze. Our route took us first to our dew-pond near Gypsy corner, then along to West Dean pond. We continued to skirt the forest to the end of the village and cut up the gentle hill in the direction of Friston. At last we climbed the steep hill to near the A259 and made our way back to the car park along the top of the hill.

In the water we saw caddis-fly lava, pond snail, rams-horn snail, newt, whirligig beetle, pond skater. In Westdean pond much duckweed, frog and possible frogspawn.

Butterflies observed were yellow brimstone, peacock, [comma on the morning recce] and small tortoiseshell.

Of all the plants we saw, these were the ones that stood out - white bryony, enchanter’s nightshade, deadly nightshade, common speedwell. As we went through the woodland area many of us admired the great variety in colour of banded snail and of course we saw garden snails.

In the trees and the sky there were 3 buzzards, green woodpecker, and a rookery, [I had heard woodpecker drumming on recce in the morning], 4 little egrets nesting, heron nesting/roosting.

There is not an enormous variety of tree in the forest, but we saw beech, Lawson’s cypress, pine, ash, sycamore, willow, elm, and elder.

I had not promised all that much as we assembled but we saw a rich variety of what the Forest can offer.

Colin Pritchard

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 Reports

22nd April 2014 - West Harbour Beach Rock Pools, Newhaven

The morning began with 13 members and 1 visitor gathering at Newhaven West Harbour car park with buckets and nets ready to go rock pooling. While we waited for everyone to arrive we watched fulmars nesting on the chalk cliffs behind the beach noisily trying to eject any other birds which ventured near them.

Our guide for the morning was Dr Gerald Legg who is an expert on entomology and marine/seashore life. He gave us a short briefing about the local area, and explained that the rock pools had been formed by the sea pounding the harder flint rock against the softer chalk rock making long narrow ‘gullies’ trapping sea water and sea creatures at low tide. This is what we had come to explore.

As we started across the first gullies Gerald pointed out thousands of tiny pairs of holes in the chalk rock where polydora worms live in ‘u’ shape burrows.

We then saw many more slightly larger pairs of holes, home to molluscs known as ‘piddocks’ (Pholadidae) which are similar to clam. This amazing little creature has a set of ridges or ‘teeth’ on one shell, which it uses to grind away at the soft chalk to create a tubular burrow in which it can live up to 8 years and grow to 18cm (7”). White in colour we could see many of them using their holes to send up a siphon into the water to filter for food.

Gerald showed us many other molluscs, and two that are predacious amongst them, with the delightful names of sting winkle and dog whelk. We also learnt that many molluscs have something called a radula which is ‘tongue like’ with very tiny teeth along one edge which they use to scrape or cut food.

With many different types and colours of seaweed around our coast, Gerald managed to find about 27 in the rock pools, brown or green and others red with names like – hairy sand weed, sea lettuce and rosy fan weed. He also pointed out different sponges, sea firs and a beadlet anemone.

One member found a shore crab which looked like it was either clinging onto or eating another smaller dead crab. In fact, Gerald informed us, the crab had just moulted from the smaller version into the larger size. Moving further across the rock pools Gerald briefly captured and showed those members nearby, a fierce pinching velvet swimming crab before it wriggled free, and later he showed us a tiny broad-clawed porcelain crab.

At one stage Gerald did briefly catch a corkwing wrasse fish which all those nearby managed to see before it made a bid for freedom. Then later, we all had an opportunity to see a fine example of a five bearded rockling fish and prawn which were captured for a short spell in a bucket.

I was amazed at how much there is in one small area of rock pools. For a detailed list and some pictures of the morning Gerald has kindly provided a web page link for members - www.chelifer.com/?page-id=1932 I would like to thank him for sharing his extensive knowledge of the sea shore life with us, it was a very interesting few hours.

Marilyn Binning

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 Reports

29th April 2014 - Shooters Bottom and Birling Gap, spring outdoor birding walk

This was the second spring bird walk to be included in the SNHS outdoor schedule and 16 hopeful members turned up at 07.00 in the expectation of a good morning enjoying some interesting migratory species. Alas (a word I use all too frequently in these reports) the preceding week had been dismal on the migration front with adverse winds reducing the flow of incoming birds and those that had attempted the crossing went going straight over the Sussex coast without stopping. Despite these adverse conditions we had a pleasant session and we were all grateful to Derek Barber who generously took a day off to cover for me should my Achilles tendon become so painful that I would be unable to finish the course. Derek’s encyclopaedic knowledge and enthusiastic commentary certainly enlivened what was otherwise a rather slow session on the birding front.

All the usual species were seen around the bushes in the Shooters Bottom area. Common whitethroat lived up to their name by being relatively conspicuous and calling continually. There are also several willow warblers and an even larger number of chiffchaff to be both seen and heard around the area. Other than these common migrants, however, the only real evidence that migration was taking place were a few swallows coming in off the sea. Remarkably, even by the end of April, there had been very few hirundines recorded along the coast. A brief moment of increased interest was provided by a female stonechat which had pretensions to be a wheatear strutting about on the short grass near the cliff edge and which on several occasions misled us into believing that it was a more interesting migrant. It was a measure of how quiet the migration had been that we were unable even to find a single wheatear during the first session although the second group enjoyed some fairly reasonable views of up to 4 males and a couple of females on the field opposite the Plantation. Unfortunately, despite successfully locating the tawny owl briefly at 06.10 during my reconnaissance walk prior to meeting the first group, it had moved into the dense cover provided by the horse chestnut trees by the time the two groups reached the plantation.

Perhaps the best single bird of the morning was the extremely elusive garden warbler which Derek and I located by song and eventually saw during our preliminary reconnaissance of the area at around 6.30. Unfortunately, this proved to be a frustratingly difficult bird to see well but in the end most people did get a brief view of a species not previously recorded on our migration walks.

For many the most enjoyable part of the early morning bird watch was looking over the cliff towards the sea. Here we saw a few species that have not been recorded on past outings including up to ten common scoter, gannet, kittiwake, some stunning views of several fulmar pretending to be miniature albatrosses and a hunting peregrine. Perhaps the best of these new observations was that provided by several Mediterranean gulls seen both in flight overhead making their curious un-gull-like call and then an even larger group observed sitting on a flat sea and watched through our telescopes from a precarious position on the cliff edge. Mediterranean gulls are one of the most handsome of our smaller gulls in their breeding plumage with brilliant red bill and legs, a truly black head contrasting with all white body, wings and narrow eye-rings or ‘eyelids’. Although superficially very similar to black-headed gull, on closer examination the Mediterranean gull is in fact quite distinctive because it is larger, truly black-headed (rather than the brown head on the misleadingly named black-headed gull) and when in flight the wing tips are pure white without the black on the outer primaries to be seen on black-headed gulls.

The colonisation of Sussex by the Mediterranean gull has been one of the most astonishing success stories of the past 25 years having undergone a dramatic range extension in recent decades from its original stronghold on the Black Sea coast. It now has a world breeding population of between 100,000 and 120,000 pairs and although breeding was not confirmed in Sussex until 1987, by 2010 there were at least 176 nests at the Rye Harbour colony alone – 17% of the national total.

The other species that provided excellent views for both groups was the corn bunting. In stark contrast with the Mediterranean gull, this species reached its peak numbers nationally in the 1970s and has been declining ever since. It has been estimated that the population fell by 87% between 1967 and 2009 – a catastrophic collapse largely associated with changing farming practice and particularly the switch from spring cereals to winter cropping. Within the county it was still extremely common at Beachy Head only 20 years ago but numbers have plummeted dramatically and there are only a few pairs in the entire Beachy Head area today - although it still remains one of the best places to see them.

I must confess that LBJ’s (Little Brown jobs) are not everyone’s cup of tea, but my desperate efforts to what, in contemporary parlance might be described as “big them up”, ensured that we watched long enough to observe all the distinctive features of what I have always regarded as a rather engaging species. In particular, we were close enough to be able to observe through the scope the bulk of the bird, the chest spot, the pink legs and some were even able to catch a glimpse of the long hind claw and the serrated lower mandible which are very distinctive features of this seed eating bird. In flight the bird also often flies with its legs hanging down while sitting on a prominent song perch or fence line its song sounds like a bunch of jingling keys and can be heard over fairly large distances. In the absence of any other birds to catch our attention, anyone who was interested should have finally ‘nailed’ the identification of corn bunting by the time we left the site.

As has happened in previous “bird walks”, some of the best observations were actually of other things - as we all discovered during John Luck’s dragonfly walk when we were fortunate enough to see a very rare black stork fly up the Cuckmere Valley as we desperately searched for dragonflies in inclement and extremely unfavourable conditions. In our case, valuable distraction from the paucity of birds was provided by some interesting butterflies and orchids. In the former group, we were fortunate enough to record two dingy skippers and a grizzled skipper along with the usual green-veined white, peacock, brimstone and a few small tortoiseshell. The star of the latter category (and of the morning as a whole) was the lady orchid which had reached about 7 inches in height and was within a week of being in full flower. This was a very special treat given its rare status. In the second group some time was also devoted to studying at very close quarters the structure of the flowers on the remaining early spider orchids which were mostly still in good condition and everyone enjoyed the abundance of early purple orchids at the bottom of the road up to Belle Tout. It was a brave effort to make the best of a bad job – we can only hope for better fortune in the autumn.

Bob Self

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19th May 2014 – Montague Farm, Pevensey Levels

Martin Hole invited the Society to visit his farm and observe his approach to farming for wildlife in practice. [Readers are advised to read Anne’s comprehensive summary of Martin’s talk delivered to the Society on October 8th 2013]. Our tour began at 2pm from the beautiful flint-built farm buildings dating from the mid-18th Century. Set above the Levels the views from here are very fine, taking in Pevensey Castle and the churches at Pevensey and Westham. It was the hottest day of the year to date, wonderful for seeing the flora at its best and newly emerging damselflies and dragonflies.

19 members attended and we travelled by land-rover and trailer, the latter affording a comfortable ride on bags of newly shorn fleeces. The shorn Romney ewes with their lambs were all around as we bumped through pastures down towards the lower ground. As well as 1000 sheep, Martin maintains a herd of 80 cows. Areas of the farm were ploughed during WW2 and have subsequently all been returned to grazing land.

600 acres of the farm are on the Levels and designated as a Triple SI. The Pevensey Levels cover 10,000 acres in total. Throughout the afternoon Martin explained and demonstrated how he [and his family partners] farm efficiently and effectively while creating and maintaining as wild and natural environment as possible. We were shown the more woody areas which gradually merge into scrubby marginal areas, through herb meadows to a marshy landscape with ditches and banks abutting the Pevensey Haven River. Ponds and scrapes have been created and Martin emphasised the importance of the graduated or intermediate areas where a wide variety of native plants flourish unchecked. These mixed habitats offer a bio-diversity which must be the envy of many nature reserves. The result is an impressive range of plants, insects, birds and other wildlife.

We saw blue damselflies and large reds in the first pond and Martin reported grass snakes were common. There were 100+ aquatic plants on the site. The large herb meadow we lingered in was carpeted with buttercups interspersed with common-spotted orchids and green-winged orchids. There were adders-tongue ferns in abundance. Coralie used the society’s GPS to record the location of the green-winged orchids – the first time it has been used in the field!

The meadows and marshes offer 18 species of grass, including 4 sedges and 6 rushes. Members were challenged to identify some of the grasses in flower! There was one such meadow when Martin joined the farm. In friendly competition with his father-in-law he has now created a further five of these splendid meadows which are allowed to flower throughout the spring and early summer, before being cut and then grazed in the autumn.

Our last stop was near the river where we observed nesting lapwings and their chicks. There were a number of other water fowl and reed-loving birds around to please the ornithologists. While black-tailed godwits and avocets have been observed mating, they have yet to nest. Martin believes that the presence of mink has resulted in a lack of water-voles. A simple wind-driven pump draws water from the river keeping the land well-watered. Flooding is a boon for the farm, rather than a problem. There is a public footpath along the river-bank which offers the chance to observe this very special landscape at other times of the year.

Our tour ended back at the farm where we were treated to tea and biscuits, while Martin rushed off to his farming duties.

Penny Lower

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27th May 2014 – Dragonflies at Frog Firle

Twelve of us met at the Tile Barn on a rather grey, cool morning with rain threatening – not a hopeful start when looking for dragonflies. Inside we were given an introductory talk by Crispin Scott, the National Trust Wildlife and Countryside Adviser for the South East. He was accompanied by Adrian Harrison, Head Ranger, South Downs East, Dave Morgan, Senior Ranger, and Natasha Sharma, Community and Learning Ranger. Crispin briefly explained future plans for the working farm, including putting together an integrated management plan with other bodies including the Environment Agency to reduce the effects of flooding. The Government has been slow to act but would now have to respond to the EU Water Framework Directive. The pond for dragonflies needed to be improved and there was the possibility of putting in another pond further up. He concluded by saying that they always need support.

Shortly after setting off on the walk with John Luck, and most of the above officers of the National Trust, we passed some reed beds which are a great habitat for reed warblers. The reed beds need constant management. In some parts they are not allowed to become overgrown in order to provide a suitable habitat for dragonflies and in others they are allowed to grow taller to encourage a greater diversity of species. This is also one of only 3 or 4 sites in Sussex for the red star thistle. We saw a number of swallows. Also seen was a calf which was only about two weeks old. Natasha told us that calves are being born later this year than last.

When we reached the ditch the dragonflies, however, were not easy to spot since they do not like the cold and rain and were hiding amongst the reeds. John said that damselflies can remain in the larva stage for several years according to species until conditions are right to emerge. We were able to spot a dark coloured azure damselfly (colours vary) and blue tailed damselfly (including a female with violet thorax: violacea). While most of us were looking into the ditch to try to spot more dragonflies one member had the foresight to look up into the sky and was rewarded by catching sight of a black stork – the highlight of the morning. This is a rare sight as although there have been sightings before in the UK, Sussex only accounts for 6% of the national total, with only 14 sightings since 1958. The black stork is widely distributed worldwide throughout south and central Eurasia, South Africa and India (these details supplied by Bob Self). Anne used the GPS to record the grid reference – TQ 51952 01338. Adrian told us that another sign of climate change is that the swallow tail butterfly (which also comes from further south) has bred for the first time on the Downs.

Just before turning back we had a good view of the white horse which looked in need of a little attention. Natasha said that they had periodic forays up there to improve its condition and she was in fact hoping to get up there later in the day with students to weed the area. On the way back we saw thrift and wild clary. Also seen were swifts, reed bunting and swans. While standing on the bridge looking into the water Natasha told us that the presence of mink in the area is unfortunately leading to a sharp decline in the population of the vole.

We were really fortunate that the rain held off and we were able to see as much as we did. As John said afterwards, with some warm weather on its way a visit over the next couple of weeks should be productive. Our thanks go to John Luck and to the NT officers for an enjoyable and informative morning.

Susan Painter

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10th June 2014 - Rye Harbour Nature Reserve

The approach to Rye Harbour Nature Reserve is, to say the least, unprepossessing, lined as it is with small industrial units, but the sight of viper’s bugloss (echium vulgare) growing lustily in the edge of the pavement, suggested that the prospect of a more interesting afternoon was just around the corner. Some pessimism was expressed regarding numbers of participants because of the distance from Seaford, but in the event 23 members assembled in the Rye Harbour car park (TQ 942190) by 2 o’clock, relishing the opportunity to inject real life into Barry Yates’s pictures from his winter programme talk. Anne Fletcher and the warden leader, Chris Bentley, briefly introduced the afternoon. Chris warned that his Teesside (Yorkshire, that is) accent might become unintelligible if anything really exciting turned up during the walk, and apologised in advance. By way of an ice-breaker, his brain-teaser floored everyone. Which Shakespeare play shows his knowledge of Natural History? Answer: Hamlet, Act II, scene ii; "I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hauke from a handsaw." Of course, the ‘hand saw’ in that line was originally ‘heronshaw’, a dialectical English form of ‘heron’ (http://www.word-detective.com/2012/02/hawk-from-a-handsaw/). The walk was anticipated to last two hours, but as we shall see, overran by three quarters of an hour – but no one minded as the overrun included one of the obvious highlights, as well as one of the curiosities, of the afternoon.

We began on a culinary note with stinking iris (iris foetidissima) or ‘sea beef’ on account of the smell of its broken leaf, and alexanders (smyrnium olusatrum) the latter having acted as a pepper substitute. Bumblebees have been widely discussed lately because of falling numbers, yet with a crucial pollination function to perform. So, an orange-bottomed tree bumblebee (bombus hypnorum) on the alexanders was of interest. This is a UK coloniser only since 2002 yet now common. A point was raised regarding unfavourable competition with native bees but, as yet, it is too soon to say whether this might occur. Chris pointed out the differential management (mowing and seeding) of the embankment, an attempt to vary the attractiveness of the sward for bees and flowers. Yellow rattle (rhinanthus minor), salsify (tragopogon porrifolius), hemlock (conium maculatum), most definitely NOT in the edible category, and wild carrot (daucus carota ssp. carota), the latter food for the Sussex emerald moth, were observed before attention turned to the birds; a pair of moorhen (gallinula chloropus) and their chick, a lapwing (vanellus vanellus), also with a chick in tow, and a tightly-sitting oystercatcher (haematopus ostralegus) only a few metres inside the boundary fence. Some 25 pairs of lapwing had been recorded this year, just one of several bare-ground nesters on the reserve, including little ringed plover (charadrius dubius), ringed plover (charadrius hiaticula) and avocet (recurvirostra avosetta). Of course, this habit renders them vulnerable to predation from foxes, badgers, gulls and corvids, while there is always the threat of disturbance by careless humans and their untethered pets. Rabbits also are a nuisance, as destroyers of ground cover vegetation. For these reasons, extensive and complex systems of fencing have been installed to counteract these several problems. If, as is sometimes objected, fencing is rather obtrusive, the alternative is the ultimate destruction of many of the key attractions of the reserve.

A diversion from the road near the mouth of the River Rother provided an opportunity to view halophytic vegetation of the salt marsh more closely; plants such as the relatively rare sea heath (frankenia laevis), sea purslane (atriplex portulacoides), a moderate halophyte, and common glasswort (salicornia europaea). At this point Chris explained osmosis and an image of first year science lessons came flooding back into consciousness. Apparently the process can break down if the saltiness of the water exceeds that of the plant cell, in which case plants can shrivel. Sea kale (crambe maritima), sea pearlwort (sagina maritima), sea spurge (euphorbia paralias) and introduced sea lavender (limonium) also appear on my list, and we saw biting stonecrop (sedum acre) and scarlet pimpernel (anagallis arvensis). Fauna featured when Chris turned up a board, beneath which was the tiny, and very rare, saltmarsh click beetle, agriotes sordidus. Deirdre drew attention to the curious behaviour of a herring gull (larus argentatus) that repeatedly dropped a mussel(?) shell onto the rocks armouring the right bank of the Rother. A number of broken shells on barer patches of salt mash suggested that this was a regular means of obtaining food for these gulls.

As we returned to the road the first of the three species of nesting terns put in an appearance; a little tern (sterna albifrons) agilely mobbing herring gulls which had probably been trying to purloin this diminutive tern’s eggs or chicks. Of eighteen little tern nests this year half were taken by badgers the week before our visit, in spite of double fencing. A device for reproducing little tern calls and a number of decoys to attract more birds had been successfully employed in the first year of operation but had worked less well this year. Later we closely observed, from a hide, sandwich terns (sterna sandvicensis), nesting with black-headed gulls (larus ridibundus) on islands in one of the flooded gravel pit lakes. common terns (sterna hirundo) were also seen as were wheatears (oenanthe oenanthe)and linnets (carduelis cannabina).

At the seaward end of the road, where it turns sharply westwards parallel to the main shore, we searched for another rarity which is found living at only three British sites, of which RHNR is one. There seemed to be a degree of hesitancy amongst some of the party, which I must say received my sympathy as an arachnophobe. Zebra Jumping spider (pellenes tripunctatus) is a Red Data Book (RDB1) species. According to Chris’s blog (http://www.sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/blog/2013/01/eight-legs-good/), this “was recorded for the first time at Rye Harbour in 2011 and only occurs here, Dungeness in Kent and Chesil Beach in Dorset in Britain”. Their jumping ability is based on some tricky hydraulics but we didn’t go into that in detail! Grey bush crickets (platycleis albopunctata) and a grasshopper were also present, giving the opportunity to compare antennae length (long in the former and short in the latter), as was the red spider mite (tetranychus urticae).

In contrast to the blue bugloss, yellow plants were conspicuous in this area with extensive beds of birds foot trefoil (lotus corniculatus) and more dispersed plants of twiggy mullein (verbascum virgatum), great mullein (verbascum thapsus) and the yellow horned poppy (glaucium flavum). By 15.30 the breeze was stiff, not to say strong, and ‘white horses’ capped the waves of the dark green sea beneath its sharp horizon. A large exposed patch of clematis vulgaris on the beach ridge shingle caught our eye, as clematis usually prefers its roots to be in shade and copiously watered. A probable peacock caterpillar was rescued from its dangerous position in the road and deposited on the less exposed, vegetated margin.

A turn to the north put us on the track towards a hide. Least lettuce (lactuca saligna), exclusive to Rye except for a site in Essex, and stinking hawk’s-beard (crepis foetida) (smelling prussic acid), if anything even rarer than the lettuce having been introduced from its only other location at Dungeness, were noted. However, the hawk’s-beard has done well in an area from which rabbits are excluded. The choice of ten minutes in the hide or straight home saw most opting for the hide. Besides the terns mentioned earlier, tufted duck (aythya fuligula), little egret (egretta garzetta) and numerous cormorants (phalacrocorax carbo) were recorded before we closed the shutters and headed back to base. However, the interest was not yet over. One of the afternoon’s highlights was a pair of avocets, one adult sieving the mud in characteristic mode with sideways swishes of its black upturned bill, the other keeping a watchful eye from the bank over two chicks, also trying out their new feeding technique but with shorter bills. On the opposite side of the embankment another, more enigmatic, wader caught our attention. It was probably a juvenile grey plover but generated some discussion for ten minutes or so. Where the embankment had not been mowed, keen eyes had already spotted single stems of bee orchid (ophris apifera) and pyramidal orchid (anacamptis pyramidalis) by the time our birding deliberations were over.

When we finally dispersed, having presented Chris with our heart-felt thanks for a thoroughly interesting, not to mention entertaining, afternoon, it was 16.45 and the sun had shone throughout.

Colin Whiteman

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24th June 2014 - Castle Hill Local Nature Reserve, Newhaven

There were 20 of us for this short wander around Castle Hill Local Nature Reserve adjacent to Newhaven Fort on a warm sunny afternoon with some light cloud and a slight breeze.

Soon after entering a shady area at the end of the car park a speckled wood was seen. As the shade opened out to scrub I heard what I assumed was a dog running towards us down the path ahead. When it came into view I was astonished to see a young badger dash across the path just in front of me, crash heavily into the undergrowth and immediately disappear. Unfortunately we were in single file so most will not have seen this.

We passed an area of rosebay on a steady climb. After a flight of wood edged steps we turned off the ascent to inspect the artificial pond. The liner is in poor condition and there was just a small amount of fly covered water in the bottom. There was some ragged robin around the edge and water plantain with its feet in the remaining water. When we retraced our steps to the main path a whitethroat was observed on top of a bush.

After two more short flights of steps the sea came into view. We walked to a low growing bush to experience the distinctive sweet aroma of wild privet. Returning from the privet we moved towards the first of the three derelict gun emplacements. One of the coast watch people in the tower came out on to their balcony to greet us as we looked at a small tortoiseshell on the ground with its wings closed.

There was a lot of bristly oxtongue about with its sinister looking leaves with spines on the top surface erupting from white bulbous bases. Apparently it used to be eaten in times gone by.

There were a few plants of centaury in flower. A cinnabar moth was seen along the cliffs. Occasionally a fulmar would briefly appear above the cliffs. People just stood and took in the views of Seaford across the bay.

There was the usual discussion of whether it is English or White stonecrop on one of the gun emplacements. There is still no conclusion. A single pyramidal orchid was spotted away from the path. As we descended through scrub away from the cliffs a solitary swift swung overhead in an area where there was a patch of tufted vetch.

At the edge of the small roadway up to the watch tower there were two white plants with bladders behind the flowers. There was some discussion about which campions they were. They were obviously not the same. Chris Brewer explained that they were both white campion, which has separate male and female plants. The male has smaller flowers.

Further down the roadway we diverted towards the dry moat of Newhaven fort. There is Perforate St John's Wort here. A leaf was inspected with a hand-lens to see the "perforations" (actually translucent glands). Back to the roadway, a little further down we used a wide path through the scrub to return to the car park. Along this path a yellow moth was seen flitting about. When it landed it was identifed as a brimstone moth. While we were dispersing from the car park a comma was seen high up on some honeysuckle.

When we arrived home we found a stowaway in the boot of our car - a colourful very hairy caterpillar of the yellow-tail tussock moth.

Other species not mentioned in the narrative:- Meadow brown, greenfinch, linnet, dunnock, dropwort, mignonette, ground ivy, burdock, yellow rattle in seed, agrimony, mugwort, hoary cress, bird's foot trefoil.

I am sure people saw other species not listed here.

Peter Hammond

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1st July 2014 Cornish Farm

This walk was arranged to show the contrast between two chalk grassland areas, one old, unimproved grassland forming part of the Seaford Head to Eastbourne SSSI and the other former arable land now reverting to meadow having been sown with chalk grassland plants. Linking the two is a concrete track with grass margins giving yet a different plant population.

The mild wet winter and spring resulted in an advance in the seasons so that plants in the first field (the former arable land)- which should have been at their peak - were somewhat past their best. None-the-less a good variety of typical chalk grassland plants such as oxeye daisy, ladies bedstraw, birdsfoot trefoil and common knapweed could be seen. The occasional flax and a single musk mallow were also seen. There were also a number of butterflies (of which the most abundant seemed to be small skippers) and birds in particular skylarks in evidence.

The two fields are at either end of a concrete track to the farm buildings and where the path leaves the track we were rewarded by a Corn Bunting sitting obligingly on a fence post.

Behind the farm buildings is a dew pond in which could be seen one of the water crowfoots (probably thread-leaved water crowfoot Ranunculus trichophyllus). Sadly the pond was rapidly drying so most of the plant was not immersed in water so it was difficult to determine whether there were floating leaves.

A little further on was a stand of Musk (or Nodding) Thistle a typical chalk grassland plant. Another thistle found close to the sea, slender (or seaside) thistle was also in evidence.

In the SSSI field, the grass and plants were shorter, the predominant plants were different to those in the reversion field and there was a greater diversity of species. There was an extensive patch of kidney vetch (the food plant of the Adonis Blue butterfly), widespread squinancywort, large numbers of pyramidal orchid and a number of round-headed rampion (the Pride of Sussex. A search for late-flowering burnt orchid (seen here previously) proved unfruitful.

While in this field there was sudden raucous calling by the rooks in the rookery on the far side of the adjacent field stimulated by the presence of a raptor - probably a peregrine falcon.

White campion was in evidence and some time was spent, ultimately successful, in trying to find both male and female plants (it being like holly dioecious).

Returning along the concrete track some members asked what the identity of the nettle-like plant growing along the field edge. It was black horehound which has a distinctive and rather pungent odour when crushed.

Part way back down the track a patch of nettles was covered in a dense web which on close inspection proved to be a collection of small tortoiseshell caterpillars.

Back at the Belle Tout layby a quick trip across the road revealed a solitary bee orchid still in flower although, sadly, the white bee orchids (which had been in flower the week before) were no longer to be seen.

Other notable birds seen (or heard) on the walk were chiffchaff, linnets and swallows. Some 11 species of butterflies and moths were in evidence including dark green fritillary, ringlet and marbled white.

A total of 48 forbs (flowering plants excluding grasses, rushes and sedges) were specifically noted.

Chris Brewer

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 Reports

22nd July 2014 – Seaford Head

On a warm sunny afternoon (no wind!) thirty five of us, including several visitors, met up with Sarah Quantrill, the Sussex Wildlife Trust ranger for the Seaford Head Nature Reserve.

Sarah began the walk by showing us the area which has been set aside for grazing by the 3 (docile) cattle which finally arrived in February and have already grown in this short time. The site is surrounded by an electric fence and benches have been placed within the enclosure. This has led to a few complaints and as a result seating will probably be moved outside this area, keeping the gates to allow access. Recently it took a team of 10 volunteers a day to cut the grass which was also raked in order not to enrich the soil. The idea is to weaken and reduce low bramble, while avoiding the use of chemicals if possible, and go for full scrub clearance in winter when the birds are not nesting. ‘Island’ patches have been left to provide cover for butterflies and invertebrates. This seems to work very successfully.

We carried on walking past the hole, an area where all the cuttings are put since it would obviously be difficult to remove these from the site. Going further towards the coast the land is grazed by rabbits.

We continued towards Hope Gap, on the way seeing many cinnabar moth caterpillars on ragwort. At Hope Gap we were able to see the extent of the erosion over the winter months. Because the cliff is unstable there is a need to re-route the footpath further inland – permission will be needed to do this from the council who own the steps and also to replace the fence. From the beach we saw the holes in the cliffs made by the rare potter flower bee. This area is not only an SSSI but also a RIGS (Regionally Important Geological and Geomorphological Site). After climbing back up from the beach we passed the area where the moon carrot grows; this will be surveyed in August for the second year running by the SNHS. We left Hope Gap and after a few minutes diverged from the main path and walked up the new ride. This was cut only 2 years ago and is already becoming overgrown. Sarah hopes to widen it over the winter and to cut scallops on the edge in order to increase diversity. Unfortunately there are some people who object to any form of clearance, not realising that this is necessary to improve biodiversity. She recently put up a notice advertising the ride but this was cut down after only a few days. When the ride was created traces appeared of lynchettes, which are ridges on the ground created by the first farmers. Sarah said that this raises the question as to whether this archaeological feature should be further exposed. The SWT want to cut another ride opposite the first one, which will be in a sunnier spot and attract more butterflies. Back on the main path we were told that the bramble is cut 3 or 4 times a year.

Besides maintaining Seaford Head, Sarah is also responsible for land near the golf course where there are plans to introduce sheep (not cattle) to graze the land.

Listed below are some of the flora and fauna seen on the walk.

Butterflies were comma, female common blue, gatekeeper, marbled white, meadow brown, painted lady, peacock, red admiral, small skipper, tortoiseshell.

Birds were 2 linnets, magpie, heard song thrush.

Plants included agrimony, American willowherb, betony, birdsfoot trefoil, common centaury, common mouse-ear, common ragwort, deadly nightshade, dropwort, dwarf thistle, eyebright, fairy flax, hounds tongue, scabious, selfheal, squinancywort, thrift, viper’s bugloss, wild parsnip, willowherb, yellow ragwort.

The afternoon proved to be successful as we managed to see a good variety of butterflies and wild flowers in a relatively short space of time. At the end of the walk Sarah thanked us for coming and also mentioned that every first Thursday in the month volunteers meet up from 10 am-3 pm to help her tackle various tasks on the Reserve. More volunteers are always very welcome to join in.

We thanked Sarah for a most enjoyable and informative afternoon.

Susan Painter

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5th August 2014 Cradle Valley

Upwards of 30 members and visitors gathered at High & Over carpark. This is a daunting number to manage on narrow paths with ephemeral lepidoptera and I set off with some degree of trepidation. However, nature smiled on us and the butterflies and moths proved to be very accommodating.

In the bostal leading down towards Frog Firle farm were significant numbers of common blue and chalkhill blue butterflies were to be seen so that all of the group were able to see them. After repeating the Cambridge blue/Oxford blue comparison inexperienced members were able to tell which were which.

Then the first bonus of the day. A cry of "Adonis Blue" went up and to my great delight after a brief flight it settled in some vegetation close to us, occasionally opening its wings slightly to show the incredible blue. It stayed for some considerable time in spite of the close attention we gave it. So passive was it that it allowed me to put it into a pot so that the group could study it at close quarters and be shown its distinctive features.

As we crossed into Cradle Valley we came across a skipper which I initially presumed to be a small skipper. However, this too proved passive enough to be put in a pot and examination revealed it to be an Essex Skipper with its distinctive black-tipped undersides to the antennae.

Down in the valley we searched for Silver-spotted Skippers. These are normally very mobile and well camouflaged so difficult to see against and it was initially a challenge to point them out to all the group. We then came upon a mating pair that remained relatively static in the grass giving a better view for the group. After separating one of the pair allowed itself to be put into a pot enabling a closer view by the group. So enamoured of us was it that, on release, it sat upon one member's finger for some considerable time.

As we were about to turn back a call of "does anyone know what this caterpillar is?" was heard. This was a larva happily feeding on devil's-bit scabious and turned out not to be a caterpillar (which are the lavae of butterflies and moths) but a sawfly larva, probably that of the scabious sawfly.

Also seen on the walk were Speckled Wood, Wall Brown, Red Admiral, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Small White, Marbled White, Small Tortoiseshell and Clouded Yellow butterflies and a few moths, including Silver Y and 6-Spot Burnet.

Chris Brewer

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19th August2014 - Old Lodge Ashdown Forest

A select group of members was blessed with pleasantly sunny weather – with some cloudy patches – and had spectacular views of heather-smothered rolling heathland on this Ashdown Forest reserve which is managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust. The benefits of clear-felling of some areas of pine and other conifers were apparent with regrowth of herbaceous plants.

Among other species we saw dwarf gorse (now in flower), skullcap, thyme-leaved speedwell, ling/common heather, bell heather, cross-leaved heath, sawwort, devil’s bit, common cudweed, corn spurrey, and a buckthorn bush with ripening red/black berries. Janice’s help with identification is gratefully acknowledged.

Few birds were about – we heard a great-spotted woodpecker and a wren and saw a (female?) redstart.

Invertebrates were a female southern hawker dragonfly, obligingly egg-laying while we watched, a “dark” unidentified dragonfly and a small red damselfly (checked via a reference book); this is a national rarity and Old Lodge is its only recorded breeding site in East Sussex. We also saw pond skaters and water boatmen but only a couple of meadow brown butterflies.

The Exmoor ponies belonging to the Sussex Pony Grazing and Conservation Trust were on the adjacent area known as South Heath, busily tackling purple moor grass I’m pleased to say.

Also during the walk Peter Hammond found a red-legged shieldbug (Pentatoma rufipes).

Mike Squires

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4th September 2014 – Cliff End – Geology and fossils of Hastings II

In a repeat of the 2013 field meeting to Cliff End, east of Hastings (see The Seaford Naturalist, no.172, Nov-2013, p.15–17), nine members of the Seaford Natural History Society met opposite The Smuggler Inn at Pett Level on a fine sunny morning. Following a brief introduction explaining the geology of the area, and passing around locally found specimens, the party proceeded along the concrete promenade towards the start of the Cliff End cliff section. Before we accessed the beach we stopped at an information board where we viewed the extensive remains of a Neolithic submerged forest visible on the foreshore at low tide. This forest dates back to around 5,200 years ago when sea levels were much lower than they are today and extends from Pett Level all the way to Bexhill.

From here we could also view the cliff section extending to the south-west. The cliffs here are around 140 million years old and were formed when Britain lay much closer to the equator with a Mediterranean type climate. At this time the south-east of England was a low-lying floodplain with lakes and meandering rivers. The cliffs along the 8 km section of coast between Cliff End and Hastings display a succession of intermittently faulted sandstones, siltstones and mudstones, and reflect deposition in freshwater conditions. They were formed when great quantities of sand, silt and mud were deposited by water flowing into this lowland area from the London massif to the north (Londinia) and, to a lesser extent, from the Armorican massif to the south (Cherbourg) and Cornubia to the west (Cornwall). The cycles of sandstones and clays in the sedimentation reflect the relief of the London massif to the north. During this period the London area was affected by faulting causing uplift of the London platform, and at times of high relief sands would have been deposited, followed by the deposition of clays as the London area was down-faulted and eroded to a lower relief, followed again by sands during periods of uplift. Present day analogues of the Wealden landscape are the Okavango Delta in Botswana and the Brahmaputra Delta in Bangladesh.

Our first stop along the cliff section was once again the Cliff End Fault – here the cliff to the north-east had dropped by around 3 m against the cliff to the south-west, showing very clearly a discontinuity in the sedimentary horizons. This had been caused by the collision of the African Plate with the European Plate around 40 million years ago, forming the Alps and buckling the sediments in the south of England to form the Wealden Dome. Subsequent erosion has given us the landscape we see in the south-east of England today.

As we continued along the beach we found several large blocks of the ‘Cliff End Bone Bed’, a fossil-rich conglomerate containing fish teeth and scales, sharks teeth, reptilian bone fragments and teeth, pterosaur teeth and, very rarely, primitive mammal teeth. This is the richest bone bed in the Weald and has long been studied by scientists for the important vertebrate remains that it contains. When the bone bed is broken down by soaking in acetic acid numerous small vertebrate fossils are released, the most important of which are the teeth of early mammals, although these are extremely rare – one such study conducted in the early 1960s recovered three mammal teeth from 150 kg of bone bed!

As in the previous year we looked for the in situ quillwort horizon in the cliff face. This first occurs in a platform around 370 m south-west of the concrete promenade and extends for about 0.5 km along the cliff. Unfortunately, the winter storms of 2013/2014 had caused a lot of cliff falls, burying much of the quillwort bed and only one quillwort was seen. Cliff erosion and collapse often destroy or bury good exposures, but in doing so it can also reveal new ones. The quillwort bed itself extends into the cliff face, so it will only need a few good storms this coming winter to re-expose the bed.

As we continued along the beach we observed various geological and fossil structures; plant debris in red ironstones; dinoturbation (disturbed sediment possibly caused by herds of migrating dinosaurs); ripple marked sandstone (formed on the shoreline of a Wealden lake); gutter casts (formed when water carved small channels in the mud of a floodplain); river channels seen in the cliff face (marking the course of a Wealden river system); and one very fine fallen block of iron-stained cross-bedded sandstone which allowed us to determine which way up the rock was when it was deposited. A bird of prey was also observed flying over the cliffs and oystercatchers on the shoreline. As we neared the end of the Cliff End section the large fallen block of quillworts that we had observed in 2013 was nowhere to be seen, most likely destroyed or eroded by the winter storms. The cast of a dinosaur footprint was also seen in a fallen block.

As we entered Fairlight Cove we stopped at Haddock’s Reversed Fault, which in contrast to the Cliff End Fault that we’d seen earlier had been caused by lateral compression pushing up the rocks to the south-west by around 60 m against the rocks to the north-east. These had slipped back down at some point forming a slip plane which could be clearly seen in the smooth cliff face. Also at beach level extending out from the fault we could trace the eroded line of the slip plane protruding from the shingle, a phenomenon only observed when the shingle is particularly low. It was at this point that Colin Pritchard spotted a seal in the bay, which after a while we all managed to see.

In the distance we could see two sets of coastal defence works. The closest one in Fairlight Cove was constructed in 1990 from Norwegian larvakite to protect the foot of the cliff from erosion – long abandoned houses could be seen at the top of the cliff. The one on the far side of the bay had been built more recently (2008) at the foot of the Fairlight Landslip using blocks of French Carboniferous limestone in order to prevent rotational slipping. Both defences seem to be working.

At this point we retraced our steps back to Pett – some of us taking advantage of welcome refreshments in The Smuggler Inn!

Peter and Joyce Austen

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16th September 2014- Shooters Bottom and Birling Gap

I will long remember the autumn migration of 2014 as one of my better years. Some of the scarcer and more attractive species have been more abundant and/or at least seen better than in the past. In this category I would include wheatear, whinchat and yellow wagtails - all of which I have recorded in numbers of well over a hundred and in some cases several hundred this autumn. Similarly, but in smaller numbers, it has been a good year for common redstart, ring ouzel, nightingale, grasshopper warbler (always elusive and never common but several have shown very well this year), spotted and pied flycatchers - on one morning a large migrant ‘fall’ along this part of the East Sussex coast produced no fewer than nine pied fly on Seaford Head, of which five were in a single group just above Hope Gap, while another morning I recorded 16 spotted flycatchers. I have also enjoyed one of the best years ever for the rarer species in the county. In this group I would include the finding of seven honey buzzards (two of which were over my house almost together), two great white egrets, 2 dartford warbler, Balearic and sooty shearwater, a single puffin (a county rarity) and two of the three wryneck seen. On top of all of that, I found several national rarities including a melodious warbler, a yellow-browed warbler, a juvenile barred warbler and (by far the rarest of all, even nationally), a well photographed adult barred warbler which was seen at such a short distance that its yellow iris was clearly detectable.

And then, in striking contrast, there was the autumn bird walk to Shooters Bottom and Birling Gap – which was an altogether different affair. Since retirement I have taken on a rather different demeanour and now consciously strive to present myself as an optimistic, cheerful and friendly fellow. But as participants on these walks know only too well from sometimes bitter past experience, these qualities are tested to their utmost by this annual autumn migration bird walk. A smaller than usual group of indomitable optimists gathered at Shooters Bottom at 07.00 – the depleted numbers perhaps reflecting the fact that they already knew what I knew about the gradual but very marked decline in the number of migrants seen in the area over the preceding week after an excellent bird-filled fortnight before this.

The undoubted highlight of this first session was a female common redstart which was to the best of my knowledge seen by all present although even in my wildest flights of hyperbole I would scarcely describe it as ‘showy’ or obliging. Had luck been running with us, we might have hoped it was a rather spectacular male of the species which still sports much of its rather bright and gaudy black, silver, grey and red plumage well into the late autumn, but in the circumstances even the female represented a very welcome highlight in comparison with the relatively drab plumage worn by the autumn meadow pipit. The only other bird recorded of any significance was a common buzzard which spent some time quartering the field east of Hodcombe being mobbed by a fairly large group of angry corvids as it made its way towards the Beachy Head Hotel. Although it gave only reasonably good but distant views, this was still to be welcomed given the fact that several more interesting species during the first session were confined only to ‘flyovers’ seen by few and seen very well by scarcely anyone – a category which included one or two tree pipit as they typically gave little more than a brief contact call while flying high over our heads.

By the time I met the second group at Birling Gap at 10.00 my unquenchable optimism had taken a little bit of a body blow. To make matters worse, I knew that this year the hot dry summer (and a lawnmower) had together conspired to have already finished off any chance of seeing the autumn ladies tresses which so often in the past have offered some consolation when the birding is on the thin side. Nevertheless, we all put a brave face on the situation and there was some compensation in a pleasant walk and excellent views of great spotted woodpecker and at least two wheatear – both juveniles on the basis of their rather warm russet ear coverts. In total, we recorded 37 species but it was symptomatic of our lack of good fortune that even in mid-September at this supposed migration hotspot we saw only three common whitethroat (a so-called ‘trash bird’ usually at this location) and one willow warbler (can you believe it?) while raven was confined to a ‘heard’ record only and whinchat was conspicuous by its complete absence!

The ironic footnote to all of this is that as I drove the last few yards to my home at 12.45 I suddenly came to a dramatic halt amidst flying gravel as I saw immediately over my own house the unmistakable flight profile of a honey buzzard. As I got my binoculars on the bird it turned out to be a dark phase Honey Buzzard. Amidst yet more gravel fired from my back wheels I then shot into the drive, alerted my wife and she got a brief view of the bird as it flew off. As we walked round to the back garden to see if we could relocate it, a second, but this time light phase honey buzzard flew fairly low and very slowly over the house towards the golf course and cliffs at Seaford Head. The striking contrast between this exciting five minutes and the rest of the morning was painfully driven home still further by the sudden appearance of a hobby which launched a prolonged effort at mobbing the second honey buzzard before making its way off over the Head. If only we had seen a display like this an hour earlier. Never mind, it’s all in the game… And there is always next year for those of you with a good sense of humour and a robust spirit!

Bob Self

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 Reports

30th September 2014 - Geology of SHLNR and its surroundings

20 SNHS members met Colin Whiteman at South Barn car park at 9.30 with the sun shining through a gentle breeze; perfect weather for a stroll down to the Coastguard (CG) Cottages, over the foreshore to Hope Gap steps, up the dry valley and along the cliffs to the stile, and across the big field back to South Barn, a circuit taking about two and a half hours. After a brief introduction, and a few safety issues about steep cliffs and slippery rocks, the group set off in the direction of the CG cottages with the first stop about half way down the track with good views of the Cuckmere valley and its surrounding Downs.

An attempt to link back to Peter and Joyce Austen’s earlier trip to Cliff End, was stymied because the distant inland view of the Weald, which outcrops at the coast east of Hastings, was blocked by poor visibility, so we made do with a photograph prepared earlier. The group was asked to imagine the Chalk scarp, north of Alfriston, extending right across the Weald to the south-facing scarp of the North Downs. After the Weald-Artois anticline formed c. 20 million years ago, doming up the Chalk, the resulting (‘consequent’) rivers including the Cuckmere (and Ouse, Adur and Arun) eroded the south flank of the chalk to produce ancient valleys which persist today.

Beyond the Cuckmere the dip slope of the Downs could be seen, etched by dry valleys eroded during Ice Ages when permafrost inhibited the natural porosity of the Chalk and enabled snow meltwater to cut the valleys. When the permafrost melted the valleys became dry.

On to the CG cottages where it was explained that during the cold ‘glacials’ sea level fell by 120 m exposing the English Channel and allowing further erosion of the Cuckmere valley. As the sea level rose again during the subsequent ‘interglacial’ the valley filled with sand and gravel and silty-clay washed down from the Weald to produce the present floodplain. The group were able to see the repairs being made to the to the CG cottages’ protection, damaged earlier in the year, before setting off tentatively across the shore platform to Hope Gap steps.

On the way, narrow, vertical solution pipes in the Chalk, where acidic waters from the overlying sands (deposits of an earlier version of the Cuckmere river) has dissolved chalk, were pointed out. The dissolved chalk is partly re-deposited as the calcareous water seeps into the surrounding chalk and hardens. This hardened rim is sometimes exposed on the foreshore as a circular tub-like feature. At the steps Chalk and flint formation were discussed, complex subjects for which space is lacking here. A few bits of fossils were observed in the Chalk but the leader relied on photographs to get this information over.

The final stop, before heading back to the barn, was near the upper end of the Cliff Bottom dry valley. Here the group inspected the sediments on top of the Chalk – clay with flints, weathered from earlier Tertiary sediments, wind-blown silt (löess) deposited during the last ‘glacial’, and the modern soil. More good examples of solution pipes were also seen.

The group thanked the leader for introducing them to some local geology. He appreciated the turnout of members, and all dispersed around 12 noon, still in pleasant sunshine.

Colin Whiteman

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Page updated 29th October 2014