RYE BRED AND DUTCH TREATS
George Gershwin et al.
I made a second visit to Rye Harbour recently. There'd been daily reports of Roseate Terns roosting among the many other terns at this preserve along the English Channel. A lifer only ninety minutes away was too much to resist. Directions were clear. The two or three Roseates gather on a gravel bar in the lake in front of the Crittall Hide at the west end of Ternery Pool. I knew right where that was. And then, the Roseates seemed to rest there only at night and at high tide. Well, my luck was rising with the tides, there was a high tide around 8 p.m. well before the spring sunset in this northern latitude.
I arrived in early afternoon on the creaky old three-car train from Ashford International. Truly, the Eurostar stops there en route from London to Paris and Brussels. There was a twenty minute layover at Ashford so I birded around the depot. The nearby creek and its trees yielded several species, including my first-ever Nightingale in the U.K. He was in plain sight, singing away. For proper appreciation see John Keats' poem. The House Martins and Collared Doves were plentiful on the edge of Ashford. These doves have a snarl I find unusual for any dove.
Trains from each end of this line meet at Rye station because that's the only spot along the thirty-five mile run with two parallel tracks. This train's so old it has wooden seat frames and wooden floors. It runs hourly. Crossing Romney Marsh, there are sheep, endless drainage ditches with Grey Herons, scores of Carrion Crows, passing gulls, grazing Wood Pigeons, nagging Magpies and still more sheep. Barn Swallows zip past, well, a track-side barn. One deeper stream has a Mute Swan pair on patrol. Unseen from the train are Moorhen and Common Coots. This part of southern England is an area of lowlands reclaimed from the ocean, much of it below sea level.
From the Rye station, it's a £5 cab ride to the preserve. No cars allowed in but it's an easy walk on level, mostly paved walk-ways. The British nature preserves are very much more urbane and tame than those in America. Most have been reclaimed from some previous use. This one was a gravel quarry, the whole coastline in East Sussex being made of ocean-smoothed stones, chert and flint. The wind and waves in the channel pile them up into dunes and spits. This is new land and a new preserve. The land has all been built up from the ocean since the 14th Century when Rye was a coastal town, now it's three miles upstream on the Rother. That means three miles of gravel ridges built up over 600 years. The preserve only dates from 1970.
My afternoon birding was rewarding. An area of the outer beach was closed by an exclosure. I watched Little Terns carrying fish back to their nests inside that fence. The birds have bright yellow beaks and swallow-like flight, blown about by each light breeze. This species is about half the size of a Forster's Tern. Ringed Plover adults ran about on the gravel. They are one-stripe lieutenants to our double-striped American Killdeer captains.
Ruddy Turnstones were feeding along the cement walls of the River Rother. Out in the bleak gravel wastelands Oystercatchers and Lapwings were nesting, the adult birds on patrol and occasionally on attack against the marauding Crows. Lapwings are apparently a diminishing breed in England, felled by development and plowed fields. They need long-grass pastures all summer to raise their young. It's perhaps the finest shorebird in Europe with its Cavalier plumes. It's good some preserves offer them adequate living space. A flock of Lapwing (as big as a curlew) in deliberate, slow, black and white, black and white semaphore flight is a great thing to watch. Most of the gravel breeding area is fenced off from most mammals, including foxes. The rabbits here breed like . They were everywhere on the inland gravel hillocks. Big ones, little ones, tiny ones, hopping, feeding, snoozing, chasing, growing fur, gazing at me gazing at them. The rabbits burrow so no fence keeps them in or out. It was one giant furry mound of biomass with ears. A vacation mobile home park borders the reserve on the inland side and its lawns show the rabbit population (rhymes with copulation) far exceeds the human even though the homes are only fifteen feet apart. The rabbit holes are ear to ear.
On the fence posts I found Skylark, Meadow Pipit and Northern Wheatear. The male Wheatear is a striking bird of darks and light in contrast, with a brilliant white tail that glows in sun during flight. Linnet, grassland finches, flew about in family groups. Early Eurocentric Californians named our Towhee "linnet" because both are ground-loving birds and sedentary. The Linnet is smaller than a House Finch and gregarious. After one afternoon rain squall, a drooping Skylark, soaked Yellow Wagtail, Wheatear and some Linnet shared the same little strip of still warm walkway pavement. After the rain a few male Skylark warmed up with their buoyant song.
Around 5 p.m. I checked the lake for the Roseate Terns, none. So I made the circuit around the inland part of Rye Harbour. The complex singing and warning calls of the Reed Warbler sounded from each wet ditch. Reed Buntings gave their quick "zeep, zeep, zeep" from damp, overgrown pastures. Gulls swooped and screamed, most of them Black-headed. A few Cormorant worked their way through the sky, often into the wind. In these broad open spaces in England it's haunting to bird for hours and never see a single hawk. Once there were so many. No complaints from the rabbit masses.
The trees around one lake (once a gravel pit) yielded Chaffinch, Chiffchaff warblers, Greenfinch, Winter Wren, Dunnock. A Common Swift down from Rye Town sped past, mouth open. A swirl of Starlings lifted up from one cow pasture. This inland lake yielded several Great-crested Grebes and two feuding Grey Herons who carried on a noisy dispute, chasing about the shore. On the lake's far side there were Canada and Greylag Geese in the field with the cows. I stopped on a narrow dike between two fields, one full of the bright mustard flowers of the rapeseed. The other field crammed with the blue and white blossoms of some weedy herb I couldn't name. To the east the sky was dark to darker, dense blues with pale blue outlines to the wet clouds that lay in complex strata, one over the other. Turning back toward the west there were isolated clouds near the horizon and the bits of open sky of palest blue from the sun which couldn't be seen. These laggard clouds were hurrying east as if to rejoin the storm that had moved on. Hints of gold broke around the thin edges of a few western clouds. A passenger balloon then rose slowly beyond the hill upon which Rye Town sits. It was gray against the blues. Evening was here and it was time to go wait for my Roseate Terns to arrive.
I took up my post inside the hide at 6:25. No other human. It had turned cool and windy and more rain seemed imminent. It was now just me and the birds. Lots of birds. Here's what I saw through the window over the next two hours as the tide rose.
On the little open gravel beach between me and lake were Black-headed Gulls, adults and juveniles. This species dominates the whole preserve by its large numbers and even larger sound. The dark, mottled, almost harlequin youngsters were often as big as mother or father but flightless still. Sans tail feathers they paddled about the lake like ducks. Often several young gulls would giving out shrill whistles at once. Feed me! The adults sounded like California Gulls and were even more vocal than the kids. So there was a level of gullacious cacophony that you can equate to a noisy day at Seal Rocks in San Francisco. Once in a while an adult gull finds some floating or sunken morsel in the lake and offers to the nearby squaller and that brings brief silence until the morsel is swallowed whole. "Junior, chew your food."
It is now after 7 p.m. and the slanted sun rays that break through the clouds turn the still nearly waveless lakelet into the color of dark ale. The young gulls pursued hassled parents. Mallards lazed or dabbled along the shore. Two Common Shelducks had pulled out of the water and gone to sleep under the dark sky. The identical male and female shelducks wear a telltale broad rusty collar-band that circles down low over the breast. They're nearly double the bulk of the Mallards. A Eurasian Oystercatcher also has his head tucked behind a wing, hiding his orange beak. This species likes the mud and gravel and is more gregarious than our hearty Black Oystercatcher of the rugged rocky north Pacific. A Common Redshank passes, then another, probing the mud with a Willet-sized beak. Then a single Ruff who forgot to migrate north. More Mallards. My first Little Grebe of the day paddles rapidly past, his little yellow nose ring shows in the twilight. Ringed Plovers come and go from the beach. Out in the lake Coots paddled about, and a pair of American expats were diving and dining. Ruddy Ducks which have spread across England, having escaped from waterfowl collections. This pair has four little ducklings. Moorhens waded in the shallows across the lake where even more Mallards and Shelducks loaf. Does this all seem a quiet, restful scene?
Well, don't forget the gulls are constantly sounding off. And Crows and Herring Gulls pass by sporadically, lending voice to the choir of gulls. But this is just the bass track to the melody of Rye Harbour. The lead singers here are the terns. About 200 Sandwich Tern nests crowd larger islands in the this lake. The large Sandwich Tern is a vociferous victor of the hunt. Each bird came to the lake from the ocean two hundred yards south of us carrying a fish and must constantly tell all without hearing that he's done it. Not to be outdone, the even larger number of medium sized Common Terns did the same, in a higher, shriller pitch. They're island nesters also. And the waiting nest guardian terns greeted each fish-hauling mate with answering screams of congratulations. A convention of New York cabs would be quieter than Ternery Pool in late June. The best description I can make of the many tern cries is that of a thousand Venetian blinds vibrating in a hurricane. Behind the hide among the gravel hillocks Lapwings or Oystercatchers found a sneaky Crow and give howling pursuit. This could've been another quiet night of opera rehearsal.
One Common Tern carries a fish nearly three inches long. It stops on a pole in the lake before the hide to catch his breath. On the next pole a Sandwich Tern alights and begins to preen. The bolder, rough-crested Sandwich has a dagger black beak compared to the daintier Common Tern or the miniature Little Terns who don't come inland from their beach landing strip.
I try to calculate the thousands of fish that caught and carried to this pool each day. These hard-working adult terns fly and fish, fish and fly. Every day. In wind, rain, storm, rarely even in blinding sun. Hard work.
Long ago this area must've had thousands of tern nests. The highest number of Sandwich Tern nests in preserve history was the 250 last year. There mustbe slightly fewer this season. They resumed nesting here in 1986. The Common Terns usually have over 120 nests. They first came back to nest in 1973. This seems to be a big year for them. The Little Terns have always nested here but they don't use islands so they are much more likely to fall victim to intruders or predators and get human surveillance during their breeding season. Seventeen nests have bee found at Rye this year. The modern high is 1985 with 76 nests.
Now it's nearly 7:30 p.m. and above the inland hills the clouds have parted letting those dense visible rays of sunlight come down form sky. Those are ones that always used to appear on my Methodist Sunday School magazines, meant to denote God's presence. Right now those rays of gold and pink and yellow denote the coming of a noisy night around Ternery Pool and a possible end to the rains.
Near my viewing point birds work the pebble beach, each in its own way. The Redhsnak uses his long beak to probe. A Ruddy Turnstone arrives and begins looking beneath the dried weds and driftwood. A Mallard gibbles in the shallows with his spatula beak, taking in gulps of much. The Moorhen with a chicken's snoz hunts and pecks at individual bits of animal and plant.
Even with my coat on it was chilly. Wind continued, terns continued. Haul that fish, tote that barge, lift that bale. It's wet in the air, damp under foot. Light was fading. High tide was nigh. But not my Roseates. Finally I was treated to a sunset with all those colors you see in Baroque Italian paintings. If you put all those pinks and purples and reds and orange and gold and melted butter yellow onto a necktie or dress, nobody would be brave enough to wear it. But the dark green hills beyond Rye wore it all well. I trudged back through rabbitville to meet my taxi. Sans Roseate, but not sans tale.
A week later I was once again birding below sea level. This time in Vondelpark, Amsterdam and in the waterlands east of the city. My modest hotel was halfway between the Rijksmuseum and Vondelpark. Both were fine.
The first thing you hear in Vondelpark are the parrots. These are the same species of Rose-ringed Parakeets, Psittacula krameri, that dwell in southern London from Richmond on the west to Bexleyheath in the east. The density in Vondelpark is high. Nearly every group of trees, and this is a forested park, has a pair of squawking parrots. When they fly their pointed tails stream behind them, ruddering their fast but wobbly flight path.
There is a long lake or series of lakes with inter-connecting canals, depending on how narrow a lake can be before it becomes a stream or canal. This body of water winds around and through the full mile length of the park. Over 100 species of trees from all over the world provide woodland, shade, leaves for parakeet to hide and nesting sites for woodsy birds.
Chaffinch and Greenfinch, Blackcap and Chiffchaff warblers, Wood Pigeon, Green and Great Spotted Woodpacker, Short-toed Treecreeper, Robin, Blackbird and melodious Song Thrush, countless Winter Wren. Jays, Magpies and Carrion Crows from the Corvid gang. Blue, Great & Long-tailed Tits, of course. There are Jackdaws about so they may wander by the park though they tend toward parking lots and rooftops more than actual plants. Grey Heron abound, Common Terns came by to fish. Moorhen and Common Coot were nesting. No sign of duck beside the usual urban mongrel Mallards. In winter likely there are other species like Teal and Gadwall. Swift passed over, but no swallows.
Further eats in the ancestral home town of Naarden I birded around the old earthern fortress there some of my relatives trod before they uppede and went to New Amsterdam some 350 years ago. Now Naarden is an artsy upscale suburb, a water-soggy Mill Valley perhaps. There the Jackdaws were legion and tame. In the inner moat (Naarden fortress has Europe's only double moat), I watched an adult Great Crested Grebe carry a large fish to its three zebra-striped half-grown juveniles. I saw a House Maritn nest but no swallows with it. And the usual town birds: Blackbird, Robin, Wren, tits, Chaffinch, Coots, Moorhen, Mallard and more screaming Black-headed Gulls.
Even from the train window through the farmland between Narrden and Amsterdam, not a single hawk to be seen.
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