Birding on the Greensand Ridge at Underriver

Birding on the Greensand Ridge at Underriver

The Underriver walk – short and long version – was the focus this weekend. Just south of Sevenoaks this lovely walk, part of the One Tree Hill “suite” of routes, offers great views across the Kent weald and superb woods and hedgerows. There’s a lot of interesting geology too, as you encounter greensand (sandstone) boulders, a greensand cliff, and plenty of springs as the sandstone hits the weald clay.

I was joined by birder Dave on Saturday which as usual led to an exponential increase in sightings and bird calls identified. Within a few paces of entering the first horrendously muddy field we heard and saw a flock of newly arrived fieldfares some 50 strong, a troop of long-tailed tits, goldcrests flitting in the bordering trees and overflying redwings. You can see birds like that in your local park if you’re lucky – these sightings aren’t exclusive to the countryside at all. Later on a marsh tit flew past us, which was probably the most noteworthy bird of the day and another feather in Dave’s cap as he recognised the fleeting call just as the bird, in silhouette, zoomed past us. Dave reckons the area’s bird life would perk up with a bit more arable land and fewer livestock pastures. Scrubby unkempt arable fields are a big favourite for les oiseaux it’s true.

I had been hoping for bullfinch, siskin and most of all, brambling. But it was not to be. Barely a chaffinch as it happened but quite a few goldfinches. Later on there was a kingfisher at the lovely pond on the path below St Julian’s Club and tawny owls calling at Rooks Hill, Wilmotts and Underriver itself. The truth is that there are fewer birds around these days, just as there are fewer insects. I guess it’s farming methods, climate change, all that stuff. But anyway, it was good fun just to be out there listening and watching.

We went again on Sunday. Conditions were gloomier in the afternoon than they had been on Saturday, with quite a large shower making birding more difficult. But it mattered not, the views were still great and the excellent White Rock Inn was open and offered a friendly welcome.

Summer is here; time for Pluto

Summer is here; time for Pluto

Continuing the theme of overlooked walks at Kent Walks Near London, the Polhill Pluto route yesterday proved the perfect choice on a bright, breezy summer’s day. There were plentiful orchids in the Andrews Wood-Meenfield Wood gap and fantastic ox-eye daisies, scabious and poppies in the fields below Polhill. It’s a great walk to do if you are a fan of the yellowhammer – the colourful, chirpy bunting (we’re talking about a bird by the way!) that adorns hedgerows in these parts and is particularly common for some reason between Shoreham and Otford. It’s repetitive and unworldy song is one of my favourites – it’s commonly described as sounding like ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ because of its rhythms but to me it’s simply the sound of summer. Listen out for it on the Darent Valley floor; around Sepham Farm it’s nearly always heard, and sometimes present in the lower parts of the Fackenden and Eastern Valleys route (such as around the Percy Pilcher memorial). The Pluto route (so called because you pass the final ‘planet’ on the Otford solar system scale model) can be combined with the Shoreham circular and even the Fackenden, Otford and Eastern Valley routes for a walk of up to 11 miles or so as all these routes intersect, or almost intersect, at various points. For some reason, I only think of this stroll as a summer walk – not entirely rationally, but it just feels right on a warm day.

Moody blues on the way out

Moody blues on the way out

The bluebells have faded a little earlier than usual this year. It seemed to me on the Ide Hill walk today that the south-facing slopes may be drier than normal for spring, which has affected bluebells’ longevity while those in more sheltered parts of the woods were still full of colour. There’s certainly been a marked lack of rain this year – last month just 18mm fell in north-west Kent, about one-third of the usual April total.

In Meenfield woods, on the Shoreham and Polhill walks, the bluebells, while fading, were still hanging on last weekend – perhaps those woods have retained a little more moisture. I’m no expert. Anyway, instead of bluebells, look out now for wild garlic (or ransoms) growing in profusion in woods on Kent Walks near London. Their brilliant white/cream flowers (pictured above at Rook’s Hill on the One Tree Hill walk) are a sight for sore eyes where there are damp woods and subterranean water close to the surface. The Ide Hill walk is quite unusual for KWNL in having plenty of gorse (near the walk’s start) which is looking brilliant in the spring sunshine, too.

As for birds, things still seem a little quiet with few swallows, martins and swifts making it to the region so far, but I was delighted to see my first whitethroat of the year in one of the many superb country lane hedgerows between Shoreham and Well Hill, a great bird to watch for when on a country cycle. (Pictured in slideshow: whitethroat, Darent Valley view, faded bluebells, Ide Hill view, Scord’s wood, wild garlic in Scord’s wood, azalea in Emmett’s and faded bluebells of Meenfield Wood).

Tiny lanes, dry feet

Tiny lanes, dry feet

The mud on these walks is still in the mild-moderate category. Wellies useful but not essential… mostly. But if things get really boggy, which they are bound to do by midwinter, it’s easily possible to devise routes that take in tiny wandering lanes rather than swampy paths – of which there are more than few in these parts. Many such lanes were once paths… others service dispersed houses around villages and become footpaths or bridlepaths. It would be difficult to devise a proper circular walk of decent length using only these trackways – although I intend to give it a shot over the coming months. Two such lanes which intersect with a walk at KWNL are at Underriver. Take a look at the map; you’ll see two lanes roughly north to south acting as shortcut links between points 4, 5 and 8. These are lovely to explore, especially at the moment with the unfurling of the autumn wardrobe. They also intersect with footpaths so you can devise your own bespoke routes. With bird expert Dave I walked them yesterday, stopping often to admire berries and views, and to scan for les oiseaux. We didn’t see a lot (bird numbers have been in decline for years): a few siskins, a gorgeous flock of bullfinches flitting the hedgerows, and newly arrived redwings in threes and fours was about it. Oh, and a fantastic female kestrel which eyed us from a small scarlet tree close to the (excellent) White Rock Inn. We managed about 3.5 miles, half on tarmac, before resuming the Underriver route at point 4, but doing it anticlockwise. A pint of Harvey’s at the aforementioned pub in the autumnal twilight was a splendid bookend to a most satisfactory KWNL afternoon.

Sweet meadows

Sweet meadows

The word ‘meadow’ is synonymous with summer and June and July are the very best months to enjoy them. There are so many brilliant summer meadows on these walks now alive with oxeye daisies, orchids, vetch, poppies, buttercups, and lush grasses rippling in the breeze. They are alive with butterflies and other insects while swallows swoop above them forming brief gaggles before separating to make single passes. High above, buzzards are often seen soaring while spectacular red kites – now much common in Kent than at any time in the modern era – float into view closer to the ground. Of course there are issues, swallow and martin numbers are much lower than back in the day and there ought to be more butterflies and bees. Still, meadows are hubs for wildlife and we are lucky the North Downs, Weald and Greensand Ridge areas possess so many.

Meadow bordering Scord wood on the Ide Hill walk, June 2021. Sheep have munched this one a fair bit, and that in the lead photo, but there are still plenty of wildflowers and bees
Not entirely listless

Not entirely listless

I’ve idly tried to keep a record of every different type of bird I’ve seen so far this year. No binoculars or stalking around, just the ones I’ve come across without going anywhere special – just local trips. It’s been disappointing. We’ve reached 22 January and I haven’t seen a single heron, little egret or kingfisher, birds that are commonly seen on the River Pool between Lower Sydenham and Catford. It took 20 days before I saw my first coot (on the lake at Beckenham Place Park) and notched up a collared dove! No yellowhammer as yet (pictured). No buzzards or even the local sparrowhawk. One solitary kestrel on New Year’s Day and that’s it for birds of prey. At this rate I shouldn’t expect to see a black redstart or bullfinch much before 2025. Still, it’s a list and it’s quite interesting and making me look out more.

An easy one to get for the list: a blue tit
Adam McCulloch

Ah, I’ve just remembered, the weather has been awful, I’ve forgotten to buy any bird seed for the feeder and I work quite a lot. My anonymous birder friend Dave doesn’t seem to have this trouble – he only has to stick his head out of the window and snipe, goosander, waxwing and montagu’s harrier dive headlong for his yard. He has once again written a fine update about winter birding on these walking routes, which can be read here – of course he lists all the birds you or I might see, but leaves out all the rare and exotic species that he usually encounters.

View Dave’s winter birds of the North Downs 2021 page

Lockdown loosening as spring unfurls

Lockdown loosening as spring unfurls

So from Wednesday it’s once again OK to drive into the countryside for a walk, but we are being urged to avoid using public transport to keep it safe for key workers. For the many without cars the walks will remain inaccessible but in the greater scheme of things, against the tragic current backdrop of lives and livelihoods lost, it’s not such a huge disaster. But it should be remembered that days spent out in the woods, fields and paths are hugely beneficial for mental health, I’d suggest in ways that the local park just can’t match. We also have to hope that the roads – and air – don’t become increasingly clogged as people jump in their vehicles for all purposes. Social distancing will need to be maintained, of course, and also take care around touching gates and fence posts – it would be a good idea to take wipes or hand sanitiser with you.

Speedwell.

Learning birdsong and wildflowers

This spring’s bluebells will mostly be over but there will be plenty of other spring delights to witness. Cowslips, vetch, bugle, stitchwort, speedwell and buttercups are all flowering and soon orchids will push their way through grassy fringes and meadows along with ox-eye daisies. Warblers have arrived from Africa and are burbling, chiff-chaffing, and whistling away unseen in the woods and hedges. Precious few swallows, martins and swifts are around so far, I hear – a worry perhaps. I’m always astounded at the volume generated by tiny wrens at this time of year, so definitely worth listening out for them. A great bird to see is the spotted flycatcher. They have been seen on many walks on this site, most recently in Knole Park, not by me, but by experts. They disappear back to tropical Africa in August having only arrived this month so seeing one is a relatively big deal.

A really good website for learning birdsongs is this oneDon’t be fazed by the huge number of species to learn. Just learn the ones most relevant – for example, wood warblers aren’t present (much) in Kent woodlands but willow warblers are more numerous. Try to learn the basics – say, robin, blackbird, wren, great tit, goldfinch and chaffinch – and soon you’ll be adding others. Don’t be too frustrated if you can’t see the bird you can hear: it’s often incredibly difficult with the trees in full leaf, and many of us find it hard to exactly pinpoint where the bird song is coming from, not only in terms of direction but in terms of distance. Kent walks near London birdwatching correspondent Dave, of course, is a master of not only identifying song but working out where the sound is emanating from him – remarkable talent built on experience gleaned when a nipper no doubt.

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Sevenoaks wildlife reserve on the day of reckoning

Sevenoaks wildlife reserve on the day of reckoning

Ever been somewhere on your doorstep that you’d heard about but not hitherto bothered with, then been blown away by it? So after several decades of never going there I headed the way of Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve, managed by Kent Wildlife Trust. I’d thought it was just a nondescript lake, a couple of bird hides and a few twitchery types in unfashionable knitwear dotted around. Instead, it was a veritable waterworld with one very large lake, four medium-sized ones, lots of bird hides, a large visitor centre, the River Darent, islands, ponds galore, reedbeds, loads of paths to explore and rich damp woodland of alder, birch and so on. I immediately saw lapwing, egret, pochard and curiously large number of long-tail tits. All in all, a more satisfying place to visit than Bough Beech, perhaps. When spring gets going it will be a real treat.

East Lake, Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve

I shall return there; it’s a surprising place, rewilded after years of use as sand and gravel pits, and offers views of the Darent Valley from a perspective I hadn’t really seen before. There was a strange atmosphere though… the coronavirus suddenly felt as if it had got exponentially more serious on Saturday. I dropped by the local mega-Sainsbury’s on the way back; you could tell that the UK was trying to decide what kind of country it was – greedy and panicky, or stoic and rational. I think it’s still undecided.

 

Itchy feet and wings

Itchy feet and wings

It’s the time of year when birdwatchers start getting itchy feet… the autumn migration is revving up. Swifts, swallows and martins will be heading back to Africa along with yellow wagtails, chiffchaffs and the like. Some birds travel, some stay. Some species are split between resident populations and visitors; even blackbirds that hop on your lawn can be either from your hedge, or Belorussia. Soon redwing and fieldfare will begin to arrive from the east, maybe, later, waxwing too. I find it all a bit confusing to be honest and hard to remember the whys and wherefores. My friends Dave and Steve (check out the extraordinary North Downs and Beyond blog) are supremely accomplished in this area and languidly reel off reports such as ‘Box Hill 7am: 40 sand martins, 13 flycatchers, a honey buzzard, two cuckoos, 12 common buzzards and a female goshawk.’ Apparently, these birds, rarely seen by the layman, are all there just waiting to be spotted if you bother to wait and look.

Migrating birds can crop up anywhere but some maintain there are certain routes that are followed more than others. River valleys cutting through the downs make sense as a visual guide to birds but also as a way of keeping out of low cloud. You might imagine a warbler saying to another… you just head down the Darent Valley, then when you get past Fackenden Down chuck a left and you’ll eventually hit the Medway. When that gets wide you hit the Thames then spin right and soon you’ll be in Belgium, God’s own. So my tip for birds on the wing would be Shoreham, Lullingstone, Polhill and Fackenden walks. The Darent is, like the Mole and Wey further west in Surrey, a fine cut through.

This weekend will be a glorious opportunity to walk and get the binoculars out. The weather looks great, although the cricket and football’s on…

I’m not great at observing birds although I’m always seeing kingfishers out of the corner of my eye when near water. However, I did see a red kite last week on the chalk escarpment south of Cudham on my regular cycle route. It glided right over me at a height of no more than 50 feet. A sight like is not something you can forget easily.

A longer Downe route – my walk 20

A longer Downe route – my walk 20

Here’s a longer Downe route to follow; double the length of the existing Downe walk at 4.2 miles, so a pleasant 90-minute walk. See, download pdf or use GPX track from this page

It can be viewed on the GPSies site where a GPX track is available for you to download and follow on your smartphone (to get your real-time location tap the bottom-most button on the left of the screen).

The route starts and finishes at the same locations as the original Downe walk. The extension misses out on the lovely fields by Charles Darwin’s garden (although they are an easy detour away) and the Sandwalk but gains the superb ancient woods of Blackbush and Twenty Acre Shaw Woods with its superb April bluebells then orchids and gentians.

Last bluebells, Downe

Ancient woods: Blackbush and Twenty Acre Shaw

Yesterday the trees were rich with the calls of song thrush, chaffinch and wrens (so loud… and weird!). A sharp thundery looking storm slipped by to the south, on its way to Tonbridge and Sevenoaks (pictured). After the woods the walk joins the valley on the eastern border of the historic Biggin Hill airfield. Hedgerows, giant beeches and wild meadows make this a really rich looking habitat for flora and fauna; yesterday I saw nuthatches, greater spotted woodpeckers and a wonderful large tortoiseshell butterfly. Full description of walk here, but the GPX track should get you round easily enough. 

Next walk to be added to this site: Knockholt Pound/Chevening circular. By end of June.