Crowhurst Nature Reserve is a four and a half acre community-owned woodland in Crowhurst, East Sussex, known locally as Quarry Wood. It was bought by the village for the village in 1999 to protect and preserve it.

Paul Johnson is the warden and has been writing a series of articles called Tales from Quarry Wood for the village magazine since 2008. Our little reserve is the central thread and star turn, but his themes often range further, taking in ecology, botany, mycology, history, mythology, Latin and literature. All with a healthy dose of irreverence and the odd bit of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Click here for more about Paul and Crowhurst Nature Reserve; the most recent article is below  and you can explore all the previous articles through the chronological year tabs above or take a more meandering approach using the tags.

The Singing Turdidae

Hello everyone. Here we are in the second half of the year and, after a truly magnificent display, the early woodland colours are consigned to our distant memories. But who can forget the joy of seeing so many Scarlet Elf Cups (Sarcoscypha sp.) in the chilly months at the start of the year, those thick carpets of Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), Wood Anemones (Anemone nemerosa), and Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum) lighting up the woodland floor, followed by those cascades of creamy Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) blossom, tumbling down the hedgerows? Fortunately, the rain in May ensured that the subterranean aquifers were charged, enabling deep rooted plants to flourish and continue to look magnificent in all their verdant glory.

June gave us a few warm days that had us reaching for sunhats and jugs of ice-water, as well as the first of the summer storms with pelting rain and pink lightning streaking across the sky. A welcomed break for gardeners and conservationists alike as water butts and ponds were topped up. On that subject, you may have seen my five, very short pond life videos on the TQW Facebook page. I truly believe that garden ponds are not only an everchanging source of delight, but they are also one of the most important habitats and wildlife ‘corridors’ we can provide. If you feel inspired to add your own short pond life video, or photo, to the comments, please do. The TQW team would be delighted to see them.

The humid nights did nothing for our sleep patterns though as we lay there sweltering in our beds. I found myself dropping off just before my very early alarm had me sticking my head under the pillow. Not the clock, but a family of those most recognisable of birds, Magpies (Pica pica). Some families are just noisy, some are noisier than most, and some take the art of making a racket to another level altogether! In the latter camp are the Corvids who danced on my roof at 4am, scolding, squawking and letting off their familiar toy machine-gun call. As I mentioned back in 2016 (see How is your Lady Wife Today – July 2016) there are times when these beautiful looking birds test my love of all of Ma Nature’s denizens to the very limit.

Fortunately, the old girl was kind enough to provide a soothing antidote to the Pica cacophony, the Family Turdidae or, as most of us know them, the Thrushes. Some of the most beautiful songbirds in the world belong to this family. I must admit that the taxonomy does seem a little confusing to me as some authorities include the Flycatchers with such illustrious members as the Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) and our chirpy Robin (Erithacus rubecula), but it appears that they are usually categorised as a separate family, the Muscicapidae.

Nevertheless, the Thrush family has hundreds of species including, in my opinion, the most delightful, feathered songsters on the planet. Some birds like the Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) are Winter visitors. They are very sociable and can be seen in flocks of several hundred in the colder months. Like many birds that group together in large numbers, they do not have a melodious song to carry over the treetops. Though their seemingly constant bickering type call may well seem attractive to the opposite sex, I suspect their stunning good looks are the key to successful mating.

It appears that it is the more solitary Thrush species that have the ability to captivate us with their song, though no doubt there are exceptions. The Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) certainly lives up to its name and is distinguished from other Thrushes by the repetition of song phrases. It is resident throughout most of the UK and Ireland, but its numbers have declined dramatically since 1940 due to the all too familiar story of pesticide use, agricultural practices and land management. Sadly, this once common bird has made it onto the Red List of Threatened Species. You may still come across the remains of snail shells where a Song Thrush has been tapping them on a favourite stone to get a meal.

At that very moment he heard a sharp crack behind him. There on the grey stone in the grass was an enormous thrush, nearly coal black, its pale yellow breast freckled with dark spots. Crack! It had caught a snail and was knocking it on the stone. Crack! Crack!
The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien 1937

The Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus) is a larger bird than the Song Thrush, in fact it is Britain’s largest songbird. It emanates power with its upright stance and ability to cover the ground with aggressive bounds. It does not share its cousin’s appreciation of snails but prefers a fruitier diet, and even owes its name to a love of Mistletoe berries. If you are fortunate to hear a flute-like melody floating down from ahigh, look up to the top of the tallest tree around and you will often spot a Mistle Thrush singing for all the world to hear. Sadly, this wonderful bird is going the same way as its smaller relative and due to a marked decline in numbers over the last fifty years, it is also on the Red List.

As much as I love the songs of these two iconic birds, I feel they do not compare with the smooth, rich melodies of our ubiquitous Blackbird (Turdus merula). Named after the male leaving its distinctly Thrush-like plumage behind as it matures into an adult, it is in very close competition with Robins as our most familiar bird. Like the two former birds in the Thrush family, Blackbirds are distributed throughout the UK and Ireland. In contrast with them, numbers appear to have stabilised in recent years and the Sussex Wildlife Trust (SWT) report this glorious songbird to be the only member of the Turdidae not to be on the Red List.  This is a relief for this species, but clearly deeply concerning as far as the Thrush family is concerned.

Blackbirds can be seen all the year round even though they appear to vanish from our gardens for a couple of months after July. Their calls are familiar to anyone who walks in the countryside, from the full-scale alarm call as you startle one in the undergrowth to the urgent yapping sound at the sight of a predator such as a cat or Magpie. For anyone who is interested in distinguishing the different calls, the SWT website provides excellent descriptions and the chance to listen to them yourself.

The rich, fluid song is normally heard in all its glory during the breeding season between the months of March and July, though it is common to hear them ‘warming up’ with less complex songs earlier in the year. It bears some similarity to that of the Mistle Thrush but is slower, more mellow and, as described by the SWT, full of panache! Blackbirds are superb mimics and, if when sitting in your garden on an early summer’s evening you are serenaded by one of these avian maestros, do not be surprised to hear the reversing beeps of a car or even a snatch of a song your have just been whistling, entwined into the birdsong.

In our technologically driven world, a huge range of artificial sounds are produced; they dominate our lives to such a great extent that many individuals of our species find they cannot live without the stimulus of having their auditory receptors constantly bombarded by the anthropogenic racket. Birds and animals produce the widest range of natural sounds on the planet, and I would argue that our song birds produce the purest and most therapeutic sound in our armoury against modern life.

It is ironic that in the age of the birth of modern technology, the Victorians produced a little gem of a piece in the 1890s called The Music of Birds, which we stumbled across in vintage copies of the Strand Magazine while scouring for original Sherlock Holmes pictures. It is a wonderfully illustrated article in which the songs of several birds, including the Blackbird and Throstle, were transcribed into musical notation so those with an eye on a turn at the Music Hall could have a go. For anyone wishing to go into competition with our local songbirds, the article is below.

At once a voice arose among
     The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
     Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
     In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
     Upon the growing gloom.
The Darkling Thrush – Thomas Hardy 1900

So, there we are, a brief glimpse at some of the quintessential sounds of our countryside, long live the singing Turdidae!

Put me right at

Paul Johnson

Image credits: Img 1: Song Thrush by Andy Morffew, used under Creative Commons License 2.0; img 2: Mistle Thrush by Sergey Yeliseev, CC2.0; img 3: Blackbird by Zach Ivan, CC2.0.

Sherlock Holmes in Crowhurst

Quarry Wood’s Paul Johnson and Fr Michael Brydon (formerly of this parish) are both massive Sherlock Holmes fans, but rather felt it remiss that Conan Doyle had failed to send Holmes and Watson to Crowhurst in any stories. They decided they should rectify this…

The Mystery of the Purple Emperor

Set in Crowhurst in 1909. Holmes and Watson are summoned by village rector and famed letter-writer, the Rev’d James Bacon-Phillips, to assist Lieutenant Colonel Papillon of Crowhurst Park, who has been receiving ominous butterfly wings in the post.

– published Dec 2016

The Butterfly Spy

Set in Crowhurst in 1913. Military hero turned original Scoutmaster, Lieutenant General Baden-Powell, lives in nearby Ewhurst Green. Having persuaded a Crowhurst military colleague to host a Scout Camp at Crowhurst Park, he then faces a delicate problem that requires the insight of Holmes and Watson.

– published Jan 2019

The Seventeen Arches

Set in Crowhurst in 1922. A railway loving boy from a school in nearby Hawkhurst is staying at the Rectory; Holmes is called upon to investigate his disappearance. A boy who hears poetry in the trains, who imagines voices in the whistles, and who grows up to become the Thomas the Tank Engine author.

published June 2021

Snakes and Lizards

Fifteen years in the ambulance service gave me plenty of time to do some research into the badge I wore on my uniform, the symbol of the snake entwined around a knotted branch, also found on many medical service vehicles around the world. It depicts the Rod of Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of healing and the medicinal arts: his teachers being his father, Apollo, and Chiron, a Centaur. As if such distinguished tutelage was not enough, it was said his healing powers were enhanced by a snake that had wrapped itself around the staff he is always portrayed with. The symbol of the rod may have lived on in the field of medicine, but the legacy of this Ancient God does not stop there. His daughters carried on their father’s work and the names of at least two of them, Hygieia, the Goddess of Cleanliness and Sanitation, and Panacea, the Goddess of Universal Health, are both familiar and most pertinent to us in these, our Covid Years.

[read in full]

Golden Eye

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I have learnt from experience that it pays to be particularly cautious when digging around old ponds. Numerous frogs and newts were discovered buried in the soft silt and leaf litter and were carefully relocated to a temporary safe haven for the duration of the upgrade to their home. However, it was whilst moving some deadwood to get at the old liner that I disturbed another animal, Jeremy Fisher’s less athletic distant cousin, Mr Toad.

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Scarlet Elf Cup in Quarry Wood – March 2021

More Scarlet Elf Cup than we have ever seen before! Bursting from mossy deadwood in the middle of winter, these glorious red beauties always create a truly eye-catching fungi display on the side of the old railway line. The patch has been growing significantly in the last few years and now there is about a 10m stretch of really dense fruiting bodies, and the odd one or two popping out further along.

A photo could not do it justice, so we tried a video. Forgive the shaky camera work and the occasional glimpse of my wellies, but hopefully this will give you an idea of scale, of the simply astonishing quantity of the scarlet gems…

– Lorna Neville