The World and it’s mother had descended to Cuckmere Haven on Easter Sunday, and like a couple of nitwits John and I had followed them. Clouds were in the sky but they were gradually breaking up and moving over to let the blue firmament and the April sunshine look down on the Cuckmere valley, secreted away by the Downs in folds of green and watched over by the looming presence of Friston forest. It being Easter we hadn’t been able to set off until midday because of church, so by the time we got there the tourists were out in force; mostly consisting of families on picnics, couples on dates, old people rambling and half the population of south-east Asia soaking up the ‘traditional British countryside’. So it was with slight apprehension of seeing any birds in such conditions that we got out our binoculars (after looking through three car parks to find a space) and set off over the bridge.
The fields to the north of the main road were devoid of people so spying several flocks of birds we stopped to scan the floodplain, a group of gulls turned out to be all Herrings bar one Common gull, there were several Wigeon grazing the pasture and numerous pure-white Egrets were stalking frogs in the ditches. Then we came to a group of lumbering Canada Geese and John noticed one of them was of a different species – peering through the telescope this titchy goose gave away its identity; a patch of linen-white around the base of the orange bill clinched it as a White-fronted Goose. This was quite special, partly because it is a scarce wintering species in the UK, partly because it was rather late in the year to get a chance of seeing this bird and partly as this was a new one for me. Much satisfied by this unexpected find (which another birder informed us had been there for some weeks) we carried on southwards, past the ice cream van and mingled with the droves of Chinese, German and Spanish visitors.
Just audible above the babble of human voices was the endlessly euphoric and ecstatic cascade of song that issues forth from that most unassuming of birds – the Skylark. Accompanying the famous voice of the lark was a meadow pipit twittering away while fluttering down through the air on open wings, unintentionally mimicking the shape of a Japanese paper crane. We now approached a large shallow pool that lies behind the tall pebble beach, a lone oystercatcher was hunched up at the waters edge and not far away were three Redshank paddling in front of a couple of sleeping swans. John was, in his endless quest to find a Jack snipe, peeping through his scope – remarkably he did find two Common Snipe sitting amongst grass tufts at the back of the pool, but their smaller cousin eluded us once again.
Up onto the bowling-green smooth sides of the seven-sisters now, crawling up the near vertical path of exposed chalk that ran like an open artery over the arching curve of the hill. Foolish tourists brandishing ‘selfie-sticks’ were leaning over the edge of the sheer cliff, grinning inanely while they took their own photo – seemingly oblivious to how ridiculous they look doing such a thing while endangering their life. Several Fulmars; the British version of the Albatross, were cruising in front of the cliffs, using the breeze to lift their stiffly-held wings; seemingly imparting no physical effort themselves to stay airborne. John and I sat down looking out to sea at the bottom of one of the dry-valleys that separate each ‘sister’, we gazed at the undulating surface of the channel, searching for any passing or floating birds. Glancing behind us we watched as a Peregrine Falcon glided in small circles above the downs before disappearing behind the crest of the hill. On the waves were a group of Common Gulls doing nothing whatsoever, then further out John spotted five speeding dark jet-like forms low over the surface – they were Common Scoter, a sea duck which spends much of its life far from land and is therefore not too easy to see.
The view over the valley was simply marvelous, the fields and hedges flushing light green as plants begin to sprout, the chalk cliffs glowing the colour of Crème Brûlée in the setting sun, the river glinting white and blue – and overhead flew the first Swallow of the year – a sight both very familiar yet faintly wistful, but ultimately one of hope; for the world is still turning.