I went for a walk recently up on the South Downs, it was predominantly a birding expedition, although it was in an area with beautiful views in all directions and the weather was sublime for the time of year. I saw a quite a few good species on my walk, but I thought that rather than writing this as a typical trip-report with everything in order of occurrence and all species mentioned, I would instead just write what my most vivid memories of that walk are.
Firstly, as I walked up onto the escarpment of the Downs there was before me a wide, sunlit vista. Looking west the tree-covered Downs curved away into the distance, the blunt northern slopes of which resembled the great bowed heads of a group of whales, surging through the ocean surface. As my eye swept eastwards the landscape grew ever more varied, with the distant bulk of Black Down in the far east, then wooded hills in the middle distance were peppered with the spires of village churches. Looking north, far beyond the nearby town of Pulborough, I could see the greyish line of hills that form the North Downs. Closer to the hill on which I stood, and directly below me, I could see the crumbling, ivy-clad walls of Amberley Castle still standing sentinel over the flooded wild-brooks that have surrounded it for centuries.
Later on, as I walked across the broad, undulating southern slope of the Downs I had an encounter which was probably the most memorable and interesting of the day. Standing at a field gate I scanned the many fields and hedgerows out in front of me; seeing a buzzard-like bird drifting slowly along a hedge line in the middle-distance I looked at it through my binoculars. It was a long-winged, mostly brown-ish raptor with a light head, it flew low to the ground with casual flaps and often glided briefly with its wings held in a shallow ‘V’. The bird twisted momentarily in-flight and I glimpsed a pattern of brown and grey and black on its underwing. It was a male Marsh Harrier. This was the first time I had seen this species away from its breeding habitat of extensive reedbeds, so I watched eagerly as it swooped and hawked and harried over the stubble-fields in search of small birds and rodents.
Not long after I had lost the Harrier into the distance, I was standing enjoying the winter sun gently warm my skin when two large brown shapes appeared in the corner of my eye. There in the field directly in front of me was a pair of Hares, both sprinting across the soil with their huge hind feet propelling their golden-brown bodies forward. The sunlight glinted in their large, dark eyes and their great antennae-like ears twitched in the breeze. One seemed to be chasing the other, or perhaps they were running from me, either way boxing season is not far away. Brown Hares have to be one of my favourite British mammals, they are so charismatic, wild and mysterious – as though they are the remnant of something we have long lost.
The next memory is brief and simple. It is the bright, joyful, buttercup-yellow plumage of a male Yellowhammer, perched atop a bush and lit up by the full, uncovered glare of the noonday sun. This bunting is one of my favourite birds and it always makes me happy to see one.
One memory from the walk is purely auditory; the wavering, tentative ‘hoo-hoooing’ call of a male Tawny Owl. Something like a woodwind instrument and not dissimilar to a human voice, this is a distinctive noise, uncommon to hear in the daytime and being from a species I rarely see in the flesh the sound brought a smile to my lips.
Grey Partridge, that’s the next image which pops into my head from the unknowable depths of my memory banks, the sight of three Grey Partridge shuffling uncertainly across a field of stubble. These endangered birds are an uncommon treat for me, I love their little orange faces, their dumpy coconut-shaped bodies and that odd dark-brown horseshoe mark on their bellies which looks as though they sat on a bowl of chocolate custard.
My next memory is not something from a specific time and place, it was a feature present throughout the walk – the sky. Parallel rows of Cumulus ‘streets’ stretched from horizon to horizon, far above these low scudding cotton balls the atmosphere was coated in broad, thick brushstrokes of Cirrus and Cirrostratus; some shaped like tangled locks of hair, some with hundreds of ripples running across them and some like fine filaments of spun sugar.
Finally, I quite distinctly remember coming across a very powerful and impressive predator towards the end of my walk, rather close and unexpected too. A line of trees obscured my view over the floodplain fields by the river Arun, but a noise drew my attention and through the branches I saw a large, muscular bird-shaped bulk soar off the grass and circle the field – it was like a jet-fighter but in reality was a female Peregrine, I had disturbed it from its kill (a pigeon, or what was left of one). It was the closest I’ve ever been to this species, although not the best view, but it raised my heart rate all the same.
Artwork by Paul Nash.