There was hardly a bird to be heard as we gathered at the Safari Britain campsite on a lovely August morning. The previous day had been hot, but this morning was warm with a welcome breeze and a little light cloud cover.
Moving down from the campsite towards the Coach Road, the beech trees started to give up some signs of life: first, a Great Spotted Woodpecker exclaiming ‘tchick!’ in typical style, somewhere unseen in the canopy; and, soon after, the first of two Green Woodpeckers, issuing the laughing ‘yaffle‘ that gives them their colloquial name.
Meanwhile a Robin ‘ticked’ from some scrub and over the fields there sailed a number of Woodpigeons that had avoided ending up on the campfire the previous day; at least one gave its five-syllable cooing from the hedgerow. A young Chiffchaff – our only warbler of the day – dropped into a bush close to the group and called plaintively, as they will be doing a lot all over the South Downs between now and October, when most depart.
Striking out from the treeline and through the meadow towards Tilton, we wandered into the first of the morning’s butterflies: Common Bues, Painted Ladies and Small Tortoiseshells, animating the flower-filled grassland in every direction. And then too the first surprise of the day: a great Raven, seen as it flew up from the ground, into the hedge and then back out, before disappearing over the hill. Though no longer a rare bird on the Downs, this was the first time we’ve seen one on a SB walk – in this case a good omen rather than a gothic warning.
Following the curves of the lower escarpment east, meadow flowers and butterflies continued to hold the attention until a show of five Kestrels lifted chins towards the sky. One boldly-coloured adult male with a missing central tail feather seemed totally unfazed by us and hunted around the group for several minutes.
Dropping down into one of the dry coombes, we had another bit of luck, when a Little Owl was flushed from a patch of thistles on the escarpment and dropped into the hedgerow next to the arable fields. Initially it seemed that this fleeting view would be it, but then an obliging squadron of Chaffinches from the nearby copse decided to take action, flying out into the hedge en masse and ‘chinking’ loudly at the spot where the owl was trying to remain incognito. With a little human intervention, the owl and its attendant flock were persuaded to head back to the wood, giving everyone in the group a view at they skimmed across the maize: another Safari Britain first.
Resuming the walk to Tilton Bostal, Meadow Pipits flew up from around us, and Kestrels continued to hunt all the hillside, often hanging in the air amid a steady stream of Herring Gulls moving East. Then, as we neared the top, a big raptor blew in from the West, not far above our heads: a Red Kite. Not the brightest, but magnificent nevertheless, it showed off its wonderfully forked tail and angular wings before sailing quickly over and out toward Berwick: our third ‘first’ of the morning, and a long-awaited sighting after so many in the spring nearby at Glynde and thereabouts.
To the sound of the usual Yellowhammer singing ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’, and a few Linnets bouncing around, we headed up onto the top and joined the South Downs Way. In the grass here, there were several Wall butterflies, and tantalising glimpse of what may have been a Dark Green Fritillary, and then, looking back North, some saw a distant Common Buzzard to add to our tally of raptors.
With lunchtime beckoning, we headed back towards Firle well pleased with the morning’s catch and not expecting anything more. But dropping back down into the campsite, the kite – or another – drifted over eastwards again, this time directly over the tents – as if to say: “In case you didn’t believe it the first time….”
Pretty much a perfect morning.