Monday, 2 January 2012


Amberley Wild Brooks is marked on some maps as Amberley Swamp, and there's a sign warning of 'dangerous marshes'. Whether its brook, swamp or marsh matters not, they're all the same when they are filling your boots with cold, black wintery water. Stonechats converse nosily, with voices that sound like stones being tapped together. They remain a sight unseen, hidden perhaps among clouds of blue tits, great tits and coal tits, as here are there a small flock of long tailed tits flash by. No sign of the Bewick's swans that bought me to this boggy playground, the low marsh and high shrubbery restricting visibility to only short distances.

I follow the route back, and recall a calamitous navigational error that had me jumping ditches, climbing fences and being chased by cattle a summer ago. A new signpost saves others from the relationship ending arguments that such mistakes can lead to. 

Although only January 2nd, daffodils decorate the roadside here.

Heading back through Quell's farm there are some gaps in the treeline that afford a peering view down onto the shining waters of the Arun, now on it's ebb. On the opposite bank a chocolate Labrador barks at nothing in particular, and flushes the falcon peregrine from the reeds just below me; three silent, hefty wing beats and she's away, lost behind the trees. I am right under the perch where I saw her on my last visit, and can see why she chooses this spot, with it's high view out across flooded marsh where a hearty menu of wildfowl await a hungry hawk.

The short eared owl's are big news now and  Waltham Brooks  is busy with heads popping up from behind every bush. Here the Arun starts to run fast as it heads for it's gap in the South Downs just south of Amberley. Suddenly the peregrine flashes past, flying low, and turning hard south after crossing the river, calling in in what seems sheer delight at her flight. She rises up into the sun, like a fighter pilot preparing for ambush. It's like looking into a fire trying to follow her and she's soon lost from view.

No-one in the field reacts, so hard-wired are they into finding their target species they fail to see this perfect hunting machine not twenty feet above their heads. Thirty years ago these creatures were dying out in our country, but now they are recovering. The peregrine has evolved so effectively, so perfectly that her qualities are incorporated in the design of modern fighter jets.This individual is large, her white underside flecked with fine dark spots, and her back is a fitting RAF blue. It's a curse that the sun is the wrong side for anything more than a blurry silhouette of a photograph.

Seeking out a wet and boggy seat to provide cover for photographing owls  a merlin is flushed and he swoops away, sending up great clouds of assorted tits and starlings. Behind me, and across the field the owl-watchers ignore this rare and stunning bird, the smallest of our falcons.

short eared owl quarters the field right next to me, he hunts me, my size diminishing to that of a vole, his eyes fix mine, I cannot tear my gaze away, he closes, his mottled feathers merge with vegetation, only his eyes have colour, bright amber staring, fixed and then, suddenly, he's away. He veers dramatically west, dropping one wing and away, into the sun. Three feathers rest lightly on the ground hard by the hawthorn.

He calls his shreiking call, and hastens his pace, swinging towards the flood defence bank over the old canal lock.  He drops low, skimming reed mace and rises to confront a nearby male who has strayed onto his territory. They grapple mid-air, shreiking and calling, tussling with talons raised, before my male breaks and with fast beats to propel him away glides into nearby shrubbery to lick his wounds.

There are six owls here today, the most seen since November when they first arrived and they put on a show for the gathered twitchers. One rises right in front of a waiting photgrapher, vole firmly clenched in knife like talons. 

Three Bewick's swans honk as they pass overhead, signalling the coming of sunset, and short splash across fields to a waiting flask.

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