WHERE ARE THEY? In Seaford, Pearl of the Sussex Shores (twinned with Bönningstedt, Schleswig Holstein) it is the question of the hour.
Huddled on memorial benches along the promenade, (“For Stan and Muriel Hatcher, who loved this view”), sipping their tea from polystyrene cups, savouring their picnics in the front seats of their family saloons, gazing seawards, senior citizens are asking the question. Convening on the pavement outside the Crown Inn, taking time off from the texting of illiterate trivialities or the trashing of bus shelters, stalwart young men and maidens are seeking news. Where are the kittiwakes that ought by now to be noisily congregating at Seaford Head?
‘Gentle looking, medium-sized with a small yellow bill, short black legs and a dark eye’, says the encyclopaedia concerning Rissa tridactyla. ‘Strictly a coastal gull, feeding off fish, shrimps and worms. Not a scavenger’.
Not your great lout of a bird, then, like Larus argentatus, the Herring Gull, an omnivorous scrounger more familiar with the municipal midden than with the briny. Consider the kittiwake’s dark of eye. Not forever agleam with the main chance, the anticipated pleasure of bombing the newly polished car or the washing on the line. Thoughtful. Serious. Too preoccupied with the never-ending battle for survival than to have time for urban deliquencies.
Seaford Head marks the eastern extremity of this ancient Cinque Port town, where the southern border of the South Downs is interrupted by the wide valley of the River Ouse. Here, where the bare chalk plunges 500 feet from the downland turf to the pebble beach, on this sheer cliff exposed to every westerly wind that blows, the kittiwake, short of leg but noble in courage, contrives to build a nest and raise a brood of one or two where an injudicious fidget by an unfledged chick could preface a plunge to oblivion.
Nesting season is from springtime to midsummer; months when the noise of even the roughest of breaking waves is worsted by that of the maelstrom of kittiwakes spinning, soaring, diving in a seemingly aimless exhibition of aerobatics that brings visitors from far and near and is signposted by the RSPB. Before the autumn leaves fall and Seaford is at peace again save for the sirens of police cars called to yet another traditional southern counties cash point robbery, the entire colony of this most singular of gulls will have disappeared for another year.
But where are they now?
All at sea is the authoritative answer. ‘During the winter the species is highly pelagic, usually remaining on the wing out of sight of land’, says the encyclopaedia. Pelagic: there’s a word! ‘Pertaining to the open ocean’, says my dictionary. With its annual business done, there is no hanging about with the common herd —or flock—of gulls outside the pubs and takeaways of Seaford, eager for discarded tacos or the sweepings of barbecue-flavoured potato crisps. Come September, Rissa tridactyla is on black-tipped wing to the open Atlantic, which is said often to emit a mysterious glow and where, in unexplored depths, life may have evolved 3 billion years before life on land. No wonder the kittiwake has a dark and thoughtful eye. There, subsisting on whatever marine and planktonic invertebrates swim into its ken, it sees out the furious winter’s rages, waiting for the migratory urge which, as irresistible as the swallows’ return to Capistrano, sends it landwards once again.
When will they arrive is the question of the moment. Primroses may already be in bloom in our more sheltered places, but this, we fear, is merely another sign of global warming. Only when unseasonable snow is disrupting traffic on the Brighton to Victoria line and the kittiwakes are once more swirling about Seaford Head will we know for sure that spring has come.
WHAT GOES IN A BLOG? Judging by the practices of an established host incomparably more knowledgeable than myself, the answer is anything.
Jostling for attention on the World-Wide Web, unsleeping, unstinting in their largesse, long-serving veterans with multitudes of faithful followers make us party not merely to their most intimate cerebral ruminations, but even to confidences concerning their most private colonic functions. Compulsive communicators all, advertising their views upon every topic from the Eurozone debt crisis to ectoplasmic conception, fluent in the ingenious illiteracies of Twitterspeak, they are the aboriginals of an exciting new world of publishing in which no challenge to established custom, decorum or grammatical discipline exists to cramp one’s style
To the aspiring byliner it is a liberty more promising than the Arab Spring, an opportunity of boundless possibility. Eight months ago, for example, I yearned for a column such as that belonging to the great W.F.(‘Bill’) Deedes of the Daily Telegraph in which to write about anything I pleased, including polished gems from the infinitely rich diggings of country life. Had I been so equipped I would have been able to share with my readers the drama of the rooks which for the third year running were in solitary possession of the very top of the tall maple tree that overlooked my garden. Then, I was painfully frustrated in my instinctive desire not to squander the stuff of potentially great journalism on my solitary self. Now, there is the blog, and I propose to give ‘Tales from the Downs’ (Or something like that. I live in Sussex)) a whirl.
The rooks had been a source of infinite pleasure. To say that I saw the placing of every twig and other piece of material that went to the building of their nest would be untrue; but day by day, almost hour by daylight hour, I observed the process of the original construction and the subsequent annual repairs. Twice, I witnessed through my field glasses the progress of their offspring from clamorous beaks raised above the parapet of the nest to scrawny young, teetering on the brink of first flight. This year, disaster most foul threatened. One day in late spring, when Arctic winds and equinoctial gales had been survived and the weeks of selfless parental devotion must have been almost at a successful end, the vicious din of a mechanical saw ripped through the early morning air. Starting from my desk, I was appalled by the sight of men in hard yellow hats and slung about with climbing gear, swinging with simian agility from limb to limb, engaged in a hard and comprehensive pruning of the very tree in which my valiant friends were installed.
By lunch time they had half completed the task. By four o’clock, when the sedate neighbourhood’s usual quiet was restored, it looked as if another hour or two would see them finish the job. All evening I grieved. Next day, the discomforts of a dental session were dwarfed by the dread of what was certain to confront me on my return home. Imagine, then, my near incredulity at finding not a well-shaped, albeit severely (and for my rooks catastrophically) lopped maple, but one in which, grotesquely, Daliesque, the bare but unbeheaded trunk rose clear above the neatly barbered canopy like a mainmast still bravely standing after a devastating naval broadside. And almost at the summit, secure still in its fork, for all the world resembling the maintop of a ship of the line , the nest that I had given up as cruelly lost, and one of the owners at work
What solicitude! What humane consideration! What compassion upon the part of the proprietors of the maple! Contrary to my residual fears, dauntlessly, the birds stayed to raise their customary brood of two. Some time at the end of May, unobserved by me, they left. A week or so later the men returned with their saws and arboreal symmetry was finally achieved.
Where are they now, my rooks? How will they fare next year? Whatever the answers, I like to think that they may have acquired at least a fleeting affection for the human race.
So there is likely to be a good deal more in this vein. Nature is indefatigable and the countryside is very large.