Waiting for the birds

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.