Skinny Guardian

8 December 2020, 05:30 (UTC), 369 words. Rob Yarham.

Country diary: calm waters and chasing birds

The water shines blue and gold in the evening light. Across the fields, a herd of dark fallow deer runs out of the trees and across the brooks. One by one, they slow to a stop and queue, waiting as the animal in front of them disappears into a ditch, reappears as it climbs out, and then runs to catch up with the others.

I count 79 deer, but see only one adult stag, its tall antlers glinting as it turns to watch the stragglers. A female marsh harrier, brown with a cream head, flaps over them, probably heading to roost. The sun will soon drop below the shadows of the South Downs, so I turn and head down the steep flood bank and back across the marsh.

Amberley Wildbrooks, with the South Downs in the distance, seen across the River Arun from the Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Waltham Brooks reserve
Amberley Wildbrooks, with the South Downs in the distance, seen across the River Arun from the Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Waltham Brooks reserve. Photograph: Rob Yarham

Noisy flocks of starlings descend on the tall trees by the river. They crowd on to the branches and chatter in a loud atonal chorus. More join them and the cacophony builds. Then they begin to soar into the air, 40 or more at a time, forming clouds of black dots – swerving in fluid, changing shapes, first one way, then back, moving across the brooks until they rise above a patch of reedbed and drop down into it.

As the birds adjust their flickering wings to land, the sunlight leaks through their turning feathers, making the wings shimmer briefly, like flashing lights, before they disappear. I watch several small groups perform the same ritual as they settle down for the night. Only occasional bursts of chattering from deep within the vegetation – growing louder, then fading – give away their presence.

A bird of prey spears low across the dark water and up over the reeds. The starlings react instantly, exploding in deafening alarm calls. Some fly up in defensive swarms, while the others scatter across the marsh or stay hidden.

The sparrowhawk, a large female, chases across the reedbed, then turns and dives out of sight. It must be the same bird that hunts here most evenings, having learned to make the most of the wintering roosts.

She emerges again, this time flapping slowly, purposefully, carrying a limp starling in one dangling foot. She glides into the blackness between the nearby trees.