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Wildlife in Kingston

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Although my main subject at university was history, I once did a brief course on American literature. One of the books we studied was Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ and I remember spending almost the entire first seminar discussing one line – I think the very first - of this book. To the best of my recollection, this was “I have traveled (US spelling, I know, but this is an American book after all) a great deal in Concord, Massachusetts”.

The population of Concord today is about the same as that of Lewes. In the middle of the nineteenth century it was in all probability not much greater than that of Kingston now, so what on earth could Thoreau have been talking about? None of my fellow students had any real idea (nor, for that matter, had I) and even when our tutor talked about different levels of perception and experience, we were not much the wiser. I think, though, that almost half a century later I can now understand Thoreau’s meaning a little better.

In fact, I might almost claim myself that “I have travelled a great deal in Kingston near Lewes” having walked an estimated 8000 miles over the Downs during the course of the last 20 years or so. But the point is more about awareness and observation than mere distance. As every other Downs dog walker will tell you, although the daily walk may cover more or less the same ground, everything else about the walk is different, every single day, as the only constant in nature is constant change.

I was reminded of this only today, 16th August. I had noticed an unusually large number (30-40) of house martins - at the foot of Kingston Hill just beyond the wood at the top of The Street, so it was clear that weather conditions suited their aerial feeding. Then, as I was descending the other side of the hill – i.e. towards the Kingston Ridge path, I became aware of an alarmed chatter made, not by house martins as I first thought, but by a group of swallows. In the middle of the group, matching their rapid weaving and darting, was a small falcon – a hobby. Oddly enough, I wrote about hobbies in this column a month or so back and mentioned there that they were capable of catching swallows and martins on the wing. So I had read, at least, though I had never witnessed this. I was about to do so! The final thrust of the actual manoeuvre was hard to separate from all the other activity, but I was suddenly aware that the falcon was carrying something in its talons and moving quickly away, down towards the village. For a while, the remaining swallows pursued it but they quickly abandoned the chase and went back to hawking for insects. So quickly was one small and short life extinguished. I wouldn’t go as far as declaiming (like J.A. Baker in The Peregrine) that “beauty is vapour from the pit of death” as, on one level, the loss of any living creature is a sad thing to see, but it was nevertheless an event I felt privileged to have observed and one I may never see again - even if I walk another 20,000 Kingston miles!

Every month sees arrivals and departures of wildlife, though departures are far more difficult to pin down. Some exits are early, rapid and undertaken by almost the whole group simultaneously. Swifts, notably, are now conspicuous by their virtually total absence, but were here in large numbers until (I think!) the 8th of August. Swallows and martins, on the other hand, will be with us until well into the autumn, with large flocks gathering together in the evenings and then appearing to vanish. It is no surprise that people once believed they hibernated. How could the ancient Greeks, for example - whose maps, despite all their scientific advances, were poor, and who hadn’t successfully navigated ships much beyond the near shores of Africa - accept that a bird weighing about the same as a teaspoon could find its way far beyond any land seen or even suspected to exist by any European?

We have since learned much about bird - and insect - migration but many mysteries remain. Observation will be the key to unlocking them.

Do let me have your own observations, as ever!

Steve Berry