Annoyingly I was committed to seeing my mum when the ST Eagle first broke in Dorset a month ago, Mr Bradders kindly invited me sleep deprived twitch, but I had to decline. "You could have gone", my mum said. I let her out of the cupboard when I left a few hours later.
Then it moves to Hampshire on a Sunday, not good timing, and then moves to Sussex, found again on a Sunday and again not good timing. Still there during the week and seen by all and sundry, I decide a some serious stupidity is called for. Wednesday booked off I am ready for an overnight yomp into the unknown. Hard core birding like wot I used to do. Trouble was that the job I was working on ran late, fuckers! and I missed the train.
Wednesday arrives and again, everything is conspiring against me and I finally get to Ashdown for midday. With only a twitter feed to go by I reckon my best bet is to walk via the most likely locations from Crowborough to East Grinstead, a trifling 16 miles away. Within a minute of stepping on to the heath my depression of the last few days is lifted and I don't really care if I see some eagle or not. Yellowhammer and Willow Warbler singing, Bullfinch calling and the great vistas spread out in front of me.
Along the rutted path I soon had my first of around 15 singing Tree Pipit, and a few calling Woodlark, Linnet and Lesser Redpoll sang and called overhead and I came across my first family group of Stonechat. It was getting a tad hot climbing up something we're not too familiar with in Wanstead; hills they call them and quite un-necessary. I made it up the incline and had a rest, and an overpriced ice cream. A guy asked me what all the birders were doing up here, I explained about the eagle and he told me where to find the birders. Success was in my grasp, only to be torn from it by a trio of birders who told me that the bird had flow west towards "The Long Car Park". That was the way I was heading, so no great shakes. I plunged down the other side of Camp Hill towards the A22. In the valley a female Redstart showed in a tree, and more pipit and larks.
Just west of Nutley Windmill I had my lunch, and watched. I could see another ice cream van so I surmised that that would be one of the car parks that dot the A22, any eagle activity I was bound to spot. Got Buzzards being hounded by crows and more pipit and larks.
With no eagle forthcoming I made way to down the valley and up the other side. Along a ditchy kid of stream thing I found a large group of Stonechat, about 15 birds and on a couple of occasions I thought I heard Dartford Warbler, but I'd been told that there was only one pair left. I crossed the road and made my way through woodland, bog, heath and meadow towards Wych Cross, should have stayed where I was really, but I was not quite half way to E Grinstead and time was pressing.
Handily there was a pub at the cross, it had rooms, and I contemplated booking one of the rooms, to give the eagle a second bash in the morning, but soon gave that expensive idea up and resigned myself to a dip.
Didn't fancy the main road to walk on as the sun was getting low and the road was dark under the trees, so I found a route through the wood. A male Redstart called and Treecreeper and Goldcrest sang from the canopy. Somewhere to my right a Lesser-spotted Woodpecker called, woo-hoo year tick. By now my progress was slowing as I was developing chaffed thighs and my feet were hurting and I still had five miles to go. And it would have been quite a pleasant walk if it hadn't been uphill and the chaffing. When I got off the train I could hardly walk without looking like there was something seriously wrong with me. Hard core, that is!
I would have to go back and do the overnight ramble. Only an idiot would do that, and only a nutter would accompany that idiot. So I called Mr Fisher.
So here we are it's 12:30, black as stink, and we're standing at the point were I entered the forest on Wednesday. Tooled up with wine and beer, and a baguette and M&S humus, we were up for it in style.
No sooner had we got on the track, we heard our first Nightjar, which then did the decent thing and flew around are heads a bit. If flew off. We waved tissues and anything else white we had, it didn't come back.
We picked our way gingerly up the rutted path - I had nearly turned my ankle on a number of times in the daylight so there was a good chance of a breakage or two. Tawny owl chicks called from a plantation round by the farm the other side of the small valley, and Mr Fisher picked up a flyover Moorhen calling!!! We made it to the first car park where we had our picnic. It got colder and not lighter. After about two hours we'd finished the alcohol and food and were getting bored with cold and the not getting lighter, so we made our way towards Gills Lap to the north. On the way we chased a few Nightjar so Stu could get a recording, but they lead us a merry dance. As it got lighter we had one perched in a dead tree before it flicked around a bit and disappeared into the gorse. Got to love their flight. As the dawn approached the chorus of diurnal birds started; Skylark, Song Thrush, Robin etc. all rather surreal with a Nightjar churring in the mix.
By now we were in sight of the car parks on Gills Lap and we could see a few cars already parked up. We were pretty confident that they were birders and not doggers.Time to join the growing crowd. And after a night of just the two of us, joking, farting and telling stories, it came as a bit of a shock to hear strangers doing the same thing. It all got a bit much so we moved further up the ridge.
Somewhere I lost Mr Fisher answering a call of nature and when he did find me he said he'd found Mr Brown at the car park, and a few minutes later Tony found us on the ridge. He had a a window of freedom till 9:00 when he had to look after the kids, and even though the sun was up it was still quite cold and you couldn't image snakes or snake eating eagles fancying the temperature. We chatted and searched, searched and chatted. At one point I found something interesting in the tops of the trees over on the opposite ridge. "What do you make of that?". It appeared that there was something catching the sun as it turned, what we though was a head. It appeared big, eagle big and slowly we convinced ourselves that that was what it was. Then I had a second look and saw that what I had assumed was a chest was showing quite a bit of green, and what I thought was a head was a hole between branches through which I could see leaves moving. The others took time to be convinced. Luckily we hadn't made too much of a fuss over this; that would have been embarrassing!
Looking out over the valley it was like a scene from Zulu, with birders everywhere.
Now, though, Tony's time was up: "You'll probably see it now", he said as he left. Ha ha ha!
About five minutes after he left, I picked up a large raptor going down the bottom of the basin, a hint of white suggested to me that this might be our bird, so we hoofed it down to the spur in the hope of catching it if it went west. We collected all the birders that lined the path and reached the spur. Nothing. I checked the phone to see if there had been any news from the rest of the gathering. Tony called to say he'd seen the bird from the car park and it was still on view. Our growing band rushed back up the path to be met by people coming the other way: "it's in a tree down in the basin" so we veered off down to the road to join the growing crowd scoping it from distance. Yup crap views and very little reward for the effort, I thought.
We moved closer only for the bird to be flushed by something. It flew heavily up the eastern side and round to the back of the basin where we'd come in four hours earlier. Everybody seemed well chuffed and the crowd quickly moved away. In it a few recognisable faces from the London scene: Roy Woodward, Nev Smith and his mate Stu, and Jonathan Wasse, a Rainham regular.
Then it was just Mr Fisher and myself. What to do, job done and we were knackered. The eagle was now circling over a small group of birders by the road, who appeared oblivious to its presence. Numpties! My pictures were crap and would have liked a few better snaps, so we agreed to get back to the road up the east side with the sun behind us. We might get lucky. We might have to have a tinkle on the way, which is when the eagle must have passed over our heads. A bit later we could see everybody looking our way, we turned and Stu saw the bird circling over the wood we'd just been pissing in. Numpties!
It was close. It did a bot of hovering and then dived into the bracken. It appeared a minute later with a dark snake in its talons, I guess an Adder, circled over the wood for about five minutes as it juggled, snipped and re-positioned its catch, before appearing to swallow the thing like a bit of spaghetti, before disappearing over the trees. K'inell! Now that was worth it!