Today seems to be the day of the gatekeepers. Dozens of the bright, coppery-brown butterflies are fluttering around, rising above the lush green grasses and bushes, buffeted by the breeze in the afternoon sunshine. There’s an oppressive wall of sound – a cacophony of grasshoppers and crickets – although, in spite of searching the noisiest plants, I find many grasshoppers but no crickets. Easier to spot is a male stonechat, which gives away its presence on top of a bramble with harsh “click-click” calls that sound like small stones being clipped together, giving the bird its name. Its black head and white collar band are looking a little scruffy now, worn down by a summer helping to bring up young.
Behind me, in the top of an alder tree, a male linnet seems to answer the stonechat with whistles and tinkling notes. The stonechat calls again, the linnet responds. The linnet is reacting to the stonechat’s alarms identifying me as an intruder, so I walk on towards the river. Otherwise, the birds are mostly quiet. The reed warblers only occasionally chatter and even the usually vocal Cetti’s warblers are silent now. Swallows and house martins swoop past, catching flies.
Scanning the blue sky in the distance, I pick up a black, dagger-like shape flying fast in one direction, then turning, flapping hard and diving, gathering speed as it chases low over the brooks. Although it’s so far away that I can only make out the silhouette, its sharp-pointed wings and flight tell me it’s a hobby – a slim, dark-backed falcon with breathtaking aerobatic skills, hunting the dragonflies, swallows and martins feeding over the fields between here and Amberley.
Down in the river in front of me, a dark piece of floating wood catches my eye. As I watch it, I realise it’s moving against the current, propelling itself towards me across the flowing river. It’s a grass snake, with round, staring eyes, its striped head raised slightly above the water, and tongue flicking out in front. It bends its body in a wave as it swims towards the bank. It disappears out of view but I don’t see it emerge – it must have slithered ashore away from me, or swum further downriver, keeping its distance.