Wednesday 18 June 2014

Eagle over Ashdown 16th June 2014

I had almost, but not quite, got over missing out on seeing the immature Short toed Eagle that appeared in Dorset at the beginning of June whilst I was heading inexorably northwards with Terry and Andy for a week's birding in Scotland. On my return from Scotland the eagle was still being seen and reported at random intervals from some southern counties, namely Hampshire and Sussex but never for extended periods and certainly never so definite that a journey south was imperative. I dismissed it from my mind once again, reconciling myself to the fact that I had truly missed a very rare bird indeed as it was only the second ever to be recorded in the UK.
Recently vague rumours came of it being sighted at Ashdown Forest in East Sussex but nothing more substantive came of these. On Saturday 14th June I went to West Sussex to see the breeding pair of Black winged Stilts at the RSPB's Medmerry Reserve near Bracklesham. All well and good and I saw two stilts with their three newly hatched and incredibly cute young.

On Sunday I concerned myself with domestic duties and did not or to be honest forgot to look at the pager. In the late afternoon I looked at it. Mega Alert !!! Short toed Eagle. Ashdown Forest showing well. Present all afternoon perched in pine treeOuch! I could have kicked myself. All my Sussex colleagues had been to see it and here I was congratulating myself on finally having mowed the lawn.

Whilst watching yet another episode of Breaking Bad that evening I formed a plan. Originally I was meant to go to Wales in the early hours of Monday to join Terry, who was already camping on the Pembroke Coast and then we would go to Skomer on the first boat at 10am on Monday for a visit to the seabird colonies on Skomer. That would now have to be put on hold until Tuesday. Just as well as no boats go to Skomer on Monday, as we found out later! The eagle had last been seen in the late afternoon of Sunday, dropping into some pines. Now eagles are not the most active of birds and I surmised that if I got myself to the location where it had last been seen by tomorrow, early on the Monday morning,  I had a more than even chance of seeing it. Eagles are also comparatively late risers so this would not be a middle of the night foray but a reasonably late departure around 5am for the two hour drive to Ashdown Forest.

So it was on a mild, still and grey Monday morning I headed down the all too familiar M40, M25 and M23 Motorways, turning off at last into welcoming and comforting former haunts of mine that constitute part of East Sussex. The directions led me to Wych Cross and then to a car park in the forest called The Long Car Park. I arrived at 6.30am and already the large car park was unfeasibly full of cars for this time in the morning. Deserted, with not another birder to be seen the mute presence of so many cars bore witness to the fact that something was definitely going on. I knew the area reasonably well so I set off southwest down a long sandy track to  the distant trees where the eagle was last seen yesterday.

A pleasant walk down the track was accompanied by the twitterings of Linnets busying themselves in the gorse, the males always attentive to their mates, accompanying them everywhere they went. A pair of stonechats flicked their wings and called to their young from the tops of the gorse and the melancholy notes of a Woodlark came from afar over heather and bracken. Another birder caught up with me and we walked onwards together down the track  neither of us too sure precisely where to go.

We walked on and found all the other birders at the end of the track ranged along the crest of a slight ridge which gave a panoramic view over yet more grass, heather and bracken to a row of conifer trees some 250m metres opposite us. I saw a friendly face, John O' Shaughnessy, another former Sussex birder who had driven down from Manchester that night. Other birders had used the opportunity to bring their dogs for a walk in the forest as well. Some young lads had come from the north east overnight and had arrived way too early at three in the morning and slept in the bracken!

Birders awaiting the eagle
John and myself chatted and resigned ourselves to a long wait until the eagle stirred itself. Previous sightings suggested nothing would happen until around 10am as the eagle would remain perched in the trees. Invisible until it flew. It was still only 7am. We stood around listening to the sounds of the forest. Siskins flew over, a Goldcrest sang in the pines behind us and a Tree Pipit showered notes of silver across the heather.

The eagle was first located in the distant belt of  pines in the centre of the picture
My erstwhile companion who had accompanied me down the track stood next to us. Time slipped on. It was now around 7.45am. I yawned and he looked through his scope. 'What's that? I think that's it. It's the eagle, surely? Yes it is' he said, with the result that complete panic swept among the semi comatose ranks of birders. Everyone now wide awake and fully attentive. 'Where are you looking? What tree? How far away is it? The questions came thick and fast, anxiety etched in the intonation. At first I could not see the eagle but then I looked harder and saw a pale blob sat low down on a branch jutting out from one of the dark trunks in a row of pines

I put the scope on it and indeed there was the Short toed Eagle which must have flown in and just perched un-noticed on the pine branch. Others who had wandered off, lacking patience, now came running back, anxiety and excitement showing on their faces and seeking directions as to where the bird was. It slowly quietened down as everyone located and watched the eagle.

The views in the scope were really good. The eagle was completely un-obscured, perched against a dark background and the first thing that struck me was how pale it was, almost white with some irregular brown streaking on the breast. It was facing us and just looking about, relaxed and untroubled. I noted its bare, dull yellow legs and yes, it was close enough to see its short toes. It looked up. A fierce eagle face, with huge golden yellow eyes framed in a big head with a ruff of white feathers. Its tail was grey underneath and square ended. A Carrion Crow arrived and started to hassle the eagle which remained unconcerned. Now you could get a size comparison and see just how large the eagle was compared to the crow.The crow continued its pestering and after about ten to fifteen minutes the eagle turned on its perch and flew back into the depths of the wood. Its upperwings were mainly greyish brown mottled with white. It was all over.The time was just about 8am

Now everyone wanted to see more.We knew where the eagle was so we would just wait. We waited and waited. Nothing. People again wandered off. Others joined us. Tense and edgy as they had not yet seen the eagle and had just missed out on the exceptional views we had. There was also no shortage of people willing to recount to these unfortunates just how good the views were!

There was, as the time passed, quite a crowd building up. Other Sussex friends joined me, John King, Simon, and Nick. The north wind was now feeling quite chilly through my inadequate clothing but I was going nowhere. A Green Woodpecker looped over the open ground before us. Just after 10am there came another exclamation. 'Its the eagle!' and sure enough the eagle arose from the pines just where it had disappeared and flew along the top of the pines gaining height. It cleared the pines and slowly headed east, soaring and circling. I just watched it in the scope. Basically white underneath and grey/brown above. It slowly moved off getting ever more distant and being mobbed by a gull. It was heading in the direction of Gills Lap in another part of the forest. Apparently it did this yesterday, hunting for snakes at Gills Lap and then returning to where we were currently standing. The eagle finally disappeared behind the distant trees.

Most birders now headed back up the track to the car park intent on driving the short distance to Gills Lap to follow the  hunting eagle. I decided to remain where I was. I was tired and did not fancy a car chase after the eagle and anyway I had seen it well now on two occasions. It was a bit of a gamble to remain where I was but that's birding for you. I chatted to a couple of local birders who had been here yesterday and they told me that if the eagle followed the pattern of its behaviour of yesterday it would return about 1pm to land in the trees in which we initially saw it. It was now only 11am. I  relaxed, lay back on the grass and went to sleep for half an hour. Much refreshed I chatted once more with my new found colleagues. At regular intervals the wonders of mobile phones allowed us to get reports of the eagle from Gills Lap. It was hunting constantly and as the time wore on had apparently eaten no less than three snakes. Then came the call we had been waiting for. The eagle was heading back our way. A few tense minutes and then it appeared really high up in the sky. I got it in the scope and just watched as it came ever nearer, still really high until it circled over the favoured trees and hovered with legs dangling. It circled again and slowly descended, circling once again until it came down in a steep direct descent, levelling out at tree top level and then disappearing into the pines. 

Note the bulging crop full of snakes. Tasty!

Short toed Eagle immature
In the scope I had noticed how full and bulging its crop was. It would be a long time until it moved again as it would just remain perched digesting its meal. It was time to go. It was a sensible decision as the eagle was not seen again until 1745, almost five hours later.

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