Amberley, the South Downs, May 2019
I’m followed by a flock of dancing flies along the River Arun. I put out my hand to let them alight. Their bodies dance urgent as mayflies, their wings flutter soft as moths. They travel with me along the bend in the river.
Reed warblers are settling into spring song patches on the riverbanks. A reed bunting with his black warpaint holds a perch in green willow, delivering a simple, fractured tune.
Across the river a mighty willow sprawls dominant, dipping its branches into the flowing water.
An octopus returning to sea.
These great veterans stalk the Arun valley at Amberley, oaks replacing them where hedgerows arise.
A low note breaks the din of the A29 traffic and trains rattling through the chalk quarry at Amberley.
It’s a cuckoo.
The fields beyond the river lack trees, smudged by rushes creeping into pastures where cattle loaf. Crossing a shock of metal that bridges the banks, I can’t see it.
Out here the cuckoo can target the nests of reed warblers, but that’s the female’s job. This cuckoo has a song to sing first.
Passing away from the river on a track, towards the chalk ridge of Bury Hill, telephone wires cross the landscape. Not far beyond them, where the track is white underfoot, the cuckoo sings again.
Turning back to look towards the Arun, the bird balances on a telephone wire.
Cuc-koo, cuc-koo, cuc-koo!
His tail fans as he rocks on the wire, the full thrust of his calling causing a see-sawing that could send him tumbling.
I wonder how many female cuckoos are out there in the Arun valley, listening. Are they perched in riverside willows or the ancient, dying ash woods in the steep escarpment of the chalk hills.
One of them, somewhere, has heard him.