Country diary: These white-tailed eagles belong in southern England | Birds

or bumblebee buzzes comfortingly around my feet. Chiffchaffs chime in the trees and hidden Cetti’s warblers burst into short blasts of song. The reed and sedge warblers aren’t here yet, but any day now the reeds and bushes will be filled with their chattering and whistles. Across the river, two displaying lapwings squeal and curl and loop in the air. A piping redshank flies overhead. Both wader species are barely clinging on as breeding birds in the valley.

I lift my face up to the warming sun, close my eyes and listen. This is the first time I’ve returned since my father passed away. We used to come here to listen to the birdsong and watch for owls in the evenings. This morning, I can feel the place work its soothing magic.

The loud cries of crows make me look up and I see two huge, dark brown shapes flapping towards me – young white-tailed eagles. Birds from the Isle of Wight reintroduction project are now seen regularly in Sussex, including in the Arun Valley, but this will be my closest view yet. I watch them pass just 20 meters above my head, languidly flapping their broad, bent wings. They haven’t gained their adult plumage yet – their short tails, heads and heavy bills are still dark. They fly on purposefully, calling to each other with high-pitched squeaks, oblivious to me and all the attention from the local rooks, crows and two buzzards. They seem unassailable, indestructible, as if they’ve always been here.

Like that of the lapwings and redshanks, their presence in this landscape is fragile – at least one of the eagles we saw in the valley last autumn has since been killed by poison in Dorset. But they belong in southern England. Some Sussex placenames remember this as their home, even if we do not: Earnley or “erne leah” is Old English for “eagle clearing”; Eridge was once called Erne Rigg – eagle ridge. I watch the great birds climb into the sky on the thermals, circling higher and higher. I smile, thinking how my father would have loved to have seen them. Gradually, they drift away over the South Downs.

As the wind picks up, two swallows fly upriver. There’s more cloud now and the sky is darkening. It’s time to move on.

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