What a splendid Indian Summer we’re enjoying. The Ranger managed to persuade junior rangers Bill and Jack that going for a walk in the countryside was an unavoidable consequence of the sun shining – and after Jack said piteously ‘Oh Dad do we have to go geocaching again?’ agreed that this would just be a gentle stroll with the prospect of an ice-cream at the end of it. For a real relaxing time I always try to visit somewhere I’m not responsible for, usually this means the National Trust. And so it proved again when we set off for a walk up Redcliff onto Culver Down – one of my favourite walks ever.
No, that’s not us in the picture. The image looks back along our route as we ambled up the long cliff from Yaverland below. We passed the old fortifications, and the ruined pillbox that as a boy I used to occupy and shoot imaginary invaders on the beach below. My children used to do the same, to my satisfaction – now of course they’re far too grown up for such juvenile antics. They’d rather play Call of Duty IV. Still, we managed to find some most diverting blackberry bushes too on our way up. All sported purple fingers by the time we arrived, breathless on the high slopes of the down. There’s a curious feature that we often stop at on this down. It’s a conical hole in the ground of uncertain origin, about twenty metres from the cliff edge. Maybe a stray wartime bomb, or maybe a result of a cliff fall long ago, this hole has been there for at least forty years to my knowledge. Here it is in action:
It’s a great place to lie on the grass. When you do, the horizon shrinks suddenly to frame a circle of blue sky, and the distant noises of Sandown Bay and the sea far below are suddenly muted. As we relaxed in the little dip and watched the blue sky, we were amazed to hear a rush of wind, and suddenly a glider from nearby Bembridge airport zoomed over. As we were perched on the edge of the cliff, this was the perfect place for pilots to gain height and take advantage of the updraughts. We stood up and watched the big, silent machine slowly climb. The lads and I had a discussion about how gliders could rise when they didn’t have an engine.
A little later, as we were getting ready to set off down again – and maybe find a blackberry or two – the discussion about the gliders suddenly took a new and exciting twist. Over the cliff rose the big black shapes of a pair of ravens, climbing effortlessly aloft on the same air currents that had lifted the glider earlier. Ravens are not that common, and certainly not a bird you’d see every day on the Island. So it took a few moments to work out why these crows were so flipping big! Ravens are actually the world’s biggest birds in the crow family, weighing in at up to 1400g. They tend to go around in pairs, and these two at Redcliff were no exception. Round and round they soared without a single flap of the wings – we were looking to see if they did, but, like the glider pilot, skill was all they needed. Junior ranger Jack was just exclaiming how much he’d like to be a raven and fly over the cliff, when our visitors decided they climbed high enough. In a brief but spectacular aerobatic display, they zoomed off down the hill, calling loudly, rolling over and over in the air in what could only really be taken to be simple exuberance at the sheer joy of flight. It was almost as if the big birds had read the mind of the jealous young watcher and decided to show him a moment of what it was really like.
By the time I got the camera out and caught up with them they were far off, sitting in a twisted hawthorn tree in the only bit of shade for miles. Perhaps they helped themselves to some blackberries too, when we’d gone. At least they wouldn’t stain. When I got home I checked Rob Hume’s trusty old Macmillan Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe, which illuminatingly said:
[They] find a cliff with a strong updraught of air and perform all kinds of aerobatics together. Part of the raven’s display is a roll over in mid-air, turning on to its back and then rolling back again
That’s exactly what they were doing. What fun! Who needs a glider? Just be a bird!