Is there any sound more evocative of wild winter landscapes, windswept and worn, than the piercing whistling of wigeon? It is a cheery sound but always conjures images of open spaces; coastal marshes where the calls of curlew vibrate on the still air, estuarine vastness where myriad probing beaks puncture the shining muds, or as today the lush green of valley marshland caressed by a watery January sun.
But more of that later. We must first undertake my regular midweek visit to Strumpshaw Fen, on this occasion hoping to connect with a treecreeper; a species that has eluded me and my camera for far too long.
I discovered recently that the RSPB do not actually own Strumpshaw fen, in fact the land is leased. The terms of the leasing agreement allows shooting to take place on the reserve a few times during the winter months, which in some ways seems anomalous but in the overall scheme of things is a small price to pay for the pleasure of having such a fantastic resource available to all. In fact I suspect the reason the shoot takes place on the reserve for a short spell is simply to make a statement: you don't own this, we do.
My visit today coincided with one of the shoots and to avoid paying customers being peppered with lead, the path to the river was temporarily closed. That was ok with me because I only really needed to visit the wooded area at the beginning of the trail. A stealthy walk along here produced a good sprinkling of delightful and colourful familiar birds; parties of blue and great tits scolding from tangles of spindle still replete with their ghostly pale berries, chaffinches 'pinking' from blackthorn already with bright white flowers sparsely bedecking otherwise bare sprigs, gold crests flitting around in low brambles searching diligently for tiny morsels and loose groups of blackbirds and redwings feasting on the dense mass of ivy enshrouding many of the mature trees. And then after straining my eyes to look near and far, I caught sight of a small bird steadfastly hopping up a tree trunk, peering into every crack and crevice: a treecreeper at last. I watched this tiny slim-billed character work its way from trunk to trunk, bough to bough willing it within range when I eventually managed to fire off a few hurried snaps. Not easy to get a clean shot with such an energetic bird, but it was fun watching its antics and tracking it as it progressed around the wood. Partial success at least, whetting the appetite for a return visit and perhaps better images.
As a complete contrast the regular cock pheasant hopped proudly onto the tree stump where an unofficial cache of seeds and nuts is regularly deposited by photographers. He seemed oblivious to the fact dozens of his kin were at that moment being drilled with shot a few hundred yards deeper into the wood. Just as well I guess. A quote by PG Wodehouse sums it up rather well: “The fascination of shooting as a sport depends almost wholly on whether you are at the right or wrong end of the gun.” In any event I couldn't help but admire his breast plumage glowing as burnished bronze in the low slanting rays of our own life giving orb. Loud, proud and handsome. To complete the cast a female kestrel glided low through the trees hunting in sparrowhawk fashion before briefly perching close by. It and another are regulars around this area no doubt drawn by the good numbers of smaller birds.
Speaking of which, the official bird feeding zone next to reception is something of a magnet for visitors nowadays. In keeping with the reserve as a whole you won't find any rarities, but keep still and patient and you will be able to admire a good selection of those more common birds at close quarters. The stars of the show over the past little while has been a pair of nuthatches that raid the peanut pile and fly to nearby ivy clad trees to stash them away. It is great fun to watch these chisel billed acrobats selecting a suitable nook within which to cram a few nuts and seeds. They really are splendid creatures when seen up close and are most dexterous in their feverish endeavour to provide a larder of fat filled treats in lieu of winters chill. An enterprising jay has also cottoned on to the free supply and has become quite bold, adding a kaleidoscope of colour when caught in full sun.
After a chat with young Sean the Autistic Naturalist, a pleasant encounter with a reserve staff member who persuaded me to help out at a forthcoming event (I can never refuse a lady) and a welcome mug of hot chocolate (and an Eccles cake - the diet is unravelling fast), it was time to repair to Buckenham marshes for an encounter with those whistling wigeon.
But where had they gone? On arrival it was clear the shooting party had driven the birds off the fields bordering the track, and it wasn't until I stood atop the river bank that they could be found seeking refuge on the Yare itself. They had clearly not yet worked up the courage to return, although over the next hour or so they did flight in dribs and drabs back to the succulent grass where they feed throughout these short, winter days. When they are engrossed in cropping the grass with their finely serrated bills, they can be approached very closely, almost to within tickling distance at times. Then the gorgeous colouring of the males can be appreciated in all its intricate finery. Cobalt blue beak, deep russet head offset by a crest of mustard yellow, pink hued breast giving way to finely vermiculated patterning on the flanks. Surely one of our finest wildfowl. In spite of the recent interruption to their feasting, numbers appear low this winter. Perhaps the mildness of the season to date has affected their normal movements with more birds choosing to linger further north. There are still plenty here to enjoy though.
A brisk walk to the drainage mill showed seven species of goose, some of highly suspect origins. The pink feet and white-fronts were wild enough and present in good numbers, but the barnacles, Egyptian, Canadas, grey lags and lone snow goose are feral, albeit of long standing. No scope, so don't know whether any bean geese were secreted amongst the throng.
With a marsh harrier silently quartering the fields in the distance, periodically sending groups of lapwing and teal skywards, I walked back to the car, another pleasing visit to the Yare Valley complete. Then as I drove slowly back towards the small train station the shadows of flocks of returning wigeon passed over the track and car bonnet like billowing tendrils of wispy smoke, their whistling penetrating my ear above the purr of the engine and through closed windows. A fitting finale to a day spent on the most magical of wetlands.