Wednesday 12 February 2020

The Norfolk Cranes' Story

Cranes on their wintering grounds in Extremadura, Spain

Whether common cranes were ever actually common in East Anglia is open to debate. Circumstantial historic evidence indicates they may well have been a widespread and abundant breeder in our marshes and fens in centuries past, or used the region as a wintering ground, but there is little concrete proof in support of this. The documentary evidence is sparse with one allusion to a ‘Pyper crane’ being contained in a document dating from 1543, but this could just as easily have been a colloquial reference to a grey heron or some such. There are other references to cranes featured as illustrations in manuscripts or listed as components of medieval feasting. But if it was once to be encountered gracefully striding across our soils, its evocative bugling cries echoing across our flatlands we will never know for sure.  What we do know and can justly be proud of is that common cranes did take up residence in Norfolk in 1979 and have been here ever since, slowly building a breeding pool that when joined by non-breeders and migrants now number some 70 birds county wide.

The story of their return began in September 1979 with a phone call received by John Buxton of Horsey Hall from an estate farmer who excitedly reported he had just seen “the biggest bloody herons”. The birds turned out to be a pair of common cranes that were joined by a third bird later that autumn. This trio spent the winter in the Hickling/Horsey area of Broadland feeding in potato fields and amongst stubble.  These birds left the area the following April no doubt attempting to return to their native Scandinavia to breed. Perhaps deterred by the long sea crossing they abandoned this migration attempt and returned to Norfolk a couple of weeks later. There they remained with the original pair eventually settling down to breed during the spring of 1981. That pioneering breeding attempt proved unsuccessful, but the birds tried again the following year with greater success, rearing a single chick to the fledging stage. This represented the first known common crane to be reared in the UK since perhaps the 16th century marking a red-letter day for all concerned with the bird’s welfare and conservation.

Being large and obvious ground nesting birds, crane nests and chicks are very vulnerable and open to predation. The recolonising birds had a tough time of it over the next twenty years, but eventually reached the stage where numbers outgrew their original Horsey home. In 2003 they began nesting at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at neighbouring Hickling and in 2007 began to spread further afield when a pair nested at the RSPB’s reserve at Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk following an influx of Continental migrants into the region. Since then the birds have spread naturally as far afield as Yorkshire and Scotland.

During the period 2010-2014 the RSPB together with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Pensthorpe Conservation Trust released around 90 captive bred cranes into the Somerset Levels. The Great Crane Project had the purpose of securing the future of common cranes within the UK and was greeted with publicity and media attention, in my view somewhat detracting from the decades of dedicated conservation effort that took place here in East Anglia to nurture a viable natural recolonization.

It would be quite wrong to forget the magnificent efforts of John Buxton, his estate employees, RSPB staff and volunteers who acted as guardians for this vulnerable species throughout the critical first few years of its precarious tenure. Without the efforts of this dedicated band it is doubtful whether the cranes would have been left undisturbed by egg collectors, farming activity and well-intentioned but ultimately disruptive sightseers.

Happily, the full story of how common cranes came to once again reside in eastern England has been documented in a marvellous book entitled ‘The Norfolk Cranes’ Story’ co-authored by Chris Durdin, a Norwich based conservationist who runs Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays. Chris worked with John Buxton to fully detail the trials and tribulations of these enigmatic birds as they slowly regained their place as a UK breeding species. I can thoroughly recommend the work which was first published in 2011 and is now available in paperback. It will have special resonance with anyone who loves the wild open spaces of East Anglia.  If you feel in need of an uplifting read visit for details of how to buy your copy.

This winter several birds have been regularly feeding in the stubble fields next to the A1064 at Billockby near Acle. They are wary birds though and will not allow close approach. One of the best places to see common cranes during winter is from the Stubb Mill raptor watchpoint at Hickling. The birds often come to roost amongst the wide expanse of marsh and fen together with many marsh harriers and occasional hen harriers. It is an amazing sight and we should all be proud that we are, once again, able to witness these majestic birds sweeping across wide East Anglian skies. 

Wintering Cranes. Extremadura, Spain 

Wednesday 15 January 2020

My Younger Self

What a motley crew. There's me, back row 3rd from the right - cool or what!

A couple of spare hours between meetings led me (not for the first time) to Jarrold’s department store here in Norwich, more specifically their basement book store. I love books and it was whilst perusing the biography titles that I happened upon a compendium of essays by various famous people originally featured in Big Issue magazine. The theme was ‘What would I tell my younger self’ with 16 seeming to be the chosen age for revelation. Politicians, rock stars, authors, sportsmen and women, film stars and other well-known public figures had downloaded their nuggets of wisdom by turns funny, thought provoking and wistful. It got me thinking, what would I tell my own 16 year old self? An intriguing, if slightly narcissistic thought don’t you think? Well what would I........?

Let’s see now, 16 - hmmm. It would have been 1972, the height of glam rock with Bolan, Bowie and all things glitter (yes even him) filling young people’s minds with new found ideas of sexual expression and just plain old fashioned fun (remember that). I would have been in the throes of completing my 5th form year with O level exams looming just over the horizon. I was an underachiever, basically lazy and lethargic. A ‘couldn’t care less, why does it matter to me’ kind of attitude, but then I was 16 and that comes with the territory. So I guess I would try and tell myself to stop pratting around, knuckle down, do some work and get good grades, probably exactly what my parents told me at the time. Goodness knows I had the potential (as it was I scraped 5 passes which luckily was the benchmark for applying for any decent job). I would try and explain to myself, as I did to my own lad when he was about the same age, that all my school chums were nothing other than competitors in the real world and that if I didn’t achieve they would leave me stumbling behind. But how do you export adult wisdom(?) to somebody as naive and uncomprehending as I was at that time? In fairness to the youthful me, our school teachers, icons of enlightenment and profundity, were not much better. I remember my ‘career’ interview whereby a certain Mr High, quite ironic really because he was only about 5 feet tall, asked me what I wanted to do with my life. Needless to say this question was met with a look as blank as a virgin sheet of foolscap (alright then A4). I remember his subsequent pep talk quite vividly, it went thus ‘Well if I were you I’d leave school as soon as you can and get a job, at least then you’ll be earning some money’. Even me, so wet behind the ears I had a permanent trickle down the back of my neck, though this was, how should I say? Oh yes, total bollocks. But I left the room simply glad to have gotten a potential embarrassing interview out of the way in such short order. Career interview? What a joke! But then Mr High, he slightly better employed as our woodwork tutor, was more likely than not shoehorned into the role of careers master because nobody else wanted to do it. He was handed the short straw. You can imagine the other teachers clubbing together to make sure that poor old High who was late for the meeting was handed the poison chalice. ‘Sorry old chap but it’s the only job left’. I’ve just remembered that Mr High had a habit of throwing wooden mallets at wayward pupils should they infringe the etiquette of the woodwork room. For a teacher to do such a thing now would be unthinkable and would result in lawsuits, shaming, dismissals, grovelling apologies and social media cancelling. We took it in our stride mainly because him being so short, even a well aimed throw was only likely to brush your thigh. Wonder what happened to him......

All I really wanted to do was get home from school, hurriedly change, even more hurriedly cram my tea down my throat and join my mates to play football. We played football all the time, everywhere and anywhere. At school we played before assembly, during morning tea break, during lunch breaks, as part of the sports lesson and any spare time inbetween. We played with proper leather footballs the kind that left your foot numb when you kicked them and your brain oscillating across your cranium should you be fool enough to attempt a header, tennis balls, half a tennis ball (great for curling if you hit it right), power balls - that takes some doing believe me - and once the rubber stopper off the leg of a table. As long as it could be kicked, we kicked it. Perhaps I would tell my younger self that I would never make the England team and to concentrate on important things like logarithms and algebra. On the other hand perhaps I would be better encouraging myself to keep practising the noble art of footy and forget trivial bullshit like trigonometry and algebra. Goodness knows footy has subsequently given me great pleasure both watching and playing whereas I’ve never, not once, ever had to use logs, sines, cosines or algebraic formulae in anger, or peace for that matter.

I liked going to the footy!

My real aspiration, apart from the obvious one of rock star, was to be a fighter pilot. I wanted to fly Lightnings, I wanted to fly beyond the speed of sound. I still do. Me and my mates used to spend our school holidays watching these silver monsters thundering around RAF Coltishall a few miles north east of the city. We would walk or cycle there, prop against one of the yellow crash gates and spend the day revelling in the sight and sound of tons of high tech jet fighter ripping across the Norfolk skies. That I wouldn’t swap for the world, but I would perhaps have steered my young self along the path of a career, a real career, in the Air Force. I could have done it with application. I’d never have been clever enough to fly one of those things, but I could have got close enough to revel in their glory. Yes, I would encourage my spotty adolescent self to find out more, join the Air Training Corps, get my bloody hair cut and just do it. Things would have been different then, but that’s doesn’t necessarily mean better of course.

This is a wildlife blog, so mention should be made of how wild places and wild creatures featured in my life in those heady days of the early 1970s. The answer would be quite heavily. With my lifelong mate I spent a lot of time, the time not playing football or watching jet interceptors, rummaging around in bushes, shrubs and undergrowth searching for birds’ nests. In those far off days such practice was not frowned upon and was undertaken by just about every schoolboy. All of our peers had a collection of birds eggs, even such illumini as Bill Oddie openly confesses to doing the same. It was just what you did. But then of course there were millions more birds around and our pathetic pilfering hardly dented the reproductive aspirations of the proliferation of bird life all around - song thrushes more abundant than blackbirds can you believe. And both abundant in the true meaning of the word. But 1972 marked the beginnings of change, a change towards behavioral observation. During 1972 we began to record the contents of nests, where we found them and their ongoing fortunes. We started to paint birds, photograph them, write about them and watch what they were doing. Yes, we still took the odd egg, but the seeds of a more mature involvement in their natural history were beginning to germinate. If I could advise my 16 year old self it would definitely be to steer me towards greater hands on involvement with the conservation movement. To immerse myself in the evolution of a more enlightened attitude towards wildlife. That would certainly have been a life well spent.

And then girls. Yes those mysterious, curvy, moody, uninterested (in me) creatures that suddenly seemed to blossom from some gangly, bespectacled annoying sister person  (I had one of those too, in fact Ive still got one) into sultry, sexy, desirable, squidgy .....things. Just what were you meant to do with them? It was all quite different then in the dark ages of power strikes, flared trousers and Brut. We matured later, we didn’t know the rules, we had no road map. We were left groping in the dark, or rather that’s just what we weren’t doing. Oh dear, totally hopeless. I vividly remember, and my fellow protagonist and me howl with laughter about it over a pint even now, when the belle of form 3F, Sarah by name together with her mate Joanna, agreed to meet us for a date one Saturday afternoon. There they were bedecked in fashion attire, eyeliner, mascara, lipstick et al and there were we stepping off the bus in our dark blue raincoats. It got worse. Not having the foggiest clue how to entertain these sirens we treated them to an afternoon of pleasurable scrutiny of the latest airfix model kits in a nearby hobby shop. Somehow we weren’t favoured with a second date. To our credit later that evening we were both rolling around on the floor, tears of laughter rolling down our cheeks in realisation of what a couple of total nobs we were. As I say we laugh about it to this day and the tears still roll. What would I say to my 16 year old self in this regard? Hell’s teeth that’s a toughie. You see if I could give me advice that episode wouldn’t have taken place and years of gut wrenching mirth would have been denied us. On reflection I don’t think I would tell myself anything about girls - you can only find out how to cope with them through bitter experience.

I suppose in essence the best bit of advice I could have given to my embryonic self would be to always try and be yourself. Just do it, don’t give a damn what anybody thinks, says or does. Believe in yourself and your goals. Make it happen. Make it happen for you because only you can achieve or stop yourself achieving. Sound advice? Possibly. Would I have listened? I didn’t have the wit to comprehend. When all said and done life takes its own course, it all pans out the way it was meant to. And looking around at what I have and the things I’ve done I cannot be anything but content, proud and happy. I’m not content and happy obviously - that would be too much to ask - but I have no reason not to be. Most importantly I have no fundamental regrets. I was able to tell my dad I loved him before he passed away and that we would all look after mum. That was all he wanted to hear. It’s worth everything. I do regret no longer being able to say similar things to people who are no longer here or perhaps being able to apologise to those people beyond my reach for a small number of things I said or did that I now realise were wrong. Show me someone who doesn’t feel the same. But overall I think my 16 year old self contained the nucleus of being alright.  Sure I was a bit dopey, hot blooded, ignorant and daft. That’s what being 16 is there for. I could have worked harder at school, but where would that have led? Perhaps I’d have been wealthier. Big deal. No, going back and trying to change the course of your life is a flawed concept. I’m here and now because I was there and then. To alter that would be an unwise and dangerous thing. I’m raising my glass (I am too, it’s full of rather nice wine) to my 16 year old self. Good on you sonny you turned out ok.

Saturday 11 January 2020

Bad Moon Rising

‘Is that the moon?’ this said in an incredulous tone by my buddy.
‘Certainly is’
‘That’s pretty impressive’
‘A full moon, honey coloured, looks big doesn’t it?’
‘Those geese are heading right towards it; get your camera ready.....’

There we were standing patiently half way along a potholed, puddled track that leads from the small railway halt to the river. We had arrived 30 minutes before dusk after a good day birding the eastern section of the county clocking up ferruginous duck at a dull, squally Ranworth, a lonely looking cattle egret at Halvergate, a dozen common cranes at Billockby, buzzards galore, marshies everywhere and a lovely group of a dozen goldeneye at Martham Broad. A good haul, leading us smoothly into the current plan to spend a little while looking for geese on the marshes of the Yare Valley and to witness the corvids roosting in the wet carr. But we hadn’t factored in the rather surreal phenomenon of not just enjoying a dramatic sunset that sent bands of flaming orange across the western skies behind us, but coincidentally being able to witness an equally spectacular moonrise.

‘Last time I watched the moon rise I was in Brazil’ I quipped and proceeded to recount the tale of that evening waiting for a jaguar to return to its kill in the heart of the Pantanal with innumerable frogs chorusing all around and fireflies dancing on the warm night breeze (see Mad Mad Moonlight ). If he was impressed he wasn’t letting on.

The marshes between our location at Buckenham and the village of Cantley a couple of miles eastwards are managed by the RSPB to form part of the Mid Yare Reserve, a living landscape initiative that takes in large areas either side of the river itself. When young, nothing but a boy in truth, barely peeping over the counter at my teenage years, I used to frequent this area in spring recording the nests of all kinds of birds that choose these wide open wetlands to breed. Lapwing, redshank, reed buntings, coot, moorhen and mute swan could be encountered in good numbers together with the lots of reedy warblers and grebes. I seldom, if ever, visited in winter in those embryonic years of my love affair with wildlife; that particular sweet was only unwrapped once I reached my twenties and began to broaden my horizons and consequently my mind. My loss, for winter is when this place really comes to life. It is positively throbbing with life, pulsating, energised, invigorating. A scan of the area today showed thousands of birds grazing the well managed sward; geese of several species, wigeon aplenty, waders and the highest concentration of Chinese water deer I’ve ever seen. Periodically some raptor, either a peregrine that use this floodplain as their daily larder, or most likely a marsh harrier lazily flapping its way to roost at nearby RSPB Strumpshaw Fen (we saw at least 15 heading that way), would spook the smaller birds so that they rose en masse to twist and turn across the clear winter sky like so much confetti thrown over a smiling bride. Lapwings would flicker black and white, golden plover would spangle gold. The wigeon would whistle, the pink feet yelp, the grey lags bray. It is wonderful.

The sun sank in an arc of gold, the moon rose spectrally from behind the wood. Flights of geese, silhouettes against the deepest velvet blue, flew to feeding grounds inland, the air became chiller with the waning light. But still not a single crow. So late did it seem that we began to speculate that perhaps for some reason tonight the birds would roost elsewhere, when the faint chirrup of jackdaws reached our ears. In anticipation we moved closer to the roosting carr, positioned ourselves by a gate and waited. It happened in a rush. Without any preamble a sudden cacophony of caws and chirrups rent the air as wave after wave of rooks and jackdaws appeared from the west and wheeled above us towards their roost. Tightly massed flocks weaved across the sky, myriad small black dots against the deep blue of early night. These were crows but acted as murmurating starlings; twisting and turning as wisps of smoke, and still they came, thousands of birds assaulting the senses. Then on some signal, indecipherable to the human being, they plummeted to roost creating funnels of rapidly descending bodies; fluid, smooth, perfect. What must it be like to be within that mass, hurling downward with your brethren below and above, left and right towards an unlit woodland in near darkness? How do they manage not to collide and plunge to their doom? How exhilarating must it be? We will never know. The moon, now smaller, higher and brilliant white, unconcerned with these questions shone on. 

Monday 6 January 2020

And For Desert.....

....more of a main course really, but I liked the play on words.

Walking along the tiered sea defences between Cart Gap and Eccles on the NE Norfolk coast the sheer might of the North Sea can be felt close at hand. A relentless battering of waves pounding on the smooth concrete steps just a few feet from where you stoically trudge toward your chosen goal. The tide was high, the breeze fresh but not excessive; what must it be like here in the teeth of a real gale? Terrifying I should imagine. Every so often, the seventh wave perhaps, there is a sharp crack as a large incoming crest meets a receding sheet of mud coloured water. It sounds like cannon fire and is quite impressive.

After about a kilometre walk a set of steps leads into a static caravan park, abandoned for the winter, and here in a small garden sheltered by the dunes hops a small buff coloured bird. A desert wheatear, a first winter male, lost, alone and quite possibly doomed. This rather splendid little bird has strayed somewhat off course. It should be wintering far, far to the east, the Arabian Peninsula perhaps or North Africa, but somehow has found itself marooned here in Norfolk probing under and around the empty summer residences for spiders, flies and other slim pickings. The mild conditions will probably allow it to find sufficient food for a while, but a cold spell would likely cause its demise. I doubt it would have strength to make another sea crossing, few vagrants make it back home, but who knows? For now this displaced waif is being admired by a regular turnover of birders all of whom have a smile on their face and are happy to share tales of its confiding nature.

The bird is foraging 30 metres away and after a while moves out of sight behind the caravan towards a stand of dense bramble. I move parallel with its trajectory, take up position propped against the side of another large white box and wait for it to re-emerge. It does so and to my delight proceeds to bound toward me foraging as it approaches. I pray silently for it to hop onto the fence post in front of me, muttering to myself: come on birdy you can do this, just pose for a few seconds. And to my joy it complies. There in front of me, at the edge of close focus range sits the loveliest bird. Tones of sandy buff delineated by a broken black mask, white fringed black flight feathers and jet black tail. What are you doing here little bird? You’re a real beauty. Good luck and thank you.

The walk back to the car was but a quick stroll, buoyed as I was with my good fortune. The light is perfect, the sea scape dramatic, all is good. A momentary stop to watch an unfortunate black headed gull, beak crammed with food, being mugged by a quartet of common gulls. Round and round they wheel, the pursuing gang wailing banshee like as they attempt to wear down the less robust bird. Spiraling patterns against a pure blue winter sky. Lovely.

Saturday 4 January 2020

Happy New Year

The scene before us: bleak. Miles of seemingly lifeless, creek fractured saltmarsh stretching to the horizon under scudding banks of rain laden cloud whipped by a cruel nor’ wester. The colour and light seemed drained from the world as another fleeting squall whipped our faces: the raw force of winter on the north Norfolk coast. A few fellow birders, making a pilgrimage for the day and determined to make the most of it, were also looking for twite. None of us stood much chance with that wind; any vulnerable small bird would hunker down and peck around for seeds in the shelter afforded by skeletal drifts of sea lavender. It was not a day for flying about. A single linnet gave hope, a bouncy lady jogger temporarily lifted the spirits, but of our target bird there was no sign. Time to move on and hope for better fare elsewhere.

And where better to fare than the RSPB reserve at Titchwell. Here in the car park sheltered from the wind, still relatively quiet and empty, we connected with four lovely bullfinches. A bird that can never fail to bring a smile, especially so since it could be added to the year list. For this jaunt represented a New Year’s outing when everything from the humble blackbird to a rough-legged buzzard could be counted afresh. A new year, a new start, a new list and with it a renewed energy and appreciation of each and every bird. Down on the list goes the bullfinches and those blue tits tazzing around in the hedges, pencil in that small group of chaffinches pecking around the car park, oh and don’t forget the pheasant we saw in the field as we drove in. It’s all new and wonderful, a rebirth of sorts making even this wet and windy day such a worthwhile venture. Tot up the list over a bacon roll and it stands at 20, there’s surely plenty more to see, on we go.

Titchwell seldom fails to deliver and with clearing skies we could enjoy unexpected sights of spotted redshank and a greenshank, bonus birds for a January bird tick. Contrary wise the sea produced nothing at all for us. No sea duck, grebes or divers, just a vast melee of boiling dark green waves topped with wind blasted spume pounding onto the beach. A distant red kite, recognisable at a kilometre distant by its angular shape was heartening, a pair of perky stonechats welcome. Some you win, some you lose but by the time we had splashed our way to the shore and back the New Year list stood at a respectable 58.

Holkham next where there was nothing but winners. The decision by the estate to fence off an area of beach for the shorelarks has paid off big time. People, and there were a lot of them together with their dogs, happily seem to respect the need to provide sanctuary which allows the birds some peace and quiet. Without this on such a day as today with so many humans making the most of the waning holidays, the birds would have been constantly hounded from one area to another. They simply wouldn’t have had a moments rest to feed and stay safe; a simple measure but one that works well. And of course if you have a mind you can stand and watch these lovely visitors from Scandinavia shuffling through the sandy humps and bumps playing hide and seek with your scope. Every once in a while one would suspend its incessant pecking and poke its head up for a look around. Then it’s beautifully striped head patterning could be appreciated, momentarily impressed on your retina and from there stored in the ‘good memory’ drawer of your mental file cabinet. The fact such an instance was highlighted by the golden rays of a late afternoon sun helped a lot. Yes, the clouds had cleared and blue skies ruled, if only for the next hour or so.

A scan of the churning sea from the vantage point of the dunes allowed clear, if constantly interrupted views of a raft of common scoter. With them was a long-tailed duck and an auk species. Trying to pin down birds in these conditions can be the devil’s own job as they appear as a bobbing dot once every 10 seconds. This auk, initially a presumed guillemot, would not show its beak sufficiently well to confirm identification. After several brief glimpses it dawned that it didn’t actually have much of a beak to reveal: little auk entered the list. Elated with this find we motored the short distance to Wells to conclude our day.

In the fading light of a now clear and relatively calm winter evening we stood upon a raised bank to scan the marshes, a sprinkling of geese and waders flighting to roost against the sky canvass daubed with subtle shades of grey and pink. The hoped for rough-legged buzzard was sitting in a distant field, its creamy head marking it as a special bird. As we looked at this beauty, a short-eared owl flew towards us, coming close enough to allow a great picture....if only I had brought my camera along with me. I’d left it at home, judging the earlier horrible conditions not conducive to photography. I stifled a curse. And then a barn owl appeared and you can’t be anything but elated when that happens. We watched both owls hunting along the field edges until the chill and gathering dusk forced us to leave and head home, there to sink into an armchair and bask in the warming glow of a day well spent.

We ended the excursion with 77 species on our list. Not record breaking but most satisfying. Some good birds in that list as well. It’s been quite a while since I was lured out to spend the day up there. Why have I left it so long? I love it and want more. Something of a rekindled interest in birding may be afoot and there is more to it than just getting a New Year list. I have a feeling the next year or so could be extremely interesting both for me and I very much hope for you too. I’ll explain more once I’ve settled in my mind exactly what I plan to do, but rest assured you’re more than welcome to come along for the ride. Watch this space!

Thursday 7 November 2019

An Inspiration of Waders

I have a love/hate relationship with the Fens. On the one hand I have fond memories of spending several holidays on the edge of those flat plains with a good friend in the dim and distant past. We stayed with her grandmother in a small bungalow in a small village where half a mile to the west we could sit and watch scores of house martins at their nests on a bridge spanning the Little Ouse. We could listen to hosts of reed and sedge warblers chunter their rhythmic song from the thick growth of reed lining the channel and were seldom out of earshot of the soporific purring of turtle doves. The sun baked fields of deep, dark peat stretched to the horizon, unbroken by woods or the slightest deviation in altitude. I was 19, it was a long hot summer and all was good with the world. We could then walk a mile eastwards towards the Breck edge and enjoy heath and woodland covering the gently rising land where spotted flycatchers, yellow wagtails and tree sparrow were common fare.

On the other hand, I have memories of bleakness. Decades later. Mile after dreary mile of grey, murky flat regularly assaulted me as my train rattled and toiled endlessly through the featureless gloom en route to some pathetically meaningless meeting that nobody knew much about and cared for even less. And as for that bloody A17......

But of course that’s not really what the Fens should be, not quite what they’re all about. Drainage and subsequent farming has rendered them the godforsaken wilderness we see today. Thankfully there are one or two oasis that show us something of the wetland richness that could once, and maybe in future times will again, be enjoyed. One such is the WWT reserve at Welney, a truly inspiring place if ever there was one. I visited today with a mate of mine, great company, knowledgeable and a wader fanatic. We were approaching the reserve, chatting away about the usual stuff, music, birds, movies, when an explosion of silver and gold from the field to our right accompanied by various exclamations of delight from my chum forced me to bring the car to a halt. We were momentarily mesmerised by the sight of over 1000 golden plover and 100s of lapwing sprinkling the still winter air with their frantic paper chase. They flighted over the car, decorating the brooding clouds with sparkling waves as they twisted and turned to confuse and elude some predator, unseen by us, before gracefully dropping once more to the blackness of peat where their spangled gold was consumed. A rather encouraging start to our day.

Once we’d imbibed a warming cup of coffee from the very comfortable Visitor Centre we spent a couple of hours sitting in the hides watching the antics of a throng of wetland birds roosting, feeding, courting, bathing, preening, jousting and hunting. The small islands of raised ground were covered in ranks of black tailed godwits, now stripped of their summer finery, presumably roosting between the tides. Another wader fest for my Waderquest mate (have a look at their website - it's excellent). A few redshank, dunlin and the odd snipe added variety. Most of these birds were simply loafing around having a nap leaving the energetic wildfowl to provide the entertainment. Mallard were courting, swimming in groups, the drakes head bobbing in an attempt to impress the girls. Skirmishes were frequent, creating a frenzy of churning water as the brightly bedecked fellas tussled for dominance. Pochard, mainly drakes but with the odd duck in tow, were busy diving into the shallows to find some overlooked morsel whilst numbers of their brethren dozed on the grassy bank. Cantankerous little buggers and I couldn’t help grinning as one grabbed hold and vigorously shook the tail feathers of a whooper swan that blocked its path to the snooze zone.

The swans provided grace and serenity, slowly floating around in family groups, occasionally upending to browse the submerged grasses. Another smile as a pair of mute swans reinforced their pair bond by facing one another and slowly, very gently, mirroring each other’s head movements. Aptly their necks formed an almost perfect heart shape whilst they carried out this expression of love. Of course they feel emotion, maybe not as keen as ours, but why else would they be moved to such tenderness if not for the warm feeling it engendered? Quite humbling to witness.

Back at the cafe for lunch just in time to see a pair of short eared owls, disturbed by low flying buzzards, spiral high together before heading south to a less molested roosting spot. The day proved to be somewhat notable for birds of prey for not only did we espy the aforementioned species, but also saw marsh Harrier, kestrels aplenty, a couple of sparrowhawks as well as a fly over goshawk as we skirted Thetford. The marsh harriers we’re trying their luck with the massed waterfowl, stooping low over the shallows in an attempt to surprise some unwary individual, but these birds seem too slow and cumbersome to have much success. Certainly today the ducks and godwits scattered long before any harrier got close enough to strike providing another wader spectacular as tight flocks of birds wheeled over the flood. My mate was in wader heaven, and you know what, I think I was there with him.

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Running Up That Hill

Contrary to popular opinion, this Norfolk of ours isn’t flat. Honestly it’s not. Even in the seemingly low lying areas of the eastern floodplains there are high spots. From one such it is possible to enjoy sweeping panoramic views of the Yare valley, encompassing the RSPB reserves at Strumpshaw Fen and Buckenham Marshes. Here you can admire the patchwork landscape of farmland, woodland, grazing marsh and fen sloping away towards the distant river Yare sparkling in the sunshine. On this particular day, and in spite of our hard breathing and racing hearts, the expansive scene before us did not fail to delight and inspire. There are six of us catching our breath on the crest of the valley, our exhalations pluming as they condensed in the crisp morning air. We’ve been running. I should explain.

This world of ours can be stressful. We live in a terribly overcrowded island where peace, quiet and solitude can be hard to find. Modern living detaches us from the outside, separates us from our environment and alienates us from all things wild. We spent so much time slaving over our smart phones, zipping around in our motorised tin cans, working in air conditioned offices and thereafter collapsing to slouch in front of our 4K TVs that we have become disconnected. Does that sound familiar? Well you’ll be pleased to know there is a remedy for this 21st century malaise and it’s just outside your door: Nature.

It is widely considered nowadays that exposure to the natural world; finding space, switching focus, can be immensely beneficial to personal health and wellbeing. To feel the raw wind in your hair, the welcome rays of spring sunshine warming your face or the chilling bite of winter frosts connects you with the environment; the environment  to which we belong and in which we all must dwell. Nature helps you forget the everyday stresses and strains and transports you to another place; a place of charm and wonder. It has the effect of opening your senses and allowing them to be flooded with calming sensation. Recognising this power, the RSPB is championing initiatives in and around its nature reserves to enable people to reconnect: walking, sketching, birdwatching, themed family activities, and....... running. I volunteer at Strumpshaw Fen where I happened upon a poster advertising a program of eight Saturday morning runs aptly entitled Run With Nature. Now I’m no stranger to exercise but have never entertained the discipline of regular structured running, and have certainly never run with other people: if I collapse panting in a disjointed, exhausted heap I only want me there to bear witness. But the idea of getting out and running through such a beautiful, wildlife rich part of my beloved Norfolk greatly appealed. I applied there and then before I could conjure up reasons to pass the opportunity by.

9.00am on a Saturday morning in mid-September saw me and half a dozen other eager folk gathered outside the reserve Reception. No doubt we were all appraising one another, wondering how fit each of our companions were and how our individual frailties would be cruelty exposed. Was I in the midst of seasoned marathon runners, finely honed athletes, sprinters of renown? Would I be left helplessly floundering in their wake? Not a bit of it. It soon became clear that we were all of like mind and ability, we all simply wanted to get out of the house, away from the toils and troubles of everyday life to breath lungful of unpolluted Broadland air and clear our minds. Introductions made, warm up exercises struggled with and we were on our way. For this first session our lovely instructor Anna was gentle with us, a short jog, a bit of walking, more jogging, walk, jog. In this alternating manner we made our way along the quieter paths of the reserve towards Buckenham. It wasn’t really about the exercise for we were surrounded by nature; dragonflies were still on the wing and danced through the air as we disturbed them temporarily from their perches, buzzards mewed overhead, a marsh Harrier glided by whilst the sights, smells and sounds of late summer surrounded us. Before we knew it we were back outside Reception having traversed 5 kilometres. The sense of achievement resonated through the group. Yes we were huffing and puffing a bit, sure we were a bit red in the face, but we felt good.

Each subsequent Saturday morning we were encouraged to take note of the subtle atmospheric shift, take stock of what was new and look for certain indicators of the changing season as we made our way around the footpaths and byways surrounding the reserve. Twice we saw otters cavorting in the Broad, we noticed flocks of newly arrived redwings, often encountered Chinese water deer browsing dyke side vegetation; we began to feel part of the scene. Even splashing through puddles and sidestepping muddy patches connected us with the elements. The temperature dropped, the leaves fell accordingly aided by autumnal winds that whipped scudding clouds across the wide open sky. We didn’t mind, it was all part of the plan. And imperceptibly we began to improve. We dispensed with the walking, we incorporated a few short sprints, we ran non-stop. In short we all pleasantly surprised ourselves with our abilities, made so under the watchful eye of our instructor who gently instilled in us correct posture, optimum technique and made us appreciate what we were doing and why.

We return to that crest of the Yare valley some two months on, taking stock after a long uphill run that everyone completed together without hitch. Together: I think that’s the key. We did this together. We all got along well, swapped a little bit of life history, enjoyed the post run wind down and coffee. We enjoyed it so much we don’t want it to end. And it won’t end because we are going to continue meeting Saturday mornings to undertake park runs or just perhaps have a fun run around Strumpshaw. And isn’t that what this was really all about? Discovering things about yourself and other people through the healing powers of nature? We’ve all enjoyed it so much. The RSPB should be congratulated on putting these initiatives in place, opening up their reserves and allowing people to absorb something of their beauty and bounty. I’m glad I saw that poster and even more pleased I made the effort to haul myself out of bed on a Saturday morning to join the team. If you get an opportunity to participate in something similar I would encourage you to do so. Don’t hesitate. It could change your life.

Sunday 14 April 2019

Viva Grebes

Although the Broad is effectively dead; devoid of any submerged aquatic vegetation, without invertebrates and their attendant fish, untroubled by mass hatching of dragonflies and minus any floating, flowering plants such as lilies, it does have a surprising number of great crested grebes. There is something like a dozen pairs of these streamlined, dagger-billed water birds scattered around the fringes of the clouded waters each setting up territory, there hoping to raise this year’s brood. They feast on the bream, perch and silverfish fry that teem in the shallows, bottom feeders not dependent on clear water for their livelihood. In the early morning of an April day, a scan across the gently rippling water will show a scattering of courting pairs, head shaking, down preening, deep orange frills spread; with head tufts raised, red eyes staring intently at their mate they will perform their graceful mating dance. Invigorating, mesmerising and beautiful.

Anchorage points for their flimsy nests are few and far between so competition is keen for any prime spot, one such area being close to the Visitor Centre thus allowing a chance to observe their behaviour up close. Three pairs are busy sorting out housing rights here, one seems to be quite settled but the other two pairs are playing a game of cat and mouse to determine dominance over a particular patch of partly submerged tree stumps and drooping branches of sinking sallow. One of these pairs did have a nest partly built and tucked away behind the Centre, but this was flooded out shortly after completion; they have set eyes on a more stable nest site. The pair in residence are none too happy with this intrusion. During the course of my shift last week I watched the displaced pair try on numerous occasions to usurp the other. They would wait until the coast was clear and then swim quietly to the favoured nest site, loafing around waiting to see whether they would get away with the trespass. Sometimes they had the place to themselves for a few minutes, but mostly were met with lowered posturing, loud growling and a head on assault. They always escaped by either skittering away ungainly across the water or diving back to a safe distance across, what is to us, an invisible territorial boundary, there to loiter until they judged it safe to try again. 

Whenever the victors saw off their rivals, they would approach one another and with keen grunts of excitement treat us to their fabled display; once rearing out of the water to perform what should be the incredible weed dance, only here there is no weed so a beak full of detritus has to suffice. Wonderful to observe never the less; what better way could nature devise to reinforce the pair bond?

These birds will sort themselves out before too long. It seems the dominant pair of this trio may well be the pair that had many misfortunes last year (see 30 Days Wild - Daylight Robbery ). They appear to have learned from their mistakes and are attempting to build their nest in the V of a tree stump, several inches above the normal water level. If they manage this without the ever attendant gulls and predatory otter spoiling the party they have a good chance of a successful hatching. We will see.

There are exciting, ambitious plans for the future of Ranworth Broad. If the plans work, everything I spoke of in my opening paragraph will be reversed to make this a true wildlife haven with a thriving diversity of life. The grebes and all other hard pressed residents, including us interested humans, are in for a treat.

Sunday 31 March 2019

Net Profit

Not so very long ago I listened to the buoyant, uplifting sound of skylarks singing for all their worth above a field of rough grass on the outskirts of Norwich not far from where I live. It lifted my spirits and made me feel happy. The field is no more and the space it occupied covered in concrete and housing a supermarket. The skylarks have gone. Further back in time I used to ramble around an acre or two of rough ground in another part of the city. Here there were birds aplenty, butterflies, small mammals, invertebrates of all kinds taking advantage of the thick tangles of hawthorn and bramble. It’s now a Sainsbury’s supermarket. All the birds, mammals and other wildlife has gone. Between these two sites there still exists a large area of woodland; mixed species of trees, well developed understory, open areas, pools, sunny rides where thousands of species of all kinds of creature and plant thrive. Despite having the designation of a County Wildlife Site it is earmarked for ‘development’ and will soon be bulldozed and covered in concrete, part of which will no doubt be another useless supermarket (haven’t we got enough of the bloody things already?) with its associated exhaust spewing queuing cars. There will be no space for anything wild anymore. Lost forever, and forever is a long, long time.

The need for housing and all the infrastructure people need is a reality. Wherever any of us live was historically once open land. But don’t you think things are ever so slightly out of control? Am I alone in thinking we really have lost the plot and any sense of perspective? Is it really necessary to have an open season on every patch of green space in every village, town and city across our land? Why have we become so disconnected? Does anyone actually care? Well I do and happily it’s been brought home to me recently that an awful lot of other people are beginning to think enough is enough.

Let’s go back to those endearing supermarkets. Bear with me; it’s relevant to our tale. They all extol their virtues as being ethically responsible and environmentally conscious, advertising shamelessly their ‘green’ credentials to entice us to part with our hard earned cash. We all understand it’s nonsense, we play the game because we all need to eat. However, a Tesco store on the outskirts of Norwich overstepped the mark. It decided that wildlife no longer mattered. It determined wildlife got in their way. It judged wildlife to be an inconvenience. It netted an area where swallows nest, citing hygiene as the reason why these small birds were no longer welcome on their premises. The health and safety issue being that the birds had set up home under the eaves of a trolly park and inevitably a few of the trollies received the occasional dollop of poop. And here we enter the minds of 21st century big business in the U.K. Instead of sitting down and thinking of ways in which the birds could be accommodated whilst eliminating the potential for mess (a few pounds, a few screws, placing plywood boards below the nests would do the trick), this worthy corporate giant decided to employ the services of ‘experts’ who considered the best solution would be to jet wash the offending nests off the walls and net the whole area, effectively forcing the birds to seek homes elsewhere. Problem solved....or so they thought. As is generally the case, big business failed to appreciate that ordinary people, caring people like you and I, think differently. We care about the world we live in and see the value of things rather than simple cost. After all how can you measure the value of having beautiful birds, harbingers of our beloved spring, choosing to nest and raise their young on your very doorstep? Birds that have travelled 5,000 miles just to grace you with their very being. Birds that have flown across the entire Sahara, endured near starvation, been on the cusp of dying of thirst, avoided natural predation and the guns of Mediterranean man, endured wind, rain, dust and cold. Birds we all love to see swooping across meadows and twittering on our telegraph wires, weighing about the same as an AA battery. How can we even think they have no value? Well they do have value and the actions of this company incensed so many people that a massive social media campaign has highlighted this abhorrent practice to a worldwide audience. That in itself didn’t seem to have much effect; the threats of a boycott of Tesco stores did the trick. Hit them where it hurts – in the pocket. The store was forced to back down. They have removed the nets ‘temporarily’ whilst a more permanent solution is found. News for you Tesco, I’ve given you a sensible solution - see above. I’ll even pay for the materials if you’re really that hard up thus ensuring those precious trollies of yours remain spotless.

At the NWT Reserve at Ranworth Broad, Swallows are a Major Attraction

Of course a more enlightened company may have thought out of the box and considered that these lovely migrant birds may actually be something they could exploit from a PR perspective, better still could even be a source of revenue. How about putting a web cam up by the nests, beaming the image to screens in their cafe, allowing customers to delight in how green and caring they really are? Those enraptured folk may stay for another cup of coffee, or tell their friends. And here’s a thought, they may even be tempted to buy some bird feed or a nest box making the whole thing pay for itself many times over. Supermarkets are responsible for some outrageous unethical practices: How much useless plastic wrapping? How much unsold food just dumped? How many small local businesses forced to close? How much green land taken up with their stores and car parks? Not an exhaustive list. It’s about time they began to give something back. In this case the real solution was so simple, if only they could have been bothered to care.

Tuesday 19 March 2019

Whoop! Whoop!

The Fens: at turn bleak and barren, flat and windswept, open and liberating; perhaps a landscape difficult to love but then it is just a shadow of its former self. Where once was a vast area of wet marsh, reed bed, bog and fen, interspersed with shallow lakes and channels pulsating with life, now is a seemingly featureless expanse of dark peaty soil, farmed and sterile. Surely the drainage of this immense floodplain was the single biggest environmental catastrophe ever to befall these isles of ours? Any thoughts of treating such an ecologically rich area with similar contempt nowadays would court international condemnation and be stopped in its tracks. Hopefully. But it happened and we are left with just a few pockets of traditional Fenland; oases in a sea of ploughed fields that stretch to the horizon and beyond. Just think what it must once have been like; just think what’s been lost.

But things are slowly changing for the better, giving optimism for a brighter future. Little fragments of land are being acquired by people that care and have a vision. That vision is to recreate as much of the old Fenland as possible, stitching it together to once again provide wildlife with a chance to prosper whilst giving people a chance to appreciate what a landscape scale wetland should be. Visiting one such area, the WWT reserve at Welney, over the weekend brought home to me just how important these areas are. The vibrant green recreated meadowlands of Lady Fen that are visible from the Visitor Centre were simply teeming with life. Everywhere you looked there were ducks and geese and waders and crows, flocks of starlings, gulls and marauding raptors. Broad winged lapwings careering about the sky on their courtship dances, freshly moulted brick red godwits feasting before the final leg of their journey north, or maybe thy will stay and breed here, coots chasing one another in territorial spats; things dabbling, diving, quarrelling, courting or feeding. Beyond the sharply delineated reserve boundary: nothing. A few pheasants and rooks and that was your lot. Stark visual proof of how well managed the reserve is, how informed restoration can bring about amazing change and how important it has become now all around is hostile.

The birding experience begins in the car park. I mentioned in a recent post how in such landscapes an isolated line of bushes takes on new meaning, so it is here. The car park hedgerow provides a focal point for many small passerines that relish the cover. Most delightful were the tree sparrows chirping for all their worth and collecting twigs for their nests. Such a rare sight in the wider countryside nowadays so a special bird but one very reluctant to pose for a photograph. House sparrows flaunted themselves shamelessly, tree sparrows kept to deep cover. One popped up for a moment. Click click! Then it was gone.

With menacing clouds of various shades of wet scudding swiftly overhead chased by a relentless sharp nor wester, the various hides formed most welcome shelter. From the comfort of the main observatory thousands of waterfowl could be seen, amongst them a small group of ‘Tundra’ bean geese hunkering down against the wind that howled unabated across the Wash. Further along a drake scaup entertained the few hardy souls that had trudged thither. It came quite close at one point when engaged in a spot of preening, allowing a rare appreciation of its finery. A handsome bird albeit in two-tone, except for the bright golden eye that occasionally shone jewel like when a parting of the clouds allowed bright spring sunshine to flood the scene.

But the star attractions were the whooper swans still present in good numbers grouped together on nearly fields. Seeing them fly in white relief across the deep blue-grey of wide threatening skies, bugling their evocative calls, was a true delight. Later, a convenient pull in allowed quite close observation of these impressive and graceful birds, that is until some local on an off road motor bike decided to race up and down the fields in which they were feeding and resting, sending them skywards towards the sanctuary of the flood. One human, 200 birds displaced. Another reminder of how important unmolested reserves are for our wild creatures.