A Week in May

Back from New York to a freezing cold house, believable tales of snow and frost, huddling around the fire all day trying to keep warm and not succumb to jet lag. It could surely only get better. And thankfully it did. A lot better.

Sunday 1st May. The swifts have returned dead on time.

One of our newly arrived swifts. Low numbers at present but they will build.
Tuesday 3rd May. A visit to RSPB Titchwell Marsh is always a delight and today whilst scanning through a patch of cut reed just east of the track I locked on to a cracking black-headed wagtail – a yellow wagtail of the eastern race feldegg.  I’d heard about this bird being seen the day before, but obviously nobody had so far seen it today. I alerted those around me to the bird, a real stunner, and as far as I can tell the news went ape. Nice to find something a little unusual. We watched this perky little chap for a few minutes until the frantic hordes began to wet themselves and then moved on.

Other highlights here were a flighty female ring ouzel, a gorgeous drake garganey and a rather confiding songthrush that fearlessly hopped around our table whilst we were partaking of the customary hot chocolate and gooey cake. Personally the songthrush stole it for me.

We left Titchwell to its avocets and slowly motored along the lanes around Choseley where we had another close encounter, this time with a lovely pair of courting brown hares. By keeping quiet and still we were able to observe these animals at close quarters as they gambolled across the roughly ploughed field. It was remarkable how effectively they blended into the landscape when hunkered down. Then the body and ears would be pulled flat, leaving only the alert big brown eyes above ground enabling 360° vision. No predator could get close.

We passed on joining the group of birders straining for distant views of dotterel – most beautiful birds but extremely distant - and instead parked the car by a large puddle further along the narrow track. Here, a pair of oystercatchers had set up home and one bird was busy bathing in the peaceful solitude of the reddening sun. A tranquil scene; sharing the intimacy of familiar birds going about their daily business.

In the fading light and blissful quiet of a glorious spring evening, we had great views of a slinky female wheatear and a meadow pipit on fence wires at Salthouse, before watching the silhouetted forms of little egret and avocet on a shallow pool. Happy with the day we made our way home.

Wednesday 4th May - Strumpshaw Fen. Time to check up on all those long-tailed tit nests I watched being built a few weeks ago. Happily nearly all have been successful with industrious parents visiting at regular intervals, beaks crammed full of tasty, protein-rich morsels for their bundle of young. Only one of the nests appeared abandoned and this in a quite exposed position above the river path. There will soon be an explosion of young long-tails in the woodland and isn’t that just fine.

Whilst ambling around the reserve I bumped into the warden and had an interesting chat about how critical it was to engage young people in the appreciation of wild spaces and wild things (there was a boisterous school group being shepherded around). We also spoke laughingly about the frantic antics of birders that congregated to catch sight of the recent penduline tit. I recounted the tale of one chap that had motored up from Reading to photograph this local rarity and then confessed he had seen his first marsh harrier as well. The response was better:  a group of green clad troopers had gathered on the river bank and were busy lamenting the fact they could not find the bird. A passing member of staff stopped to point out it was calling in the tree just above them. Priceless. But it does go to show how shallow the knowledge of many so called ‘birders’ actually is. I’m no expert – far from it - but honestly! put in some time and do an apprenticeship for Christ’s sake.

Anyway, the saddest news was that my friend, subject of one of my earlier posts, is leaving the RSPB to become a twiglet or some such thing at Bewilderwood. A real  loss I feel.  I had watched her earlier addressing the school group and she was simply superb, enthusing the kids with light hearted delivery of heavy duty messages. There is so much to learn and see here and for some kids it is probably their first experience of real wildlife. A shame, although it does make me realise how fortunate I was when young to have the run of the county on blissfully empty roads and bird infested byways without the distractions of a virtual existence getting in the way. There is a missing link that needs urgent bridging.

On a more positive note no less than four cuckoos had been seen earlier that day, I saw two myself, and that really is cause for celebration. Other notables were emergent large red damselflies, a super abundance of singing blackcaps and a saturation of stunning marsh harriers. Strumpshaw really is such a fascinating place.

Friday 6th May. There are few better places to spend a sunny May morning than at NWT Ranworth Broad. A week ago the skies were grey, the water turbulent and the air chill with the tendrils of winter still holding sway. Today it was fresh and bright, the water reflectively calm and the endless possibilities of summer hanging in the air.

At this season the difference a mere seven days makes can be quite profound. Whereas on the penultimate day of April only a few common terns were hawking over the broad now they are everywhere; chasing each other in courtship, vying with the black headed gulls for nest sites, squabbling over favoured perches and generally gracing the scene with their buoyant passage through air. A week ago the television screens in the visitor centre were trained on empty, forlorn and deserted swallow’s nests; today these so welcome harbingers of summer were fastidiously attending to their fragile cups of dried mud, tossing aside the accumulated detritus of winter ready to rebuild, reline and reproduce. On my last volunteering visit it was hard to believe any bird of the open fen could possibly incubate a clutch to hatching, but today the dedication and resilience of these hardy creatures was evident with broods of mallard, coot and moorhen being attended to by proud and protective parents. A lively scene then and surely one to celebrate.

But there was more to Ranworth today than just the regular resident and seasonal cast. Today was a special day, a day when some rather beautiful and irregular visitors stopped to say hello. The weather is to thank; low pressure bubbling up from the Continent sending spiralling anticlockwise airflows into the English Channel. Birds trying to migrate into the North Sea with the intention of reaching the Low Countries are met with strong breezes which sweep them along our south coast and displace them on our western shores. Black terns, gorgeous, dainty and lost. With the breeding imperative upon them they waste little time reorienting and head swiftly eastwards directly across country. It is at these times, occurring every few years, that we get a chance to see these lovely creatures refuelling over our waterways. The window is slight, perhaps only a day or two, and today was such a day.

Sensing some chance of an encounter, my first action on arriving at the visitor centre was to scan the open water hoping to see smaller, darker birds amongst the milling common terns. And sure enough there they were, three at least, hawking insects from the water surface at the back of the broad. Hoping to get better views, I hitched a lift on ‘Damselfly’ the craft we use for ferrying people to and from the staithe and for running our very popular Water Trail trips. Once aboard this spacious boat, the true tranquillity of the environment can be appreciated. On a day such as this one it was a pleasure to float close to dancing grebes, drift past unconcerned waterfowl and just take in the soporific atmosphere of this wonderful broadland retreat.

We saw herons diving into the broad for fish, witnessed a kingfisher skimming the dead calm surface a couple of metres from where we sat, watched marsh harriers and buzzards lazily drifting on the warm air and spooked a party of loafing cormorants from their roost site. But we could not get close to the black terns; at least not close enough for me. They were there, tantalisingly present, but too full of life and too far away for satisfying views. Wherever the boat drifted, they would appear on the opposite side of the broad. There we could see them dancing together over the skyline before plunging towards the watery expanse to pick some tiny morsel from the surface. Time and again all morning they would perform in this way, but never close to.  Does it matter that I couldn’t get a close up photograph? Not one jot. What really matters is that they were there, these monochrome sprites that for a few hours on a sunny May morning brightened the lives of all who saw them.