As I scan across Weeting Heath with my telescope I make a mental note of each creature that comes into view; ‘rabbit, rabbit, rabbit, lapwing, rabbit, rabbit’ goes the count. There are so many rabbits and then, just occasionally, something else, something more interesting comes into focus. Of course, if it weren’t for the rabbits then the stone curlews wouldn’t do so well here. The rabbits keep the turf cropped short, ideal for the stone curlews and for some of the heath’s other inhabitants. Finally, after scanning over countless rabbits, my gaze settles on the pale, more erect shape of a stone curlew.
It is the stone curlews that I have come to see this evening. It is mid-way through their breeding season and there are tiny chicks sheltering alongside their parents, often tucked under a slightly opened wing. They are wonderful to watch, so small but so full of character. I have always thought stone curlews to be thoughtful birds, considered in their movements and ever alert to danger in this exposed landscape. When accompanied by chicks they redouble their watchfulness but, at the same time, they sometimes slip into the resigned posture that human parents show when their own offspring become boisterous or do something inordinately stupid. Tonight, one particular chick seems intent on irritating its parent by wandering away to peck at seemingly inanimate and inedible objects. The parent remains quietly watchful and then suddenly rises to display at a rabbit that has inadvertently strayed too close. Standing tall on its legs, it opens its wings wide to deliver the most intimidating threat display that it can muster.
The nearby lapwings are also harassing the local rabbits, diving at them with screeching calls if they venture near the lapwing’s well-hidden chicks. Both these birds have reason to be concerned. A group of a dozen or so rooks are sat not far off, their angular hunched forms a potential threat to a young and defenceless chick. There are other threats, and not just to the birds; the alarm squeak of a rabbit brings a swift response, with several dozen pairs of eyes and ears now alert to the buzzard crossing the back of the heath, seemingly not hunting but en route elsewhere. It is a reassuring scene; a piece of Norfolk heath packed with new life (the rabbits have young of their own) and these different creatures going about their business. In many ways it seems quite serene, almost calming, but just below the surface lies the menace of nature red in tooth and claw. It will be several more watchful weeks for the various parents before their offspring set off to make their own way in the world.