Saturday, 14 November 2009

A sense of scale

There are parts of the Norfolk landscape that feel remote and isolated from the workings of Man, stretches of coast where a bleak solitude can be found amid the dull tones of saltmarsh and the grand winter skyscapes. It is at this time of the year that these stretches of coast offer up their charm, the last of the holidaymakers now tucked up at home and only the hardiest of souls tempted out on a day when the bitter winds drive in off the sea. It is a good time to be out and about, to take stock of the summer’s achievements and to reflect on seasons past.

Here, in Norfolk, it is the limitless horizon of the North Sea that delivers the special sense of place that I get from certain landscapes. By stretching away to meet the sky, it removes the sense of scale that seems ever-present elsewhere within the county. This landscape ‘on the edge’ moves me in the same way that I am moved by the great granite hills of northern Britain, the bleak moors of the west and the ancient chalk escarpments of the southern downlands. These are old landscapes and to be within them, part of them, reaffirms my place in the land.

The coastal saltmarshes, which echo to the haunting calls of Redshank and Curlew, are a fragile habitat, sensitive to changing sea levels internationally and increasingly squeezed in between the sea and prized arable land. Within Norfolk, however, the expanse of saltmarsh, which starts in the west at Thornham and stretches east as far as Cley, is largely protected from the direct impact of the sea by extensive shingle ridges and sand dunes. In recent years the defensive sea wall has been allowed to breach in places, part of a process of managed retreat.

The power of the sea is something that remains very difficult to deflect. Over the centuries the coastal fringe of Norfolk has been subjected to inundation, with periodic storm surges (or ‘rages’ as the Victorians called them) dumping huge quantities on sea-water onto fresh and grazing marshes, changing the shape of the coast and impacting upon the lives of those who make their living there. It is a reminder that we do not exert complete control over the world around us, that there are natural processes that will shape the way in which we live.

Being here, at this boundary between land and sea, shedding the sense of scale, underlines the fact that we are part of a wider world. It removes us from the comfort of our day-to-day lives, something that it is difficult to do in our increasingly busy world.

Friday, 13 November 2009

The great arrival

At first it seemed as if it was a thin strip of cloud, a blot on an otherwise clear horizon. Far out above the sea, but still visible to the naked eye, this grey smudge was stretched, elongated along the horizon like a fuzzy line left by a soft-leaded pencil. Over the course of next forty minutes the shape changed, its strength of colour dissipating as it drew nearer towards me. Through my binoculars I could now see individual outlines within the great mass, a great skein of geese nearing the end of their autumn migration and their arrival on our coastal grazing marshes.

The flock was no longer heading straight towards me but would make landfall to my west, a mile or so along the coast. I was too far from the car to be able to make it to where these geese would cross the coast, perhaps then heading inland to one of the many fields they would use over the winter months that lay ahead. The flock itself was composed of a number of separate skeins, each containing several dozen birds. These were pink-feet, visitors from breeding grounds in the wilds of Iceland and eastern Greenland.

It is a tremendous journey that these birds undertake and it is humbling to think that so many arrive to winter here in eastern England. The importance of the Wash and the North Norfolk coast is underlined by survey figures published by the British Trust for Ornithology. These show that some 60% of the UK’s wintering population of Pink-footed Geese spend the winter along this bit of coast. Other concentrations can be found wintering in Scotland and Lancashire.

While I have missed the landfall of these particular birds, there will be other mornings on the coast when the geese will be seen. Later into the winter these will be birds not arriving, but moving between overnight roost sites and feeding areas inland. Then there will be the spectacle of a field of geese, hundreds strong, feeding on beet tops and waste potatoes. These grand flocks of pink-feet sometimes hold other geese, scarce visitors like Tundra Bean Goose, Greenland White-fronted Goose or Snow Goose. These days it is becoming increasingly difficult to know whether some of these birds (notably the Snow Geese) are genuine vagrants or part of an expanding feral population. Even if individuals are seen to arrive with the pink-foots, they may have joined them on some Scottish staging area.

There are some wildlife spectacles that are both a ‘must see’ and accessible. The sight of a large flock of pink-feet is certainly one of these. Make a trip to the coast one weekend soon and experience it for yourself.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Ring-tails much in evidence

It has been one of those little runs, where each birdwatching trip has turned up a species that I do not often see. Over the last three weeks it has been the Hen Harrier, with one or more individuals seen on each occasion that I have been out on the coast. First it was Blakeney Point, with two birds working the dunes beyond halfway house. Then it was Titchwell, again two birds but this time hunting the marshes out towards Thornham and, most recently, it has been Cley, with a single bird working the sea wall for Meadow Pipits and, quite possibly, Snow Buntings.

For me, the Hen Harrier is a bird of winter afternoons, watched coming in to roost at Stubb Mill or Warham Greens. To see them so well this much earlier in the year is a welcome bonus, a little run of good fortune.

The Hen Harrier last bred in the county in 1861 (at Horsey) and is now a passage migrant and winter visitor. Its changing fortunes mirror those over the country as a whole, a species that was once widespread but taken to the brink of extinction in Britain because of intense persecution. Breeding Hen Harriers take grouse chicks, along with Meadow Pipits, Skylarks, voles, Rabbits and young waders, and have therefore been shot, trapped and poisoned by generations of gamekeepers. As has been the case with other persecuted species, the population recovered somewhat in the 1940s but even now, with legal protection in place, it remains heavily persecuted. Its loss from its few English moorland breeding grounds for a second time remains a real possibility. Even on its wintering grounds the Hen Harrier is not safe from persecution; two were shot coming in to a roost in northwest Norfolk in the 2007/08 winter.

Those individuals that winter in Norfolk come from breeding populations in Wales and Scotland, joined by smaller numbers of birds from the Continent. Arrivals begin in September, peaking in October with further influxes later into the winter if weather conditions on the near Continent push birds further west. Perhaps a dozen or so favoured roost sites are used, the birds roosting communally on the ground in reeds or other vegetation. Research has shown that most roosts contain between two and 10 birds, often with other birds of prey present (such as Marsh Harrier and Merlin) but some can hold up to two dozen birds. As well as roosts along the North Norfolk coast, others can be found in the Brecks, the Fens and the Broads. Many birdwatchers visit the better-known roosts towards the end of a day’s birdwatching but seeing these magnificent birds on a crisp late autumn day is infinitely better.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

A flurry of Snow Buntings

The other morning I was treated to an enthralling display by a small flock of Snow Buntings. The birds, flashing a blizzard of white wing and tail markings, rolled as one as they twisted and turned above one of the lagoons at the RSPB’s Titchwell reserve. At first I was not sure what they were up to, the flock sweeping low to the water almost as if the buntings wanted to land. These are small birds (only slightly bigger than a House Sparrow) and, with no wading birds close by with which to judge the depth of water, I could not imagine that this is what they were attempting to do. Perhaps the buntings themselves were unsure, this would explain the hesitant passes low to the water, but then, suddenly, three birds broke from the flock and landed, the others sweeping back around to join them. The buntings had revealed the water to be far shallower than it appeared from my position on the bank and I had to smile at the way in which these delightful birds had broken that particular optical illusion.

These Snow Buntings were not the first of the winter and I had encountered other groups over previous days, notably at Cley and on Blakeney Point. Here the birds were in more characteristic habitat (for the winter), foraging on the ground amongst the sparse vegetation of the sea wall. This winter preference for our coastal fringes contrasts with the high montane breeding grounds, located high in the Scottish Highlands or further afield in Iceland and Greenland. The Scottish breeding population is small, but thought to be self-sustaining, and is thinly scattered over a wide area. Here the birds nest among boulders, located close to long-lasting summer snow fields.

Snow Buntings are to some extent nomadic and the numbers wintering around the Norfolk coast can vary substantially from one year to the next. Ringing studies have revealed an exchange of birds with the Low Countries and there is even a record of one reaching northern Italy.

One of the most engaging things about a feeding flock is the way that they maintain a steady, almost conversational, trill as they feed. They are also fairly tolerant of a human observer. When viewed as a single entity, the flock seems to roll across the ground, as individuals dash to the front to search new ground for seed. Another feature of these flocks is the way they just disappear into the background, their patterned plumage providing effective camouflage on the shingle. You can watch a flock fly in, dropping down onto the shingle not 30 feet from you, and then you struggle to pick them out. Once you have found them, however, they are magical.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Renewing an acquaintance

It was mild night, the almost complete blanket of cloud helping to retain some of the unseasonable daytime warmth; warmth that would dissipate rapidly into a clear autumnal sky. The cloud had plunged the wood into darkness, thickening the shadows and hampering our attempts to erect fine nets without resorting to the light of our headtorches.

We were here to catch a Tawny Owl or two, luring them into our nets with taped territorial calls. Choosing a likely spot within the narrow finger of woodland, we set two nets in a dogleg, placing the tape machine in the angle where the two met. Once the tape was running, broadcasting the territorial hoot of a male Tawny Owl, we retreated further into the darkness to listen and wait. The distant drone of cars carried across the lakes, disturbing what would otherwise have been a perfectly still night. Even so, the wood was alive with sounds: delicate rustlings among the leaf litter that could only be mice or shrews, stirrings from the wildfowl at roost and a distant series of whistle-like notes that may have been one of the local Otters. What there was not, however, was any sign of an owl; we would need to reposition our net.

A little later into the evening, and with the cloud starting to break up, we found ourselves in another piece of woodland, nets in place and tape running. Here, larger animals were abroad: Badgers pushing through the stands of now dying Bracken, murmurings of Jackdaws, roosting nearby and a few soft calls that could (just) have been an owl. The tape had seemed too quiet all night, frequently stopping unannounced, and we’d discussed the need for better equipment before we next ventured out ­– this had been something of a test run in any case. After half an hour without response we decided to call it a night.

It came as something of a surprise, then, to find a Tawny Owl sitting in the bottom shelf of the net. She was beautiful and quite calm as we lifted her clear. The owl already sported a metal ring, complete with a unique number that identified her as an old friend ­– the female from a local territory. Having measured her wing (which gives a measure of structural size), we weighed her and examined wing and tail feathers for signs of moult. Subtle differences in the colour and pattern of individual feathers showed that she had feathers from three different generations ­– Tawny Owls only moult a few of their flight feathers each year. She was looking fit and well, ready for the breeding season ahead, and she quickly slipped back into the darkness as we let her go.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Master of the skies

It’s an exhilarating sight, a Peregrine working the coastal grazing marshes with a display of unrivalled skill and power. It is the reaction of a small flock of Golden Plover that first alerts me to the presence of this master of the skies. As is so often the case, it is the waders that first spot the approach of a predator and take to the air in a close formation that jinks through the sky, flashing different colours as the birds twist and turn in unison. The reaction spreads, as first Gadwall and then Wigeon take flight, the departure of these larger birds suggestive of something bigger and more powerful than the harriers that are the resident hunters above these pools and reeds. It only takes a moment and then I am onto the bird, following it in my binoculars with relative ease as it dives and then rises again in a sweeping arc, powered by strong wings.

There is something truly spectacular and totally engaging about a winter Peregrine working the marshes. Perhaps it is the amount of sky visible above our relatively flat landscape, the expanse of blue and grey providing a suitable canvas on which this stunning bird can exhibit its skill. A bird such as this one will cover some distance, sweeping along the coast towards the Wash, harrying the wildfowl and waders with immaculate ease. This is a top predator, quite capable of bringing down a Herring Gull or Mallard, though more usually taking somewhat smaller prey, such as Black-headed Gull, Lapwing and Redshank. Some of these lowland coastal birds will also hunt inland, working over farmland to exploit our growing Wood Pigeon population. In this respect they are welcomed by many, though Peregrines that harass racing pigeons are one of the main sources of friction between conservationists and those who indulge in pigeon racing.

The return of Peregrines to many former breeding sites has been matched by an increase in the number of birds wintering around the Norfolk coastline. Even so, we are only likely to be talking about a relatively small number of birds that will remain here over the winter. To see just one of these birds in action is a privilege and something that brightens even the coldest, most windswept of November days. This particular bird is working hard and is clearly focussed on securing a meal. Even so, it fails to catch anything in the few brief minutes that it remains in my field of view. Working its way west, and becoming all the more distant, I suddenly lose the bird against the dark outline of a field. It is gone, the moment passed, but there will be other moments and other Peregines.