Monday, 27 January 2014

In search of gold

It is not yet dawn and the near silence of the forest echoes with the calls of a solitary crow, a sentinel for the slowly approaching day. We’ve arrived early, knowing that we have but a small window of opportunity to catch up with one of the golden pheasants that held territory on these blocks of forest last year. It is still early in the season but, given the mild conditions and our need to pin down where the birds are this year, these weekend visits have become something of a ritual.

Despite its stunning plumage, the male golden pheasant is a rather challenging bird to catch up with. The species is not native to Britain but its small, self-sustaining population may be gaining importance in a global sense. The stronghold here is the dark stands of conifers that dominate the Norfolk/Suffolk borderlands of the Brecks. There is another, smaller, population in north-west Norfolk and other isolated records from elsewhere in Britain, typically of local escapees or recent introductions. These are rather secretive birds, spending most of their time within the cover provided by the stands of conifers and venturing out onto the rides for just a short period around dawn, hence our early visits.

Smaller than the common pheasant, whose vast numbers dominate much of the East Anglian landscape, the golden pheasant male has a stunning yellow head and crown, a red and blue body and a long and intricately patterned tail. One his most striking features is the orange, black and blue feathering that adorns his neck. These feathers fall away from the body in the manner of a judge’s wig, a wig in which the colour has been lifted from the finest casket of an Egyptian ruler, shrouded and laid to rest in a royal burial chamber. This is a truly stunning bird and one whose colours are set-off all the more by the deep neutral tones of the forest in which he lives.

This particular morning, like the last, we draw a blank on our search. The pheasants are here, of that we are confident, and one weekend soon we will be treated to an audience with his imperial majesty, the golden pheasant.

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