Friday, 28 February 2014


As the afternoon slips towards dusk I become aware of increasing numbers of jackdaws in the air. Several flocks, each numbering many hundreds of individuals, can be seen against the spreading smudge of red sky. Many smaller groups are also present, together with the odd single bird playing catch-up, all adding to the growing sense that something is about to happen. Over the coming hour more and more birds begin to appear, draining out of the surrounding farmland and swelling the gathering well into four-figures. Then, just before dusk, this flurry of black bodies piles noisily into a large stand of poplars. This will form their roost for the night, as it has for each night of the winter so far.

So intense is the noise of the calling jackdaws that it becomes impossible to separate out individual birds; it is a wall of noise, like great waves pounding into a million rounded pebbles. In the near darkness I stand at the edge of the plantation, my hands cupped to my ears to focus the sound. The experience is intense and my world becomes the cacophony of these calling birds. Then, as if somewhere in the wood a plug has been pulled, there is silence, a silence that is both abrupt and jarring. The evening performance is over, the birds are at roost.

Taking my hands away from my ears I become aware of other sounds and shapes, most notably of woodcock leaving the shelter of the wood to begin their nocturnal foraging. Had these rather unusual waders set their alarm clocks by the arrival of the jackdaws or had I been so focussed on the jackdaws that I had missed earlier departures? Either way, half a dozen of these birds flick across the track to be silhouetted against the sky.

It is time for me to turn towards home, the clear winter sky affording me enough light to follow the track back towards the parked car without the need for a torch, the use of which would have felt intrusive. Come morning and the jackdaws would depart to begin their day, while the woodcock would return to the safety of the wood, a changing of the guard in this little corner of the fenland landscape.

Thursday, 27 February 2014


It will not be long until dusk. The muddy footpath makes progress difficult and lodges in my mind the unsettling suspicion that we will arrive too late and so miss the promised spectacle. We’ve come to Lakenheath Fen, one of our regular haunts, in order to see the growing roost of marsh and hen harriers that has been something of a feature this winter. Although the marsh harriers can be seen here throughout the day, and indeed throughout the year, the hen harriers are a seasonal visitor, arriving on the short winter afternoons shortly before dusk.

The walk out yields up two barn owls and a salvonian grebe, the latter rare inland and the first I have seen in the Brecks. A herd of mute swans, 32 in number and feeding in a pasture, hints at the visiting whooper and bewick’s wintering further out into the fens but our journey today ends here, a small group of us stood on the banked footpath and looking back across the reserve. Off to our left is a larger group of birdwatchers, dutifully gathered at the crane watchpoint, but ours is the better position, shaped by local knowledge and the position of the low winter sun.

Within moments we have our first harriers, two marsh and a single male hen harrier. He is a stunning male, the grey wings readily picked out against the dark of the marsh and the line of trees and shrubs beyond. Soon we pick out others, our counts reaching at least five different individuals. As well as the harriers, there are a perched peregrine, the resident pair of cranes and a passing kestrel. As the light begins to go, so two of the hen harriers continue to hunt, coming closer and closer to where we are standing. The views are breathtaking as the harriers float by on owl-like wings, occasionally checking their buoyant flight to hover over possible prey.

The roost this year is almost certainly the best it has ever been, surpassing the numbers being seen elsewhere within the region and providing a good number of visiting birdwatchers with a fantastic late winter spectacle. This spectacle includes not just the birds but also the fenland landscape and the dramatic late winter sky.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

After the storm

It is good to be able to slip from the house at dawn and to enter a world that is finally still. The biting and bracing wind has passed and the air holds the carrying notes of song thrush and woodpigeon, both of which hint at the approaching spring. February is a dark month. Part of winter’s realm, she carries not the new year hope of January but instead sits belligerent and brooding. A troublesome month of storms, of rain and rising waters, of a wind that never drops. Will spring ever come?

These final days of the month, however, give hope and the calm that greets this dawn suggests a season soon to change. While I have seen these false hopes before, the hints of spring snuffed out by a weather system bringing chill winds from the north or squally rain from the west, the blooms of snowdrop, aconite and winter heliotrope offer a glimpse of the season to come. And there, among the brash that needs clearing from around the pond, I find a female brimstone. Her yellow-green sulphur proclaims life amid the blacks and dirty browns of rotting wood and leaf. Tenderly, I take her folded wings between thumb and forefinger and place her within the green ivy that coats the ancient wall. She will be safe and sheltered here, ready to stir with the first run of truly warm days.

The small tortoiseshells wintering in our unheated upstairs toilet have already shown their restlessness. On warmer mornings, when the sun’s rays push in through the small window, these wintering house guests can be found fluttering around the upstairs of the house. Come evening, when they are perched on curtain or net, I return them to ‘their’ room.

Droppings in the side passage, both on the flagstones and stuck to the wall, reveal that the brown long-eared bat has also been active. There are few moths coming to the lighted windows at night, so he may be better off remaining in whichever cavity he has chosen for the winter. Perhaps, as it is with me, these stirrings are a response to the changing weather, the lengthening of the days and the turning of the seasons.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Water levels challenge the birds

The volume of water passing down the river over recent weeks has been staggering, requiring careful management of the sluices by Environment Agency staff. Such volumes underline the power of nature, the swollen waters swirling and deeply coloured with debris, and flowing with force. On some days the waters have slipped the confines of the river banks to flow out across the low lying meadows and on through the wood where I will search for blackbird nests come spring.

The conditions must prove challenging for the river’s inhabitants and I often wonder how the fish and otters fair when the river is in full spate. The rising waters will also have caught out some of our nesting birds. I have a suspicion that at least some of the local mallards will have been down on eggs, their early nesting prompted by the mild conditions witnessed earlier in the year. A few pairs nest in the alder carr alongside the river and any that had already started here this year will have been flooded out.

The water level by the old mill has crept up above the entrance to a small cavity in which the grey wagtails often nest. The fact that these delightful little birds start breeding somewhat later in the year means that they should be fine. Elsewhere, and well away from the lowland rivers of the brecks, many dippers will be beginning their breeding season, nesting in river bank cavities or on ledges under bridges. Some of these nest sites will almost certainly have been lost to the torrents of water rushing downstream, through river systems across the north and west of the country.

Away from the river and some of our other early nesters will have instead had to face a battering from the strong winds. Rooks and herons will already be at their nest sites, situated high in the canopies of trees, and their nests of stick may well have been dislodged. Repairs will be necessary, delaying the start of the breeding season. Of course, the weather also provides opportunities. The local crows have, for example, been feasting on insects and other prey pushed out of the meadow’s thick cover by rising waters. It would seem that there is resilience in nature.

Monday, 24 February 2014

A flurry of white

The black-headed gulls are a familiar presence on the green near the river. Most mornings will see a flock of at least a dozen individuals loafing around, with a few on the river itself and others darting down to take scraps of food. Their regular presence makes them easy to dismiss but I know from experience that these birds will not be the same individuals day after day. Instead, they are part of a larger, looser gathering. Others of their kind can be found on the nearby lakes or are to be encountered on pig fields and farm reservoirs across East Anglia. Some of the birds seen on the river here have come from even further afield; patient watching and the use of binoculars has revealed birds from eastern Europe, their identity disclosed by the ring fitted to their leg.

This is probably our most familiar gull, even if its more delicate appearance sets it apart from the typical image of a gull – brutish, thick set and to be found raiding chips from unwary seaside visitors. Black-headed gulls nest in a wide range of locations, many of which are to be found well inland. Dense colonies of these birds breed amongst some of our coastal sand dunes and areas of saltmarsh, but smaller numbers are to be encountered elsewhere. Given such a wide breeding range it is perhaps unsurprising that they should occur so widely inland during the winter months, even here in the centre of the Brecks.

While the birds may forage widely during the day, they tend to gather together come evening, seeking out the relative security of large bodies of open water. Welney and Wroxham Broad are just two of the sites where five-figure roosting counts may be noted. They are great birds, surprisingly delicate, especially when seen at close quarters or in the hand during bird ringing operations. While I admire of the brute strength of the a lesser black-backed gull or herring gull, I prefer these black-headed gulls that spend part of the year living alongside me. They are a welcome companion on my daily walks to and from work and, just occasionally, they appear low over the garden, on the look out for a feeding opportunity.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

A bolt of blue

A shrill piping call, echoed from off to our left, suggests the presence of two kingfishers, each alert to the other’s presence. A few moments later and a flash of blue flicks low across the water and away. This site does well for kingfishers and there is rarely a visit when I do not see one of these striking little birds.

As a child I’d always assumed that a kingfisher would be larger in life than it really is and I suspect that I was a little disappointed when I had my first decent view of one as a teenager. As a licensed bird ringer I occasionally get to handle kingfishers which, being very docile birds, will lay on their back in the palm of your hand, perfectly at ease. It is only then that you truly appreciate the small size of this fantastic species. While the small size might be a disappointment, the dazzling plumage more than makes up for this. To refer to the plumage as being electric blue is not an exaggeration. Surprisingly, however, a perched kingfisher can be difficult to pick out, particularly if it is perched under the shadow cast by a riverside willow or alder.

Being small, and relying on fish and other aquatic prey, means that the kingfisher is vulnerable to cold winter weather and ice. If the winter is particularly harsh then kingfisher populations suffer from high levels of mortality and their numbers fall. To counter this threat, some individuals move to coastal sites in winter, where the temperature may be a few degrees warmer and fishing opportunities may remain unfrozen.

Given that I spend part of my summer in various reedbeds, the kingfisher is very much a summer bird for me. Its calls provide a backdrop to my time in the field, forming part of the summer soundscape alongside warblers, cuckoos and rails. They are not the easiest bird to approach, being prone to flying away at the slightest provocation and to see them well it pays to set-up a strategically placed branch as a perch and then wait in nearby cover or, better still, a hide, until one appears. While it is a bit of an effort, the reward is priceless.