The Thurlows

Village News & Information

Nature Notes 2003

 

16 December 2003

The song thrush and mistle thrush must have noticed something – they’ve started singing again in the early mornings and evenings. The song thrush, which is the smaller bird and the one which cracks open snail shells in your garden, usually sings from a low tree or a roof and seems to be cheerfully practising variations on a theme:
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you think he could never recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
If the song thrush always sounds hopeful the mistle thrush by contrast is bold and challenging, the song more like bugling, flung out defiantly against wind and weather from the topmost perch of the highest tree. The best places to see and hear the mistles are by the meadows along the stream and at the playing fields in Great Thurlow. If they are feeding on the ground they will usually fly up with a loud rattling alarm call. They look much larger and heavier than the neat song thrushes and they have a characteristic looping flight, rather like a woodpecker’s.

What both thrushes have noticed, of course, is the change in the year. We’ve just passed the winter solstice, the time when the sun ‘stands still’ at its furthest point from the equator before the long annual cycle begins again. 21 December is the shortest day, when the sun rises (for us here) at 8.04 am and sets again at 3.53pm. From then on the days begin to lengthen in the evening: 3.58pm on the 28th of December, 4.05 on the 4th of January and 4.48 on the 1st of February ; though, confusingly, it goes on getting darker in the mornings for a little while with sunrise at 8.06am on the 28th of December and still 8.06 on the 4th of January but back up to 7.40 by the 1st of February. Of course, it’s not really the sun which is doing the rising and the setting but the earth spinning on its axis as it makes its huge circuit around the solar system; it’s just that neither we nor the thrushes can sense this from the outside, as it were.

I sometimes think that it would be more natural to begin our year from the 22snd of December, at the start of the new cycle, but of course the thing about a cycle is that it is continuous and there really is no one beginning or end. In any case the wildlife is already anticipating the changes to come: the thrushes don’t start punctually on the 22nd but well before, if the weather is right, and the aconites and snowdrops we shall see early in January are already spearing their way upwards to the surface. The pleasure we take in observing the annual round is, I think, largely because we too enjoy these variations on a theme. We know what to expect but not quite when or how it will appear. It’s both new and familiar, like meeting an old friend again each year.

Jeremy Mynott, Lavender Cottage
16 December 2003

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19 November 2003

If you had to describe the residential status of the different birds in Thurlow you might be tempted to do so in terms of three broad and familiar categories: summer visitors, winter visitors and residents. That would work for many birds, but the full story is rather more interesting. It’s true that swallows, for example, come here just for the summer, that fieldfares and redwings come here just for the winter, and that robins, thrushes, blackbirds and chaffinches are in the village all the year round. But this third group of ‘residents’ are not quite what they seem. In fact, although some species are resident in the village the year round many of the individual birds in each species may not be. In autumn, for example, we get a huge influx of visiting robins, thrushes, blackbirds and finches who are escaping harder weather in Scandinavia or the North of Britain and swell the resident populations very considerably, or perhaps even displace them, so you can’t really be sure whether the birds in your garden just now are visitors or locals.

There’s been a particular influx this year of goldcrests, an invasion you might say, if only the invaders weren’t so tiny. This is the smallest British bird, a mere three-and-a-half inches long, but a little bundle of energy, flitting continuously through trees and bushes in search of minute insects. They are quite tame and you can often admire close-up the soft green plumage and the brilliant orange crown stripe from which they get their name. Tennyson called them ‘the fire-crowned king of wrens’, which is better poetry than it is zoology since they are not in the wren family at all but are ‘kinglets’, hence the scientific Latin name of regulus. They usually nest in conifers, slinging their delicate nests (made from spiders’ webs, moss and feathers) from a protecting branch, but in winter they roam widely over hedges, bushes and mixed woodlands, often in the company of a flock of tits. You can usually first pick them out by their very high-pitched and insistent calls (right at the top of the scale for birds) which are curiously both soft and far-carrying. And if you are very lucky, as I was last week, you can sometimes find among these mixed flocks a rare cousin of the goldcrest called the firecrest. This is a truly charismatic little bird, the same size and shape as the goldcrest but with brilliant white and black stripes underneath the blazing crown on the head and with brighter plumage on the body. They do occasionally nest in Britain but they really form yet another category – rare migrants which sometimes over-winter or over-summer. So, the categories all turn out to be rather fluid ones anyway. Birds are individuals.

Jeremy Mynott

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21 October 2003

This week’s bulletin comes from the Isles of Scilly - some 30 miles off Lands End and therefore the most south-westerly part of Britain. I often visit these beautiful islands in October and it always seems like an extension of summer: gorgeous flowers like the blue agapanthus and the pink belladonna lily are still in full bloom; red admiral butterflies, painted ladies and the rare clouded yellow are still on the wing; and swallows and martins still linger in the skies as they filter down out of Britain and prepare for the great migration south. What’s more you’re so far west here that you get an extra half an hour’s daylight, which is a wonderful bonus at this time of year, just before we change the clocks and close down, so to speak, for the winter. Scilly is in fact virtually sub-tropical and frost-free and is home to many exotic trees and flowers, not just in the famous Tresco Gardens but in the wayside hedgerows and waste places too. I couldn’t help thinking that if we were doing our village Hedgerow Survey in Scilly we would be noting down fuchsia, escallonia and pittosporum among the dominant hedgerow species as well as the thriving elm (untouched by disease here, thank goodness, since the beetles which carry the fungus don’t seem to be able to cross the seas from Lands End).

But what Scilly is most famous for in October are the rare birds, which seem drawn here as if into a vortex from all parts of the compass. Just this last week there have been vireos, thrushes and a bobolink from America; vagrant warblers, pipits and buntings from Siberia and all points east; hoopoes and red-rumped swallows from the Mediterranean; and streams of fieldfares, redwings and winter thrushes migrating in from the North. These unusual visitors attract an equally remarkable range of migrant birdwatchers too, of course, though that is another story ( and an anthropological one). For me, however, the wildlife highlight this year was actually a moth. It was no ordinary moth but a gigantic death’s-head hawk moth, the first I’ve ever seen, which must have migrated here from the Mediterranean and was resting in broad daylight on a stone wall. It was the size of a small bird, shaped rather like the Concorde, with a terrifying skull image on the thorax looking up at you, and a yellow-banded abdomen which helps deceive bees into thinking it is a monstrous queen bee when it raids their hives. What is even more startling is that if you touch it the death’s-head squeaks loudly, like a mouse. So, if you’re made at all nervous by staring skulls, giant moths, furry bodies or squealing mice you could be in for a shock if you encounter them all in combination – which is of course the point of these deterrents.

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage

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20 September 2003

The leaves seem to be turning and falling early this year – maybe as a result of the long warm, dry summer. You do wonder how the big trees have managed to suck up from the ground all the water they need – up to 400 or 500 gallons a day for a mature oak, for example, so some 40,000 gallons in a summer! Anyway, the onset of autumn has spurred us to try and finish our Hedgerow Survey while there are still leaves to see, and we’re helped in the task of identification now by the presence of all those conspicuous fruits and berries on the elder, spindle, rose, blackthorn, wild plum, crab apple, hawthorn, dogwood, bramble and, if we’re lucky, guelder rose and buckthorn.

We hope to do a full report and perhaps some sort of exhibition later but I can give a preview now. First, we do have lots of wonderful hedgerows in the Thurlows, some of which go back to pre-Conquest times, even to Roman times, and many of these are still flourishing thanks to good management (that is, very little management: hedges don’t need to be slashed back almost to the ground or to be cut every year). Secondly, we’ve found a great variety of different hedgerow trees and bushes – and variety is itself an important index of age, though not the only one. There have been more spindles and buckthorn than I was expecting, for example, and far more of the charismatic wayfaring tree. This last used to be common along lanes and tracks in the middle ages – hence its name then as the ‘wayfarer’s tree’ (later corrupted to ‘wayfaring’); it has a still older name of ‘hoarwithy’: ‘hoar’ because of the downy underside to the leaves which helps them retain water, and ‘withy’ because the young twigs are so flexible that they were used for bindings in the days before string. Thirdly, we’ve discovered some very fine individual trees. I already knew about our precious black poplar along the Temple End Road (now a rare tree in Britain), but I was delighted and surprised to find elsewhere a splendid mature elm, with its characteristic billowing crown, which had somehow escaped the ravages of Dutch elm disease. We also encountered a gigantic crab apple tree the size of an oak (which I’d like an expert to see).

Finally, and most importantly, I’ve come to realise just how individual trees are. You might suppose from the illustrations in a field guide to trees that all the members of one species are likely to look just the same. Not at all, and why should they, if you think about it? If a Field Guide to Planet Earth were produced for visitors from Outer Space and it only had one illustration of homo sapiens the little green men might very well be puzzled by some of the specimens on display in this small parish alone, might they not?

Jeremy Mynott
20 September 2003

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14 August 2003

As I write this, we are still in the Great Heatwave which has broken all records. The newspapers are full of dire warnings about global warming, which seems to mean that every country effectively moves south by a few hundred miles: Britain becomes the Mediterranean, the Mediterranean becomes the desert, and the desert becomes – well, a larger and even hotter desert. Certainly, in these sweltering days and overheated nights it’s hard to believe that it won’t always be summer. But the season is changing nonetheless and we shall suddenly notice it as soon as the weather breaks. The screaming swifts, for example, abruptly disappeared from the skies in the first week of August not to return until the first week of May next year, and I always feel the real summer begins and ends with them. The robin has started singing again, after a break of about three weeks for rest and recuperation after rearing their young, during which ‘low’ point in the year they also have their annual moult of feathers; their autumn songs always sound more melancholic and languid to a human ear, and they may indeed be somewhat different from their spring songs since both sexes are now singing to establish their winter territories. If you look closely at the hedgerows (as the survey team have certainly been doing – more on this in a later bulletin), you’ll notice a bumper harvest of berries, nuts and fruits on the way, to be matched, I gather, by a record grape harvest here and in Europe (will the Thurlow rape fields be replaced by vineyards one day?). The butterflies have enjoyed the hot spell too and we’ve had an invasion of lovely painted ladies and clouded yellows from the Continent, which have crossed the Channel together with many rare migrant dragonflies. The leaves are changing colour and beginning to fall as well – the classic sign of autumn. And if you’re really tuned in to the seasons I think you’ll be aware of the different quality of light in the early mornings – as sort of whiter and purer light, and those heavy dewy smells of the night as the evenings shorten inexorably.

One swallow doesn’t make a summer, they say – and there was actually a great shortage of swallows this year, as of turtle doves and flycatchers and several other long-distance migrants, all of which seem to have suffered badly in their winter quarters last year or on migration across those growing deserts. And one heatwave doesn’t add up to climate change either. On those cold, dark, wet and windy November days to come I expect the present golden times will seem like a very distant memory.

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage
14 August 2003

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19 July 2003

I was cycling up the Temple End Road the other day watching swallows swooping gracefully to and fro across the hedgerows, when they suddenly scattered in panic, calling shrilly. I instinctively looked up and saw a dark falcon scything down at terrific speed to pluck one of them out of the air. It was a hobby, one of our scarcer birds of prey – and also one of the most attractive. The male has a slaty blue back and head, which usually look very dark from below or against the light, sharply contrasting with a white cheek and chin which are separated by a fierce-looking moustachial stripe. The underparts are whitish, with dense vertical streaking, and if you see hobbies perching they seem to have bushy red ‘trousers’ covering the thighs, set off against yellow legs. Overall they look smart, streamlined and dangerous to know. The wings are long and angled back for speed, and they are in fact very fast and agile in the air – fast enough to catch a swallow or even a swift. Indeed in silhouette they sometimes look like giant swifts hurtling across the sky.

Hobbies seem to be getting commoner, in fact, and I think they must be nesting nearby since I quite often see one cruising over the village in the summer months. They are summer visitors, arriving and departing with the swallows and swifts on which they prey (together with dragonflies and other flying insects). The Latin name is falco subbuteo, which literally means ‘the falcon one size down from a buzzard’ and the name subbuteo was adopted for a game of table football which was popular years ago (does it still exist or is it all ‘virtual’ now?). I often used to wonder how the game came to be called subbuteo. Was it perhaps meant as a clever little joke, because the game was supposed to be a ‘hobby’?

Going back to the Temple End Road, swallows always give that same alarm call when they spot a hobby in the skies, and it’s a good example of how communication can work across different species. When I heard the call I immediately knew there must be a hobby around, as did all the other small birds which dived for cover as soon as the swallows gave the alarm. That may sound curious – surely a swallow can’t speak to a robin, let alone to homo sapiens? But there’s nothing surprising in one species understanding some part of the language of another, as any dog or cat owner will testify. In fact the greater difficulty is sometimes in getting your own species to understand you!

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage
19 July 2003

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24 June 2003

This week’s Nature Note comes from the island of St Kilda, probably the most remote and isolated part of Britain, a group of rocky islands so far out beyond the Hebrides in the North Atlantic that they are always shown on maps of Britain in a little box in the top left hand corner. This is a place of extremes: St Kilda is the windiest part of the UK, lashed by tremendous Atlantic gales and storms; it has the highest sea-cliffs in Britain, rising sheer to some 1400 feet; it is surely also the most inaccessible part of the kingdom, uninhabited and so with no passenger service or accommodation, but in any case difficult for small boats to reach safely because of the distance and the violently capricious weather. Just the place for a holiday, I thought.

What St Kilda does have are the largest seabird colonies in the North Atlantic. There are staggering numbers of gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills crowded in their tens of thousands on to the rock ledges; the hillsides are honeycombed with burrows which house manx shearwaters, puffins and petrels; and on the flatter grassy moorland live the local predators – the very aggressive great skuas (which dive-bomb you nastily from behind if you stray into their territories) and the great black-backed gulls. It is a truly memorable experience to see the teeming life in this seabird city and to hear the cacophany of its noise above the roar of the surging seas below.

I think there are only three nesting species of birds which Thurlow and St Kilda have in common. There are no garden or woodland species there because, of course, there are no gardens or trees. But there are the shattered remains of what was once a village. St Kilda was inhabited for over 1000 years by an extraordinary community sustaining itself wholly from these seabird populations, supplemented by a few sheep and whatever agriculture the winds and seas would allow. (The diet sounds rather dreary: breakfast – fulmar, lunch- puffin, dinner – gannet). The community was of course quite remote from the rest of the UK (and indeed the whole world) until the first curious visitors struggled there (violently sea-sick, I imagine) in the 18th and 19th centuries. These visitors brought some welcome goods, but they also brought diseases and, worse, temptations and so began the process of depopulation which inevitably ended with a remnant of some 30 people who were no longer able to sustain themselves and who were therefore evacuated to the mainland in 1931. That was the end of a whole way of life. But there are still reminders of it in what is left of the stone houses, the walls and the cleits where they stored the salted seabirds for the winter. And in cranies in these rocks and stones nest the three breeding species they share with us: starlings, pied wagtails and, their speciality, the St Kilda wren, which is very like our wren but just a bit larger and perhaps even louder, as it needs to be to be heard above the racket of winds, waves and seabirds.

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage, 24 June 2003

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18 May 2003

The Great Hedgerow Survey which was announced in a recent Village Link is now officially underway. The team of volunteer ‘hedgecreepers’ is marshalled, trained to a hair and raring to go. We are armed with enough complex survey forms to make a tax inspector blench, fieldguides to the trickier species like buckthorn, spindle, dogwood and the wayfaring tree, and large-scale maps of all the 238 hedgerow boundaries in Little Thurlow. The team consists in John Tipper, Jessica Hale, Kevin and Sue Beal, Steve and Sue Burgen, Robert Sanderson, Margaret Levin, Mary Hilton and Jeremy Mynott. So if you see any of the above emerging backwards through a hedge with a clipboard, severally or jointly, you’ll be prepared for their excuses.

We hope at the end of the exercise to produce an illustrated summary account of what we’ve done for everyone to see. There are 470 parishes in Suffolk and the plan is that all of these will eventually be surveyed (any volunteers for Great Thurlow and Little Bradley?), but it’s already clear that Little Thurlow is unusually rich in its hedgerows, many of which are very old – certainly going back to the middle ages, maybe to anglo-saxon times. We shall know better after the survey because you can calculate the approximate age of a hedge by counting the number of different species in a representative 30 yard stretch and applying ‘Hooper’s rule’ (named after a Cambridge scientist), which allots one century for each additional species. Some of these hedges will have grown naturally at the edge of fields, some will be the outline edges of woods which have long since been grubbed out, and some will have been planted to control stock, produce wood and mark boundaries. We’re fortunate here that our local landowners have managed the hedgerows with conservation so much in mind over recent years. But in Eastern England as a whole there has been a massive decline of about 50% in the number of hedges since 1950, as more and more land was developed for housing and industry and fields were enlarged in size in the interests of productivity (think of the Fen praries); moreover, those hedges which remained were often crudely overmanaged (that is, slashed into neat shapes) out of some desire for suburban ‘tidiness’. So, this is a modern ‘Domesday’ survey to help safeguard the future.

Why do hedges matter? Well, for one thing they help tell the story of the landscape when you learn how to read them, and for another they are a crucial resource for all the varied wildlife we have here today – their homes, larders and highways. We wouldn’t now have yellowhammers, whitethroats or badgers in Thurlow without them. Maybe we shall also discover dormice, corn buntings and tree sparrows? More news from the front line soon!

Jeremy Mynott , Lavender Cottage, 18 May 2003

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20 April 2003

Nature notes

What’s the commonest bird in the UK? Starling, house sparrow, blackbird? No, currently top of the table is the wood pigeon, with some two and a half million pairs spread throughout the whole country from end to end. Once they were mainly woodland birds, but they have adapted enthusiastically to modern farming cycles and are now probably number one pest for the farmer. They feed in large flocks on just about every crop there is throughout the year, and they feed intensively – a hungry wood pigeon can peck at the rate of over 100 times a minute! And they have two other unusual strategies for keeping up their numbers: first, they breed throughout the whole year, and you can find pigeons’ eggs in just about every month; and second, they bring their young squabs on very fast with a unique protein diet of rich milk, which is ingeniously manufactured from special cells in the birds’ crops.

An even more dramatic success story is the population expansion of their smaller relative, the collared dove, which was unknown in Britain just 50 years ago but is now common in every garden and town in the country. Collared doves spread from Asia like wildfire across Europe in the middle of the last century. The first pair ever to nest in Britain bred in Cromer in Norfolk in 1955 and were greeted as exotic rarities by excited birdwatchers. But the collared doves had found an ecological niche, thriving on grain spillage and seeds from bird tables; and now they are an all too familiar sight and sound, with their monotonous three-part ‘songs’ which go cu-cooo-cu. (Reports of ‘the first cuckoo’ on implausibly early dates usually turn out to be collared doves).

Two other relatives are faring less well. The stock dove is often overlooked but is also a resident in our area. They prefer parklands and mature woods where they can nest in holes in old trees. You can usually see them up the Temple End Road, a smaller and more compact version of the wood pigeon, with black wing bars and without the white collar. They too have a distinctive song - a deep and throbbing double note, with the accent on the second part: oo-roo. They have a more restricted diet and are suffering both from intensive farming which reduces the number of suitable seeds available and from a shortage of nest sites as open woodlands shrink. Finally, my favourite member of this family, the turtle dove, has suffered a disastrous crash in numbers, with a decline of 70% over the last 25 years. Turtle doves are summer visitors, arriving this week in fact, and their gentle crooning song is one of traditional sounds of summer, when ‘the voice of the turtle is heard in our land’. They are more specialist feeders on wayside weeds like fumitory which, again, modern farming methods have largely eradicated.

So, it’s snakes and ladders for the pigeon family, and as usual we are the ones throwing the dice.

Jeremy Mynott, Lavender Cottage, 20 April 2003

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17 March 2003

Nature notes

The astronomical calendar defines Spring as the period from the equinox of 21 March to the solstice of 21 June. But those bare ‘facts’ are misleading in several ways. In the first place the seasons don’t ever start punctually on particular days: we can get Spring days in February and early March and ‘Blackthorn winters’ in April and May. Moreover, Spring seems to be getting generally earlier, whatever the calendar says, and this year we’ve just had a spell of sunny days in mid-March which has triggered off the vital signs. We probably all look out for different things as the start of Spring. For some it’s the first daffodil – a flower we used to associate especially with Easter but which flowered in our garden from the 8thof March this year. For some it will be the first butterflies – and I saw brimstones and small tortoiseshell just emerged from hibernation, joined by a very early comma up near the windmill on the 14th. For me it’s the song of the chiffchaff – a tiny warbler, which is the first returning summer migrant from Africa. In my childhood I used to listen out for the chiffchaff in the last days of March, but this year I heard one singing down the Drift on the extraordinarily early date of 2 March. For the more gloomily practical, Spring arrives when you have to cut the lawn for the first time, and since grass starts growing as soon as the temperature rises above 48 degrees F (9 degrees C`) some of us are already behindhand this year. So, what’s going on? All these seasonal changes must be triggered by changes in light or temperature, and since the daylight hours on particular days stay the same every year it must be the temperature rising over time. The rate of change can be measured quite accurately if you keep a detailed diary over the years of these first appearances of particular flowers, insects and birds, and lots of naturalists and ordinary people do just this. Scientists do it too and call it ‘phenology’, literally ‘the science of when things appear’, which makes it sound more serious and does seem to demonstrate that global warming is a fact. But ultimately all these definitions and measurements fail to capture what we mean by Spring, which is surely a state of mind as much as a state of nature, and one which reminds us that we too are part of nature. Spring is when we feel the sap rising.

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage, Little Thurlow
17 March 2003

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12 February 2003

Nature notes

So, we had some real winter in February when the wind suddenly turned northerly and blew in that arctic weather. In no time at all our familiar local roads and landmarks had been smoothed away into a silent, white wilderness and we were reminded just how helpless we (and our cars!) are in the face of even minor natural disturbances. And when the thaw came in a day or two the queues at supermarkets and garages were enormous, as if we’d been under siege for months. But it’s an ill wind, and the arctic weather also blew in some exciting arctic birds from the forests of Lapland and Russia, which I’d been hoping to see one day in this area - waxwings. Waxwings are not regular migrants but irrupt from their native homes every few years when the berry crop on which they depend runs out there. They then invade these shores like so many little Vikings in search of new crops to plunder; and this year they have come over in force.

Waxwings are about the size of rather plump starlings and are instantly recognisable. They are a light purplish brown in overall colour, with striking erect crests and black face masks and bibs which gives them a fierce, helmeted look. Their wings are barred with white and edged with yellow and have vivid red ‘sealing-wax’ blobs which give the birds their name. The tails are tipped with a broad yellow band. They usually travel in noisy roving bands, calling in chorus with rippling silvery trills, and lighting on the most thickly berried bushes, which they then proceed to strip clean in a greedy feeding frenzy. A waxwing is said to be able to eat 1000 cotoneaster berries in a day – imagine eating your own weight in berries. Their favourite bushes include rowan and ornamental shrubs like cotoneaster, pyracantha, guelder rose, berberis and juniper. And that means that they turn up, not in wild or remote places like most rare birds, but wherever we have cultivated such bushes to decorate our urban spaces: supermarkets, schools, garages, housing estates and even roundabouts. (Which are the very places we ourselves flocked to in such crowds just as soon as the melting snows would allow us.) Waxwings seem quite tame, perhaps because they just haven’t seen many people in the northern forests which are their homeland, but it must be quite a culture shock to exchange the vast solitude of the Siberian forests for a busy supermarket in Haverhill.

There are parties of waxwings as I write in Haverhill (Coupals Primary School), Ipswich (Curry’s superstore), Cambridge (Kings Hedges Road) and on the A11 roundabout at Barton Mills (don’t try spotting them while driving). Do go out and have a look for these charismatic birds since they may not be back on another Viking raid for quite a few years.

Jeremy Mynott, Lavender Cottage, 12 February 2003

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4 January 2003

Nature notes

On the last day of the old year I went to a remote marsh in Norfolk to look for, and listen for, a very special bird. It was a raw, wet and dull day. I positioned myself on a bank overlooking a huge area of reedbed, scrub and rough grazing, and gazed out over the drowned landscape. The only buildings in sight were two distant windmills and if there were any other human watchers out there they were as silent and still (and no doubt as cold) as I was. I waited. By 3pm it was already getting gloomy and all I’d seen were some lapwing and a ghostly barn owl floating by. I was losing contact with my fingers and toes. By 4pm it was almost too dark to see; I was stiff with cold and about to call it a day when suddenly I heard this wonderful, stirring noise – at first a distant, muted bugling and then a chorus of loud ringing cries as six huge birds glided in low over the marsh and dropped down to roost. The cranes had landed.

Cranes are charismatic birds. They stand over four feet tall (much larger than a heron) and have long, elegant necks and long legs. The plumage is basically a soft grey, with a black and white pattern on the head and neck, topped off with a red patch on the back of the crown. On the ground they walk in stately fashion, carrying behind them the distinctive ‘bustle’ of plumes which helps to give them their majestic bearing. In flight they propel themselves powerfully through the air with measured wing-beats, neck outstretched in front and legs trailing behind. They are most famous, of course, for their courtship displays when couples, or even whole flocks, leap into the air with wings and necks outstretched, then bow and flirt on the ground and excitedly toss around small objects, trumpeting and duetting the while. The ‘crane dance’ is one of the great wildlife spectacles.

They are, however, very shy and wary birds, so it is a privilege to encounter them anywhere in the wild. Moreover in Britain they are extremely rare, but there is now this one, tiny colony which has become established in the Norfolk Broads. They used to breed more widely in East Anglia in the Middle Ages but became extinct around 1600 as the vast wetlands on which they depend for food and security were being drained and diminished. Then to the amazement and delight of naturalists a pair came to these marshes in the early 1980s and stayed to breed. Since then the colony has built up, slowly and precariously, to just on double figures. So, this is a homecoming of a kind.

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage
14 January 2003

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