I had high hopes of writing yesterday with news of firecrests, goshawks, hawfinches, woodlarks and lesser spotted woodpeckers. I was in the Brecks, teaching a workshop for Norfolk Wildlife Trust on bumblebees, and I planned to get there early and see some of Breckland's beautiful birds. I had spent two days during the week preparing a super dooper presentation on bumbles and on Friday night I turned on my laptop to save it to a CD and a memory stick (belt and braces, always). I turned on my computer but it didn't turn on. So I turned it on again and still it didn't turn on. Around thirty times it didn't turn on. So no computer and, more urgently, no presentation on bumblebees for my workshop the following morning.
Thanks to the expertise and commitment to public education of the folks at Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists' Society I was able, on Saturday morning, to download an excellent presentation on bumblebee identification from their website (I hope they don't mind my using it, with full credit to them; I didn't have time to ask). However, the trip to my father's to use his computer put an end to my plans to see hawfinches and firecrests. And the weather was cold and windy too so we only saw three species of bumblebee: buff-tailed, white-tailed and red-tailed. In addition we found Anthophora plumipes in the garden of the BTO (apparently I'm supposed to call this the hairy-footed flower bee; I won't) and the bee-fly Bombylius major. A nuthatch was calling, a grey wagtail was singing and we greatly enjoyed our day of looking for bees.
Of course, in my garden this morning I saw an early bumblebee. Treacherous hymenopteran; why couldn't it have been in Thetford yesterday?
The early bumblebee was not all I saw this morning. I saw a good many early birds too. I set out with the lark (literal and figurative) on foot to visit a site where, as every spring, friends have recently been seeing goshawks in display. Having missed the Brecks goshawks the day before I was jolly well going to see these so I rooted myself to the spot and so began a remarkable spell of raptor-watching. Four sparrowhawks sprang from the woods above my head and rose on a barely-there morning thermal, angling their long tails as they went. Having grown up in a Norfolk almost devoid of sparrowhawks it is a joy to see these gorgeous birds more commonly now. Contrary to understandable popular wisdom, numerous exquisitely designed studies of sparrowhawks and other predators, including a meticulous study recently published by the BTO, have not found any link between increasing numbers of predators and the abundance of the great majority of songbirds studied. It was our fault, through poisoning the fields and persecuting predators, that hawks all but disappeared in the first place and we should feel privileged to have them back. We too, let us not forget, are predators and our killing no more or less moral, though far less environmentally sustainable.
Then, from a distant wood came a bulkier hawk with a slow, deep wingbeat. This bird rose high above the clearing and joined the last of the sparrowhawks. Bigger-chested, heavy-hipped, neat-tailed, white-vented and just plain powerful, this was a goshawk. I used barely to believe that goshawks were more than myth and now they grace the skies just walking distance from my house. Welcome back goshawks.
Marsh harriers were all around too, slender males and solid chocolate females. These too, when I was a boy, were a highly-sought prize, hardly found anywhere but Cley. Every time we saw one we would point it out, tell our friends. Now, thanks to the work of conservation NGOs and to the wise collaboration of farmers, these wonderful creatures are to be seen all over North Norfolk, Broadland and the Fens. Welcome home marsh harriers.
Next came a red kite, doubtless the same bird who flew over my house a couple of days ago. During my childhood seeing a Norfolk kite would have been unimaginable. Now, though still we stop to admire every one of these wondrous birds, they are regularly to be seen here and have begun to nest in the county. Welcome home kites.
Next a kestrel. This is the only raptor I saw this morning which has declined in Norfolk in my lifetime as the following bird, a buzzard, has exploded into the county. I saw several this morning and heard them mewing over the woods in display. During my childhood in Norfolk I saw just one buzzard – just one – and now I see them every day. And I'm delighted to do so. Welcome home buzzards.
A pair of grey wagtails dropped in to feed beside a drain, a pair of Mediterranean gulls flew north to the coast on frosted wings, and a pair of little egrets bounded by. In my childhood in Norfolk – you've guessed it – I saw just one little egret and thought it the rarest and loveliest of creatures. In 1952 my father, who grew up in Blakeney, was riding his horse to Cley when he was stopped by the small group of local birders and shown Norfolk's first ever little egret. Back then local birding was a tiny friendly community and everyone knew my grandfather, the doctor in Blakeney, and his family. Now birding has boomed into a massive business, little egrets breed all over the county, and, under the care of the Hawk and Owl Trust, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and others, raptors are once again to be seen in the skies of Norfolk.
Let us never forget what our skies looked like without them.
This is very convenient because in later years I could ring up Dr. Acheson, our local doctor, another marvellous character who was a very staunch believer in dog training. He bred a very famous breed of Labradors, Bally Duff. Being of Irish descent he loved his black Labradors and everybody respected him. He was a great character in the village at Blakeney. There was only one thing he was apprehensive about, when I had to call him out to Blakeney Point he said to me, “For Goodness sake, Ted, get me along the beach, I don’t like going across the harbour.” He didn’t like the water, he was not fond of going across in a boat, a thing that one can’t help.
Countryman’s Memoirs, A Warden’s Life on Blakeney Point