Sunday, 7 December 2014

Beans and buntings

After the rain today came sunshine. And Mike.

I should probably introduce you. Mike is a volunteer on the Norwich Cathedral Peregrine Project, on which I worked earlier this year. His is a blossoming love of birds: at first, over many years, a soul-union with crows of all kinds and all kinds of crows; then a passion for Norwich's dynasty of peregrines and an effortless talent for communicating about them to the public; and now a growing-by-the-day love for all wild birds and the wild places in which they are found, as he leafs through the field guides and dreams of yet more species he might see. I well remember that giddy falling in love with birds, though mine was many years ago.

Under Norwich Cathedral's spire, with the petulant shout of a female peregrine in our ears, we became firm friends and it is my privilege on occasion to show him birds he has not seen before. Today, as yesterday, there were tundra bean geese at Weybourne. To be unsparingly honest, if I had to choose a bean goose to love for the rest of my life, it would be a taiga. As I wrote at the start of February 2012, their slender elegance enchants me. I am not blind, however, to the stocky, snarl-billed charms of a tundra bean goose and I am weak before the hordes of pinkfeet with which they often find themselves. So to Weybourne we went today.

The first flock we stopped to scan was of brents. Two pinkfeet stood nearby, pious, ashamed perhaps to be grazing in such lowly company. Most of the pinks were by the road to the heath, thousands of them in a muddy field. I scanned but, though the horizontal winter light was perfect, there were no orange legs among them. The birds were shifting between this and a field uphill to the south, so to there we walked. Still no orange legs, no tundra beans. Then, as a flight of pinks moved to their original field, flying above them, from I saw not where, were four chocolate-dark geese. Beans.

Back to the first field, where quickly we found two tundra beans and spent much cold time watching one of them as it dozed, shuffled and sometimes stood. (Note to future bean geese: you're really a lot less fun, when mingling with thousands of pinkfeet, if you sit down and put your head under your wing, thereby hiding your only distinguishing features.)

Mike was patience itself while I gazed dreamily at grey geese, extolling their qualities; but what he wanted to see was his first snow bunting. There were rumours of a confiding bird at Gramborough, so to Salthouse we went, a year since the car park was buried in shingle by the rage of the sea. We tramped over the ridge and through the brackish pools, but no bunting was there. We went east, to try our luck with the twite on the north side of Salthouse Marshes. Linnets: check. Skylarks: check. Shoveler: check. Turnstones: check. Twite: nope. Emphatically no twite to be seen. But what were these? What were these long-winged passerines above the shingle ridge, their wings white in the last of the afternoon's egg-yolk light?

Snow buntings. They landed on the shingle by the pools towards the erstwhile car park, and there we watched them, happy. I don't remember my first snow buntings - so very long ago - but I know I have loved them ever since.

Joy to you too Mike in your fledgling love for tundra bean geese, for snow buntings, and for birds.

Thursday, 4 December 2014


It is cold as I walk to town today, that cold that clasps your face and tightens the corners of your eyes. It is grey too, the lingering barely-day grey of the shortest dates. On the river a pair of greylags crouches under swaying boughs of aspen, their waxy bills ectopic in the gloom.

On my return a blue tit sings - spring sings! - from the ribcage alders by the pond, and from a chimney pot a wind-up starling mimics night's tawny owl in his song. His winter song.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014


At Cley yesterday the marsh was all noise. In the scant light over the North Norfolk coast we felt our way through the day, guided by sound. First there were pinks, thousands upon countless thousands of them, flighting along the ridge, filling the sky with excited talk of Iceland. Then the shingle's crunch under six booted feet and the shingly voices of linnets. To the east, on Arnold's, the triplet chime of redshank.

From Daukes' came much timid tealtalk and now and then an irresponsible whistling of wigeon. Here too the scraping of three mobile dunlin and the squelch of a snipe bounding from the long wet grass. Drake gadwall (spellcheck wanted that as goodwill: I'll take either) gave their seedy, knowing quack, their minds locked on next spring's breeding. Three avocets among the many gulls were silent.

Silent on a day of friendship and sound.