The driest part of Britain is East Anglia, and it also has the best winter birds. The forecast isn’t brilliant but it’s better than Wales, so I load up the camper and set off.
So what is a Winter Bird and why are some better than others? It’s all about Romance, our human feelings. We love creatures that are rare and beautiful, and even more do we love those that bring with them the mystery of far distant wild lands and the astonishing avian intelligence that enables them to navigate from Siberia to England or Iceland to Wales. We love those that fly over us at dawn with haunting calls way above us. Many of the special ones are birds who need wet ground to feed – the birds of the estuaries and wetlands. Because there are so many tiny creatures in these muddy grounds, the wetland birds congregate in huge flocks to feed on them. East Anglia too has more than its fair share of rarities, so is something of a Mecca for twitchers, those who collect sightings of birds seldom seen in this country. I’ve little interest in birds outside their ecology – those blown astray on migration for example. What thrills me is to recognise a habitat and see one of its least common residents, like this Grey Plover for example:
I have a particular goal for this trip. Having bought two excellent Canon cameras and 2 more top-class lenses, I owe it to my kids’ inheritance to get really familiar with Canon’s fiendishly complicated autofocus system. I not only need to understand it in detail, but be able to make very rapid changes “on the fly”. Slimbridge on the Severn estuary was a good place to start and I was soon lost in wonder at the sheer spectacle of so many so beautiful birds in one place. Progress with the autofocus looks promising.
From the top they are:
Barnacle goose, Grey Lag goose, Bewick’s Swan, Black-Tailed Godwits and Ruff
Common birds can be wonderful sometimes too. I shared the early morning hide with this woodpigeon.
The highlight of my visit was a little later, in the beautifully rebuilt Estuary Tower as the low sun gradually spread across the flat wet ground and made the birds there positively glow. There were thousands of them, dozens of species mixing together. In the far distance was the winter flock of White Fronted Geese from Greenland, closer all the usual wetland birds, but among the familiar Redshank, Wigeon, and Curlew was a puzzle: a small group of pale waders with strange white rings round their short beaks:(Plus a Curlew)
I asked one of the experts with the logo on his coat if he could identify them from my pictures.
“I can indeed.” He paused.
“Well, go on then!”
“They’re rough.” Oh? I thought the pictures were pretty good.*
“Of course, Ruff. I thought they might be. How many are there here?”
“Is that all? So most of them are here in front of us then.”
(*I knew what he meant but couldn’t resist the pun!)
Ruff in breeding plumage have a huge decorative ruff of long feathers, but you would have to travel to Siberia to see them. Ruff, with or without the ruff, are super-birds and in this light irresistible. This one found a big lugworm but no matter where he ran, he couldn’t hold on to it for long – the Redshank got it.
A sneaky Water Rail rounded off a wonderful morning.
Now I’m in Norfolk, but climate change has come to Norfolk too, and forced me to change my destination. I intended to stay at Welney in the Ouse washes, an area of marshland between two of the big “drains”, the canals which drained the fens – a process which began in the 17th century. Fenland roads are unlike any other, and you can find them in Somerset and in the Gwent levels in Wales. You drive for several miles in a dead straight line, until suddenly you turn at right angles and drive on in another dead straight line. On either side the black peat stretches to the horizon. It moves, and takes the roads with it so the roads subside and buckle and are repaired. it’s a bumpy ride.
It’s cool and the big rain clouds are lurking, but the low sun is magnificent.
I reach the village of Welney, but the road to the Wetland Centre is flooded. The only way to get there is a long detour. When I arrive, 45 minutes later, it’s closed. It doesn’t re-open until 10 so I decide to head north to my next destination. A few miles back up the bumpy road I had arrived on I spotted a barn owl hunting by the road. I have no decent pictures of owls yet so slowed to a crawl and watched. It’s here somewhere – yes: down there and it’s coming towards me. I have the right camera, the right lens and the right settings, and I keep clicking through the windscreen as it quarters the wide verge. I’m thrilled at how close it came and can’t wait to see the results.
Catastrophe. Not a single one is in focus. Although I had the focus points bang on the target, I had focussed on the grass in front of the owl every time. It had to be the sloping glass of the windscreen distorting what the autofocus locked on to. Lesson learnt the hard way as ever!