In crane country

Common cranes, Lakenheath Fen
Common cranes, Lakenheath Fen

Just before Easter I managed to fit in a trip to East Anglia. I had timed my visit to catch a series of spring tides, and planned to spend some time at Snettisham on the eastern coast of The Wash. At the very highest tides many thousands of waders, particularly knot, are forced off mud-flats on to some old gravel pits at Snettisham, now an RSPB reserve (see also this post). I planned to visit the roost site on the first morning for a 6.20 am high tide, and then again in the evening. It was a great plan, and everything went really well, except that the weather was uniformly dark and dismal. Trying to photograph moving subjects at dawn and dusk one is always pushing the capabilities of one’s equipment and heavy cloud cover makes it even more difficult: fifty shades of grey indeed.

So I decided to cut my losses after two visits and head south towards Lakenheath Fen on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. This is another RSPB reserve, a huge reedbed and wetland area largely created out of intensively cultivated agricultural land. I had read that bitterns and marsh harriers were frequently sighted there and that cranes had bred for several years consecutively. I was not to be disappointed. On my arrival I saw two pairs in flight within half an hour. However conditions were as dull and dismal as on the previous day, and  steady afternoon rain put a halt to proceedings.  But I had managed a decent recce of the area for the following day.

So I was on site at dawn. After a two mile walk I found myself on an elevated river bank with excellent views over wide expanses of reedbed. Pretty soon two pairs of cranes became visible simultaneously, one pair dropping down into reeds while the other flew across a railway line and disappeared. Then the reedbed pair re-appeared on a grassy bank and I picked up a single bird on the same bank perhaps a hundred yards away from them. The single bird walked slowly towards the pair. It reached a certain point and stopped, very deliberately turned around and walked away again. This manouever was repeated several times at a glacial pace, each time bringing the single bird a few yards closer to the pair. Eventually they were within a few feet of each other and the pair seemed to back down. Then a few minutes later the pair was in flight together, closely followed by the single bird, and all seemed to leave the vicinity of the reserve. I interpreted this behaviour as being a single bird intruding into the territory of a resident pair.

Back at the Joist Fen viewpoint on the reserve I encountered some RSPB staff, evidently also on the lookout for cranes. I recounted my sightings and but they seemed rather unimpressed. It was as if they didn’t really believe me. All they would say was that “it looks like there’s an extra pair on the reserve”. It didn’t really fit my version of events, and rightly or wrongly I nursed a grievance for most of the day.

Coot, Lakenheath fen.
Coot, Lakenheath fen.

There were further sightings of cranes, numerous marsh harriers soaring, diving and displaying over the reedbed, and two good views of bittern in flight. During the afternoon a small crowd gathered to watch a bittern which spent a good half-hour right out in the open,  going through its full range of postures, but unfortunately too far away to photograph well. Another bittern boomed from the reedbed, and bearded tits could occasionally be heard, and briefly seen, amongst the reeds. It was a truly magical day in an amazing place. One might view with some distaste the highly corporate nature of the RSPB.  But when you see what their massive membership, influence and buying power is capable of in the shape of this vast new wetland one has to admit that the end sometimes justifies the means.

Before dusk I spent a couple more hours at the Joist Fen viewpoint. Also present was an old chap who seemed to know the place, and was chatting with other visitors. I decided to approach him with my earlier crane experience and see if it elicited a more satisfactory response. It turned out that the man was Norman Sills, ex-warden of the reserve but now retired. It was he whose vision it had been to create the reserve in the first place, and who had seen it through to maturity, allowing a younger man to then take over. He was more than forthcoming over the crane activity I had seen that morning.

I had made a simple misinterpretation. One pair of cranes was already – on March 25th – sitting on eggs; I had seen the “off-duty” bird approach and then see off a pair of intruders. The second pair I saw virtually never trespassed on the first pair’s territory and frequently fed on the other side of the railway line. It immediately made complete sense. Other than the Lakenheath birds there are several other pairs floating around other wetlands in the Fens, and I had seen one of them. He could recognise individual birds by the size and colour of their “bustle” – the shaggy tail formed by the birds’ folded wing feathers, and he showed me sketches of each one. He showed me detailed plans of the reserve and where each pair’s territory was. It is a pity that a perceived need for secrecy had prevented the reserve staff from being more open with me earlier in the day.   The generosity with which Norman Sills divulged his hard-gained knowledge restored my faith in human nature. And what a legacy for him to be able to look back on in old age!

Seeing several rare and specialised reedbed dwellers had been the highlight of an excellent day, but my best photographs were of a far more humble species – the coot. All were set within reeds and backlit by the powerful spring sunshine. I may well use a selection of them in the expanded version of Bird/land when it shows at Aberystwyth Arts Centre over the summer.

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6 thoughts on “In crane country

  1. Love the B&W composition.
    Unfortunately I think you met the attitude of some employees who don’t make the connection between you the customer and their wages. Common enough in medical and educational circles and it would seem large charities. The presence of a till concentrates the mind in many small businesses but when income comes from ‘funding’ its that paymaster who calls the tune and gets the red carpet!
    How nice that you met an old school conservationist retaining that essential passion.

    1. if you’re referring to the “secrecy” aspect, Liz, I think people just love having secrets, including birders – or perhaps especially so with birders. The knowledge that they’ve seen something or know something other people don’t makes them feel important. You see it often enough round here, where news of something passably unusual at ynyshir will not reach the masses through the bird blog.

  2. Sounds like a great day in a great place with a great person. Somewhat jealous but will be heading there soon as part of the #norfolkbirdrace hoping to see cranes and bitterns as well as some other beautiful birds.

    1. I’d be surprised if you didn’t see cranes there. I don’t k now if they go into hiding once the eggs are laid but it’s quite difficult for a crane to hide itself completely, being so tall. you’d stand a good chance of seeing them from the railway line as well – not that I’m suggesting you should walk along it!

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