Peregrines, Wild Geese and Avocets

Chapter four - on the Norfolk Broads


One year the three of us, Adam, Pat and I, spent a delightful week sailing on the Norfolk Broads. It was early spring, and the waters were almost deserted; very different to the congested summer months, when it is almost impossible to move through the mass of boats. It is interesting to look back, day-by-day, on that long-gone period, as a comparison with present times; for much has changed in the meanwhile, with the ever-increasing popularity of the area as a holiday destination.

SUNDAY: We arrived at Potter Heigham, exhausted after a long journey by bus and train, to find our home for the next week floating placidly alongside the staging. ‘Joan’ was a rakish-looking sloop about thirty feet long, painted a cool white,  with comfortable accommodation for three. We soon found out she was as fast as she looked, indeed almost terrifyingly so at times in the confined waters we were about to explore. After a great deal of consultation before making the booking, we decided to take a sailing dinghy with us, since many of the areas we hoped to visit were much too shallow for the big boat. A rowing boat would have done, but we all loved sailing, and experience elsewhere had shown that a boat under sail could get far closer to birds than one under oars. I believe the one appears artificial, while the other follows the natural intensity of the wind. A little inborn laziness might also have been said to have prejudiced our choice.

The people at the boat yard were quick and efficient and it did not take long before we were loaded up, with the little dinghy bobbing behind. We hoisted the sails in a moderate breeze and sped rather dangerously off towards Hickling Broad, where we planned to stay for the night. The boat went beautifully and we quickly got into the swing of sailing her, finding out what happened when we pulled various strange-looking ropes. We quickly shot past those few boats on the river and were soon passing the entrance to the channel for Horsey Mere.

Pat, who was gazing idly over the side, gave a gasp and we turned to see our first Bittern sitting on the muddy banks of the channel. It was a strange-looking bird, standing in what we were to discover was a typical attitude, head sunk into its neck and beak sticking up towards the sky. The beak was a brightish-yellow, with the gape extending a long way down. The whole bird was streaked and splodged with dark brown, the back generally tawny as was the belly, while the throat was lighter but still heavily marked. It’s legs were long and sturdy, and it looked quite unlike anything else I had ever seen. It did not boom while we were watching, but our presence must have disturbed it, as it took off and flew towards Horsey. The flight was typically that of a heron, but the neck was held stretched out in front, while its wings 'were soft and rounded like a vast moth, or an owl. These were very exciting minutes and we felt this augured well for the rest of the holiday.

Further on, we passed Whiteslea Lodge, built among the reeds that framed the river, and saw a fine Marsh harrier slowly quartering the reeds. It was a cock bird, with a most magnificent golden-collared neck. It flew slowly up and down, every so often pausing for a few seconds over some special place, hovering like the Montagu's harriers I had known so well in Devon. Just as we were about to lose sight of it, round a bend, we watched it drop like a stone, with talons extended, and disappear into a patch of reeds. A second or so passed, and it rose clutching something small, and flew purposefully off and out of our sight. Harriers are strangely unlike other hawks, they have slender, elegant bodies, and more or less owl-like faces, but their wings are broad and powerful. While they do not soar like a buzzard, they do have the most extraordinary control over their widely-spaced primaries, which are twisting and settling themselves to the air currents continuously. Their usual flight is slow and lazy, yet they appear to fly for a purpose, unlike the soaring birds which seem to fly for the sheer joy of gliding, or the Peregrine which flies up and up into the sky, as if it demands supremacy over all. It is with the apparent slowness of its flight that the harrier deceives, for when it sees something, it moves like lightning, and is on its victim before it realises the menace of the shadow above, suddenly no more there, but upon it.

As we sailed into the wide open expanse of Hickling Broad, we saw an animal swimming along, close to the bank; a Water vole going somewhere fast - such a pretty little anima like a miniature beaverl. We anchored in the broad for the night; it was a lovely evening, and after dinner we sat looking out over the darkening water, listening to the busy bird life in the reeds and pools out of our sight. We were exhausted after our efforts and soon went below into our comfortable little cabin where we were all quickly asleep, to the sound of a solitary Greenshank and the contented murmuring of ducks settling for the night.

MONDAY: When we woke, it was a lovely April morning, with the sun just breaking through a layer of mist, and a white coat of vapour rolling a foot or so above the water on the far side of the Broad. After a rapid, but large and satisfying breakfast, we set sail in a faint breeze and drifted down to Whiteslea Lodge. We knew this was the headquarters of the Hickling Sanctuary, belonging to the Norfolk Ornithological Trust, and wanted to make ourselves known, before attempting to explore the marshes and reed banks. We rowed across in the dinghy and knocked at the door of the Lodge. Here we met Mr. Piggin, the Marsh keeper, and his assistant Mr. Bishop. After explaining our position, and our interest in the bird life of the famous Sanctuary, not only did they give us permission to visit it, but we were offered a trip round the area with Mr. Bishop, who was off on his daily rounds. We were delighted to take this wonderful opportunity and, abandoning the dinghy, all hopped into Mr. Bishop's duck punt, to have a proper look under professional guidance. Our first port of call was a little pool behind Whiteslea. Mr. Bishop quanted the punt soundlessly through lines of tall reeds, until we could just see into a clearing among the reeds. Floating in the middle was a very small duck, with a prominent white stripe on its head, while the rest was a drab grey. It was my first glimpse of a Garganey teal drake. Seen in detail through the glasses, it was a beautiful bird, with contrasting scapulars drooping over the wing, similar to those of a Pintail.

Nothing else was in sight, but I spent some while sketching it. It is amazing to come to a place such as this, and in the first two days see three species which I had previously considered rare birds, and at the same time come across no common birds at all. Seeing new species adds tremendously to the thrill of visiting fresh areas, because it brings a new form of beauty, and adds a bit of spice in the form of the unexpected. The Garganey is by no means a rare bird, but in my experience it is difficult to spot. It seems to be shyer than other duck, even more ready to hide than its excitable cousin, the Teal. I have often had reports of Garganey being at certain places, yet whenever I had been to look, I had neither sight nor sound of them.

We managed to slip away without disturbing the Garganey, and left him busy preening himself, floating on a completely still pool, with a perfect reflection on the molten glass surface. As we quietly slipped along, Mr. Bishop told us he was going to show us another rarity, yet which is fairly common in these parts. He stopped poling and we slowly slid to a halt near a dense bank of reeds. Then we saw them; a pair of Bearded tits flitting in and out of cover, busy collecting food for a brood of youngsters perched just inside the reeds, just able to fly. They were certainly a hungry bunch, mother and father were kept very busy indeed, collecting and feeding the gaping mouths. They were extremely tame, carrying on feeding while we watched from only about fifteen feet away. The cock Beardie was a magnificent bird, with blue head, striking black moustache and a remarkable orange back and belly. The tail was a strange and unexpected wedge shape. When at last the four youngsters reached the sunlight, they turned out to be a rich golden colour all over, slightly paler than their parents, with a small amount of black round the eye. The whole family made a strange 'ping-ping’ noise, which Mr. Piggin later imitated by sucking the back of his hand. Once heard, it is a sound which is easy to recognise; later we were able to spot others when we picked this out of the many other bird calls in the marshes round us.

The whole family moved on a little and we were able to have a look at the nest they had all occupied up until that morning. It consisted of a fairly shallow, and very small cup, woven round three or four reed stems about a foot above the surface of the soggy vegetation which passes for ground in these parts. I was surprised, I had half expected a domed, covered nest, with a hole, like that of the Long-tailed tit. This nest looked very exposed to dangers, such as the lethal quartering flights of harriers and Short-eared owls. These latter may be responsible for their comparative rarity, but I feel that this is more likely due to the constantly reducing area of the reeds in our countryside, especially the dense cover in which they seem so happy. In this connection, all ornithologists, as well as the millions who enjoy sailing, will be highly delighted with the news that more areas are going to be added to the Broads in the next year or so. A plan is afoot to enlarge certain channels and lakes and join them up to the existing waterways. These new areas will undoubtedly become edged with reeds and provide more of the cover that is so badly needed if some of our rarer birds are to maintain their rather precarious foothold in this country. The new channels will undoubtedly bring people, thousands of them, but this does not seem to be the problem that it was.

The birds do not appear to mind the presence of the boats, provided the occupants leave them alone, which they seem to do under the guidance of a benevolent Nature Conservancy programme, aided by patrolling wardens. It is also true that more and more people have taken up bird-watching as a relaxing hobby, in such contrast to their usual lives, and this in itself means that more people are prepared to ensure that birds are protected. Bird-watching is an easy hobby to take up nowadays; binoculars are cheap and there is a wonderful selection of field guides with clear, easily understood, coloured illustrations and simple descriptions. On top of that, there are increasing numbers of bird reserves where people can watch under near-ideal conditions.

After the excitement of the Bearded tits, Mr. Bishop had to take us back to our boat, as he had a number of special jobs to do, which could not be completed because of our numbers. We watched him poling off down river and out of sight, very grateful for the trouble he had taken with us, and for the information he had given about other parts of the Broads. We sailed up to Horsey Mere for lunch, having a rather exciting time of it, as we were carrying far too much sail for the smart breeze that had got up while we were away. However we succeeded in getting there and anchoring, without doing any damage, and prepared a really enormous lunch. We were absolutely famished after our exciting morning. As we ate, the most compelling sound was the strange booming of the Bitterns. This weird hollow sound was impossible to locate by direction. I don't know if there was one bird or several, but it never seemed to come from the same spot. Indeed none of us seemed to hear it in the same way. Adam would point and say it was in one direction, I would reckon another, and Pat would indicate a third point. It is almost as if the bird was a ventriloquist  trying to baffle its audience.  

The commonest, and finest looking birds on the mere, were undoubtedly the Great crested grebes. They were in the full splendour of their summer plumage, with their magnificent head-dresses flaring in the sun. We watched some elaborate courting rituals, with the pairs bowing to each other in the middle of the lake, and were once again struck with how genuinely fond of each other a pair appear to be. The ceremony does not give that appearance of semi-automation which some rituals, however attractive, seem to give in other species. If the Great crested grebe was a rarity, what extreme pleasure it would give to those lucky enough to see it; yet, as it is, I think many naturalists ignore it because it is so common. If one sits down and examines it through glasses, as we did that lunch time, it is seen to be incredibly, almost tropically, exotic. At other times it is most difficult to identify; the first time I saw one flying I did not even realise it was the same bird, so different did it appear, with short duck-like wings and, strangest of all, a distinctive white wing bar, which never shows when the bird is on the water.

After our lunch among the grebes, we spent a happy afternoon roaming up and down the rivers and meres, under just the right amount of canvas. It was a splendid sail, with plenty of hard work for the crew, and the sheer thrill of a fast boat going at its best. The flat, calm waters of these inland sailing grounds are conducive to getting the very best out of a boat, even if there is not quite the excitement and adventure that one feels with the lift of the waves under the bows of a 5-tonner out in the Channel. Next evening, we anchored in Hickling and, after an early supper, piled into the dinghy for a sail round the shallower edges. By now, the wind had dropped to a mere breath, and we drifted round watching the reeds for any movement. On a post, three Sandwich terns were sitting contentedly digesting the food they had been so busy looking for that afternoon. Perched, they are strange birds, still graceful, but not nearly so much so as when they are hawking over the surface with head and tail pointing towards the water and long wings steadily beating. That evening we dropped to sleep within seconds of getting into our sleeping bags - the last thing -we heard being the booming of the Bitterns all round the boat.

TUESDAY: Woke up this morning to the unpleasant howling and shrieking of a really strong wind. When we dragged ourselves out, we found that we were firmly and apparently finally aground. The wind had caused us to drag the mud weight that serves as anchor and, during the night, we had drifted into a mud bank. Indeed we were so deeply embedded that we had actually raised a mound of mud above the surface of the water to leeward. Every gust of wind heeled us over for a moment, and the mud bank was growing before our eyes. It was a bit difficult to see where we were, as Broad’s charts are not exactly comprehensive, and we were not really sure where the channel was.

We were lucky. As we contemplated the rather sorry picture, the warden, Mr. Bishop, hove in sight quanting up through the reeds, protected from the worst of the wind. Even so, his craft looking and feeling unstable at the best of times, great skill must have been needed to go out on a day like this. He quickly hopped on board and, pointing out the channel, helped us hoist the jib, get up the mud weight and ease her head round and off into deeper water, with the aid of our heavy quant pole. Once we were moving, we found that the wind was behind us, in the direction we wanted to go. So, we dropped the jib and had the incredible experience of running under bare poles at some three or four knots.   This is a phrase one reads about in the days of clipper ships, but I never dreamt that one day we would be putting it into practice - and on an inland waterway at that. By now, the wind was really terrific, and must have been well up to gale force; it screamed and shrieked in the rigging, and we began to wonder how we would ever stop. Mr. Bishop hopped into his punt again at Whiteslea, and we left him with a chorus of heartfelt thanks, hoping and praying that we would not need his skilled help again. We managed to pull up at Deep-Go Dyke by steering close to the bank, while two of us leapt out and hung on like grim death. The boat was soon anchored with the rond anchors, single-fluted gadgets which pegged into the ground. But the wind was too much and we were slowly tearing great grooves along the bank. So, after dinner we let go everything and, with the jib up to help steer, sailed round to a spot where the wind would help pin us against the bank.

We were thoroughly exhausted by the time we had done all this and after checking all the anchors and tying ropes on to every tree and stick in sight we dropped into bed. Once again, we all fell into deep sleep; which even the sheer volume of noise was unable to affect. The wind grew stronger still, with great gusts plucking at the whole boat, as if to lift it clean out of the water and onto the bank. It is difficult to imagine the sheer solid weight behind one of these gusts. You feel as if you ought to be able to see this wind, it is so much a part of existence at that period.

WEDNESDAY: Woke at seven to brilliant sunshine and a considerably reduced wind. This was a tremendous relief, as it looked before as if it would last for ever and ruin our short and precious holiday. It was still strong by normal standards, but the sunshine and the contrast with the previous day combined to make it thoroughly bearable. Indeed it seemed to us nigh perfect. The first glance above deck had also given an unforgettable sight, in the form of a fine Pintail drake whistling past the boat only a few feet above the water. It was so close, I could see, with my naked, unaided eye, the white streak on the long neck and the still longer tail projecting behind. For me, the Pintail is the most elegant of our native ducks, always dapper and well groomed. In flight it has quicker wing beats, and a slimmer and more streamlined appearance than a Mallard.

After breakfast, we tore off fully reefed to Potter Heigham, to collect some stores. The boat behaved a bit peculiarly in the stronger gusts, coming up into the wind with the rudder over as much as forty five degrees. The yard soon put us right on this. Using the smaller jib, we should nave changed the fairlead so as to get a better and flatter pull. After this had been fixed, we had a much-better run back and found we could balance nicely even in the worst gust. In fact the only indication of a really savage gust was the terribly loud crash of falling china and other loose bits and pieces down below, as the boat heeled over until the water was coming over the edge of the decking.

Running down Heigham Sound, we spotted a Short-eared owl hunting over a nearby field. Adam saw it break out of a piece of cover and hover a few feet up. It kept flying on for a few yards and then hovering over likely patches of sedges or reeds. The owl was a light greyish-brown bird, similar to a Barn owl in size, but with a marked character of its own, particularly in the vague way it quartered the field, with no apparent plan in mind. It was pleasing to see this bird, and we would have liked to have stopped and watched it for longer, but the wind was too much to try fun and games in the rather narrow channel so, reluctantly we shot on our way. The rest of the day was spent in some pretty wild sailing and we didn't seem to find any time to go on bird-watching. In fact we were worked so hard racing up and down the narrow waterways that I cannot remember even spotting another bird.

THURSDAY: Off early in the morning to South Walsham Broad, which we reached about lunch time, after an exhilarating sail in quieter but still strong winds. As we approached the entrance, we were greeted by the booming of the Bittern, which carried on every few minutes while we were eating lunch. We were obviously close to at least one Bittern, for I noticed one thing that I had never heard previously. Before each boom, the bird took a deep breath. It sounded just like a trumpet player after a particularly loud and difficult passage; a great intake of breath, followed by the strange hollow booming sound, which to me is so much a. part of the Broadland scene.

We left the boat after lunch and all tumbled into the dinghy for a voyage of exploration in and round the reed beds on the edge of the open -water. The wind had dropped a lot and, as we hoisted the little lugsail, the dinghy slid away from Joan's side with a quiet whisper from the bows. Almost immediately, Pat spotted a Grey heron feeding in a shallow pool nearby, so we steered straight for it, hoping that we could stop and drift nearby, while I did a quick sketch. We got within about ten feet and managed to watch it for a few minutes; then a little gust of wind caught the sail. The heron took a fantastic leap into the air and in a split-second shot over our heads with a great buffet of wind from its wings. It was a remarkable sight; this huge bird taking off like a Teal in spring; when I say huge, I really mean it. Unless one has been directly under a heron's wings, only a few feet up, it is difficult to realise what a truly large bird it is, and what a fantastic area of wing-surface it possesses. I have always admired the heron as a good looking bird, but it is more than that when seen at the close quarters of that day, with most striking markings on chest and neck. It is a careful, patient and dainty feeder, standing for long-periods apparently contemplating its navel; then slowly moving head and beak nearer the surface before stabbing down with lightning speed to catch its food.

We pottered on in the dinghy and slid noiselessly round the cover of a clump of reeds to watch Coots and Moorhens having a good old family fight. The Coot is a noisy quarrelsome bird, and this lot appeared to be on their very worst behaviour. The Moorhens quickly pushed off into densest cover, but the others continued rushing at each other and screaming abuse. Coots are pretty birds at first glance, but I never take to them greatly, because of their intolerant attitude to each other and other water birds. They even suffer, to my mind from a certain heaviness and coarseness of shape, while their vocabulary is obviously shocking, picked up in the worst animal circles. Imagine all the other ducks hustling their broods away to try and keep their young ears free from the worst excesses of language. Still I suppose our ponds and pools would be much duller places without the bustling life that the Coot hordes bring to any place. Back in the boat, we decided to sail to Hickling for the night and finally anchored in Candle Dyke, near the entrance. I went to sleep with the lovely whistling of Redshanks echoing over the still waters, and the faint and occasional boom of Bitterns in the reeds round the bend in the dyke.

FRIDAY: Another very windy day, but with bright sunshine, surprisingly hot when sitting sheltered from the breeze in the cockpit. In fact the wind and the sun had the effect of cooking us all pretty effectively. We woke up the next day with very sore faces and arms. Once again we hoisted double-reefed mainsail and the small jib and fairly flew across the waters into Hickling where we spent the morning up until lunch. While in Candle Dyke, I spotted a bird on some wire fencing and idly looked at it through the glasses. At first I thought it was a Grey wagtail, but then noticed a number of differences and looked considerably harder. It was a Blue-headed wagtail, a moderately rare bird of passage from the Continent. The head was a definite blue-grey and there were two eye stripes, a really prominent one from the bill and over the eye, and another less prominent one which ran from the base of the bill under the eye. I later had a chance of seeing a ‘normal’ Grey wagtail and could see the difference quite readily. The Grey has much woollier outlines to the grey and to the edges of the less obtrusive eye stripes.

Sailing past Whiteslea, we noticed a large and strange-looking hawk alight on a gate. We passed within twenty feet and still could not recognise it until we focussed the binoculars. It was a Cuckoo, not a hawk. It struck me at the time what an effect a Cuckoo must have on a group of small birds seeing it at a distance. Or are they so used to the shapes of the actual hawks that the Cuckoo never deceives? It is a handsome bird, and without the glasses, still looked hawk-like, even though we knew what it really was. When it decided to fly away, it really gave the game away, for the flight was soft, unlike that of any self-respecting hawk.

At the entrance to Hickling, I watched a Greenshank in the air, displaying to its mate down below in the sedges. I managed to spot it when I heard the sound of a wader nearby and somewhere above us. It was a lovely liquid call similar to that of a Redshank, but more musical. When I looked up I saw the strange sight of a bird descending on a long glide on down-set wings, similar to a duck coming in to land. When it came closer, I saw the long upcurved beak and graceful colouring of the Greenshank. Unfortunately, at that point it was too narrow for us to turn the boat, so were unable to see the end of this remarkable display, but the picture remains clear cut in my mind, as if the bird is suspended for ever in a steep glide through clear blue skies.

Sweeping through into Hickling past the islands, we were met by the 'river-steamer' booms of the Bittern, and saw a number of Great crested grebes in their delightful and eternal courtship. On the far side there was another wonderful sight, a cock Montagu's harrier hovering over a clump of reeds. For a full minute he hung there, not with winnowing wings like a Kestrel, but almost seeming suspended on nothing. The wind was strong enough for him to keep stationery with only momentary flicks of his wings. The rest of the time, the lift was provided by the wind velocity, adjusted by the individual movements of the wide spread fingers of the primaries. Apparently the game was not to his taste there so, with only a flick of his wing, he moved forward, up the edge of the water, still gazing anxiously down and obviously praying for something to come in to his field of view. The black wing-tips and palest grey back, contrasted marvellously with the fresh green of the new crop of reeds. It provided the perfect setting for this handsome hawk, and seemed somehow more appropriate than the Devon moors where I had last watched his kind. Down he went, with wings upswept and talons extended, and crashed through the sedges on to his prey below. We lost him then, as he stayed down to eat whatever he had caught, but every so often during the day we would catch a distant flash from his back as he quartered far and wide over the expanse of wet fields and deep beds of reeds. The Bittern may be the typical Broadland bird, but the harriers are certainly the Royalty who own the hunting rights.

Later that night we were drying up the dishes after a good fry-up, when a peculiar vibration in the air made us look out over the darkening evening. High over our heads, a small wader was flying round in a large circle, diving down and then climbing to resume its circle. It was a Snipe enjoying its courtship flight. Each time it dived, the tail spread wide and the two outer feathers stuck out at right-angles. It is the vibration of these feathers in the wind which causes the strange bleating noise we could hear every time it dived. As it grew finally dark, the bird flew down into the shadow of the reeds and we lost sight of it.


SATURDAY: The last morning. A sad time, but we were not completely finished with the Broadland birds. Before breakfast I pottered off on my own in the dinghy, and near the bank I heard a strange sound coming out of the thickest bed of reeds; like a sewing machine, mechanical, but rising and falling a bit at the end of each burst. I strained my eyes trying to see what it might be, but there was not even a sound of movement, just this uncanny reeling. I would have loved to have seen the owner of the song, a Grasshopper warbler. If I hear it again, I certainly will recognise this song, as it remains fixed in the memory.

Sailing down to the boatyard at Potter Heigham, we enjoyed a final trip chiefly remembered for quiet sunny sailing, but also by masses of baby birds. We kept on passing families of baby Moorhens and Coots following their mothers, like great balls of fluff with oversized legs. While, at one point we spotted a Mallard duck with four ducklings in line astern. Clearly, many eggs were hatching, and the waters were soon to be a mass of babies being chivvied and gathered in by harassed mothers. Just as we were tying up at the yard, we had our last glimpse of the bird-life we were so reluctantly leaving. The faint whistle of pinions made us look up, to see a fine Shoveler drake tear across the river and disappear into the distance. We watched him flying out of our sight and stood there for a few seconds before turning to get our bags out and into the waiting taxi for the always much longer and more tiresome journey home.



Bearded tit, Panurus biarmicus

Bittern, Botaurus stellaris

Black-headed gull, Larus ridibundus

Blue-headed wagtail, Motacilla flava flava

Common snipe, Gallinago gallinago

Coot, Fulica atra

Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo

Cuckoo, Cuculus canorus

Garganey, Anas querquedula

Golden plover, Pluvialis apricaria

Grasshopper warbler, Locustella naevia

Great crested grebe, Podiceps cristatus

Greenshank, Tringa nebularia

Grey heron, Ardea cinerea

Grey wagtail, Motacilla cinerea

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos

Marsh harrier, Circus aeruginosus

Montagu’s harrier, Circus pygargus

Moorhen, Gallinula chloropus

Pintail, Anas acuta

Reed bunting, Emberiza schoeniclus

Reed warbler, Acrocephulus scirpaceus

Redshank, Tringa totanus

Sandwich tern, Sterna sandvicensis

Sedge warbler, Acrocephalus schoenobaenus

Short-eared owl, Asio flammeus

Shoveler, Anas clypeata

Swallow, Hirundo rustica

Water vole, Arvicola amphibius



NEXT Chapter 5. A week on Havergate Island; early Avocets, in 1950

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