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My favourite place

My favourite place to go for an early morning walk is near a small village called Burnham Norton on the north Norfolk coast. It is not a nature reserve, it is wet grassland under stewardship where cattle graze, all under the ownership of the Holkham estate.

On 6th May, my alarm went off at 4.40am as I wanted to be there to see the sun rising across the fields. Just as I expected, and of course it was on time, a big orange ball appeared over the sea bank, only photographable for two or three minutes before it was too bright. As I was checking the photos on my camera the Lapwings were calling, one still displaying, another one calling and a third one mobbing me because she must have had some young close by. Grey Lag Geese were also concerned at my presence. I scanned the field with my binoculars and I could see more Lapwings, Mallard, Shoveler, Gadwall and an Eygptian Goose. I continued along the track between the grass fields where Reed and Sedge Warblers were singing in the reedy dykes each side of the track. It certainly wasn’t a silent spring here as piping Oystercatchers, displaying Redshank and singing Skylarks had joined in the chorus. I stopped at the next gateway to see what I could see, yes there were three Oystercatchers piping away with their beaks pointing to the ground, behind them were some Avocets, some feeding and some on an island on eggs, a pair of Gadwall and a pair of Shoveler. Making their presence known honking loudly were a pair of Canada Geese flying towards me, another Lapwing was complaining, almost crying at me as I was too near to her chicks. I stood, listened, watched and marvelled at the chorus. It was amazing and well worth rising so early to hear and see it all going on. So if there is thought, effort and interest we needn’t have these silent springs that are talked about.

Was it a Black Headed Gull, no it wasn’t, it was a Barn Owl hunting along the sea bank, nice to see but bad news for the Owl, voles are in short supply this spring, even though we have had 3 still night it still hadn’t found enough food. Still nights are ideal for hunting, the problem is we had a wet April and too much rain stops the voles breeding and they are the Barn Owls main source of food. Not far away there was a Marsh Harrier which appeared to be floating lazily over a reed bed but I don’t suppose he was floating lazily at all he would be carefully scanning the reed bed for his breakfast, that is their mode of hunting. Every bird of prey has a different mode of hunting, the Kestrel hovers, the Sparrowhawk works by surprising birds, the Merlin goes for the outright chase and the Peregrine stoops. My word isn’t it fascinating how it has all evolved.

Things kept catching my eye this time it was a flock of birds, what an earth could they be? It was a skein of Brent Geese flying from Scolt Head to Burnham Overy marshes. They caught me by surprise really, here was I immersed in all these breeding birds and there was a flock of birds still wintering over 2,000 miles from their breeding grounds. Brent Geese breed as far north as there is land. They are only absent from North Norfolk for threemonths of the year. Several more skeins of Brent Geese came by, some of them really close and I could here them grunting to each other, that grunting would be their way of keeping in touch with one another while on migration.

I reached the end of the track and went up on the sea bank back towards the windmill, along this sea bank there are such splendid views across the fields to Burnham Norton. Sedge and Reed Warblers were singing in the reeds and I was getting a better view of the ducks and waders on the pools in the fields. Mallard, mostly males as I expect the ducks were on eggs, pairs of Gadwall and Shoveler, Oyster catchers again piping away with their plastic red beaks pointing to the ground, cattle grazing in the background, Avocets feeding and some on eggs and along comes a Carrion Crow but he didn’t hang about as he was hustled on by the Lapwings and Avocets, in fact he ended up by going away in a hurry.

One particular Sedge Warbler was singing right on my side of the reed bed in the soak dyke against the sea wall. I must have stood and watched him for at least 15 minutes. Every so often he would spring up on his song flight and back into the reed bed and as he was singing he would gradually work his way up the reed stems turning his head this way and that way showing the inside of his orange mouth sometimes. When he had reached the top of the reeds he would continue to sing for a minute or two before launching himself up for another song flight. More skeins of Brent geese coming across and then a pair of Shelduck, Redshanks were displaying and there were two Bar tailed Godwits feeding away on a pool, they also breed in Siberia, they would be fattening up for their long journey north east.

I walked on, Tufted Ducks were in a cross dyke, they would be looking for a nest site as they don’t start to lay eggs until towards the end of May. In front I could see where the Brent geese were going to, they had congregated on the salt marsh in a patch of borers salt marsh grass, a fine dark green grass that grows all round the Wash on the salt marsh which the Brent seem to enjoy during the spring to fatten up on before their migration. During the winter they prefer the grass in the fields as that is where I see hundreds of them grunting away with the Wigeon. As I walked on there was more of the same, I was enjoying it all, the sunshine, the birds, the butterflies and the bees. It was a scene that many people would cherish, a pastoral scene, the village in the background, the grazing cattle and the fact that it certainly wasn’t a silent spring here. It was 7.15, I had been out for two hours and only seen one other person who also said it was his favourite place.

Two pairs of Pochard were on a pool not far from the sea bank but they kept their cool and let me walk by, over the past 10 years we have seen several pairs of breeding Pochard in North Norfolk, have they increased in numbers or have they shifted their range west, who knows? For the last leg of the journey I turned right, more Sedge and Reed Warblers and then the strident call of the Cettis Warbler and the Cuckoo calling, it was all going on here, Marsh Harriers were floating over a reed bed, Grey Lag Geese, barren pairs or pairs that had lost their clutch of eggs were flying about and a Heron was fishing in the drain. As I neared the village I could hear Blackcap, Goldfinches and a Wren singing, on the grass fields I could still see and hear Lapwings, Avocets and Redshank calling or displaying and see Gadwall, Mallard and Canada Geese.

I had enjoyed the morning so much I thought I would write this so other people could also go and enjoy what I had enjoyed. Congratulations Holkham.

Nicholas Watts