“I want to be with you, be with you night and day. Nothing changes on New Year’s Day, On New Year’s Day”
As I stepped from the motor, the blast of cool air was like a slap in the face from a scorned woman. The car park at Buckenham Station is small and was only half-full at 2pm on the first day of 2016. The few cars parked there bore badges of allegiance. RSPB and Hawk & Owl Trust stickers. Norfolk Wildlife Trust (an admirable organisation but they allow no dogs on their reserves, even leashed). My SUV sat amongst the twitchers chariots and stood out like a peacock in a pigeon loft. My stickers show a slightly different sentiment to theirs. BASC, GWCT, CA. Conservation, shooting, countryside. They roll off my tongue easily and with no conflict of conscience. Often, to shoot is to conserve and to protect. You will rarely see a fox on Buckenham Fen reserve (or the nearby Strumpshaw reserve) yet both are awash with ground feeding wildfowl in the winter. I wonder why? The RSPB’s use of local fox shooters is well hidden from its paying members.
New Years Day is always, for me, a concession to my beautiful wife. I am ruthlessly selfish in the use of my leisure time and she tolerates my immersion in shooting, writing and photography. Not only because my hobbies often pay (in both meat and money), but also because my wife recognises that I am a man who needs to be busy to be happy. Todays masterplan was to walk our old lurcher, Dylan, along the tracks between the dykes and splashes of Buckenham. Then return to watch the legendary corvid roost spectacle. It was a chance, too, for me to add to my photo archives. So we put a slip on the dog, wrapped up well against the wind and set off west, across the railway lines. We walked towards a low winter sun that was being slowly strangled by a bank of cloud and I cursed my luck. Poor light means poor opportunity where the camera is concerned. As we walked, my eyes and ears were alert to the open expanse of grazing marsh, dykes and shallow meres. Close by us, hidden beyond the briars and reeds that line the trackside dykes, the distinctive sound of Scalextric cars revving-up made me smile. My wife looked at me quizzically and I whispered “wigeon!”. Then the classic whistle of the duck started and a few took flight. I soon realised that every dyke was full of wigeon and watched hundreds more flight in over the next hour. Yet so far, no sign of the rooks.
In the sky above marshes, the greylags started to pour in, skein after skein. From regimented ‘V’ formation to a flat-lined descent like the Dambusters squadron. Then that clumsy scramble of wings and outstretched orange feet as they hit the turf. Soon, there were hundreds on the floor. The gaggle and squabble of wildfowl fighting for space drowned out the gathering rook song. While we had been watching the fowl, the corvids (rooks, crows and jackdaws) had been gradually gathering on the east side of the railway line.
With the light fading fast now, we crossed the railway line and headed uphill on the lane to our favourite viewing point opposite Buckenham Church. Here, we could see that the triple lined telephone wires were bending, laden with rooks for nearly 400 yards. If a rook takes up 6 inches of space on the wire, that’s over 7000 birds. On the ground, in the winter barley seeding, thousands of rooks had gathered. In the dusk-dark sky above, thousands more were sweeping in. Far from the wildfowl (as we were now) the chorus was that of a black-feather choir only. From previous experience, we knew that there was still some twenty minutes and many thousands of incoming birds due yet. From all points of the compass. We could see from our vantage point that the car park had filled. There were many folk gathered to watch the rooks go to roost.
The birds congregate in bare trees, down on the wet marshes, up on telephone wires, in amongst the stubbles and amid the winter crops. The sight is almost Tolkeinesque, a huge accumulation of black-clad militia waiting for a signal or instruction. On every occasion before today that I have witnessed this, I have never been able to figure out how the birds rise to a single unheard command, to fly to the carrs to roost. When they do, the maelstrom is awesome. Incredible. Tens of thousands of birds from a half-mile radius rise en-masse and wheel in the sky above the woods, calling as they go. The noise is immense, like the loud crackling of the New Years Eve fireworks by the Thames. Yet what triggers it? Is there a single black czar amongst the hordes … a Sauron, a commander? Is it the 15.55 from Yarmouth to Norwich cutting through the Fen? A noisy iron hooting hooligan.
Whatever. Tonight, the gathering was spoiled. With only half the birds gathered to parley and cavort in field and on wire, the single discharge from a shotgun echoed loudly along the valley. It came from along the Strumpshaw lane. The effect was immediate. Several thousand birds erupted from field and wires on the east side of the valley, screaming raucously. Threatened by the sound of a gun, they went straight to roost (and sanctuary). This triggered the birds gathered on the wet marshes on the west of the railway line. They too rose and went to roost. I was frustrated, yet mildly amused. As a shooting man myself this was ironic (and the reason I don’t use shotguns … noise!). I was sure that the discharge meant the end to a nuisance fox or perhaps a rabbit for someone’s pot. We meandered down the hill to the car park. Several people were still there, probably first timers, as we loaded Dylan into the car and changed out of our boots. One of them approached me and asked “Is it over?” I replied, “I’m afraid that shotgun spoiled the party, sir. I would suggest coming back another evening.” As I shut my tailgate, I saw him staring at my BASC sticker. I climbed into the motor whistling that old ‘Shaggy’ tune. “It wasn’t me!”
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2016