A Walk Amongst Wigeon

Strolling along the track from Buckenham Station car park towards the River Bure, it would have been easy to think that we were the first visitors to the Fen this morning. The cracked ice on the myriad puddles told a different story, obviously shattered by vehicle tyres. Scanning ahead, through frosted breath, we could see anglers setting up on the riverbank despite the bitter South Easterly. Looking around the flat marshland, there seemed to be little birdlife. The deep dykes still held a thin layer of ice. I sighed inwardly. The intentions of the walk were threefold – to exercise ourselves and Charlie the Cocker, to get some photos of the wildfowl and to scatter some of old Dylan (the lurchers) ashes. He loved this place; probably knowing that it is one of the few RSPB reserves where you don’t (as a defiant non-member) have to pay and you can walk a dog through it. The track is a public thoroughfare and had been long before the birders bought the marshes. As we approached the bird-hide, near the river, we could see a few small gatherings of Canada and greylag geese to our right. I was hugely disappointed. There are always huge flocks of waterfowl here after Christmas? I was being prematurely pessimistic. Closer to the river the communal ‘pee-ows’ of wigeon broke the crisp air and a small flock took off to our left, erupting from the thawed dykes that lay in the lee of the Bure flood defence. The wigeon disturbed, of course by us and the dog. Wigeon have a very short proximity tolerance. Get within twenty yards and they will lift and settle fifty yards away.

Looking along the grazing marsh sheltered by the river wall, there were hundreds of wigeon nibbling the succulent marshland turf like sheep. They had sensibly gathered in the lee of the bank.

We climbed up onto the flood defence to be greeted by a stunning sight. Wigeon, thousands of them, bobbing on the Bure under the low winter sun. As we walked the path eastward, they erupted and circled over the marshes to land again on the river behind us.

From the high point of the river path I scanned the Fen with a spotting scope, picking out a pair of Chinese Water Deer, which are commonplace in Anglia now. I passed the scope to Cheryl, my wife. We both noted how their colouring was well suited to the reeds. I have tasted most venison from these parts but never CWD, which my stalking friends assure me makes fine eating. Following the path left, opposite the Beauchamp Arms pub on the opposite bank, we headed towards an old mill tower. There were boats moored along the opposite bank and a wide reed bank on our side of the river. From the moorings, there came a strange ‘honking’ sound. My wife asked “what is that?” Then amongst the reeds in front of us, came a lame ‘quacking’ sound. I smiled to myself. As both amateur naturalist and shooter myself, I knew both species weren’t ‘wild’ and hurried my wife along the bank. “Wildfowlers!” I whispered. “Newbies!”. Reaching the old mill we paused to look along one of the deep dykes, seeing more wigeon and a pair of mute swans. My wife scattered some of Dylan’s ashes among the reeds near the tower. I whispered “There you go, old boy. You can listen to the whistle of the wigeon and the boom of the bittern at night”. My eulogy was met by a three gun salute from the riverbank. I listened for the splash but there was none. Yep. Newbies! Turning back the way we had come, we kept to the lower path avoiding the wind. With so many wigeon on the move I scanned the fence posts and gates across the fen, using my scope. It’s not uncommon to see peregrine falcons hunting the ducks here. None today though. In the distance we heard a salvo of gunfire. A Saturday pheasant shoot in Buckenham Carrs, where the famous rook roost sits. The rooks exist in complete harmony with the keepered shoot. In fact, the private land helps to protect the rooks from the over-curious. We were disappointed to see a convoy of cars heading down the track towards the bird-hide. The formula is simple: the more people, the less wildlife you will see. We greeted the twitchers as we passed them and turned back towards the station. I pointed out a funny sight to our left. A Canada goose was chasing a Chinese Water Deer which had obviously ventured too close. The bird veered away and the deer stopped to browse among the reeds close to us.

To our right I was delighted to see a flock of lapwings rise and perform their acrobatics. Only the day before I had been reading an article in Shooting Times by Tony Jackson which explained that lapwing numbers had crashed by 49% in the UK between 1987 and 1998. They were common in my youth, now a real treat to see.

Just before we got back to the car we saw a pair of marsh harriers drift from the wood on the Strumpshaw side. One headed up over the Carrs and I trusted that my fellow shooters over there would allow it safe passage. The other headed for the river; the resulting cacophony and avoidance behaviour from the wigeon and geese with the shape of ‘raptor’ overhead was predictable. The twitchers would be having a field day.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2019

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