Love in the wintertime
PUBLISHED: 07:30 23 February 2015 | UPDATED: 07:35 23 February 2015
Ben Garrod, Norfolk Wildlife Trust ambassador, BBC presenter and evolutionary biologist falls under the spell of the crane.
I’ll not lie, I’m not a birder – there, I’ve said it – please don’t judge me. I’m a primatologist, a mammologist, an osteologist, an evolutionary biologist – just not a birder.
I do however love the iconic birds. Those charismatic feathered fiends that no-one else seems to like seem to have captured my heart, despite my inner mammal-loving protestations. I usually love the weird ones: The kleptoparasitic frigates I watch from my Caribbean field office; the unarguably ugly marabou storks which used to harass me in the Congo and the darkly sinister, bone-breaking lammergeyers I marvelled at in the Ugandan highlands. But for me, it’s the ridiculously pompous, yet somehow understated Eurasian cranes that really enrapture my non-avian heart.
There have been some high-profile and great captive breeding programmes elsewhere in the UK but if you know where to look, then Norfolk is a hidden gem for anyone wanting to see these birds.
Now, we all know that Norfolk is beautiful and you’d be hard pushed to find anywhere more spectacular in the UK but for me, it’s in the depths of winter that the real Norfolk comes alive. When the windswept beaches are empty of sunbathers and all but the hardiest have abandoned the Broads, a Norfolk winter is not to be missed, because it’s then that you can experience one of the most wondrous events in the natural world. At Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserves such as Hickling Broad, the resident cranes are set to raise their new families. But first they must dance.
You’ll need to wrap up warm and keep dry: An ancient Thermos of tepid tea and a permafrost-cold KitKat are usually my weapons of choice. I’ve been going for years now, since I was a geeky teen with no-one to accompany me. Now I’m a geeky adult and still have no-one to go with but that’s fine with me.
As the watery, wintry sun heralds dawn over the marshes, there’s usually a thick blanket of mist hugging the fields that skirt the inky waters of the Broads. It’s a waiting game which, if you’re lucky, will be punctuated by a raucous shriek, followed by echo-like staccato calls. Watching these 4ft high birds toss their heads back and call to the heavens is, to me, one of the most iconic sounds of Norfolk. As pairs of birds walk and strut side by side, mirroring each other’s every move, they raise their wings, tip their long necks back and belt out their loving dirge.
I throw caution to that early morning wind and embrace my inner anthropomorphic self; they’re in love and they want the world to see. As they leap into the air with such ungainly ease, I remind myself that I’m so lucky to hail from Norfolk and even luckier to be able to share a small part of this wild land with such majestic and beautiful birds. As I sit here, fingers numb and the KitKat now unbreakable, it dawns on me that I might just be a bit of a birder after all.
Stubb Mill Winter raptor and crane roost
Possibly the best place in Britain to view wild common cranes in winter is NWT Hickling Broad. From the Stubb Mill raptor roost viewpoint, common cranes can be seen coming in to roost at sunset. As well as the cranes, large numbers of marsh harriers are almost guaranteed in the roost, with occasional sightings of hen harrier, merlin and barn owl.
Parking is not available at Stubb Mill raptor viewpoint, therefore please park at NWT Hickling Broad car park – walking directions can be found on the orientation station located near the visitor centre (it’s roughly a 15-minute walk along an often muddy track, so wellington boots are recommended).
Full details on NWT’s website, www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk