Strumpshaw's assistant warden, Ciaran Hatsell, shares a magical moment:
If birds are your thing, then you will agree that there aren’t many more beautiful sounds in the world than that of a singing nightingale. On the afternoon of the 21st May, I was walking along the riverbank at Strumpshaw after a long day’s walk around the fen. The heat was sweltering and the mosquitoes were out in force. Coming from Lancashire, I’m not used to this Mediterranean weather, and even though my whole life has revolved around the countryside, I have to say I’ve never been a fan of summer. Having hay fever for most of my youth dissuaded me from venturing outdoors too much in the summer months and I would become a hermit for around 3 months of the year. However, being here at Strumpshaw has taught me that I am going to have to brave the heat of the season and get myself out there if I am to see some of Eastern England’s most spectacular wildlife.
Anyway, as I was saying, it had been a long day of getting lost, bitten and falling in ditches. I was approaching the sluice and I suddenly stopped in my tracks. There it was. One of the most inspiring and impressive songs of all. It has been muse to poets and composers for many years, and as I stood there in the dappled sunlight by the river, I couldn’t help but feel a little inspired myself. I sat down on the grass and just enjoyed it.
Nightingale hasn’t been heard here at Strumpshaw for a good few years, and I feel honoured to have had my own private rendition. It serenaded me with its rich, undulating, fluty repertoire for at least 10 minutes before popping up and flying off downstream. When you combine this with booming bitterns, calling cuckoos, hunting hobbies and swooping swifts, Strumpshaw Fen is absolutely cracking at this time of year.
Assistant Warden, Strumpshaw Fen.
Not many people have the privilege of close-up encounters with wildlife on their lunch break. I was lucky enough to eat my sandwiches under an aerial bombardment of swifts, swooping and diving above my head as they grabbed their own insect feast from the air. For a moment I felt almost invisible, as these tiny dark bodies screamed and whizzed above my head, totally intent on their prey.
Watching them, it's hard to get a sense of how fast they move; my eyes are far too slow to follow the bullet-like trajectory of just one bird. It's the sound that brings it home: the startling moment when one bird whooshes past your ear so fast you hear the loud 'zhooom' of the air being ripped apart and the cool rush of the wind against your ear.
Two or three swifts had rushed past my ear like this and I was standing waiting for the next 'rush'. But this one was different - the 'zhooom' was much louder and the air much harder against my ear. Something far bigger than a swift had zoomed past my head. I searched the cloud of swifts and found it: it was shaped like a swift and hunting among them, but much larger. I've never seen a hobby so close before.
I held my breath, wondering if this agile bird of prey would try to lock its talons on a swift. But no, the swifts were unperturbed, and the hobby simply joined them in the hunt, attracted by the same abundance of insects. It's incredible to think that both of these species, which seem so at home in the marshy landscape of the Broads, have migrated all the way from Africa.
The 'pumphouse track' at Strumpshaw Fen is an amazing spot to watch swifts and hobbies at this time of year. In the open marshy fields you can easily imagine you've stepped back a hundred years or more, to a time when these incredible birds were far more abundant in our lives and landscapes.
I went on my first proper spring walk around the reserve yesterday. It was absolutely, completely and utterly wonderful. Ciaran, our Assistant Warden, acted as my teacher for the evening, pointing out bearded tits, showing me where a lapwing was sitting on eggs, letting me peek into a robin's nest and helping me identify every bird I could see.
So we were sitting in Tower Hide looking out for bearded tits when, all of a sudden, Ciaran grabbed my arm and told me in no uncertain terms to Shhhh! And then I heard my first ever bittern booming. Other than the first time I saw the otters here, I think it may have been my most exciting wildlife experience yet. What a fantastic sound, like someone blowing over a bottle neck - how on earth does an animal make that noise?!
Our walk was topped off with a fantastic aerial display from four marsh harriers, doing food passes and locking talons mid-flight.
If you feel the need for a peaceful, magical stroll, come along in the evening when the sun spills its golden light out over the reeds and the birds start to quieten down. Perfect.