Hick­ling Broad is the realm of the marsh har­ri­ers says BEN GAR­ROD, NWT am­bas­sador

EDP Norfolk - - Inside -

WHAT SEEMS like a long, long time ago now, I was on a train go­ing from Yar­mouth to Nor­wich... you know the one I mean, it’s ei­ther so cold you’re sure you are de­vel­op­ing the first signs of hy­pother­mia by the time you hit Acle or the heat­ing is up so high that it looks like a world record at­tempt for the big­gest group strip­tease. Well any­way, I was on the train and we were pass­ing through the Brey­don estuary area... a beau­ti­ful spot, filled with nu­mer­ous species of duck, as well as herons, egrets, reedlings and Lit­tle Brown Jobs (LBJs) that flit past the win­dow too fast to iden­tify.

The train trun­dled along and it stopped at the won­der­fully re­mote Ber­ney Arms sta­tion. As we slowly pulled away, I saw some­thing that has al­ways stayed with me... a beau­ti­ful big bird of prey strik­ing a coot at full speed, just at the edge of some reeds in one of the wide dykes that sur­round the fields.

I had the most in­cred­i­ble view and the bird (the one do­ing the killing not the one be­ing killed) didn’t seem both­ered by the pres­ence of the train at all. The other bird had more im­me­di­ate prob­lems, I’m guess­ing. As we passed the avian at­tack, the last I saw was the fran­tic flap­ping and scrab­bling of the coot die away. A lit­tle awe-struck, I sat back into my seat and smiled, rev­el­ling in my first en­counter with a Nor­folk marsh har­rier.

These beau­ti­ful big birds are part of the rap­tor fam­ily, shar­ing close ties with buz­zards, kites and ea­gles. Since my first en­counter, I have seen these beau­ti­ful and ma­jes­tic birds reg­u­larly but only in Nor­folk and mostly in one area. I have seen them twice more from the train and a few times over at Burgh Cas­tle but mostly, I have seen them at Hick­ling, a place that seems to be their strong­hold.

A place dom­i­nated by end­less reed beds, bend­ing and whis­per­ing in the breeze, framed un­der an im­pos­si­bly ex­pan­sive sky, Hick­ling Broad is a beau­ti­ful place and is a habi­tat of not only lo­cal and na­tional im­por­tance but of in­ter­na­tional value.

Although home to cranes pre­oc­cu­pied with their awk­ward, rau­cous courtship dis­play, swal­low­tail but­ter­flies glid­ing past on sun­light-bright wings and res­onat­ing with the eerie boom­ing call of the enig­matic bit­terns, Hick­ling be­longs to the rap­tors.

A visit any time of the year will give you a good chance at see­ing marsh har­ri­ers here but if you visit across the win­ter months (and into

early spring) then be pre­pared for a spec­ta­cle. Marsh har­ri­ers form what are known as com­mu­nal roosts, com­ing to­gether in their dozens through­out the long win­ters. We have no idea why they do it. They sit too far apart to ben­e­fit from the warmth of their neigh­bours.

One idea is that they some­how share a knowl­edge of hunt­ing ar­eas within the en­vi­ron­ment, pass­ing on in­for­ma­tion to younger and less ex­pe­ri­enced birds. The truth is that we don’t know but it adds to their enigma.

What it does mean though is that these large brown birds of prey form bizarre and en­thralling gath­er­ings at Hick­ling. Not quite flocks in the true sense of the word but nev­er­the­less, large num­bers swirl in the sky above Hick­ling, swoop­ing and glid­ing im­pos­si­bly slowly. They are able to glide at just 20mph, al­low­ing them plenty of time to spot prey be­neath.

Marsh har­ri­ers are easy to spot, even for a use­less birder like my­self, so you don’t need to be an ex­pert if you want to go and see some for your­self. They are the largest and heav­i­est of the har­ri­ers and are usu­ally seen glid­ing on broad pow­er­ful wings, which they hold in a dis­tinc­tive and shal­low V shape.

It is only likely to be con­fused with the buz­zard but the choco­late brown plumage of fe­males and the grey wings and black wing tips of the smaller males eas­ily dis­tin­guish them. Marsh har­ri­ers are a con­ser­va­tion suc­cess story. Back in the early 1970s only one or two pairs nested in Bri­tain, in East Anglia. With bet­ter pro­tec­tion from per­se­cu­tion and bet­ter man­age­ment of their wet­land habi­tat, their num­bers have in­creased.

Both the Nor­folk Broads and the north Nor­folk coast are their na­tional stronghold­s but, more re­cently, they have spread into other parts of the coun­try such as the Som­er­set Lev­els and the north west. They are con­sid­ered by some to be as rare as nest­ing golden ea­gles within the Bri­tish Isles, with around 400 breed­ing pairs.

I can tell you all day how won­der­ful Hick­ling Broad is but then again, I’m a lit­tle bi­ased and you should al­ways go with the real ex­perts in any case. Typ­i­cally, marsh har­ri­ers are mi­gra­tory birds, ar­riv­ing in the UK to breed in April with most leav­ing in Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber to win­ter in Africa.

They pre­fer habi­tats such as coastal marshes, grass­lands, farm­land near wet­lands, fens and reedbeds and nest in large reedbeds where they feed on frogs, small mam­mals and birds, such as coots for ex­am­ple (well, at least one did). But Hick­ling of­fers them so much and the con­di­tions are just right, mean­ing they are able to stay year-round at this en­chant­ing yet hugely im­por­tant site.

It’s now com­ing into spring, so make a note in your di­ary and head over to Hick­ling. You might be lucky enough to see their sky dance dis­play, where a male calls his mate off the nest and passes food to her, lock­ing talons in mid-air as they briefly and per­ilously fall to­wards the wa­ter. It is one of the most spec­tac­u­lar be­hav­iours in Bri­tish wildlife and just an­other rea­son why Hick­ling Broad is es­sen­tial to the sur­vival and health of count­less species of your Bri­tish wildlife.

Be­low: A har­rier at­tack­ing a pheas­ant

Above: Marsh har­ri­ers in flight

Above right: A coot on the run

Right: Hick­ling Broad

Above: A marsh har­rier

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