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Bird life in Norfolk

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The old fame of Norfolk as a dwelling-place of the rarer British birds and the home of an unusual number of different species has somewhat suffered of late years, mainly through the reclamation of waste land and water and the increase of game-shooting. The din and bustle of game-driving especially have frightened many birds from the woods and coppices to which they formerly resorted. The popularity of the Broad district has tended to banish some of the birds peculiar to that district. These numbered a few species all but unknown in other parts of Great Britain, and their partial loss is a sorrow to the bird lover that he is not compensated for even by the well-deserved popularity of the neighbourhood which his bird friends have deserted.

The following birds more or less commonly residential in Norfolk at the beginning of the nineteenth century are no longer found in it except as occasional visitors, and some of them, such as the great bustard, kite, raven, and Savi's warbler, now shun the county altogether.

Avocet; Bittern; Black tern; Godwits; Great bustard; Harriers (a pair or two of marsh harriers still haunt the Broads perhaps); Hoopoe; Kite; Peregrine falcon; Raven; Savi's warbler;

That the wild birds and beasts of a district rarely return to it when once they have been driven from it, is an axiom of the naturalist. This axiom is strikingly illustrated in Norfolk just now. Hundreds of square miles of land from which the wild fauna were driven by the cultivation of the soil have relapsed into their original condition owing to the depression of agriculture, but there is no sign of the old winged inhabitants of these districts returning to them.

Most of our birds, however, are not only as numerous in Norfolk as they were formerly, but some of them are more numerous than ever.

The long Norfolk coast-line and the salt broads lying near it are ever attractive resting-places to birds travelling to or from the continent. In some spots the supply of food for wading and swimming birds is greater than it was, and a little protection is afforded to certain birds through the operation of the Gun Act and the Birds' Protection Acts. The balance for the century between newly observed and extinct Norfolk species is still slightly in favour of the former.

Out of the 385 species of birds named in the last edition of u Montagus' Dictionary of British Birds," no fewer than 304 have been recorded as occurring in Norfolk. This plentiful bird-life has produced an unequalled line of local ornithologists beginning with Sir Thomas Browne and going on to the late Mr Henry Stevenson and the Gurney family. The " Birds of Norfolk," by the former is an altogether unequalled book amongst County Ornithologies.

The golden-crested wren the smallest, the wild swan, and, till 1838, the great bustard, the largest of British birds have found their favourite English home in Norfolk, and well represent the inclusive nature of the bird life of the county.

With a slight alteration a celebrated Oxford dictum may be applied to Norfolk birds, as we may say with almost strict truth': "The bird that is not known in Norfolk is not worth knowing anywhere."

The following birds of Great Britain have been first obtained in Norfolk; and some of them, as British birds, are still peculiar to the county:

Bee-eater; Black-bellied dipper; Broad-billed sandpiper; Buffle-headed duck; Caspian tern; Capped petrel; Dusky petrel; Eastern golden plover (?); Pallas' sandgrouse; Pectoral sandpiper; Red-crested pochard; Red-footed falcon; Roller; Savi's warbler; Shore-lark; Steller's duck; Wall creeper; White-winged tern;

The blue thrush (the only English specimen) and the eared stonechat (the only British specimen) have also been seen in the county. Amongst British birds either nesting in Norfolk only, or else more commonly there than in any other part of the British Islands, are the following:

Bearded titmouse; Marsh harrier; Gadwall duck; Water rail; Garganey duck.

In the winter time the sea coast and the meres and broads still abound with water fowl. On the meres and broads, however, their numbers are fast decreasing; nevertheless a few species seem to be increasing on these waters. Amongst these are the great crested grebe, the gadwall, the garganey, and the shoveller ducks. As in other parts of England the starling is undoubtedly much more common than it was, and in game preserving parishes the nuthatch, and, during the last nine or ten years the woodpeckers have much increased in numbers.

The glory of the meres and broads of Norfolk as winter abodes of wild fowl is abated since the disuse of decoys for capturing wild duck, and the consequent cessation of regularly feeding the wild fowl.

From 10,000 to 15,000 birds would formerly be taken in a season in one set of three or four decoys placed around sheets of water not more than four acres in extent. That is to say, from four to six tons of wild fowl would be taken in a week from one mere or broad. (The Harwich duck water was only an acre in extent, and in one season 16,800 ducks were taken off it!) On the small water at Herring- fleet, just over the Suffolk border, 600 birds were frequently taken in a night, and 207 ducks were taken off this water in one night so recently as 1879. In a very short season 1000 teal alone were taken off a small pool at Hempstead, near Holt. To make up for the decline of wild- fowling, however, the prolificness of Norfolk in most other sporting birds increases every year. The following figures show how great is this prolificness: - At Houghton in 1897, 4,300 partridges were killed in four days by Lord Grey de Wilton and his party, and at Holkham, 8,426 partridges were killed in the season of 1896; 3,439 being shot in four days. At Merton no fewer than 7,734 pheasants were shot in the season of 1896. No late summer visitor to Norfolk can fail to be struck by the vast number of partridges and pheasants he sees in every direction, although, of course, he will be too early to see the greater number of our coast and inland wild fowls and migratory game birds, such as woodcock and snipe.

The visitor to the broads, if he is a careful observer, will be almost certain to see birds that are new to him unless he has had unusual opportunities for the study of bird life. One of the most beautiful and interesting of these is the bearded titmouse (Panurus biarmicus). Though rare, this graceful bird is, I believe, by no means so rare as is generally supposed. The quiet watcher amongst the reed beds is nearly sure, in the course of an hour or two to see a pair or two of " reed pheasants," - the folk name of this bird - either hanging on the reeds in their own daringly supple fashion, or winging their way from one clump of reeds to another with a dipping flight. The bearded titmouse is about six inches and a half long, of which length the tail takes up about half. Its back is very light fawn colour, and its breast and belly light rose and orange red respectively. Beneath each eye is a conical black tuft of velvety feathers which give the bird its name. The colours of the hen bird are fainter than those of the cock, and she has no whiskers.

Another bird characteristic of the Broads is the great crested grebe. Owing to its being carefully preserved of late years this fine bird is recovering its former position as to numbers in some parts of the county. No one can mistake the bird. Its size - it is about two feet long - its black double crest and chestnut and black collar give it too attractive an appearance for it to be overlooked. There is no difference in the plumage of the cock and hen birds except that the collar and crests of the latter are not quite as large as those of the former. Neither sex attains its full plumage until after the second moult. This grebe is noteworthy as being one of the few birds that are common in each of the four quarters of the globe. It is, unfortunately, much persecuted on account of its beautiful plumage which is used for tippets and dress trimmings. (Within the last few hours I have seen two ardent lady lecturers on "the cruelty of man towards birds," wearing tippets to the making of which at least a half dozen grebes had contributed!)

The heron is another bird that always attracts the attention of a visitor to the Norfolk waters, either when it is standing motionless, thigh deep in the water a yard or two from the bank, or when it is flying with stately, measured beats of its wings to or from the heronry. The heron can be identified at a great distance when flying by his singularly arched wings, and slender and apparently neckless body. Norfolk people still call him a " harnsey," as they did in the days of falconry, when " not to know the hawk from the harnsey " he was chasing, was the recognised sign of muddle-headedness. The principal Norfolk heronry is at Didlington, and there are or were till lately heronries at Gunton, Earlham, Costessy, Reedham, Holkham, Kimberley and other places. Herons have decreased of late years in Norfolk through being trapped and shot by gamekeepers and others.

A bird the inland tourist is almost sure to hear, although on account of its extreme wariness he may possibly miss seeing it, is the stone curlew, otherwise the great or Norfolk plover (Oedicnemus crepitans). From the middle of April to the end of September this bird haunts the heaths of the county, generally laying its two eggs on the surface of a dry flint strewed patch of soil. At night it often leaves its nesting places to seek for food in cultivated fields or to obtain water out of the brooks and ponds. In the open parts of the county in the early morning and on bright moonlight nights its clear mournful cry may generally be heard, although the birds themselves are flying high up out of sight. In the daytime stone curlews crouch close to the ground knowing that their protective colour preserves them from observation as they lie low amongst the greenish grey stones and furze to which they run as soon as they catch sight of an intruder on their solitude. The cock will often utter his cry of " curluui " to warn his mate or comrades before he runs to cover. Tennyson tells us that when Enid went forth with Geraint:

" The great plover's human whistle amazed
Her heart, and glancing round the waste, she fear'd
In every wavering brake an ambuscade."

These birds are from sixteen to eighteen inches long and weigh about a pound each. Their upper plumage is tawny brown with dusky brown stripes down the middle of the feathers. Their under plumage yellowish white, the breast is streaked with dusky brown. They have a pure white stripe and a mixed brown and white stripe on each wing. The stone curlews derive their book name from their exceptionally thick knees. They may be identified by their very large fawn-like eyes.

It is sometimes said that the nightingale is not a common bird in Norfolk. This does not accord with my experience in the western half of the county at any rate. There almost every copse and shrubbery has one or more of these birds in it during May and June. On one occasion I heard seven singing night after night in a space of five hundred yards in extent from end to end. In the same division of the county goldfinches and bullfinches are still fairly plentiful; no doubt owing to the bird catchers being kept away from so strictly preserved a district. All over the county plovers of all kinds abound, and except in the late spring and early summer months the inshore waters are frequented by myriads of gulls. Young white-tailed eagles are frequently taken; ospreys, buzzards, peregrine falcons, quails and black grouse are still visitors or residents in Norfolk, but their numbers become fewer and fewer from year to year. Since 1859 incursions into the county of the Tartar grouse known as Pallas's sand grouse, have taken place at irregular intervals. As is usually the unfortunate lot of strange birds seeking - to establish themselves in England, they have always been ruthlessly murdered. (In one month, between the third week in May and the third week in June, about fifty of these charming birds were shot in Norfolk.) I have reason to believe that odd and unnoted birds of this species often travel into our county, and bird-loving visitors will do well to be on the watch for them. They may be identified by their two long finely pointed wing feathers, their feathered legs and feet, black striped clay yellow back and grey belly. They measure about twelve inches in length exclusive of the longer tail feathers.

The unusual numbers and variety of the folk names of birds in Norfolk is an incidental proof of the richness of its bird life, and a list of a few of these names will be useful to the visitor, as the ordinary names of some of the commonest birds are quite unknown to a large number of the inhabitants of the county:

Bullfinch; Blue tit; Chaffinch; Gulls - the smaller; Gulls - the larger; Goldfinch; Green plover; Hedge sparrow; Song thrush; Wild pigeons; Bloodolf; Pickcheese; Spink; Mows; Cobs; Draw-water and King Harry; Peweep; Dunnock; Mavish; Dows;

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Pictures for Bird life in Norfolk

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