Growing to more than four feet tall and with a wingspan of almost 8 foot, common cranes are not just the tallest bird in the UK, they are also one of the tallest birds in the entire European continent. This flock in Norfolk first formed in 1978 when three young birds migrated from mainland Europe. Usually these birds would have spent the winter here before flying back to Europe in the spring, but they didn’t. They stayed and over the next couple of years they started to breed. This was their first successful nesting in the UK for more than 400 years and things have only looked up for them since then. There are now more than 40 common cranes in Norfolk, and they have spread into Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Suffolk, and a small flock has also formed in Scotland. Aside from their natural recolonisation, a pioneering captive breeding program led by Pensthorpe conservation trust has helped to reintroduce the birds to several counties in the south west of the country.
Cranes may look like herons and egrets with their long necks and upright posture, but their ecology is quite different. They are omnivores and, with their large pointed beaks they feed on everything from small mammals and invertebrates to grain, fruits, seeds and vegetables. They nest on the ground, and often produce a clutch of just two eggs. Like many other ground nesting birds their chicks are up and able to walk and run from as little as 24 hours after hatching.
Young birds can start flying from 6 weeks of age and although this flock are resident all year round, some birds in Europe can migrate distances of more than 2000 miles.
As we walked along the riverside reed-beds, I noticed this small bird bouncing from reed to reed and swaying in the wind. This is a male Stonechat. They are about the size of a robin and can be found across the UK during the winter. Males are the most colourful of this species with their black faces and white neck band, but the females are plainer and have less noticeable markings. I have seen Stonechats in Norfolk a few times in the past, but they are much more common in the west of the country.
With Norfolk’s man made landscape there are also lots of species that are here because of us. This is a Chinese water deer and as its name suggests, it is not endemic to the area. They were first reported in the wild in 1929 and since then their populations have grown and spread to such an extent that it is now thought that more than 10% of their entire global population is in Britain. These deer don’t have antlers, but they do have two versatile tusks that protrude from their mouths. These point forwards when the deer are trying to fight but are held backwards so they are out of the way whilst the deer are eating.
I was once told that you need to make yourself available to luck and today, that was definitely the case. As we headed back towards the car, I saw this owl hunting over the riverside fields. This is a short-eared owl and is one of the species that I’d been really hoping to see and film this year. They mainly breed in Scotland and the north of England but in the winter, they spread out and can be seen in varying numbers across the whole country. They have distinctive wing and tail markings and bright golden eyes surrounded by darker rings. Unlike most other owls, short eared owls are often active throughout the daylight hours, flying low over fields in search of mice and voles.
You’ve heard of two birds with one stone, well this turned into two birds with one sunset as another owl appeared from some nearby trees. This is a slightly smaller and much more familiar barn owl. Just like the short-eared owls, barn owls rely on a diet of mice and voles and as the number of these species can fluctuate massively from year to year, so does the barn owls breeding success. As their name suggests barn owls often nest in barns and outbuildings but naturally they will choose tree cavities. They usually have between 4 and seven eggs with incubation starting after the first is laid. This means that there will be a big size difference between the oldest and youngest chicks. When food is scarce oldest will out compete their siblings for food and may even eat them once they perish through starvation. This might sound harsh but for the owl parents it is better to rear one or two strong chicks than five or six weak ones that will have little chance of survival after leaving the nest.
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