Birding the Ely10

I have updated an article that I wrote for the Cambridgeshire Bird Club Bulletin in late 2011. A kindly soul reminded me about it over a pint last week and said some nice things about the sentiment, which has made me look at it again for this topical blog.
Thanks for the encouragement Mark W.

Birding the Ely10

The gothic cathedral, the ship of the fen, makes the ancient market town of Ely something special. Nudging that bit closer towards the heavens in a sky already pressing the land to impossible flatness, this monolithic construction marks the centre of the Ely10. Within 10 miles of this point, the kind of folk who want to can savour some of the finest birding experiences in Britain.

I have worked local patches for 30 years from the Ings and Headlands of Yorkshire to the Capes and Straths of Northern Scotland, the silt filled harbours of New Zealand to concrete lined London reservoirs. Each patch has offered opportunities to experience the land and seasons with intimacy, awe and expectation. My very favourite patches have offered rich experiential rewards, elements of wilderness and the potential to dream of what the future may bring. The Ely10 delivers all of these in abundance.

Spoilt for choice, I found it hard to focus on one specific patch when I settled in Ely and as a result I often visit several local sites within a birding session. Uncharitably I used to call this fatbirding as there’s lots of checking of large areas from vantage points, easily accessible patches of good habitat and with most sites being close to roads and tracks, little in the way of sustained aerobic exercise. Some years ago I was fortunate to be invited to join a friend visiting a living legend of UK birding, DIM Wallace, and we were treated to a memorable tour around his Staffordshire patch. I have since taken to using his far more romantic notion of a local safari and my trips out under that banner feel more decadent and a little less lazy.

 I have only very recently drawn the perfect circle on a map with the help of some ingenious software. Until now I have used an old, mud stained shoe lace, calibrated and cut to length, on the odd occasion when I need to clarify whether a site is in or out of the 10. Sweeping the shoe lace like a second hand over the map the Ely10 stretches out to the dark fens of Chatteris, Welney, Shippea Hill, Brandon Creek, clipping the chalky soils south of Isleham, the parkland of Chippenham and Exning and back across the flatlands of Reach, Waterbeach, Cottenham, Willingham and Earith. The Fen folk would call this area hoooge and it is certainly large enough to offer endless discovery and rich enough to satisfy almost all of my birding needs.

The great 19th Century nature man and existential writer Henry David Thoreau believed

 “A man's interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town.”

Fostering this ideal I try my best to steer clear of lists and drink in every quality birding moment but there is a remnant twitcher embedded in the recesses of my psyche that craves the collection. Event birding, the discovery, identification and subsequent collection of rare and scarce birds sightings by the masses certainly typifies the interests of the last three generations of amateur field ornithologists. Here follows, in no great order, my own dry and grubby little list of delicious rare and scarcies from 9 years in the Ely10.

Black-necked Grebe, Slavonian Grebe, Goshawk, Rough-legged Buzzard, Pallid Harrier, Northern Harrier, Montagu’s Harrier, Honey Buzzard, Red-footed Falcon, Osprey, Long-eared Owl, Glossy Ibis, Bittern, Spoonbill, Night Heron, Cattle Egret, Great White Egret, Purple Heron, White Stork, Common Crane, Spotted Crake, Quail, Squacco Heron, Bean Goose, American Wigeon, Baikal Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Long-tailed Duck, Black-winged Stilt, Wilson's Phalarope, Red-necked Phalarope, Grey Phalarope, Pectoral Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Dotterel, American Golden Plover, Stone Curlew, Collared Pratincole, Black-winged Pratincole,Temminck's Stint, White-winged Black Tern, Caspian Tern, Great Skua, Laughing Gull, Iceland Gull, Glaucous Gull, Mediterranean Gull, Barred Warbler, Icterine Warbler, Wood Warbler, Firecrest, Bluethroat, Richard's Pipit, Great Grey Shrike, Raven, Golden Oriole, Waxwing, Ring Ouzel, Black Redstart, Snow Bunting and Lapland Bunting.

Some of these birds I stumbled upon myself, some I worked hard for, but most I saw thanks to birders with keen eyes, ears and honed fieldcraft willing to share their discoveries. I would like to thank them now for finding these birds that I have enjoyed so much.

The beauty of birding any restricted area is that every sighting has its local context. Such a highlight came when BTO atlas work revealed a couple of hidden acres of woodland where both Marsh Tit and Nuthatch were vocal. When this article was originally published in 2011 I wrote the following:

“ Despite ever increasing sightings and expanding range I am yet to latch eyes upon a Red Kite in the 10; it has become a quiet obsession imagining this first encounter. OCD levels of skywatching have produced a few very, very distant birds that “must have been.....” but not the definitive, a bird that allows itself to be drunk in and held as a moment burned in memory, an entirety of location, light, plumage, shape and form. Pessimism, or experience, tells me my first good Ely10 Red Kite is most likely to be a brief but adequate view from a moving car, on my way to work with drizzle imminent but I always dream of that low drifting wanderer over the garden one glorious spring morning.”

As it turns out my first Red Kite in the Ely10 came relatively quickly with a bright but distant bird over the Fen from the Ely Beet Pits. that spring. I thought the seal would break and sightings would become steady but I was disappointed. Until last year when, on a cotton fresh April morning, I lifted my head from some intense carpentry on the Black and Decker to see a large raptor cruising low towards the me from the south. Optics always at the ready for the next 5 minutes the Red Kite drifted very low over the garden. Eyeball to eyeball at times it circled back again and again before finally finding a thermal to spin upon as some ever shortening string pulled it high into the sky. It eventually became a dot that just drifted away.

I had lived a little dream - "a bird that allows itself to be drunk in and held as a moment burned in memory, an entirety of location, light, plumage, shape and form" 

So what of these claims of the finest birding experiences in Britain? There is no coastline so the heady stink and clamour of the seabird metropolis is out, as is the swirling smoke clouds of estuarine waders. Ancient woodland there is not and rolling upland only when blurring your eyes at the horizon and turning the clouds into snow-capped munros. The experiences I speak of are subtler, and not likely to be found on a reserve information board. They are subjective and unique to, and of, the fens because it is always there.

The Fen. 

A character in its own right, omnipresent, hung in suspended animation. Quietly battling, it is immersed in its own wet memories, secure in the knowledge that eventually, beyond the scope of any living generation, it will re-drench and quench it's thirst to become untamed once again. I love it; others do not, although few are ambivalent to it's big skies and linear challenge.

The closest to holding the essence of birding the fen is to imagine or, if you are lucky enough, immerse yourself in the memory of a still May dawn. The sun is pinking the eastern horizon; a layer of smudgy mist hangs a few feet above the ground and the air is cold and humic. Above the trembling vibrance of a Wren solo and the meandering sweetness of Blackcap chorus, the Poplar leaves rattle just a little, the Woodpigeons coo a gentle throbbing lullaby, and in sublime, snatched seconds the fluid honey of Golden Oriole song drips from the trees.

I sense this essence too in the electrified evenings where the Grasshopper Warblers join the crickets in percussing the flight of the hunting Barn Owls and Marsh Harriers, while distantly a Bittern booms an occasional bass. In the winter it's in the cacophonous trumpeting of wild swans, excitable whistles of Wigeon and giggling Godwits; and in spring the same floodlands reverberate to the rolling displays of Lapwing, incessant Redshank, and juddering Snipe. Out on the arable it's the Yellow Wagtails canary-like amongst the winter wheat, a Wheatear perpendicular to the soil, Corn Buntings jangling their tune beneath the Skylarks to accompany my religious scouring of the furrows for the striped crown of migrant Dotterel.

To quote Thoreau again:

“Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing it’s not fish they are after."

Whatever it is that I'm after, I'm very glad that I'm after it here.