Few birds promise so much yet deliver as little as the Rough-legged Buzzard. I first encountered one four, nearly five, years ago now. It was love at first sight. That first sight; side-lit in the golden winter afternoons of the north Norfolk marshes, thrilled me. All it had to do was sit on a fence post, in a field, as I watched, rapt. I like arctic birds, I like raptors; but arctic raptors are something really special indeed.
That year was a fabulous year of carefree birding for me: a year of burgeoning confidence in my own abilities and widening horizons. I fell in love with Scotland that year. Nostalgia foreshortens the gaps between the successful trips and the lifers. And there were lots of those. But amongst them all, the Rough-legged Buzzard by Burnham Norton marsh remains a cherished birding memory.
(That first rough-leg)
It spoiled me, I think. Now I wonder if crossing the North Sea is so exhausting, they have to spend winter sitting down to recuperate.
It’s a clear day. The rain has gone, for a day at least, though its replacement is a bitter wind. On the western horizon lies Cantley Beet factory, and the steam from its cooling towers exits at a right angle. It’s five miles away and between us a dull green expanse of nothing-much marsh. Mud, grass, rivers and gates sprinkled apparently at random. Fritton, Chedgrave, Cantley, Furlton, Norton, Thorpe and Reedham Marshes all spread out in front of me. Dad and I, standing on the edge of the higher ground of Waveney Forest were the first thing the wind hit for those five miles; and it gleefully ripped through coats and gloves and shook the scope just to make things difficult, as well as cold.
These marshes are a desolate place. It doesn’t help that the fingerprints of man are all over it. In the gates, the raised river banks, the windmills that mark off the different marshes, the train track that splits into two and runs either side, the pylons, the bridge and the A143 in the distance… The landscape is cold. Unremitting. Man’s additions are functional, utilitarian. The only scenic additions are the windmills, the ghosts of agriculture past.
Another birder found it first. Taking the directions, we find the rough-leg. Or we think we do. Nobody was really sure: sat at nearly a mile, identification is by percentage; probability of what it looks most like. What we conclude, when we’re certain it’s not a goose, is that it’s a large greyish brown raptor, pale headed and pale tailed. The rest exists in uncertainty. It probably was the Rough-legged Buzzard was my conclusion, but it was hard to conclude anything. By behaviour as much as anything else. Ever since the Burnham Norton bird, the rest I’ve seen have all been sat on the opposite ends of whichever rain-sodden marsh I find myself at. I don’t think they fly at all, which, oddly, must be about their only similarity to Coots. But for a high-arctic, charismatic, scarce, and exciting species, they seem determined to be a damp squib, everytime.
After, we headed to Buckenham Marshes. Home of England’s only regular wintering flock of Taiga Bean Geese. Except not today. Today it was almost completely bereft of birds except for Wigeon, Kestrel and this Pied Wagtail.
The Kestrels were frantically hovering as if it were the only way to keep warm. We hid in a hide, overlooking a mammoth, thousand-strong flock of Wigeon...
...Wondering what happened to all the birds? Is this the worst winter in a decade for wintering bird numbers?