While it is a fallacy to say that the landscape of the entire county of Norfolk is level it is true to say that the flood plains of the Broads catchment are as flat as a veritable pancake.
The vast area of grazing marshland to the west of the coast between Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft would give succour to believers in a flat earth. The skies are as a half sphere, like a planetarium writ large.
This hare has been running across Wickhampton Church for 700 years
The other day the sky was painted a vivid blue with white cotton wool clouds, pretty as a Faberge egg. I left St Andrew, Wickhampton, the church of the running hare. It sits at the top of a very shallow valley side and I walked slightly downhill and then along the flat concrete road bordered by dykes, the clarity of which turned their waters into the finest Venetian mirror to reflect the sky.
Beyond the dykes stretched the seemingly endless lushness of grazing marsh, in all directions.
I walked on to cross the arrow straight single track railway line stretching to its vanishing point in both directions, the only punctuation was Berney Arms Station, probably the smallest railway station in the UK. No desperadoes were waiting for a train today but a solitary Carrion Crow, hunched in its black plumage on the short platform, served as a gunslinger today.
I reached Polkeys Mill, a preserved wind pump with its associated pump houses, which housed steam pumps a lifetime ago. Now they are a silent testimony to a time when such work was overseen by men rather than telemetry.
It is always easy to linger here and sit on the seat on the riverbank but today I was searching for an illusion incarnate: Bearded Tits. I turned right and followed the River Yare upstream.
These little birds are enigmatic and iconic, the poster birds for this area yet seldom seen except by the cognoscenti. For a start, their name is a misnomer on two counts. They are neither bearded or members of the Tit family, the Paridae. Their other common name is Bearded Reedling. This little bird was first described in 1758 by the famed Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, who placed it in the same genus as the other members of the Tit family. After further thought over the subsequent centuries it was decided that Bearded Reedlings are unique, with no other close relations. Now they are the sole members of the family Panuridae, the name of which is a reference to their long tails.
These wonderful birds are very much habitat specific and the riverside reedbeds or ronds of Broadland are a stronghold. They are found in other parts of the UK but they are, like Swallowtail butterflies, mostly associated with this area. There are estimated to be 630 breeding pairs nationally but their numbers fluctuate annually as they are hard hit by very cold winters.
To say that Bearded Reedlings are difficult to see is an understatement. I think they are often seen but not always noticed. I stood on the river wall and looked down on the huge rond which is their habitat. It was a waiting game now. If Bearded Reedlings gave themselves names they would be called Unseen, Elusive, Evanescent and maybe Phantom. They flicker through the reedbeds like sunlight dappling the reeds they resemble so closely. I have lost count of the times I thought I had seen one only to find it was a dead reed leaf swaying on the breeze.
Their call is a high pitched ping, like the sound made by the old World War II sonar device, ASDIC. The call will not always direct you to the bird. They seem to have ventriloquist skills. Maybe it’s the acoustic effect of the reeds but the sound seems to bounce around and frustrate the observer.
Suddenly I heard the call, simultaneous echo, and saw birds moving quickly, appearing to swim through the rond. They stopped to feed, climbing the Phragmites stems to the seed heads. I was rewarded with the sight of several birds, male and female, feeding. Both sexes are essentially golden honey brown with hints of orange but the males, as is the way with most bird species, have the striking markings and panache. Their bead like eyes are yellow, as are their tiny bills, which look like they have been stuck on.
Whenever I see male Reedlings I am reminded of Japanese watercolours, so subtle are the colours against the reed background. The males grey heads, which wash into the body colour, are punctuated by a black moustache like stripe on each side, looking for all the world as if they had been added by a calligraphy brush.
They were close, in the birding lexicon, confiding, and I took some shots before, as one, they whirred their way across the river to the mirror image rond of the Island, with their stuttering clockwork flight.
Their pings were carried away on the gentle breeze and the world fell silent and was perhaps a little less for their leaving.