Some Birds of the Broads
THANKS to careful protection, there are wide areas of the Norfolk Broads in which birds that in the rest of the British Isles are either unknown, or but rare visitors, live and breed in security. The dense reed beds that fringe the meres, the spacious rush-covered pastures, divided only by deep and muddy dykes, form an ideal harbourage for certain types of birds when undisturbed by human invasion.
First place must be given to the bittern. The story of its virtual extinction as a breeding species in England for over forty years, until one nest was found in Norfolk in 1911, is well known. Since then it has become well estab- lished. Its " boom " is the most curious bird sound which it has ever been my privilege to hear. At close quarters the raucous intake of breath is distinctly audible. The " boom " resembles closely a distant foghorn; but there is also something bovine in it which justifies the bird's ornithological name, " Botaurus." It ends abruptly, one might imagine with a labial " b " or " p," if a beak could form such a letter. Skelton's line, " the bitter with his bump," and the old name " Butter-bump," obviously allude to this characteristic. On the wing, when viewed from behind, the bittern bears some re- semblance to a very large brown owl ; its wing beats appear slower than they really are, and the tucked-in neck' reduces the bird's length. But seen sideways when in flight, the long, greenish bill and legs at once mark its kinship with the herons.
Young bitterns are the weirdest little objects imagin- able. A nest which I was shown contained three of these fantastic caricatures of a bird, and two unhatched brown- green eggs. Two of the youngsters were well grown, with feathers coming through the fine, brownish down ; but the third was a miserable little mortal, who crouched in dejected obscurity beneath his brothers or sisters. With long bills tilted upwards, they goggled at us with yellow eyes, and from their pink mouths issued an uncanny, gibbering chuckle, like the crackling of a fire of thorns— a fire kindted by their indignation at unwarranted human intrusion. For it is a sad fact that the sight of man acts upon the young bittern as an emetic. One promptly dis- gorged an eel several inches in length, and, fearing to cause further digestive disturbances, we discreetly retired.
Among British birds there is none more daintily beau- tiful than the bearded tit or reedling. Your first acquaint- ance with it is likely to be a glimpse of a small bird with a long, chestnut tail flitting over the tops of the withered reeds, and disappearing suddenly into them. If you are lucky enough to find or be shown its nest, you will then get a better view of both parents, for they are fairly tame, and display great solicitude for the cream-coloured lightly spotted eggs, or the young which repose in a beau- iifully Constructed cradle hidden deep in the 'brown and sedgy undergrowth- a little abOve" "- It is the contrast of delicate nuances with bold markings in his plumage which makes the cock so-amazingly attractive. Head," breast, Minks," and throat show "a colour scheme in which blue, grey, white, fawn, and the faintest rose-blush fade imperceptibly into each other. But the wings are boldly barred and blotched with white, black, and tawny brown ; the beak is a brilliant yellow, and from its base a patch of black feathers tapers into a point, and hangs down in a manner which hidicrously suggests Mr. kantalini's dyed whiskers.
To the inclemency of the weather I owed the sight of a party of black tern, for they departed as soon as sun tempered the keen edge of the wind. They were beating up against the breeze some thirty or forty feet above the surface of a Broad, dipping now-and again, over its minia- ture blue waves to capture their prey. All terns are graceful, but the flight of the black tern is less aerie than that of some of his cousins : the wing beats seem slower, and his tail lacks the streamers, formed by the outer feathers, which add so much to the loveliness of some of the other terns. In . appearance he is lead- coloured, but in sunlight the back and wings glisten to a dull silveriness. When swerving, the white undertail coverts flash in fine contrast to the black head and breast and sombre upper plumage.
A water-rail's nest provided another pleasing interlude. Smaller and neater than a moorhen's, it cradled its eight very beautiful eggs of white, blotched with brown and purple, in a particularly damp and thick reed bed which shook beneath our feet. The owner's explosive protest against our presence was remarkable. This extraordinary noise is sometimes called • " groaning : there is, no doubt, considerable variety in the pitch and - timbre of groans, but some of the sounds which issued from the depths of the reeds reminded me more of the spit of an 'angry cat, and a cat upon which someone has sat heavily so that the noise is squeezed out by foot-pounds of avoirdupois. After a while we caught a glimpse of the author of this eaco?hony, skulking, red-billed, with flanks barred grey and white, in and out of the reed stalks. The water-rail leads a furtive and secluded life and her lan- guage suggested a misanthropic temperament. Obviously we were unwelcome, so we left her to return to her domestic duties. "
' I can only touch shortly on other rare and beautiful -glimpses. There was the short-eared owl, sitting upon her nest beneath brambles in a rushy pasture, and glaring at us with a fury that was positively feline, from the depths of black eyes, rimmed with yellow, set in a ruff, which, along with the erected ear-tufts, seemed- to bristle like fur. Her passionate-anger was translatedinto action 'by her mate, who circled above us and feinted to stoop at our heads. And there were the harriers,-gliding on broad, buzzard-like wings over the swaying reeds : but them I will not particularize for reasons which diose who wish. them to survive will aPpreciate. It is sufficient to say that they are well protected. In-their haunts, if they do not as yet shoot collectors and nail them on a rail with the other vermin, they do not welcome them. There are garganey teal, too, the drakes with wings whose lavender blue is freaked with black and white. Shovellers, too, have blue on the wing,'ind a striking colour pattern of glossy green on the head, white breast, and chestnut underparts. " Redshank, reed-buntings, and sedge warblers abound everywhere, the latter relieving their squeaky chatter with fragmentary imitations of the skylarks which carol unceasingly overhead: • Herons stalk along the dyke banks, and sandpipers preen themselves on the lawn while you breakfast, quite heedless of the household cat playing hide-and-seek at and out of an old boat only a few yards away.. But my most grateful memory is of 'the night when, from my bedroom window; I saw the full moon rise over the Broad ; alders, still gaunt and bare, fretted fantastic hieroglyphics on her face and on her - silver-patined pathway. Over the rushy meadows two snipe were bleating. And across the windless silence floated at measured intervals the sonorous " boomp, boomp, bomnp of two bitterns. E. W. HENDY.