Have you ever envied a wild bird its freedom? Its ability to journey without map or passport across countries and continents? Surely the great migratory journeys of small birds are the very best symbol of all that is truly wild, untamed and self-willed in nature.
If you want to see and wonder at birds on migration then two of the very best places to visit in September are NWT’s nature reserves at Holme and Cley. On a recent visit to NWT Cley and Salthouse Marshes I met Anouk, one of the regulars at this time of year. Anouk isn’t a person; it is a very special bird. A black-tailed godwit that three years ago, as part of a conservation programme, was hatched in an incubator at Welney. Back in 2018, shortly after his release, Anouk, wearing a unique combination of colour rings on his legs, was spotted at Cley where he joined other wild godwits. Actively feeding on the scrape pools and marshes at Cley enabled Anouk and his new companions to gain valuable weight, providing energy reserves for their autumn migration to the coastal estuaries of West Africa. Anouk returned successfully to Welney in spring 2019 and 2020 and following breeding attempts both years has spent time at Cley during July and August.
What does Anouk’s story tell us? Firstly it points to the information about migration that has been gained through bird ringing. Modern knowledge of bird migration gained through ringing and techniques such as satellite tracking does nothing to diminish my sense of awe and wonder that so many of the birds I see in Norfolk are long-distance migrants. The swifts flying overhead here in August by September will be flying over the very different landscapes of Africa. Our Norfolk swallows will be equally at home on their wintering grounds in South Africa. Those terns plunge-diving for fish off the beaches at Cley and Holme will soon move south along the Atlantic coasts of France and Spain to their wintering areas in West Africa.
This knowledge of bird migration is a good reminder that in protecting wildlife here in Norfolk we must always be aware of the need to think globally as well as locally. Populations of many species of long-distance migrant birds are in catastrophic decline. During the 40 years I have lived in Norfolk I have seen turtle doves almost vanish from our countryside and the voice of the cuckoo become much rarer. Sadly new technology is not just helping us understand bird migration but also revealing the scale of threats that long distance migrants now face each year. Climate change, habitat loss, draining of wetlands and the widespread declines of the insects that many migratory birds rely on for food make these long-distance migrations even more challenging.
What can we do as individuals to help? Well firstly support the continued protection of our coastal and Broadland nature reserves. These provide safe spring and autumn migration feeding sites for migrants as well as important wintering ground for geese, ducks and waders. Secondly we can do our bit to support better global protection for migratory birds world-wide, safe-guarding all of the vital staging posts between breeding grounds and winter homes.
If for you, as for me, birds are symbols of freedom, wildness and the ability of nature to transcend all human boundaries then please support efforts to protect them. Help ensure that long distance bird migration across countries and continents continues to inspire awe and wonder for our children and their children. We should celebrate living on a planet where such improbable, and seemingly impossible, feats of endurance, navigation and survival against so many odds are part of our everyday world.
Header image: Pink-footed geese by Paul Taylor