There are rumours of a stork. On a tip off from a friend, I head down to the river and walk north out of the town, under the railway bridge and beyond to the water meadows. Across the river a swan is sitting on its nest, oblivious to the noisy black headed gulls fishing all around. On the far bank is the heronry, and it is this that I have come to see, because it is here that my friend saw the stork. To see one would be a treat. Storks are rare visitors – maybe 20 individuals a year, and the pair that built a nest in Great Yarmouth in 2014 were supposedly the first to do so on these shores for 600 years.
There are half a dozen or so big nests in the trees here but dusk is descending and they are silhouetted against the dying light – it is hard to pick out who is who and what is what. Most (all?) of these birds will be herons, although the ones at the very top are crows. I am briefly excited by a large messy nest in the middle, but this turns out to be a huge growth of mistletoe. And then, like an enormous crane fly, all bent knees and awkward kerfuffle, something big clatters in. It’s a stork and I feel the thrill of the exotic – like the time I first saw the parakeets in south-west London. A little piece of the African savanna has found its way to the Fens.
For a moment it seems as if it has a nest, but it is a brood of hungry heron chicks that are excited by the arrival of the visitor. The din is extraordinary as they call out for their supper. Anyway, a nesting pair would be greedy of me – one is more than enough. The stork, lonely amongst the rackety herons, might well disagree.
A day or so later and I am less confident about what I saw – the certainty of the moment has gone and I am left with the memory of what was, in truth, a fleeting image. I am walking through water meadows again, different ones tonight – they cover a far greater area and are more rural. Distant church spires, poking up through trees, and grazing cattle give this place a bucolic air. It is a landscape that I suspect hasn’t changed much in several hundred years.
No storks this evening, although there are herons by the dozen – I’ve never seen so many. The accompanying cast is straight out of the Ladybird Book of Garden Birds – blackbirds and thrushes, robins, wrens (lots), crows, jackdaws, pigeons and, wonderfully, a charm of goldfinches. It’s a full set and it’s quite lovely. The hedgerow is alive with song and twittery activity. Kestrels and a sparrowhawk are out hunting, but still no barn owls – I’ve only seen the one this year, and that was glimpsed from the train. The river curves away towards the village but I follow a meandering tributary, a backwater still and slow. A pair of mallards, fussing over a brood nine or ten strong, add to my collection of the non-exotic, whilst a splosh suggests a water vole. There are holes in the bank, so it would seem likely.
Mindful of the gloomy sign, “gates will be closed at 8pm”, I return to the old watermill where I have left the car, pausing to watch a heron standing patient and alert by the weir, waiting, biding his time.