OPINION: We're so lucky in Norfolk to have the magnificent marsh harrier

A magnificent marsh harrier

A magnificent marsh harrier - Credit: Nick Appleton

There are few things in nature more thrilling than the sight of a magnificent marsh harrier quartering our Broadland landscape says Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Reserves Officer Robert Morgan

I’m always bemused by those that say they are going bird watching.

I’m always bird watching: whether it’s out of the kitchen window, as a passenger driving along the M40, attending sporting events or sunbathing on a beach, I’m always looking to see what birds are about.

School was spent staring out of the classroom window, picking out the fieldfares from the redwings on the playing field or identifying the gulls gathered under the rugby posts, studiously trying to sort the juveniles by age and species.

Once a male sparrowhawk flew into the assembly hall window, stunning itself for some minutes.

I had never seen such a beautiful bird, the talons, the hooked bill, powder grey wings, rufous pink chest and piecing yellow eyes. Of course, one never saw birds of prey then, they had been lost to us.

There were a number of factors for their gradual decline, but when DDT came along it effectively exterminated most of our raptors overnight.

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As a boy I’d see the odd kestrel, I even saw a barn owl once, but sparrowhawk! It may as well have been a unicorn.

On the reserve, whilst repairing machinery, lugging heavy kit or digging another post-hole, my ‘I’m always bird-watching’ rule breaks down. I ignore the bearded tits ‘pinging’ about my head; spoonbill, great white egret and garganey must wait, for there is always a more pressing matter.

But the marsh harrier! A common sight in the Broads as it may be; I stop, I stand and I spend a moment to stare, driven to it by the sub-conscious schoolboy. Even standing in my own back garden, I point skyward and declare, for the umpteenth time ‘Look! Buzzard.’

Birds of prey are back. So, OK, now Highland twitchers reluctantly raise their binoculars for another osprey, in the Cotswolds barely anyone is craning their neck to look up at several wheeling kite, and how many people pass Norwich Cathedral as an unnoticed peregrine peers down from the spire?

Never in my lifetime did I imagine red kite drifting over the tree tops of Epping Forest or peregrine falcon nesting on Westminster Abbey. With so many tales of woe in the natural world, the recovery of the UK’s raptor population is to be celebrated.

Birdwatchers at the raptor roost

Birdwatchers at the raptor roost - Credit: Norfolk Wildlife Trust

A great place to discover these magnificent birds is Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s raptor watch-point at Hickling Broad and Marshes National Nature Reserve.

This is probably the best place in the country to see the marsh harrier.

In recent winters up to a hundred have been counted drifting in to spend the night in the scrubby hawthorns that are nestled between the grazing marshes and the vast reedbeds that fan out towards Horsey Mere.

The impressively restored and sailed Horsey wind-pump stands proud against the skyline, a metaphor that contrasts with the dilapidated Brograve Mill that is visible in the distance, now an iconic symbol of the Broad’s past.

Marsh harriers were driven to extinction in the UK by the end of the 19th century, but managed to recolonise the Norfolk Broads in the 1920s, then in the 70s the population plummeted to just one pair.

The species has bounced back and Norfolk alone holds on average 80 or so pairs, and although the population is augmented in winter by continental birds they still remain less numerous than golden eagle.

There are few things in nature more thrilling than the sight of a magnificent marsh harrier quartering our Broadland landscape.

With some luck you may see merlin, our smallest falcon, often an individual will sit on one of the fence posts, but the raptor that is most anticipated and sends a murmur along the assembled ‘birders’ is the hen harrier.

The male hen harrier is stunning in its blue/grey plumage and black wing tips, the female is feathered in shades of brown with a white rump. In summer the hen harrier breeds on upland moors, where it is still illegally persecuted, and unlike the marsh harrier this practice has hampered the population’s growth and expansion.

Although birds can be seen from the watch-point throughout the day, late afternoon leading into dusk is the best time.

To get really good views of the harriers binoculars are needed, and bird-watchers recommend a telescope too, however most ‘birders’ are normally obliging enough to allow you to ‘have a look’ and often a Norfolk Wildlife Trust member of staff or volunteer is on-hand to help.