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Saturday, July 28, 2012
It’s a bird. It’s definitely a bird.”
The hearts of the wardens must have sunk when they heard my expert identification skills as I arrived at Blakeney Point.
After a three-and-a-half-mile trudge along the spit from Cley, through strength-sapping shingle, I hope they forgave my stupidity.
For a few days later, when I left by the same route, I had graduated, not to expert, but at least to enthusiastic bluffer.
As evidence, here are some facts that I have picked up: Swifts can stay in the air for up to four years without landing, during which time they eat, sleep and – somehow – mate; Black-headed gulls are the muggers of the bird world, waiting for terns to catch fish, then hounding them to make them drop them; Ichneumon flies paralyse caterpillars, bury them unconscious in sand, then lay their eggs inside them. Their littluns then eat their way out of the still-alive caterpillar; Yellow-headed poppies have the biggest seedhead of all UK flowers – containing up to 70,000 seeds per head; Flies are great (but more of that later).
The five-day stay at the old lifeboat house was as a “writer in residence”, observing, blogging, taking part in surveys and lookout stints and – appropriately on this oasis for rare birds – tweeting about it on the social network website Twitter.
I stayed with the four resident wardens – Eddie Stubbings, Paul Nichols, Ajay Tegala and Joe Cockram – who live on the Point throughout the spring and summer to protect and monitor the tern and seal colonies.
As reported in Weekend in April, this year marks the centenary of the National Trust buying Blakeney Point to ensure its wildlife and wild landscapes would be protected.
To this layman’s untrained eye, they have done a great job thus far. For the Point is an exemplar of how to balance access and conservation, with rare species thriving while people can still enjoy its solitude and natural splendour.
Much of that is down to the wardens, for who six months on the Point is clearly a labour of love, not a chore. I got under their feet enough during the five days to observe their love for birds, insects, mammals and plants – and for space and solitude, which are all too difficult to grasp in modern life.
Point life is elemental, and is set to correspond to the rhythms of weather and the tides. The 360-degree view from the top of the old lifeboat house changes constantly as the clouds slide across the sky.
To the west you can see Wells harbour, while on the northern horizon the Sheringham Shoal windfarm glints – either with menace or a cheeky twinkle, depending on your perspective.
Looking south, you see the communities of Blakeney, Morston and Stiffkey clinging to the coast. And on the Point itself, the scenery shifts from saltmarsh to scrub to sand dunes to barren lunar landscape to a carpet of yellow cat’s ear flowers.
The rhythms of tide and weather that influence this remarkable jewel in Norfolk’s crown are echoed by the wardens’ duties.
One of their key roles is to protect the rare colonies of sandwich, arctic, common and little terns from human disturbance – whether egg thieves or just careless visitors.
They take turns each day at low tide at mounting a guard at the gap in the dunes. They intercept and talk to any people who have walked along the beach from Cley to see the seals.
The task is to ensure that they walk by the waterline, away from the tern colonies. For disturbed terns could abandon their nests and fail to fledge their young.
Most people receive and follow the advice with good grace, but occasionally they take umbrage.
I was trusted with two solo “gap watches”, and was ready for the challenge.
With my binoculars and camouflage hat, I was the “tern-inator” or the “seal deal” – a superhero, a force of (and for) nature.
But I only encountered two people. And they were very nice. So my dreams of heroic self sacrifice were shelved.
Another daily ritual was the morning bird and insect survey.
One of the wardens would flush out the wildlife from the bushes, while the others would identify it, to record on the lifeboat house visitor centre sightings board.
One such survey was halted when an osprey soared overhead – harried by a nagging flock of oystercatchers, which were keen to get it off their land.
With a screeching voice to rival that of Vera Duckworth, the oystercatchers must have given the poor osprey a headache.
Other highlights were avocets (beaks curled up), curlews (beaks curled down), redshanks (red legs) and a majestic marsh harrier.
Despite being rarer than a golden eagle, this sentinel of the skies made at least three return visits during my stay and became a firm favourite.
I was also given a bluffer’s guide to coastal plant identification.
Essentially, it’s all called “sea-something”: sea campion, sea lavender, sea thrift.
So, if challenged by a member of the public during my time as a warden, I could simply say “sea”, then mumble something incoherent as a suffix.
But the moment when I truly appreciated the skill of the wardens was when I joined Eddie and Ajay for a little tern survey, conducted for Natural England.
We sat on the beach, and Eddie and Ajay not only identified these tiny grey, black and white birds against a grey, black and white background, but could also tell whether they were foraging, or had food in their beaks.
They had done all of this in the time it took me to see something moving.
Another highlight was taking part in the annual count of the sandwich tern chicks on Far Point.
After months of protecting the colony and the nests from human interference and predatory rats, stoats and hedgehogs, this is the moment of truth – had they succeeded? The task was complicated by the presence of thousands of black-headed gulls in the same colony, plus the ubiquitous oystercatchers.
But Eddie and Ajay were able to count 2,200 fledged chicks. The number was up by 200 on 2011, and represented a 60pc success rate for the sandwich tern pairs.
It was a momentous moment that made the vigilance and commitment worthwhile.
Not that the life of a warden is all guarding and counting.
During the five days, I also had to clean the public toilets, sweep out the visitor centre, join battle with a tenacious lupin that had grown across one of the walkways, and dig out and reposition a visitor sign near the boat landing stage.
I also cleared scrub from around the solar panels that have recently been installed and provide almost all of the power for the buildings on the Point.
And then there were the flies. Millions, billions of them.
The Point, including the lifeboat house, was teeming with bluebottles, houseflies and midges.
This is a good thing, apparently – and not just because it gave me a chance to demonstrate my miraculous fly-killing technique (precise details are classified).
Joe explained that flies are a sign of a healthy ecosystem. They thrive on places like the Point, where there is no crop-spraying.
When flies are abundant, so are the creatures that feed on them. And the vitality continues up the food chain.
So, next time a bluebottle is buzzing in your ear, welcome it with joy and splat it with thanksgiving.
On the subject of insects, I have saved my favourite experience until the end – the moth survey. In another career, I would like to be head of PR for moths. They are underrated, undervalued and unfairly in the shadow of their show-off cousins, butterflies.
A bright nightlight and a plastic container helped us to catch a crop of moths for the weekly survey. And they really are beautiful: more subtly beautiful than butterflies, but no less delightful for that. As the identification process happened, their names were another delight: the elephant hawkmoth, drinker moth, small fan-footed wave, archer’s dart and shore wainscot.
Germans do not differentiate between butterflies and moths, except to call them day-flyers and night-flyers. I can see the sense in that.
It is impossible to do justice to Blakeney Point with words, as its beauty is beyond my descriptive skills.
But I would urge you to see it for yourself. Either check the tides and join a boat trip, or trudge along the shingle spit.
For my part, five days on the Point was transformational. It gave me an even deeper love for this county that I am blessed to call home. And it made me appreciate the natural world, perhaps for the first time.
I took with me to the Point a degree of naivety, laced with enthusiasm to learn.
I brought away a determination to look up and around me as I walk, to speak to my children about nature, and to try to spend more time away from the distractions of daily life.
Not to mention a new – grudging – respect for flies.