Simon Barnes thinks the East Anglia regional bird should be the marsh harrier, but what’s your view?

A marsh harrier hunting at Strumpshaw Fen, near Norwich. Photo: David Brooker

A marsh harrier hunting at Strumpshaw Fen, near Norwich. Photo: David Brooker - Credit: citizenside.com

If you ever feel discouraged about life, look at the sky. This is particularly good advice if you live in East Anglia – Lord knows, we've got enough of the stuff.

If you acquire the habit of looking outwards and only slightly upwards in our flatter places, you're likely to see something pretty damn encouraging pretty damn often.

It's nice to know that our country and our region can get it right every once in a while.

It's most often seen as a silhouette hanging almost stationary in the air, moving with a sense of wavering purpose; the wings describing a shallow vee.

This is a marsh harrier, nothing less: a bird that went extinct in this country, came back, and was then in 1971 reduced to a single pair – which was inevitably at Minsmere, the RSPB's Suffolk reserve.


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But these days I often see them from my window as I write.

Happened just the other day: one of them, cruising past in that cruisey way that marsh harriers specialise in, was briefly joined by a second before they vanished behind a bank of vegetation and failed to reappear.

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Too far away and too dark to see what gender: the females are dark with a creamy head; the males, a touch smaller, are picked out in the three gorgeous colours – sable, russet and silver.

But it wasn't a courting flight: when that happens, the pair head skywards, where they dance – one of the most stirring sights you will ever see.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about marsh harriers is that it's not exciting to see them anymore.

You stop and look, yes, and look twice, but you don't telephone the newspapers and boast to your friends.

Of course you've seen a marsh harrier: they're always about. Didn't you know that there were around 360 nests in this country last year?

I've seen marsh harriers from trains: on the Norwich-Lowestoft line, on the Norwich-Yarmouth line and also near Ely on the Fens.

They are, more or literally, part of the landscape. They complete it and give it meaning: that shallow vee is like two delicate brushstrokes on the great canvas that shows the watery parts of Suffolk and Norfolk.

They're all the more vivid to me because I was brought up with their almost fabulous rarity.

I had a bird book that contained a famous photograph of a marsh harrier nest, taken by the pioneering Eric Hosking.

The caption told me, well, forget it.

Give up all hope of seeing this bird: they're too rare, too fine, too remote for the likes of you.

I have claimed many times that seeing my first marsh harrier was the highpoint of my honeymoon, which was taken recklessly in April on the Broads.

Later, I wrote a book about Minsmere and grew familiar with the birds: and now I live on the edge of the Broads and see them all the time.

I'm in the right place, sure, but also there are lots of marsh harriers to see.

And East Anglia is their heartland.

Last year, the British Trust for Ornithology recorded around 100 nests in Norfolk and more than 40 in Suffolk. (You count nests, not pairs, because males are sometimes bigamous, maintaining two nests and two females – and occasionally trigamous.)

Anyway: getting on for half of all British marsh harriers are from Suffolk and Norfolk.

They've changed their ways in recent years: they will nest in arable fields as well as reed-beds, and many individual birds have given up migrating, supporting themselves here throughout the winter.

This year there are around 100 over-wintering individuals in Suffolk and 100 more in Norfolk.

Now, as spring makes its tentative start, there are signs of excitement among the marsh harriers of East Anglia, whose population will soon be swelled by returning migrants.

A poll recently voted the robin as Britain's national bird: should we ever vote for a regional bird, there is only one contender.

Many times I have seen a marsh harrier cruising over the Waveney: uniting rather than dividing the two counties.

What do you think should be our regional bird? Let us know in the comments.

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