The day the sky turned black

MARK NICHOLLS To commemorate 100 years of a prominent bird journal, a Norfolk-based expert has examined a range of intriguing, yet changing, ornithological phenomena.


To commemorate 100 years of a prominent bird journal, a Norfolk-based expert has examined a range of intriguing, yet changing, ornithological phenomena. As Mark Nicholls reports, East Anglia has been a focal point.

It was one of the more dramatic bird phenomena events that have occurred over the last 100 years.

On a September day, 42 years ago, hundreds and thousands of birds made an unexpected, and unscheduled, stop in Lowestoft.

Redstarts, wheatears, pied flycatchers, garden warblers, whinchats, tree pipits and willow warblers were among species observed seeking shelter where they could in the port. They took refuge on the beach, in hedgerows at the fish market and even on the decks of incoming trawlers. Some perched desperately on the shoulders of passers-by.

The event is recalled by author and leading Norfolk-based ornithologist Andy Brown in the specially-produced the report “One hundred years of notable avian events …” for the journal British Birds as part of its centenary celebrations.

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Yet he also poses the question: why such highly-visible bird phenomena do not seem to happen as often, or in the same way.

The sudden appearances of migrant songbirds in such phenomenal numbers might, in ancient times, have been viewed as having religious significance.

His report chronicling Britain's most outstanding bird events over the past century also underlines how nothing on that scale has occurred since the 1960s.

Mr Brown said: “I'm talking about the sort of mass bird arrivals that long ago might have resulted in people believing they were witnessing signs of divine intervention.

“What we know now is that such occurrences resulted from large flocks of migrant birds being grounded by adverse weather, but that still leaves the question about why they don't seem to happen to the same extent any more.

“Bird migration still takes place each spring and autumn and with considerably more bird watchers around now than in the 1960s if such huge 'falls' of migrants were still occurring we'd certainly know about them.

“It could be due to changes in weather or migration patterns since then - or in the populations and distribution of the species involved. Maybe it's a combination of some or all of these factors.”

What is clear about the Lowestoft event - on September 3, 1965 - is that it coincided with exceptional bad weather.

The Eastern Daily Press of the following day reported how properties were struck by lightning in a severe storm. Chimney stacks were sent crashing to the ground in weather conditions that brought flooding to many parts of East Anglia.

In Lowestoft, well over the average rainfall for the whole of September - nearly two-and-a-half inches - fell in seven hours, compared to the monthly average of 2.09 inches.

The report continued: “In the Lowestoft area hundreds of migratory birds appeared on the beach, in hedgerows, at the fish market an don the decks of incoming trawlers. Mostly redshanks, it is thought a sudden change of wind direction brought them inland.

“Normally they fly high and are seldom seen but the bad weather brought them to dry land. Almost all the birds, among which were a number of waders, were exhausted.”

Mr Brown, from Hunstanton, who co-wrote the book “Birds in England”, said it was the bird event he would most like to have seen. Other accounts suggest this “event” saw the arrival of an estimated half-a-million birds of 78 species on a stretch of the Suffolk coast on September 3, 1965.

Quoting from other accounts written at the time, his report states: “At Lowestoft, at 13.15 GMT, a huge cloud of small birds was seen to appear over the town, moving towards the south, with individual birds dropping out continuously.

“The town itself was soon alive with birds hopping about in every garden and open space, on walls and television aerials, in all the streets (where many were killed by traffic), on the sea wall and even among the groynes on the beaches.

“Two people in different parts of the town had the extraordinary experience of redstarts descending from the mass of migrants overhead and alighting on their shoulders.”

Next morning it was estimated that “no less than 30,000 birds” were seen along the three mile road stretch between Lowestoft and Pakefield.

That day one observer alone logged 15,000 redstarts, 8,000 wheatears, 4,000 pied flycatchers, 3,000 garden warblers, 1,500 whinchats, 1,500 tree pipits and 1,000 willow warblers.

Mr Brown explains in his report, that also covers phenomena across the rest of the UK, how this mass influx was a direct result of weather conditions at the time, which were influenced by an anticyclone over Scandinavia.

This meant the birds set off in a south-south-westerly direction from Scandinavia in clear skies and light winds - only to run into the heavy rain of a deep low-pressure system tracking across East Anglia, much of the rest of eastern England and the North Sea.

This led to migrants appearing in large numbers along English and Scottish east coasts and "unprecedented numbers" along the Norfolk and Suffolk coast.

However, “counts at all localities paled against the quantity of migrants grounded along the Suffolk coast.”

Climate change, different methods of agriculture or forestry management and moves in population are also factors that may impact on migration patterns.

Bird phenomena are happening at slightly different times of the year or involving different species, he says.

“Climate changes may be a factor, they could be causing migrant and arrival departure times to change. Bird egg laying times are changing too. But it is probably too early to pick out a pattern. It would be inappropriate to do that because there have been other changes since the 1960s such as in agriculture, which has had massive effect on birds.”

Other important avian events include the impact of the great storm of October 1987 and the severe winters of 1916-17 and 1962-63, which had a major effect on bird migration patterns.

He quotes renowned Norfolk bird observer J.H. Gurney on the effects of the Arctic chill of 1916-17: “Not many inland species received a harder blow than the blackbird. One result was that when summer came round again, gardeners were saved the trouble of netting their strawberries.”

Other changes include the arrival of the Collared Dove into Europe, first observed nesting at Cromer in 1955 by Norfolk ornithologist Richard Richardson, who also saw them the following year at Overstrand - an appearance that pre-empted their widespread arrival in the UK.

Mr Brown said: “We do not know why that is but they swept across Europe from Asia, perhaps because of changing agriculture patterns.”

Perhaps the most recent phenomena in the county occurred with a large 'fall' of thrush in October 1998. More than 3,000 robins, among other species of thrush, were reported between Wells and Holkham.