The cranes aren’t flying

March 2012 631

– Lakenheath Fen, Suffolk, March 2012

We’re standing on the raised bank overlooking Lakenheath’s reedbeds. It’s a warm, clear day but cooling gusts of wind disturb the peace, ushering us away from the viewpoint. On calmer days bearded tits move across the tops of the reeds, today they’ll be down in the cover. We pass a rigid poplar plantation famed for its golden orioles which breed here in spring, what is perhaps the only nesting site in the United Kingdom. The trees grow out of swamp and some of them have collapsed, the soil clinging to the upturned roots making the poplars look like toy soldiers left supine by a child’s swooping palm. The trees have sent suckers out along the horizontal trunk meaning a new layer of woodland is growing from the body of one of the fallen, a new understory naturally occurring from a man-made habitat.

The cover of the plantation lessens the wind somewhat, a green woodpecker yaffles from the cover of the trees. Along the bank are anthills home to yellow meadow ant. I’m with David Norfolk, a friend and expert ornithologist, and he tells me these are rare. The hills could be hundreds of years old. ‘They wouldn’t exist in today’s farmland,’ he says. ‘A tractor will destroy them’. He takes a small chunk of the mound and golden-coloured ants move busily across the grey soil held in his fingertips. On the other side of the bank a blue river runs away to where the sun is going, a flock of oystercatchers pass, chattering as they fly against the flow. On the riverbank near to us pristine white feathers are strewn like discarded quills around the skeleton of a mute swan. David has seen it before: ‘That’ll be a fox kill.’

We’re alerted to a faint, hoarse bird call wafting from beyond the poplars where a swathe of reeds stand for perhaps 200m all the way around. We stand to face the reeds and the wood beyond where trees have collapsed, fieldfares pass through on migration north on their return to Scandinavia. We hear it again, the muffled, bugling call of a crane. I have longed to see or hear these birds, Russian symbols of peace in the aftermath of Hitler and Stalin’s tyranny. The poet Anna Akhmatova described hearing cranes as she lay in her sickbed, the birds fleeing the dry autumnal fields after the harvest. Our cranes are not forthcoming but David is convinced they’re here. I’m prepared to wait until dark.

A group of men in their sixties arrive and we point out the vague sound of the crane, but they look in the opposite direction, instead to the sun setting over the lake. I suggest to another man that the cranes can be heard, he complains that he needs to sit down. ‘That’s a dog barking,’ he retorts. Bearded tits are pinging in the reeds, a water rail is squealing like a pig. We follow the path back to the start. The bugling goes on, it has to be cranes. But the beardies are closer and closer and even louder now. ‘Watch for their flight between the reeds,’ David says.And here they go, the pale brown flash and long tail, something I’ve never seen before. From behind us a crane calls clearly into the lilac sky.

F16s tear up the sunset with their apocalyptic thunder, a train careers along the bank next to us, the two carriages a little pathetic-looking and exposed in this vast open space. The lights shine inside, juxtaposed against the light dying down around us. The sun is stuck behind a strip of cloud and its colour cannot be revealed, jackdaws are roosting noisily in the poplar plantation, the green woodpecker continues its laughing fit, escaping its perch in an undulating flight overhead. The water rail is squealing still, a kingfisher bolts around a swoop of reeds. Two giant birds appear from the path we’ve just taken, grey and white. It has to be! Two cranes, flying together, approaching us on the bank, moving across. They are within a stone’s throw… but the joy evaporates. They’re swans and it’s a trick of the light.

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