When I was a junior hospital doctor back in the late 70s, gruelling 1-in-3 or even 1-in-2 live-in rotas made those rare opportunities to escape into the countryside very special. So basing my training in Hull, deliberately near some good birdwatching sites (and near my future wife, not necessarily in that order), I had the choice of the coast with its excellent migration watch points of Spurn and Flamborough Head; the amazing seabird colonies of Bempton Cliffs – before its fences, signposts and visitor centre – or what was then a little known area of reedbed at the confluence of the Trent and the Ouse, the starting point of the mighty, murky River Humber.
I remember the thrill of sitting down there one spring evening in 1979 and watching what was then a very rare bird indeed – the spectacular aerial display of a pair of Marsh Harriers – before heading off for a pint of cold Guinness at the nearby Black Horse.
Now that we’re living back in Yorkshire, that same reedbed is a relatively short distance from home, so with lockdown restrictions partially lifted, I relished the opportunity to enjoy some splendid isolation…who but a wildlife sound recordist would choose to get out of bed at 1 am and drive off to sit alone in silence in the dark waiting for the dawn chorus? I wasn’t expecting to encounter anyone, nor did I.We get used to hearing about how the quality of the countryside is decreasing, that good habitats are disappearing and that there are fewer birds about these days, but in some places things are certainly better than they were 40 years ago. These vast reedbeds on the shores of the Humber are a good example, and so on a perfect late May morning I was treated to sounds which would have been exotic when I was a houseman, and certainly not birds I’ve been accustomed to in all those years living in Northumbria.
As soon as I opened the car door under clear starry skies, I was greeted by the explosive song of Cetti’s warbler – who would have thought that, from only a handful of pairs down in Kent in the 1970s? Of the other main songsters, while the Sedge warblers have always been about, Reed warblers continue to expand their range northwards and now chatter tunelessly all over. Just before sunrise my target species for the morning – Bittern – starting booming, but too far away for any good recording. However a stunning male Bearded tit came down to inspect my microphones, giving its occasional ‘ching’ calls, and as the sun came up and warmed the air, a pair of Marsh Harriers wafted above me, even calling as they reciprocated a Carrion crows mobbing attempts. Gadwall, another expanding species, flew over in a typical aerial chase and a pair of Egyptian geese added a further touch of the exotic. A strengthening breeze caused me to abandon my recording efforts – reeds can make a noise like a motorway once the wind gets into them – but not before I’d got some good tracks from this rare habitat.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when we moved south, but this area will give me new and exciting recording challenges, and I know that I won’t wait another 40 years before revisiting this old haunt.