The Buckenham Rook Roost

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  Buckenham Rooks (1)

(A re-post from 2013) I’d lived in Norfolk for thirteen years but had never taken the time to visit the legendary Buckenham rook roost, despite passing close to it on my commute from work in Yarmouth back to Norwich most days for the past six years. I’d read Mark Cockers excellent book ’Crow Country’ which centres on this ancient roost. So, on the last working day of the year for me (and an early escape from work) I called in on the way home. I trundled the Jeep down the narrow lanes praying that the threatened afternoon rain would hold off. I drove through to Beighton swimming upstream against the empty beet trucks returning from the Cantley sugar processing factory. I followed a sign to Buckenham, then finally hit the sign for the station. Station? Well, trains do apparently stop at the tiny platform now and again! I donned by boots and wrapped well against the chill Easterly cutting across the marshes. Buckenham Fen, and it’s neighbour Strumpshaw Fen, are RSPB reserves set in the levels surrounding the River Yare as it snakes its way from Norwich to Great Yarmouth and the sea. Even on this cold afternoon the car park was busy. This was definitely ’twitcher’ country .. in fact I felt a little inferior without a spotting scope and tripod. Not part of the club. I grabbed my DSLR and headed across the railway toward the Fen. It was early yet but I wanted to get my bearings. The marshes are dotted with alder carrs to right and left. In fact there were already rooks coasting into the carrs, fussing and fretting. Some were landing to feed in the soft loamy soil of the water meadows. Standing close to the station, with an hour to go to sunset, I was a little confused. The birds were drifting in from all points on the compass. Where was the main roost? Was I in the right place? I stopped a passing scope-wielder and asked him. He looked me up and down as if I was ’gone-out’ (the local expression for mad). “Rooks?” he replied. “they’re everywhere!” Not very helpful. He’d obviously crossed ’rook’ off his twitcher list years ago and wasn’t prepared to re-visit it. I watched a party of four serious birders approach. Dressed in green from top to toe they were carrying so much spotting equipment and camera gear I was looking for Simon King in their midst. Alas .. it was not he. “Rooks?” That same daft look. Then a colleague said “Yeah, apparently there’s a sizeable corvid roost here”. “Yeah!!” I offered excitedly. “Like .. twenty thousand plus birds!” They sniggered to each other. “Sorry, we’re not local”. Off they marched. I figured they’d probably been watching humped-back cranes or ruffle-bottomed ducks or some other exotic waterfowl. ’What’s wrong with rooks?’I asked myself before hi-jacking another dejected looking birder heading back to his car. “Don’t suppose you have a light, do you?” he asked before answering the dreaded rook question. I drew out my Zippo like Clint Eastwood on bandit duty and flipped open the lid. “Rooks?” I asked again, with-holding his salvation. “There’s a sign in the car-park” he offered. A half-answer. I thought about closing the lid on the cigarette drawn expectantly between his lips, to snap it in half. He drew from the flame, exhaled in relief then said “They’ll be in soon. Sometimes this wood, sometimes that one”. He pointed East and West. Great! I walked back to the car park to read the sign. Best viewing point is the car park or station platform. I was suspicious, checking for a pay & display sign? There wasn’t one. It was still early, though more and more rooks were drifting into the carrs to the west. I wandered down the lane on the other side of the railway, heading west. Stopping at a field gate I started to photograph hundreds of rooks landing in a small isolated alder spinney. Then I got a bonus .. a browsing Chinese water deer on the meadow below. A pair of Highland cattle were locking horns. That amused me .. Highland cattle below sea-level? Only in Norfolk! A flash of russet, white and black caught my eye but the stoat was too quick for me to capture its soul on camera. The light was dying and there were fewer rooks than I had hoped for. I headed back to the station car park and took up a vigil from there. More and more rooks floated in, dropping into nearby trees, on to telephone wires and landing in the winter barley crops. They came in twenties and thirties. Behind me, in the car park, I was conscious of more cars arriving. Perhaps a train was due? No .. soon the car park filled with ’rotters’. My term .. invented there and then in that car park. If ’twitchers’ had disappointed me earlier, I was pleased to be surrounded by ’rotters’ .. rook-spotters. The rooks now descended in their hundreds, but it was hardly spectacular. People shuffled around, looking disappointed. Out to the North, we could see throngs of rooks wheeling and descending, a mile away. A lady came up to me to ask if she was in the right place? I explained that I was a virgin rotter too .. I didn’t know? There is a large roost close to where I live in Norwich .. at Ringland. So far, what I’d seen hadn’t exceeded that. It was nearly dark. The rooks had stopped calling. The air was quiet. Everyone in the car park .. bar me and one other old fellow .. got into their cars and drove off. It was anti-climactic. Like watching a firework display without a finale. I pulled my trainers from the Jeep and sat on a low fence changing out of my boots. The old chap came and sat next to me. “First time?” he asked? “Yep!” I replied. “Listen!” he almost commanded. I stopped lacing my trainers to listen. “I can’t hear anything?” I said. “Exactly!” he replied. “Just wait!” And then it happened. In the distance I heard a rising crescendo of rook song. A distant buzz, an electric chatter .. like white noise. It grew in volume as the old chap pointed to the deep blue sky over the eastern carrs. The horizon above the wood filled with clouds of black spectres, wheeling and circling and crying as they floated .. then descended .. into the trees. Thousand upon thousand upon thousand lifted from the fields and spun in a vortex around the woods canopy, each and every one sucked down into the roost and oblivion. The noise was awesome .. a thousand fireworks crackling for at least ten minutes. Ten, twenty thousand rooks? I had no idea. Then … as suddenlit was over. I was still sitting, jaws agape, when the old chap asked “Worth the wait?” “You bet!” I replied “How long have you been coming here?” “It’s my first time, too!” he answered. “But I read Cockers book. I knew there was more to come. It’s just … some people have no patience!”. I shook his hand and thanked him for stopping me from leaving. Driving home, I reflected on what I had just been privileged to witness .. and can easily witness again. Folk travel the world, thrill-seeking. Pyramids, Grand Canyons, swimming with dolphins, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities often artificially manufactured. Me? I had just seen the Buckenham rooks go to roost. It hadn’t cost me a penny … and I’ll never forget that ’first time’ as long as I live.

One thought on “The Buckenham Rook Roost

    The Games Naturalists Play | Wildscribbler said:
    June 14, 2015 at 5:13 pm

    […] It’s called Crow Country. It centres on the world of rooks, much of the text based on the Buckenham rook roost, close to Marks home and not too far from mine. The roost is next to the huge Buckenham Fen RSPB […]

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