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A Mural of Buntings

The sound of a snowbound Norfolk is a refreshing change, the persistent hum of human activity is replaced by an audible softness. The blanketed earth absorbs noise, leaving only the wind and the creaking rustle of the trees and hedgerows to disturb the stillness. The light is changed too, the snow reflects, brightening even the greyest day.

I am following a mural of buntings (the delightful collective noun for buntings), reed buntings to be precise. They have discovered a lifeline during this particularly cruel spell of late winter weather, a field sown with supplementary feed for farmland birds. This one tiny field probably means that these birds stand a good chance of making it to the breeding season in good condition. Not all farmland birds will be so lucky. Most of the countryside in this part of Norfolk is large open monoculture, where once there were ancient hedgerows, small fields, and ditches brimming with primroses in spring. If only there were more conscientious and conservation minded farmers in this land, how much richer our English countryside could be.

Reed buntings are exquisite birds with feathers of rich auburn and amber streaked with charcoal. The males wear a dusky black cap and sport a debonair white collar and handlebar moustache. In spring they perch high on the reeds at the fen, singing loudly to declare their prowess and stake their claim. They are accompanied in their foraging by the odd dunnock, and a single pair of bullfinch.

Dunnock, also known as a hedge sparrow.

Male Reed bunting.

As much as this patch of earth gives them life, the threat of death is ever present for these little birds. Not only does the weather menace but a female sparrowhawk shadows their every move. It watches from the margins or lazily drifts over scanning for weakness. I am surprised to see a sparrowhawk do this, it is almost harrier like in its flight but without the grace. A sparrowhawk is built for speed and the surprise attack. She does not disappoint.


The peace is splintered by a furious burst of avian dynamism as she erupts seemingly from nowhere, catching my (inadequate) watchfulness off guard. She harries and harasses, twisting and veering with burning intent and dizzying speed, but on this occasion the buntings are wise to her and she loses the vital element of surprise. Today, the sparrowhawk goes hungry. Just as the buntings depend on the grasses, linseed and millet planted by the farmer, so the hawk depends on the buntings.

The weather is set for a thaw and soon spring will return, easing the pressure on these vulnerable birds so they can prepare for the season ahead and satisfy their urge to usher in new life to replenish the old.

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