Famous Five Birds – Eights years on
‘One of the most imaginative and innovative projects ever launched in East Anglia’
so said the East Anglian Daily Times describing Waveney & Blyth Arts 2013 project – The Famous Five Birds.
Featuring five iconic birds from the region – barn owl, bittern, bearded tit, marsh harrier and nightingale – the project took birds into local schools and celebrated our association with them through poetry and song.
With our focus on a creative response to the environment, this project recognised the role of birds as an indicator of environmental health. To help young people become more aware we joined forces with the RSPB, Suffolk Wildlife Trust and Norfolk & Suffolk Biodiversity Partnerships, and took a team made up of bird experts Steve & Kathy Piotrowski, RSPB poet Matt Howard, and Nutmeg Puppet Company’s Meg Amsden into local schools. These sessions were the starting point for a fabulous children’s entertainment event.
Hosted by the eccentric Bernard the Birder (played by Greg Hanson) these feature:
- Nutmeg Puppet Company’s beautiful shadow puppet show, with music by Nathan Williamson
- fabulous film and theatrical bird impressions
- chances to do a quirky quiz, make musical bird calls, and sing a special song about the fab five.
We all know that barn owls screech and nightingales sing – but what sound does a bittern make? What is so special about marsh harriers? And do bearded tits really have beards?
In addition to work with schools the project offered a walk along the river Blyth with Natural England staff, a chance to spot one or more of the featured five and listen to poems dedicated to each bird by poet Matt Howard.
And our regular Arts & Eats lunch introduced ceramicist and printmaker Georgina Warne talking on: Art, Life and Birds. The lunch was held at the Raveningham Centre which hosted an exhibition of two and three-dimensional work featuring British birds. The exhibition, curated by Sarah Cannell, celebrates the beauty, diversity and appeal of our feathered friends.
In support of the project I created a ‘fact file’ on each species and wrote some short descriptive passages about discovering the birds in the two river valleys.
Here is an extract of that work:
“I am in the Waveney valley, a thin thread of a river that winds from its source at Redgrave Fen down through marsh, meadow and woodland via Carlton Marshes and Breydon Water and out to the North Sea. In winter, the trees are thin, withdrawn, shaking out the moss-lined cups and twiggy platforms of last summer’s nests. Spent seed heads of valerian and meadowsweet hang over the river wall; only the reeds remain standing.
Now, looking out across this January fen, I see a marsh harrier, quartering the embankment, turning and skimming low. A female, her cream head marking her out, alert, hunting. I watch her lift higher and return along the river. I remember harriers from my childhood. They returned year after year to the coastal marsh, using some salt weary trees as lookouts. Their population has since increased and they breed in river valleys and on the coast in eastern England. She has found her prey and drops out of sight. The wind ruffles through the reeds again, plays with a scatter of leaves, like a ghost passing through. And like ghosts, my memories of those childhood marshes, recall other birds.
Where now is the bittern – the reedbed dweller, that barred and streaked secretive bird that is more often heard than seen. Its call, described as booming, penetrates through the reed stalks like a novice learning to play a difficult bassoon. I thought it more like the noise we made blowing across the top of milk bottles. They are difficult to spot as they sneak in and out of marsh pools hunting fish and eels, their plumage a tapestry of broken, reed stems and dark shadows. Sadly bitterns have disappeared from so many places where they used to breed. They are ghosts from my childhood.”
This early project set the tone for Waveney & Blyth Arts’ innovative approach to arts and the environment and showed how we could draw in partners, experts and volunteers to create something magical, informative and appealing. Other projects were to follow in the years after.
A summary of the project and highlights from the performances can be seen here:
and the Nutmeg Puppet Theatre film is here:
Sample of Famous Five Facts
Marsh Harrier – Circus aeruginosus
Sometimes called bald buzzard, bog glebe, dunpickle, harpy.
Population and distribution
A reedbed specialist, the marsh harrier’s population has fluctuated particularly in response to persecution by game keepers. A few hung on in Norfolk but their recovery as a breeding bird was set back again by the 1970s use of organo-chlorine pesticides. The creation of reedbeds in Suffolk, after wartime flooding, helped provide a suitable habitat to aid their recovery.
Harriers fly low across the ground, with steady flappy wing beats between glides; when they stop beating their wings they hold them in a characteristic V shape. They can be seen pursuit flying across marshes in April when they are selecting nest sites. They may perch on a prominent tall dead branch.
Occasionally their spectacular aerial food passes can be seen. The female rises from the nest before the male is above it; she turns over, upside down and catches food as he drops it.
Bittern Botaurus stellaris
Local names: gladden, boomer, bull o’ the bog, butter bump, buttle, (Norfolk) night raven, bog drum.
In the 1963 severe winter, bitterns were starving and weak birds were picked up and brought to Minsmere to recover. One of the birds was found, bemused with hunger and fatigue, as it stood by a queue of people at a bus stop in a London suburb.
Population and distribution
Rare and declining except where protected in nature reserves, as many as 85% of those breeding may be on nature reserves. By about 1886 the bittern was extinct as a breeding bird but recolonisation took place in Norfolk in the early 1900s.
After the severe winter of 1947, there were thought to be only a few pairs surviving. Their recovery began in the 1960s believed to be triggered by populations moving across from the Netherlands.
Some 5-600 pairs breed in the UK. They are particularly associated with the Norfolk Broads where they are known by the local name, reed-pheasant. They can also be seen along the lower reaches of the Waveney Valley where there are good stand of reeds such a Carlton Marshes, a Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserve.