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Otis tarda

Kessingland 1987

by Richard Smith

JANUARY 1987 HAD BEEN a distinctly wintry month in East Anglia, with low temperatures and heavy snowfalls moving across from continental Europe, much of which was suffering its most prolonged spell of severe weather for many years. Since mid-January, there had been occasional sightings of a group of three Great Bustards in south Suffolk, in the Kirton area, Presumably the conditions in Europe had prompted these birds to traverse the North Sea. The excitement of having these birds within the County, the first since 1925, turned into total frustration for most birders, for they proved to be anything but cooperative, so that few connected with them.

On 7th February, avoiding any temptation to join the chase for these birds, I opted for my normal haunt, in those days, and headed to Benacre Broad, where I met up with Dale Newton. At around 11:45, Dale announced " two grey geese coming in," I quickly picked up the birds concerned flying directly towards us over the woods north of the broad; almost at once the birds turned inland, revealing their true identity of Great Bustards. They then flew west for a while before turning back northwards.

After half an hour of self congratulation and intense scanning to see if they would return, we decided that Kessingland Levels might well be worth a look. Sure enough at 12:45 the two birds were located feeding in the rough pasture by the River Hundred. We watched the birds here for some two hours, minus time spent on a quick dash to the phone box in Benacre village.

The birds were 'scoped from a distance of around 400 metres as they foraged amongst the pasture. Their continuous feeding was interrupted only by their wariness as they regularly stopped, stood very erect and surveyed all around, alert for any dangers. Their movements were always slow and very deliberate, almost stately. We were able to make some detailed observations which revealed some subtle differences between the two birds. Although there was no significant size difference, one bird was slightly stockier, particularly in the neck. This heavier bird also had more rusty-buff colouration at the base of the neck, overall richer plumage tones and gave an impression, at times, of white whiskers, although this may well have been a trick of the light. The large size of the birds and the plumage variations pointed to them being males of different ages.

At 14:40, the birds became agitated by by the barking of a dog, and soon they were off, Getting airborne was very reminiscent of a swan - they travelled a long way before they manage to gain any height and before assuming their intended direction. Initially they flew low towards the sea, before heading north, over the river and then back inland and over the A12; as they became more distant they appeared to head south. Later that day however, they were relocated at New Buckenham in Norfolk.

These birds were part of a small influx into the County involving possible up to nine birds; all were, identified as males - they regularly winter as single-sex flocks on the continent. Although only Brian Brown managed to catch up with these at Kessingland, three different birds were in the Theberton area a fortnight later, giving many birders an eagerly awaited second chance.

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