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Crane Spotter – July 2016 – No turning back the clock to the way things were

Eurasian Wryneck

It was as if I’d been whisked on board the Tardis and taken back 100 years through time.

Here I was, dropped off by The Doctor in mid-May in the middle of an orchard of wizened apple trees, heavily laden with pink and white blossom.

The grass had been allowed to grow buttercup high and was waving with wild flowers. No sign of Council strimmers and mowing machines here. And with the flora came the insects.

And for them . . . came the birds.

They were all around. From a bough nearby came the explosive ‘kee-kee-kee-kee’ call of a head- turning Wryneck, a small migratory member of the woodpecker family.

He was hard to locate until he moved. And then I saw him – motionless on a branch near his hole. So close you could see his whiskers! It would be so easy to dismiss him as ‘just a LBJ’ (little brown job). But the binoculars revealed amazing design.

Fine black-barred underparts, a pale yellowish throat, intricate brown and black barring on the wings, grey on top of the head and back, flecked with cryptic dark markings, and black go-faster stripes down the side of the head and on the back. At least two other Wrynecks were calling nearby.

I could have watched for hours but a lot else was happening. In the field beyond the garden wall were two more avian wonders. A pair of beautiful Red- backed Shrikes. The male was particularly impressive, his pinkish breast contrasting with a white throat, rich chestnut wings, grey head, white throat and a fierce black mask.

The ‘butcher birds’ were on sentry duty this morning, dodging conspicuously from the top of one thorn bush to another. Some insects they caught were for breakfast. Others would have to wait, impaled on a thorn in the ‘hanging room’ until lunch time.

Not far away in the woodland came the trilling call of another special summer visitor. A Wood Warbler – just a little larger than the Chiffchaff we can commonly hear in our village – was weaving its magic music into the day. Its lemon yellow throat pulsated as it threw back its head and took its non-stop lead role in the forest chorus.

Being Crane Spotter, I was particularly pleased to live up to my name. Yes there were a couple of mag-nificent Common Cranes. Don’t confuse them with the Grey Heron, folks. Cranleigh does all the time – an issue I will be returning to in a future column.

These huge, long legged greyish birds had been standing unseen in an adjacent field. That was until they gave themselves away by bursting into a mad bout of honking and then taking off vertically and dropping back again like one of the Harrier Display Team at Dunsfold’s Wings and Wheels. This duo were just one pair of the scores of this species I notched up that day.

Talking of the Top Gear venue reminds me to mention my next encounter – very much a low gear affair. Just then, from an area of rushes, came the unmistakeable mechanical grating of a Corncrake. Its far-carrying ‘song’ sounded just like they say in the books. Like a coin being pulled down the teeth of a metal comb, once every second. And as with most Corncrake encounters, I was only to hear it. Actually seeing one can take hours of patience.

All that I’ve written about here was witnessed in the space of under 10 minutes. I was visiting Estonia, a birding paradise that takes you back through time to poignantly remind you of the birds we in England once had a plenty.

There was a strong supporting cast of other species too – I saw 158 in a week – but why do I mention these particular species? Because they were all once common in Cranleigh and the surrounding villages.

All are now extinct as breeding species.

Corncrakes died out from our surrounding fields around the turn of the 19th century.

The last pair of Wrynecks bred in an apple tree from 1947-49 at Briarfield, The Common, Cranleigh.

A year later the last pair of Red-backed Shrikes were present at Smithwood Common, near the now closed Four Elms pub.

The Wood Warbler, once to be seen on the Winter- fold ridge, appears to have died out here in only the last decade or so.

And Cranes? Maybe they were never here. Meanwhile, dying out isn’t just history. The race for other species’ survival continues – but sadly for many other species too around here, and beyond, in 2016 it is a losing battle.

Twitter – @Crane_Spotter

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