Farewell to island life

THIS is the final part of West Suffolk Editor Mark Crossley's final diary from Havergate Island's RSPB reverve.

Mark Crossley

I HAD pulled up on Orford quay a week earlier to find it empty and grey under leaden skies and whipped by a bitter wind.

The village I returned to was vastly different. Easter Saturday crowds thronged the quay, families wandered in the sunshine and there was hardly room to dock the boat among the pleasure craft that filled the little harbour.

It was something of a culture shock for someone who had heard little else but the cries of gulls and the odd boat for a week.

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The other thing I noticed was how green everything had become. In the week I had been on Havergate Island every bud seemed to have burst open, changing the colour of the countryside from brown to green.

But down to the serious business. Non-birders may want miss out the next bit. It's a full list of species spotted during my week on the island:

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Cormorant, Grey heron Little egret, Greylag goose, Canada goose, Shelduck, Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal, Mallard, Shoveler, Pintail, Tufted duck, Red-breasted merganser, Marsh harrier, Kestrel, Pheasant, Moorhen, Oystercatcher, Avocet, Ringed Plover, Golden plover, Grey Plover, Lapwing, Little Stint, Dunlin, Snipe, Black-tailed godwit, Bar-tailed godwit, Whimbrel, Curlew, Redshank, Black-headed gull, Common gull, Lesser-black-backed gull, Herring gull, Great-black-backed gull, Common tern, Stock dove, Wood pigeon, Barn owl, Skylark, Sand martin, Swallow, Meadow pipit, Pied wagtail, Redstart, Wheatear, Chiff-chaff, Willow Warbler, Magpie, Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Starling, Chaffinch, Linnet.

That's 57 species, the same number of varieties of a bean I have become rather familiar with over the past week.

Those who have stuck with this diary will know that I arrived with three crates of food, unlike fellow volunteer Mike, who had just two bags to lug from the boat and up to his hut.

I discovered the secret of his lightweight rucksack: Mike lived on pasta and sardines for a whole fortnight. He's still there now, existing on pasta, tinned fish and a bit of fruit and veg.

Me? I came back with one-and-a-half plastic crates of food. Next time, I may travel a bit lighter.

Still, even if I had been a bit soft on the food front, as I lugged my gear up the steps to the quay I had that longer stride and confident walk of men when they have been doing something manly. There are certain things - a prolonged period in the outdoors, getting off a small boat in front of a crowd of tourists - that are guaranteed to put a swagger in a bloke's stride.

And as I reached the top step a lady edged towards me and asked: "Are you the young man who's been writing the diary for the East Anglian Daily Times? I have enjoyed it."

A reader! God bless you, madam!

But apart from a reader, what have I got out of a week volunteering for the RSPB?

Firstly, following years of driving, consuming, throwing away rubbish, air travel and all the other things I've done to harm the natural world, like most of us do every day, I've managed to put a tiny amount into the plus column by supporting an organisation which is, on the whole, on the side of the angels.

Secondly, Havergate Island is a cleaner place than when I arrived: three big sacks of human detritus, including a couple of dozen balloons, are no longer spoiling the place for this summer's visitors. There are a few other minor improvements around the place, and the work to keep it as a great place to visit continues as other volunteers do their bit.

Third, I have helped add a little bit more knowledge about the birds and aquatic life of the island to the records, including the earliest sighting of a redstart on Havergate.

Let's be honest, though, I've probably got a lot more from my week than the birds of Havergate Island have. I have learned new skills and had new experiences; I have spent seven days and six nights in a fabulous location, far from the madding crowd and I have come back fitter and feeling like I've had a holiday.

And it hasn't cost me a penny.

Privilege is the word that sums it up. I felt a real sense of privilege as, every evening, I walked the length of the island, the sun setting over the mainland and the gulls calling to each other on the lagoons.

A day after stepping off the boat onto Orford quay, I still feel as if I will always own a little bit of Havergate Island.

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