Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Bird watching at Cley Marshes: February and March

 Barry Madden, Volunteer Bird Guide at NWT Cley Marshes

The cold weather of late has certainly retarded breeding activity on Cley Marshes. Avocet numbers built up during late February and early March, but there are still no serious nesting attempts. I watched some birds today from Bishop’s hide half-heartedly prospecting muddy sections of the islands, but it didn’t come to much. Most of these elegant summer visitors were still huddled together, face to wind, eyes closed and probably wondering what on earth they were doing spending their days being buffeted by the relentless, biting easterly wind when they could be jetting off to Mallorca for the Easter holidays. Or perhaps that was just me!  A sure sign that the mating urge is not yet strong enough was evidenced when a marsh harrier – a superbly marked female - lazily floated over the scrape, totally unmolested by these normally super-aggressive waders. Things will change soon; a couple of warm days and the sap will rise.

A brief, but ultimately mildly deflating, diversion took the form of a snipe of questionable identity. Jack snipe was pronounced, and certainly the brown and black mottled bird hunkered down between lumps of mud did seem very small. This sleepy bird had its beak firmly tucked away with head markings obscured by dead grasses, and for a little while hopes were raised. But then the bird stretched and yawned, revealing a creamy central crown stripe and a bill of proportions no diminutive jack snipe would ever be lucky enough to possess. Initial disappointment soon turned to appreciation of a very worthy second prize; it is not often you get a chance to have a really good, close look at a snipe of any species. And what a beautiful creature it was. Contrary to expectations the bird began to feed along the dyke edge totally unconcerned by the jabbering of us assembled birders and the staccato clicking of camera shutters. Nowadays occupying hides can feel akin to sitting in an office and being surrounded by bespectacled secretaries furiously grinding out 120 words per minute as myriad trigger-happy photographers try to capture that elusive award winning shot. Not to everybody’s taste, but it does mean that a craft, once the privilege of a few, can now be enjoyed by all – and you can get quite good photographs and put them in things like blogs.
Common Snipe, photo by Barry Madden

A walk around the reserve perimeter revealed good numbers of brent geese still present. Amongst them were a few of the pale-bellied race hrota, and the curious leucistic individual with a muted light brown plumage that has been with us all winter. The reliable purple sandpiper could be easily seen probing in the short grass margins of the pool by the beach, and a few goldfinches were braving the chill to bedeck the shingle ridge with colour. Certainly a charming thing to see.

Whilst I was waiting (in vain) for lapwings to display and fall victim to my own camera lens, a ring-tail hen harrier spiralled past heading swiftly westwards. Of a much slimmer build than the resident marsh harriers, these fine raptors can occasionally be encountered around the reserve. Most are simply passing through, but sometimes one will linger and hunt over the rough grassland. There was once a winter roost on Salthouse Heath, but I believe this has been forsaken. However, they can still be seen regularly at Hickling raptor roost which is a marvellous spectacle and an excellent way to conclude a day’s birding.

I was shown evidence of the continued presence of another bird of prey by Carl Brooker, who has made a welcome return as Assistant Summer Warden. He pointed out a freshly deposited pellet of a barn owl outside Bishop’s hide when we briefly caught up at the end of the day. Barn owls have enlivened many a bleak winter day here, with regular sightings along the coastal path, especially early in the morning. A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be able to creep quite close to one of these delicately spangled creatures and take a few snaps. Is there a more beautiful bird?

Barn owl, photo by Barry Madden
Despite the teeth clenching blasts of arctic air, the day was actually rather pleasantly sunny. It has been an awfully long while since we last experienced anything approaching warmth, but for a few minutes in late afternoon the rays of the spring sun tickled my face and I was able to discard my hat and gloves. Thus liberated I could bask in the glory of only needing three layers of clothing to keep me from turning completely blue. For a short while spring was most definitely in the air. A shallow foundation but one on which my love affair with this wonderful slice of Norfolk’s coastal landscape continues to be built.

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