Barry Madden, Volunteer Bird Guide at NWT Cley Marshes
Another day of bitter, biting, easterly winds that whipped across Cley Marshes without pause, and gave scant regard to those folk trying to enjoy their Easter holidays. But as compensation, the sun shone all day from a brilliant blue sky, displaying the rich tones of the dancing reeds to full effect. My early morning chat with the reserve staff had, as its theme, the lamentable lack of migrant birds seen so far this spring. It seems the whole coastline between Salthouse and Cley village is still devoid of the expected wheatears, sandwich terns and chiffchaffs. Things will change soon. With a swing in wind direction to the south-east the floodgates are sure to open. This ritual of mild frustration takes place every year at this time. It is something to do with the longing for warmer days and the vibrant sights and sounds of the spring season. We simply want winter to release its lingering grip and free us from having to step outside bedecked in layer upon layer of thick clothing. We long to be free!
After loitering in the comfort of the visitor centre for as long as I could, I had to step outside and brave the elements, and you know it wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared. My task as a volunteer at Cley is to visit the hides dotted around the reserve and assist people with any query they have on identification of birds or other wildlife, or the management of the area. Sometimes I help Bernard Bishop, much revered warden of these iconic marshes, with his regular ‘Walk with the Warden’ sessions. It helps when there are two of us pointing things out and chatting with visitors. I always make time to walk the perimeter of the reserve at least once a day, when I can stop and chat to people who prefer the fresh Norfolk air to being sat in a hide. I also need the exercise.
I was arrested in my musings today by a subtle movement from a small pile of earth beside the path of the West Bank. Thinking my eyes were playing tricks I waited for a few minutes, and there again the earth shifted! I realised I was watching the activity of a mole busily excavating a tunnel in the moist soil. Once or twice, this seldom seen mammal almost broke the surface and came into view, but sadly it must have been camera shy. However it was interesting to witness a mole hill in the making.
Shortly after, with the empty beach stretched out before me, the full force of the arctic blow could be appreciated. The boiling sea, a swirl of churning green, grey and muddy brown crashed at an acute angle onto the shingle. Even the path of the mighty waters were being shaped by the relentless force of the wind. I often wonder at these times how anything can possible survive these conditions, and in answer I shortly came upon a couple of large gulls pecking away at a floating corpse of a razorbill. Whilst I was busy snapping a few photographs, I realised there were at least two more fresh corpses being rolled around in the spume. Within five minutes, five razorbills were unceremoniously deposited on the beach. I collected them to see whether any had rings, or whether there were obvious signs as to their demise, but could find no clues. It is quite possible the broiling seas over an extended period simply resulted in these birds being unable to feed and so they starved. I guess the answer to my question is that not everything does survive in these conditions; the harsh reality is that wild creatures are always a short step away from death. Food for hungry gulls though.
Despite it still feeling like January, there were clear signs of the changing seasons today. I saw oystercatchers mating, skylarks singing and a grey-lag goose sitting atop her nest plumb in the middle of the area of reed cut in this winter’s harvesting. A small passage of ringed plover was in progress, with 20 or so birds gathering on Simmond’s Scrape to feed up prior to moving on, perhaps to Greenland or Iceland. Overwintering wildfowl were certainly fewer in number, with most now having departed to their northerly breeding grounds. Shelduck were disputing territory and avocets were beginning to adopt their usual aggressive stance towards anything that moves.
I always end the day feeling thankful that I am able to wander these fascinating wetlands, often being able to witness cameos of wildlife interactions that few people are fortunate enough to see. And of course there is always next time to look forward to!