Sunday, 27 October 2013

Cley Catch-up: Weds 23 October 2013

Barry Madden, Volunteer Bird Guide at NWT Cley Marshes

One thing that can always be said about Cley Marshes is that you just never know what will turn up. I said this very thing to some people today as we accompanied the warden on one of his regular walks around the reserve. Sure enough whilst we were watching the large numbers of wildfowl assembled on Simmond’s Scrape, a lone swift flew over the hide. I rushed out (us birders can’t help ourselves) and was lucky enough to catch sight of the bird in my binoculars just as a rare shaft of sunlight illuminated the scene. The pale brown plumage tones spoke instantly of a pallid swift, but before we could get a better view it had jinked across the sky and scythed away to the west. What to do? Well luckily nowadays there is a sophisticated network enabling sightings of this nature to be instantly transmitted to the world; I radioed the event into the reserve centre and we waited to see whether someone else could track the bird down and confirm the identity. 

The pallid swift is not an uncommon bird globally – visit the Mediterranean area and you will see loads – but it is a very rare visitor to these northern latitudes and extremely difficult to distinguish from the more familiar common swift. Up to the late 1990s only two had ever been recorded in the county. Since then a sprinkling of sightings have been made, but it is still a prized autumnal tick, so good reason to feel quite happy with the morning’s events. It is always nice when we can show off our prized reserve as a remarkable place for unusual wildlife. Certainly the members of our walking group were pleased to add this bird to their list.
Lapwing, by Chris Mills
The swift was just one example of how subtle changes are now taking place around the marshes. Wildfowl numbers are building up well with most drake wigeon and teal having exited their ‘eclipse’ and sporting pristine, brightly coloured feathering. Essentially this moult brings them into their breeding plumage, and it is not uncommon to see courting displays during the winter months which allows pairs to be formed well before the spring exodus to their breeding grounds. The numbers of golden plover and lapwing are also increasing as continental birds migrate into the country to benefit from our milder climate. We also saw several flocks of starling fly across the reserve today, once again illustrating how populations of our most familiar birds are augmented by immigrants from foreign lands.

Golden plover, Dave Kilbey
I noted other signs of the revolving seasons: the reeds that are beginning to lose their vigour and now sport withered yellowing leaves; the beach that is now full of twisted seed heads where a few weeks ago flowers of yellow horned-poppy and Campion proliferated; the saltmarsh that now stands bare and brown, no longer covered in a hazy carpet of beautiful sea lavender. It happens every year yet still invokes a slight feeling of loss. But it is not only the natural inhabitants of Cley that are changing, it is time to say goodbye to the seasonal staff that enliven my walks around the reserve. No more friendly banter with Carl as he takes a break from strimming the profuse growth choking the footpaths; no more chatting to Chris at the beach car park whilst his lovely dog Meg beats her tail and begs for a bit of fuss. I’ll miss them.    

I ended the day as I often do with a brief visit to Bishop’s hide. There, after an intense afternoon squall, the weather had softened to give way to golden autumnal sunshine. The scrapes were filled with birds roosting, preening, bathing or just loafing about. A lone curlew uttered its plaintive call and a flock of golden plover arrived in glistening formation. It was a tranquil scene which always serves to relax and soothe.

And yes, the bird we saw earlier in the day was indeed confirmed as a pallid swift. It was tracked eastwards around the coast with the last report at Felbrigg. We were very fortunate to see it – very soon, like the last vestiges of our summer, it will almost certainly be gone. 

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