Sunday, 15 June 2014

Cley Catch-up: June 2014

Barry Madden, Volunteer Bird Guide at NWT Cley Marshes

So there you are, plans drawn up, contractors in place, bulldozer at the ready and then you realise there are some birds in the way. Not just any birds but a nesting pair of rather wonderful little ringed plover. Such was the position at Cley Marshes during May just as work was due to commence on building the much anticipated Simon Aspinall Education Centre. The plovers had set up home on a patch of bare ground slap bang in the middle of the planned access route. Nothing for it but to down tools, fence off the nesting site and wait for the birds to complete their reproductive duties. 

Happily the pair have now successfully hatched their chicks and their thin piping alarm calls could occasionally be heard today from the car park. I couldn't resist a peek over the hedge to see if I could catch sight of these small bundles of down, and sure enough there they were confidently strutting around in search of tiny invertebrates. When scuttling around the chicks were quite easy to see, but as soon as danger threatened - a passing magpie or gull perhaps - they would crouch down and freeze in response to their parents alarm. Then their cryptic colouration and small size rendered them virtually invisible; a very effective natural defence. It will be interesting to see how these dainty birds fare, especially since they may have to somehow lead their chicks to more fertile feeding areas which will mean navigating across the busy A149 itself. One of the many perils these minuscule youngsters will have to face if they are to make it to adulthood.

The plovers were far from the only birds tending young today. As I worked my way around the reserve I came across several pairs of sedge warblers actively feeding their offspring in nests secreted deep in the luxuriant growth of reed, sedge and grasses. Whitethroats also seem to be doing quite well and my casual observations today located three pairs, all having territories in bramble and nettle covered areas close to the road. Their harsh 'tacking' alarm notes indicating they had broods nearby. Bearded tits could, with patience, be seen and heard pinging fast over stands of reeds near the central hides. Difficult to keep sight of once they crashed into the reeds, but I suspect some of these birds were newly fledged which augers well for a successful breeding season following the trials of the preceding winter.

On the fresh marshes lapwings and redshanks were actively protecting their own prodigy giving determined chase to any would be predator. I watched a pair see off marauding gulls and a crow before one attempted to take on a young bullock grazing nearby. This particular bovine was having none of it and after the lapwing had buzzed it a couple of times retaliated by giving chase to the bird. Taken aback the lapwing didn't seem to know how to deal with this unexpected turn of events but realising the beast meant business ran away roadrunner fashion with the bullock in hot pursuit. Of course cattle cannot fly which is just as well because otherwise the lapwing would have been in serious trouble.

As I gained the beach, I noticed a large gathering of gulls and terns near the site of the old wrecks. There was evidently much food to plunder at this spot and as I watched more and more birds joined the feeding frenzy attracted from afar by the whirling mass of white wings. Several species were participating in the feast including a rather smart Mediterranean gull that eventually flew over my head uttering its call, reminiscent I thought of a child's squeaky toy.

Sandwich Tern, photo by Barry Madden
I spent some time near the sea edge watching the sandwich terns fly past. The object of this vigil was to see how many were returning to their nesting colonies at Blakeney Point with food. I'm pleased to report that a vast majority of those I saw today flew purposefully westward with a beakful of sand eels or other small fish. Little terns were similarly successful and I watched several hovering close to shore before plunging into the waves to emerge with some hapless fish clamped firmly between its mandibles. Encouraging news indeed.

Now all we need is for those plovers to get a move on…

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