Ed Parnell of Norfolk Wildlife Trust
One of the most spectacular birds that visitors to the north Norfolk coast might just spot this summer, is also our most recent avian colonist. Similar in build to a grey heron, though slightly smaller, the spoonbill’s plumage is completely white, except in the breeding season when adults show a small patch of yellowish feathers on their chest. At this time of year mature birds also have a rather fetching, shaggy crest at the back of their head. But by far their most noticeable feature is the one for which they are named – that enormous, spatula-like bill.
|Spoonbill by Pat Wileman|
Spoonbills generally feed in flocks, swinging their heads from side to side through shallow pools of water. This is where the remarkable bill comes into its own: held slightly open it is packed full of sensors that detect minute vibrations and, once located, unlucky beetles, crustaceans, worms, small fish – even tadpoles and frogs – stand no chance of escape.
Although they bred in East Anglia during medieval times, spoonbills had not bred in Norfolk for over 300 years until, in 2010, a colony was discovered at Holkham marshes, where six pairs raised ten chicks. Conservationists crossed their fingers that the birds (originating from the Netherlands) would return again in 2011, which, gratifyingly, is what happened; eight pairs bred, successfully fledging 14 young.
Because the birds are easily disturbed it’s not possible for visitors to view the colony at Holkham. However, this isn’t a problem as the spoonbills (including a large number of non-breeding individuals) feed in sizeable flocks along the coast. The best site is probably Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes, where a record flock of 25 birds was recorded in 2010. Here the shallow pools and scrapes are an ideal place for the birds to feed, and they can often be watched at close-quarters from the comfort of numerous viewing hides.
|Spoonbills flying, photo by Brian Macfarlane|
One final word of caution: to see that famous bill you may well have to be patient. Spoonbills are notorious for spending large amounts of time asleep, their heads tucked frustratingly under a wing – the first view many birdwatchers have of the species is of a rather undistinguished group of white lumps sat on a muddy spit! Later in the day is often a good time to catch them being more active (they’re actually partly nocturnal), swinging their heads in characteristic, almost synchronised fashion.
As well as offering a great chance of seeing spoonbills, NWT Cley Marshes is also a great place to see all sorts of other wading birds and ducks at this time of the year, including the chance of rare visitors from America and Europe. And to celebrate National Marine Week in August (so good it lasts a fortnight!), a number of special events for families and children will be held at the reserve. Entrance to the award-winnning visitor centre and cafe is free, though there is a small charge for adult non-NWT members to access the bird hides. The reserve is just east of Cley next the Sea village on the A149 coast road towards Sheringham.