Friday, 2 January 2015

The mid-winter quirk of the calendar

by Nick Acheson, NWT Wildlife Evangelist

Dunlin, photo by Steve Bond
There is a special thrill to watching birds in early January as everything you see is new. On New Year’s Day the same liver-headed wigeon drakes which cropped the grass at Cley the day before are new again, with the virgin year. So too the clay-backed dunlin pottering over the mud and the sad-voiced golden plover hunkering in a tight flock in the ploughed field by the visitor centre. All these old friends and many others are new friends again thanks to this mid-winter quirk of the calendar.

For many East Anglian birders NWT Cley Marshes is a compulsory port of call on New Year’s Day. This peerless nature reserve, the oldest in the county Wildlife Trusts movement and still among the most celebrated, has such a range of habitats and attracts such a diversity of birds that it is a birder’s default choice for starting another year’s pilgrimage through Norfolk’s splendid birds. 

Bearded tit, photo by Ian Steel
As January’s stabbing wind sets Cley’s reeds a-rustle, birders listen for the tiny chimes of bearded tits, hoping to see one of these minute moustachioed mandarins hopping through the damp litter at the brittle reeds’ feet. In summer these lovely birds feed on reedbed insects but in winter they are forced to forage for reed seed. As the birders wait a weird shriek comes rhythmically, half a dozen times, from the reedbed and all eyes search for a water rail, its beak incongruously dried-blood red in this winter-dulled landscape of browns and greys.

The birders hear a purring murmuring gargling overhead as a flock of brent geese flies in to the scrapes. These are dark-bellied brents, which breed in summer in the Russian tundra and migrate
Brent geese, photo by Dave Kilbey
each winter to East Anglian coastal marshes. Their life in the saltmarshes here, feeding on salty plants and encrusting their continent-crossing plumage in brine, means that every day they must come to the freshwater scrapes to bathe and drink. From the hides at Cley gloved and woolly-hatted birders can see into the lives of these and many other migrant waterbirds – pintail, shoveler, teal, pink-footed geese – each with a different journey in its wings.

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