Monday, 9 February 2015

Cley Catch-up: 9 February 2015

Barry Madden, Volunteer Bird Guide at NWT Cley Marshes

Today started with a rainbow, a double rainbow in fact that formed a perfect arch across Cley Marshes showcasing it nicely in a multi-hued frame. Where there's a rainbow you can bet rain is not far away and sure enough a gaze out to sea from the comfort of the Visitor Centre showed fragmented curtains of moisture descending from evil looking dark clouds being pushed fast along the coast by the prevailing North-easterly wind. 

 After a while (the time it takes to sip a cup of tea and catch up with birding gossip) the skies cleared somewhat allowing my volunteer duties to commence. So, what could a walk around the hides reveal today? First off a large group of dark-bellied Brent geese, originating from Russia or western Siberia, were busy cropping the grass in meadows bordering the coast road. As luck would have it a pair of the pale-bellied race (or species if you're greedy) which spend their summers in Greenland were the closest birds to the boardwalk and therefore allowed a good look and comparison with their duskier relatives. These birds, almost certainly a romantically tied couple, sported much lighter flanks and a pure white underside which was somewhat difficult to see as they waddled through the lush grass - such food source being the main reason the geese are here.

Pink-footed Geese, photo by Barry Madden
From the central hides another flock of geese were on show. These were pink-footed geese which occur all along the north Norfolk coast in winter feasting on discarded sugar beet tops. The birds use Cley reserve as a safe resting and roosting site between feeding sojourns to surrounding arable land. The freshwater pools also provide the birds with clean water to drink and in which to bathe. Their temporary presence on the reserve provides much interest, not least because there is always a chance that less common species may be associating with the hordes. Today there were rumours of the rossicus race of bean geese being present but despite a good search I failed to locate them. These birds that summer in far northern tundra, hence their familiar name of  'tundra' bean goose, are superficially quite similar to the pink-feet, but differ in having an orange band on the bill and bright orange legs. All very well if you get a good view of a bird unobstructed by flank high grass or one that has been foraging for food in thick mud. I had to make do with a lone grey-lag.

One thing we are seldom short of in this Norfolk of ours is wind, especially on the North coast in winter where the cold Arctic air is frequently swept into the county unabated across the broiling North Sea. These winds can be cruel, whipping the mud coloured coastal waters into a churning frenzy and causing destruction to all that dares to challenge its might. We have had a spate of strong northerly gales lately which have not only caused a 'wreck' of starfish, flatfish and shellfish whose desiccated bodies now litter the strand line, but have also forced a number of unusual gulls to make landfall between Cley and Sheringham.

 Second winter Iceland gull, photo by Barry Madden
So, after lunch I felt duty bound to try and track these white-winged nomads and was fortunate to be able to firstly find a second winter Iceland gull, at Salthouse. This bird did not allow close approach, but was easily noticed from quite a distance thanks to its off white plumage standing out brightly from its more brown mottled cousins; the herring and lesser black-backs that are more familiar inhabitants of these parts. Simultaneously there was another bird at Cley Coastguards, this a first winter individual which was altogether more creamy brown, lacking the light grey mantle of the Salthouse bird. These gulls are giving local birders the run around with their restless movements up and down the coast, but patience will usually pay off, or if you're like me simple blind luck.

Fulmar, photo by Barry Madden
Whilst at Salthouse I took the opportunity to drive further east towards Weyborne and was very pleased to notice a few fulmars busy prospecting narrow ledges of the sandy cliffs for the purposes of nesting later in the year. These tube nosed petrels have become far less common in recent years. Where once a reasonably sized colony of 200 or so pairs dotted the cliffs between Weyborne and Overstrand, now only a few pairs attempt to raise their single chick on these fragile, fractured piles of sand. Masters of the air currents it is fascinating to watch these birds ride the updrafts as they joust for prime breeding plots. Their speed, once taken by the prevailing wind, is breath-taking and represents a real challenge for the photographer, but now and again they will stall into the breeze and then the shutter whirls away hoping to capture the essence of this enigmatic ocean wanderer. It's encouraging to know a few pairs cling on to this southern outpost of their breeding range. Let us hope their efforts bear fruit.
So, despite the opening scene no crock of gold today at the rainbows end, but the wealth of birds on these wonderful NWT reserves more than made up for the absence of shiny metal.

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