Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Cley warblers

Barry Madden, Volunteer Bird Guide at Cley Marshes
Grasshopper warbler, photo by Barry Madden
It was a day of warblers at Cley Marshes. Just after lunch I was strolling along the footpath adjacent to the Coast Road when I movement in the reed scrub caught my eye. There for a second was a grasshopper warbler, in full view, a mere two metres from where I stood. Without thinking and like a well drilled infantryman I shouldered my camera and fired a few rounds. A seamless, silky movement that Eastwood, Stallone or Schwarzenegger would have been proud of. The bird was only visible for the blinking of an eye before it hopped down into the thick tangle of sedge and effectively disappeared. These skulking warblers are usually very difficult to see and to have one pose in such a fashion is very unusual. I’m sure this one had a nest secreted deep in the luxuriant tangle, but such is the secretive nature of their tribe, that without such good luck as mine you would never know they were there.
Whitethroat, photo by Barry Madden
Whilst I was standing stock still waiting for the grasshopper warbler to reappear (it didn’t) I noticed a pair of whitethroats feeding their offspring in a nest placed deep in one of the rampant bramble growths, and within a minute a sedge warbler zipped into the dyke-side tangle to feed its own young. To complete the set, a reed warbler chuntered away from taller reeds bordering the catch water drain and a Cetti’s warbler blasted its short assault on the eardrums from the depths of a hawthorn. Five warbler species within a ten metre square of verdant roadside foliage. I found this quite interesting and speculated on the vast amount of invertebrate fodder that must be available all over the marsh to support this kind of density. Given the whole area was under several feet of salt water 18 months ago it seems to have recovered well.

Not so the main scrapes on the reserve which still appear to be suffering somewhat. There are far fewer avocets nesting there this year and waders in general have been very scarce (a situation echoed from many places along the coast I gather). The good news though is that the newly acquired marshes to the east are full of birds. During the afternoon I led an impromptu, taster session birding walk along the southern boundary of the reserve. These informal events are a new innovation, designed to give people new to the delights of wildlife watching some idea of the wealth of creatures that make the reserve their home ( If you plan to visit the reserve, look for details on the notice bard in the Visitor Centre).  As our small but very congenial party reached the East Bank, we were quite delighted at the number of avocets nesting on the area near the ‘Serpentine’. They are well spaced, but nonetheless the species is well represented. I think this is good news for just about everything in that 1). The avocets are not concentrated into a single breeding zone and will therefore not so easily attract the attention of predators, and 2). Their wide spacing allows other birds the freedom to go about their business without being constantly harassed. These wet meadows also hold good numbers of breeding lapwing, redshank, geese and wildfowl; visible proof that recent management activity is bearing fruit.

Sedge warbler, photo by Barry Madden
Earlier during my morning rounds I sat for an hour on the bench outside Bishop’s Hide. I find this to be a useful and relaxed position from which to engage with members of the public. A bonus here was to have periodic close encounters with another highly vocal sedge warbler who was single-mindedly attempting to attract a mate to his patch of marsh. During his frequent bursts of song I listened closely to his varied repertoire, delivered in a maniacal frenzy of jumbled whistles, cackles, trills and chatter. I was amused to be able to pick out the mimicked calls of lapwing, redshank, curlew, whimbrel, black-headed gull, house sparrow and corncrake from amidst the maelstrom of notes. No doubt some of these were picked up locally, but where else had this perky little bird been spending his short life and what wonderful things had it encountered? The lives of these tiny birds are fascinating and it is easy to dismiss them sometimes as just small brown jobs, but as with most wild creatures their outward appearance often masks a much more colourful existence.

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