Cley Marshes 7 years ago to the day, would find me walking around the NWT reserve on my weekly volunteering duty. I wrote about it for the NWT blog and reproduce it here. In these days of frustrating confinement it provides a flavour of what we are missing. We can of course take comfort from the knowledge that despite our inability to witness such things, they are still happening and nature will carry on regardless.
A group of people staring intently into an old, lichen encrusted elder bush on the edge of a reed bed at Cley Marshes is likely to mean only one thing – there’s an unusual bird in there somewhere. Today’s gem was a grasshopper warbler ‘reeling’ away for all it was worth, whilst the assembled knot of birders tried to catch a glimpse of it amidst the tangle of branches, or even more frustratingly capture a clear photograph. This elusive and seldom seen species performed well today though, eventually affording most people a good view as it twisted its head from side to side whilst pouring forth its high-pitched rattle. Yet despite the bird being so close it was sometimes difficult to pin down its position with any certainty; such is the ventriloquist nature of the ‘song’. Another male could be heard from deeper in the reeds towards the East Bank footpath. Hopefully they will both attract mates and settle down to breed.
The ‘groppers’ were not the only migrants on show today, and after a poor start April is now producing the goods. Sedge warblers were performing their parachute display flights from every corner of the reed bed, wheatears were busy darting after flies on Cley Eye, and everywhere was busy, busy, busy with birds and insects staking out territory, attracting mates or nest building.
My morning vigil from Bishop’s Hide always produces good conversation with visitors to the reserve, and inevitably close encounters with the resident marsh harriers. Today three of us watched a pair of these impressive raptors building their nest very close to the hide. Both male and female brought in bunches of reed stems, and we also saw the male pick up a clump of debris from the edge of the scrape and deposit it at the nest site. These birds learn to avoid flying over the scrapes themselves during the breeding season, thus largely escaping the mobbing by avocets and lapwings, but this particular nesting attempt is close enough to create conflict; we witnessed the pair getting severely scolded more than once.
When the marsh harriers were absent, we were entertained by a displaying lapwing that passed so close we could easily hear its wing beats as it zigzagged around Pat’s Pool. Is there any more evocative sound of spring than the bubbling courtship calls of a lapwing? The female bird was feeding close to, seemingly unimpressed by the mad helter-skeltering of its mate above. Sometimes the bird world seems remarkably akin to our own! I always think lapwings are beautiful creatures, and with the reflected light dancing across its back, this imperturbable lady revealed vivid flashes of purple, green and bronze. Stunning.
The afternoon stroll around the perimeter of the reserve coincided with acceleration in the passage of swallows and house martins, not a flood exactly, but a steady trickle that proved spring has truly arrived. Some birds had clearly reached the end of their northerly journey and were busy inspecting the remains of the war-time pill-box near the car park. It was lovely to watch them swooping around twittering to each other as they began to settle in for the summer. Other birds making their way westwards included small parties of whimbrel and good numbers of sandwich terns; all flying purposefully into the stiffening breeze. But not all the winter visitors had gone, and I was surprised to see groups of Brent geese flying in off the sea. These birds joined several hundreds of others assembled on the marsh. Presumably this is just a rallying point prior to the push north in a few days time.
What a lovely day to be out patrolling the reserve; blue skies, warm sunshine and a pleasant westerly breeze. Peacock butterflies awakened from hibernation were fluttering around and everywhere a feeling of vibrancy. Even the flat tyre on my car couldn’t dampen my spirits engendered by another day spent on these wonderful coastal wetlands.