The sun was shining, the wind had abated, and with this fine prospect we found ourselves spending an afternoon at Salthouse. It wasn’t planned that way, rather a quick look at the pools, followed by perhaps a visit to nearby Cley was the loose idea, but it turned out wonderfully different.
We did firstly park by the roadside pools, the only car there in fact, to see what activity was taking place. It was quite noticeable how bird numbers had diminished as compared to just a few weeks ago. During the chill winter months, myriad screeching gulls and quacking Mallards would cluster around the small pull-ins, enrapturing the scene with their noise and movement. They spend their time awaiting the next car full of humans, eager to hand out bread and seed in a much needed connection with nature, a trade that benefits the health and wellbeing of all species concerned. Today, just a smattering of Black-headed Gulls loitered around, the rest having left for breeding grounds in Eastern Europe, Scandinavia or maybe just further along this beautiful coastline we enjoy. The Mallards were still present, but the make up of those gathered were noticeably weighted towards the drakes, the females would no doubt be secreted in the adjacent damp meadows sitting cosily on a clutch of light green eggs.
My attention was soon taken by a pair of Canada Geese. One bird dipped its head into the water, seemingly as a prelude to a spell of vigorous bathing. Not so. I quickly realised that some form of ritualised courtship was being displayed just a few metres from where I sat with camera poised. A few seconds after one bird had immersed its head and shaken off the excess water, the other would do the same. This exchange went on for a few minutes, with the frequency of the act increasing and becoming more synchronised. As it reached a kind of frenzy, the male nudged the female, and edging closer, mounted her to complete the act of mating. It was all rather touching to witness this act of intimacy between two such creatures, and I shamefully admit is a process I was completely ignorant of. Afterwards, the gander puffed himself up and posed in proud acknowledgement of his masculine prowess. One thing I could have predicted from similar observations of other species, was the vigorous bathing that took place afterwards. It all reinforced my fervent belief that the most interesting behaviour, the most satisfying nature watching, can often be delivered by birds and animals we tend to overlook because they are everyday and common. I wrote some thoughts on this a few years ago, you can read those musings here.
The other common species were similarly engaged in interesting interactions. The drake Mallards were very belligerent towards their own kind, chasing, pecking, and squabbling, generally intolerant towards just about all else. I watched one drake pull a good sized clump of feathers from the back end of a hapless duck, and other drakes were ganging up on some weaker individual, or maybe even attempting rape – a trait not unknown amongst the species.
Moorhens were less tactile, choosing instead to confront one another beak to beak, red eyes glaring, rear ends raised and wings lowered in a show of testosterone induced posturing. A far less risky way to assert territorial boundaries, and after 30 seconds each strolled away from the direction they came, displaying the bright white tail patches as a kind of reminder that the one shouldn’t mess with the other.
The local corvids took advantage of the absence of cars to either pick and swallow small pieces of gravel in the case of a Rook, or collect nesting material in the case of Jackdaws. Rooks, and many other species, regularly ingest small stones and such like as an aid to break down and digest grain and seeds. If you look closely at the Jackdaw image, you will see it has picked up a cigarette butt for use as nest lining
Not being in any particular rush to get home, we moved on a short distance to park up along the beach road at a convenient place to scan the marshes for early spring migrants. A large bird hunting over the shingle ridge turned out to be a Red Kite, which after a while spiralled towards us, passing low over the road just in front. The effort I employed in an attempt to lean out of the car window to take a shot would have been so much easier 20 years and 20lbs ago!
These contortions became a feature of the afternoon, a 3 hour stay as it transpired, when several birds perched on nearby fence posts, sometimes awkwardly out of shot resulting in various mutterings along the lines of: ‘cant quite reach round far enough’, ‘why must they always perch with their back to me’, ‘who put that wing mirror there!’ Charming Meadow Pipits and Linnets entertained in this way, as did close fly-bys of a hunting Sparrowhawk, piping Redshank and a flight of bubbling Curlew. But pride of place must be awarded to a simply beautiful male Wheatear, hoped for and looked for, that hopped around on the short sward of the roadside meadow. Such a colourful little gem, the sight of which never seems to pale. I watched this freshly arrived migrant for an hour without getting the least bit bored. After resting and feeding up, it will move north to its breeding grounds somewhere in the UK or maybe beyond.
As the sun began to dip, painting the scene with a wash tinted of golden syrup, brown hares came out to play. First one, then another pair, three more and before we knew it over a dozen could be counted across the fields both near and distant. On the rolling ground inland, red deer ventured forth to graze, surrounded by FeraI Pigeons and Pheasants.
As a fitting end to our gentle, relaxed nature watching, a male Marsh Harrier floated across the road, scattering wildfowl and waders in its wake. Its rich rufous and golden tones highlighted to perfection, encapsulating the splendour of an afternoon at Salthouse.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog, you will find many similar articles and excellent images in my book, Naturally Connected, which you can buy online by clicking the link at the top right of this post. Alternatively, and to save on the inevitable wholesale mark-up costs, you can get in touch direct either via the comments facility (please include email address), or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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