Salthouse Pools in North Norfolk are, for their size and location, providers of enormous entertainment and interest for the wildlife enthusiast. They run parallel to the coast road for a couple of hundred metres, are only 20 metres wide, but act as a magnet for wild birds of all kinds. They are presumably fed by fresh water percolating through the chalk from high ground to the south, in the same way as the wetlands at Cley Marshes a couple of miles to the west are supplied. The area to the north, between the pools and the shingle ridge, is mainly fresh marsh interspersed with reed lined drainage dykes; a winter refuge for wildfowl and waders and a summer home for Lapwings, Marsh harriers and other wetland birds. The looming shingle is an ever-present menace, threatening to smother the marshes under the mighty force of the North Sea that constantly seeks to reclaim the flatlands for its own. The beach car park has been lost in this way, as has areas of brackish water studded with salt tolerant plants, whose seeds were beloved by pipits and buntings. But the pools remain; a welcome retreat offering sanctuary to bathe, feed and rest.
There’s only room for half a dozen cars to pull off the coast road and park up, but this is sufficient to cater for a regular turnover of folk that indulge in a spot of year-round duck feeding, and in summer patronise the ice cream van strategically parked on the farm access point that divides the pools. What a delight it is to be able to sit there, wind down the windows, and simply indulge in watching the antics of wild creatures that, to varying degrees, have become used to being close to people.
We regularly stop there for half an hour or so, especially during quiet winter afternoons, when any sunshine illuminates the scene to perfection. The cast of characters is always changing, although there are regular company members that can be relied upon to perform. The ever-present Mallards, some of dubious heritage, keep close to the parking bays in the knowledge that any passing vehicle represents promise of their next meal, stale bread or seed, ready to be scattered before their hoovering beaks. The drakes are very colourful and forever squabbling over the rights to the proportionately scarcer ducks.
During spring, it is amusing to watch them circle around producing their courtship ‘dance’ whereby they will raise themselves out of the water as though relieving themselves of troublesome wind, but rather than emitting a belch they instead produce a small sharp whistle. Quite a surprising noise from a bird more often associated with maniacal quacking. Other wildfowl will pop in for a bathe from time to time, Tufted Duck, Wigeon, Shelduck, Shoveler and Teal will use the facilities at need.
Belligerent Moorhens strut around on their oversized yellow-lobed feet, daring other birds to get in their way. They breed around the margins of the pools, or amongst the more reed filled areas, and seem to have learned to tolerate their own kind to a much higher degree than in other locations. Of course, they fight, that’s what they do, but it seems 2-3 pairs will settle down in reasonable harmony. In late summer, it is possible to watch the adolescents from a previous brood helping their parents with raising a second brood of small black coated chicks. Common behaviour, but not always easy to see in wilder spots.
A family of Mute Swans often glide up and down, terrorising smaller birds when they dare to block access to any pile of seed. It is quite funny to see the Cob grip the feathers of an offending gull, and with a flick of its head, send it squawking in protest off to one side. The gulls naturally feature prominently in the throng. They are mainly Black-headed, but smaller numbers of Common, Herring and a lone Lesser Black-back are regular attendees. They all have different levels of tolerance to humans, and it is interesting to note how they utilise the place to catch a free meal. The Black-headed Gulls will swarm around any proffered loaf, even taking bread from the hand.
The Common Gulls keep their distance, wait for one of the others to get a beak full and then chase it mercilessly until it gives up the prize. Herring Gulls can sometimes be bold, but never chance too close an encounter, and the Lesser Black-back (Bottom Right) is an interesting bird. It’s been there a couple of years, but to see one in winter at such a location is quite rare. I noticed it has some kind of band on one leg, not a ring, more like a tag to which a number/identifier would be attached. Also, the plumage stage caused some debate when I posted it to a specialist gull group online. I think I worked it out eventually. This individual was probably an injured bird that was taken in by some animal charity, was nursed back to health and eventually released or escaped. If it was ill then plumage moult could well have been retarded, the tag on the leg would seem logical, and its easy acceptance of people would be explained. Who knows though? To add further interest, some unusual gulls turn up from time to time, and we have been given excellent views of both Little Gull (Centre Right) and Iceland Gull (Bottom) over the past couple of years.
If it is quietish, and the Moorhens allow, local Lapwings and Redshanks will use the shallow water on the marshland edge to bathe and preen. Jackdaws, Starlings and Rooks will do likewise. During winter, the adjoining marshes echo to the trilling of Curlew and the whistling of Wigeon. Marsh Harriers will float over the meadows, flushing the wildfowl and smaller pipits and larks. Sometimes skeins of Brent or Pink-footed Geese will pass overhead, and there is always a chance of a Kestrel or Sparrowhawk zipping through. Spring brings colour and courtship, nest building, vocal displays and territorial battles. Summer provides Swallows and House Martins skimming the pool for a drink and twittering on overhead wires, whilst families of fluffy ducklings learn the ropes, running the gauntlet of larger birds in their quest for free hand outs. Autumn sees things quieten down whilst the ducks go through ‘eclipse’, (the moult rendering them flightless), and the troupe changes its personnel, and winter, my personal favorite, brings lovely light, diversity and non-stop action.
With so many birds feeding, courting, bathing, preening, skirmishing and squabbling, all year round, all close and accessible, it is a truly mesmerising location.
If you enjoyed this article, you can find more relating to Salthouse, Cley and other localities in eastern England, the wider UK, and around the world in my book Naturally Connected