Changing the Guard

The cold nor-westerly’s we’ve had over the past week has retarded bird migration here in Norfolk, yet despite nature not co-operating as well as it may there are nonetheless sure signs that spring has arrived.  My weekly stint at Cley Marshes and the surrounding area has allowed sight of a few goodies that promise of the warmer, more vibrant and colourful days to come. Last week at Weybourne, chiffchaffs were in full voice with at least four birds periodically singing from a patch of pool side willows. I’ve also heard them singing recently in various places around the county including Mousehold in Norwich and even in the middle of Sprowston where the songster could hardly be heard for the incessant noise of the passing traffic along Wroxham Road.  Some of the earlier birds may well have been overwintering adults able to set up territory earlier than the migrants, but a lot of the birds now present will be freshly arrived from their North African wintering grounds or maybe even from Extremadura where we saw lots in mid-February.



This bird was found at Weybourne caught mid-chiff or mid-chaff

On Cley reserve itself the cast of characters has noticeably changed. Gone now are the whistling flocks of wigeon and the tooting teal to be replaced by frisky head-bobbing shoveller and sparring shelduck. Gone too are the twisting tinsel-like masses of golden plover in whose stead we have bubbling lapwings and piping redshank. Where winter roosts of spectral white gulls gathered we now see avocets scything the shallow waters. A week can make a huge difference in this season of transition.



The bird on the left is female and still retains the light edging to the feathering
which is a feature of winter plumage. It may also be a relatively young bird
perhaps hatched last year. The bird on the right is a full-blooded male. 


Other waders are present that will not breed here but nonetheless allow us to see them in their summer dress. Black-tailed godwits feature heavily at this site and are present pretty much all year round. Nearly all the birds we see here are of the islandica race which breeds in Iceland, and this week I noticed one bird sporting its deep chestnut breast feathering, transforming it from its winter grey to something of much greater beauty. Over the coming weeks many more of these richly liveried birds will grace the Norfolk marshes before whisking away north to take advantage of the Arctic summer. The continental race of the species limosa limosa limosa (don’t you just love these Latin names) used to breed here in large numbers but drainage of the wetlands, shooting and egg collecting very effectively wiped out our breeding population.  Nowadays only a couple of pairs manage to cling on in the Fens – wouldn’t it be wonderful to have them back big-time.

Black-tailed Godwits

These birds were pictured this week. Note the summer plumaged bird in the lead.

Black-tailed Godwit

This is a much closer and gloriously colourful bird I photographed a couple of years ago.

Black-tailed Godwits

A wary group showing a staging of moult photographed at Cley in April 2012
Norfolk is one of the few counties where, if you are patient and lucky, you can see all four of the established and regularly breeding heron species. No spoonbills yet, but within the space of a few minutes on Wednesday I saw bittern, grey heron and little egret from Daukes’s hide at Cley. The bittern was especially welcome because a sighting at this time probably means the bird is here to stay and means business, i.e. may already be paired or is actively seeking a mate. No booming has been recorded yet, and this may also be positive news in that if a pair has already been formed then there is no need for the male to waste energy shouting for a partner.  Fingers crossed that the reed beds at Cley may host this most enigmatic of herons once again this year.


Not a very good shot, but the bird was a long way off.
Little egrets are, in my opinion, one of the most photogenic of birds. They have a small breeding colony in the wood beside the coast road at the east end of the reserve. The plumes the birds grow during courtship are lovely and make these endearing creatures even more of a picture.


Little Egret

These birds simply love fishing for sticklebacks that swarm in the drains at Cley

Little Egret

Showing off the breeding plumes to great effect

Grey herons also breed in small numbers in the wood and use the reserve as feeding grounds. In past years they have preyed on avocet chicks, but over the past couple of seasons seem to have found other means of sustenance. Seeing one of these impressive predators close to allows you to appreciate the full extent of their wingspan and the lethal weapon that is their beak.


Grey Heron

Huge wings on these birds, and a huge beak as well 

It’s all change at Cley, and not just on the reserve. If you pay a visit to the Visitor Centre – and you should - you will be able to take advantage of the displays and events now installed in the newly completed Simon Aspinall Wildlife EducationCentre. It is fantastic! Also when you’re there be sure to try your hand at the interactive quiz and information facility. I wrote a lot of the text for this and I think it works really well. If you do go I would be very interested in knowing what you think of the whole setup.