Monday 22 September 2014

Norfolk part 2- Cley Time

In Norfolk, the place I was most looking forward to visiting was Cley. Wells next the Sea is located on the coast pretty much exactly between Cley NNR and Titchwell RSPB nature reserves. Both are famously good reserves, and both I had visited before, about 12 years ago, when I was in the Wildlife Explorers. It was on a weekend residential where we thoroughly traveled the reserves in this particular part of Norfolk, and then took a detour on the way home to sites for Stone Curlews and Nightingales (successfully seen and heard singing respectively). We went because of Norfolk's fame as a hotspot for birds, and it didn't disappoint!

I remember that Cley was the first place we (the Wildlife Explorers) visited after arriving, as we went straight there in the early evening and drove down to the beach. I was excited to spot my first 'wild' Egyptian Goose from the minibus (which now I look back was no doubt not at all as wild as its surroundings and was possibly an escape rather than a more 'respectable' feral bird! There don't seem to be any at Cley any more), but as soon as we got out I got to see something much better- the leaders excitedly pointed out a Barn Owl coming into view, which began slowly quartering the surrounding fields. I bet this was what the leaders had been hoping for by taking us out in the evening. I will never forget seeing that wonderful bird, and I've only seen Barn Owls in the wild about twice more since.

We explored the beach at Cley, and I remember a whole load of starfish had washed up on the shingles and many were fully dried out. This was so interesting that most of us took at least one back to where we were staying, but it was a big mistake as we discovered how badly they smelled when you put them in an enclosed space! They all had to be thrown away. Us silly kids. ^^ I sometimes wonder whatever could have caused all those starfish to wash up. And we visited the beach hide, where I saw my first Marsh Harriers, and fell in love with these wonderfully patterned birds of prey. They are one of my favourite birds to this day.

So I had a lot of happy memories of Cley, and was excited to return, show my mum around, and see what had changed and what had remained the same. The first major difference was the fantastic visitor's centre they have now, which was a few years away from being built when I had last visited. It's raised up and has huge windows that look out onto the reserve, and there are telescopes and binoculars you can use to view the birds if you don't have your own, which makes it great for young birdwatchers and beginners. There's a lovely cafe and you can view the birds while having a cup of tea and a cake! Perfect. And I should add that the shop has the most wonderful range of bird art postcards, including a brilliant set of field sketch postcards by Steve Cale, which I had to resist buying the full set of! There of course were many wildlife books and field guides for sale but also some gorgeous art books. I bought a book about Robert Gillmor's posters for Birdfair, which not only showed the poster itself but gave an insight into the process of designing it, which was both interesting and inspiring.

The Hokasai style albatross is one of my favourites ever. :)

Though you do have to pay a relatively steep admission fee for the reserve now that the visitor's centre exists, as well as the cafe it has useful things like toilets and a recent sightings board, etc. As soon as we arrived at the centre I scanned the big lake through the window and saw four tall, while birds feeding. They were Spoonbills! And four of them! Now that's a bird you'll have difficulty seeing even one of in Hampshire. These birds are so charismatic I honestly think I could watch them feed forever. As their name suggests they have beaks shaped like spoons: long, with a big round end that presumably helps them feed on whatever food they are feeding on when you see them feeding! I admit, I don't know much about what they eat and why the spoon helps. ^^ But they are amazing. Their long necks, long legs and white feathers make them look a bit similar to Little Egrets in pictures, but they are actually not at all similar, being much bigger and less graceful, and hold their necks straight out when they fly rather than tucked in.

Cley has a cluster of three hides in the middle of the reserve, and it was a good thing they were there as by the time my mum and I went to explore the reserve the weather had taken a turn for the worse and heavy, if intermittent, rain was falling. Each hide was filled with birdwatchers, and the scrape in front was filled with birds! There were waders everywhere of several species and it was the perfect chance to brush up on our wader ID skills. This can be a great thing to do when you're in a new area as (at least for intermediate birdwatchers who aren't yet up to searching for wader rarities) it can be easy to get into the habit of IDing waders through familiarity of what you usually see. Being outside of that means you look more closely at their plumage and identifying features. For example, my mum and I were stuck on some medium sized short beaked waders with eyestripes, before realising they were Knot. You won't see Knot much in Hampshire (a few on passage), so I'm not really used to them. Of course in the UK you'd have trouble seeing the bright red breeding plumaged Knot, so you're basically dealing with juveniles and non-breeding plumage adults, but juvenile Knots can be quite distinctive in a subtle way. The breast feathers have a yellow-beige wash, the eyestripe is prominent, the legs are greenish, and the beak is super short compared with a Redshank, but not short enough to mistake with a plover. One of these on its own is maybe not enough, but look at them all together and you'll start to narrow it down.

My mum and I were totally confused by what looked like a lot of Redshanks that had extra white on them, including one that had almost a full white collar. We were just coming to the conclusion that they could only be leucistic Redshanks when a helpful man told us they were Ruff! The males were moulting out of their breeding plumage, and Ruffs are super variable anyway, so this was why they had us confused. Ruffs are another bird I'd never expect back home, but in Norfolk they are numerous. The man who told us this was very kind and awesome. I especially appreciated how he left us to figure out the rest of the waders without trying to tell us them all. As he said, it can be fun to figure them out for yourselves, and I totally agree, especially if you are past the beginner stage and starting to want to learn to ID independently. And I was almost past the beginner stage back when I was at 12 and at Cley all those years ago. I remember sitting in the hide back then, and an older birdwatcher took it upon himself to show me a Pectoral Sandpiper, but he got rather cranky with me when I couldn't find it straight away. Just a thought- if you're going to try and show a kid a bird, don't get mad if they don't immediately spot it! Also if there's a group of Wildlife Explorers, you can probably count on their group leader to make sure everyone has seen the bird. Just saying! The Pectoral Sandpiper was all the way from America so it was pretty cool. I probably couldn't find that one on my own even now.

If you're ever unsure what's about when you're in a hide but you're a bit shy, it can be good to keep an ear out for what others are saying, which can be a good indicator of what to look for. However always remember that not everyone in a hide will be right about what they're looking at, even if they're older or look more experienced than you. I once shared a hide at RSPB Dungeness with an older guy who kept trying to identify this one odd looking duck that had us both puzzled as all kinds of things, including Little Auk, despite me eventually identifying it as a female Goldeneye and telling him so! However there's one golden rule: if someone has a radio and radios a sighting through to the centre, it's probably genuine! Yes this is apparently a thing that happens in Norfolk nature reserves. Yet more evidence that Norfolk is just that bit more hardcore. It's really good when it happens as it means you immediately know what to keep an eye out for. My mum and I were able to spot the most gorgeous Grey Plover in full glorious breeding plumage from this method. I've seen a few that were halfway through their moult but never one that was still in full breeding. Its pitch black face, chest and belly, outlined with a wide stripe of white and offset by a backfull of thickly barred black and white feathers, made it a sight to behold. The Grey Plover is one that you can see plenty of in winter but they will always be the nondescript round, pale winter plumage birds. Now if only the Ruff and the Knot could have been in breeding plumage too! That would make things so much easier.

The sun had actually come out by this point so next I persuaded my mum to come down to the beach and do some seawatching. Walking down the path to the sea with the reserve on each side, I got nostalgic for seeing that first Egyptian Goose and Barn Owl. On the beach there was one big change- the hide where we'd seen the Marsh Harriers was gone. It had been washed away in a storm and is apparently being replaced with a viewing platform. High winds and spring tides can be a big problem for Norfolk, and even though this weather was tame compared to the kind of weather than washes stuff away, the winds were strong and the waves threw up spray, and despite the warm sun we wished we'd brought gloves to shield our hands from the cold onshore wind. But there weren't any starfish! This was probably a good thing.

My mum and I aren't pro seawatchers, in fact we are the newest of beginners to this difficult and patience-requiring type of birdwatching. I've become passionate recently due to my love of seabirds of all kinds (I got hooked during a ferry crossing from Portsmouth to Le Havre a few years ago) and often go to the coast in Hampshire to practice seawatching, but the trouble with Hampshire is the Isle of Wight's always in the way. Even if you go all the way to the other side of the New Forest where the Isle of Wight coastline ends, which I sometimes do, its just not the same as looking straight out into the open sea as you can in Norfolk. When it comes to the actual seawatching, we don't have a technique yet, and just intermittently scan with the scope while enjoying the closer wader and tern flypasts. There were loads of lovely, bright white winter plumage Sandwich Terns going past all the time, and Oystercatchers. In among one little flock of Oystercatchers was one Dunlin that looked tiny compared to them, and who started behind them but overtook every single Oystercatcher to be right at the front! It was very funny.

We also saw a flock of juvenile Shelduck go past, escorted by one adult who had sacrificed the yearly Shelduck moulting trip to Heligoland in Germany in order to look after the kids, and further away going over the sea we saw a group of all adult Shelduck, possibly latecomers on their way to that very place right now! Also on the sea we saw my mum's favourite Gannets, which are common on a seawatch but always lovely to watch, and reassuringly easy to identify. Then I saw one of my favourites, a Manx Shearwater, with its dark-and-light wings and confident glide. Sadly with only one scope my mum wasn't able to locate it in time though. I think seawatching works best when everyone has a scope on a tripod aimed at the horizon so they can just move it along to where the bird is. We both knew a good way to describe where birds are on the sea is to use a buoy or something as a reference point, but in practice when there was actually something to look at we forgot to do that and I ended up giving no helpful directions to where the shearwater was! Next time.

We had just spotted a lovely 1st-winter Kittiwake, with its distinctive black v-shaped markings on each wing, when a man came by and said 'did you see the Purple Sandpiper?' I said 'Oooh, where??' He said 'Oh it's already gone, but look at this photo I took of it!' And sure enough, he had a lovely photo of the Purple Sandpiper. He said it had gone down by some fishing boats to our left so we went down to have a look but it had obviously flown on by that point. But we were happy enough to have seen the Kittiwake and, as we told ourselves, there's a very reliable wintering Purple Sandpiper spot at home, just down the road from us at Southsea Castle. A little further along the beach we found all the rest of the birdwatchers, who had found a sheltered spot behind a little roofed seating area to keep out of the wind. Probably more comfortable, but more cramped too!

During writing this post I found an old field notebook from that Wildlife Explorers trip to Norfolk, which was great as I could see what had stuck in my memory (everything I wrote about in this post was remembered without prompting as it really made an impression) and what hadn't. I found out the place we stayed was called the Aylmerton Field Study Centre. Also, it was full of sketches! Back in those days I used to draw all the time in my field notebooks. Now I don't keep a field notebook, only list after a trip (but maybe I'll go back to making field notes one day), and only sketch occasionally. Seeing my old sketches was funny. Here's some Ruffs:

This was May so the males were in full breeding plumage! They look a bit better than that in real life.

And here's the Pectoral Sandpiper. You can see I drew attention to the clear white line across the chest which is the way of identifying the bird, and presumably where it gets it name.

Next time: I go back to the fantastic Titchwell, and bring my sketchbook! Plus, more sketches and stories from the past.

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