On day three of my visit to Norfolk I visited Cley Marshes
nature reserve which is just east of the village of Cley Next To The Sea on the A149 coast road. It has been a reserve since 1926 and it is the oldest reserve owned by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust which itself is the oldest county Wildlife Trust in Great Britain. Cley Marshes looks after an area of reedbeds, freshwater marsh, pools and wet meadows and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
The reserve is important for some scarce breeding birds such as Avocets, Marsh Harriers, Bitterns and Bearded Tits. Like Titchwell Marsh it is also a major stop off for migrating and wintering birds. It has five bird hides and an environmentally friendly visitor centre with a cafe and shop with further expansion of the reserve planned through the acquisition of neighbouring land.
Like Titchwell Marsh, Cley Marshes was used during the Second World War, but this time as a prisoner of war camp. Despite centuries of embankment construction to reclaim land and protect the village of Cley Next To The Sea, the marshes have been flooded on numerous occasions. The southward movement of the coastal shingle bank and encroachment by the sea means it is inevitable that the reserve will eventually be lost. New wetlands are being created further inland to compensate for the loss of the coastal habitats.
In the years preceding the First World War this stretch of coast became famous for its wildfowling; locals were looking for food, but some "Gentleman Gunners" hunted to collect rare birds. One of the best known of the latter was E.C. Arnold, who collected for more than fifty years, and gave his name to the marsh at the north west corner of the reserve.
As I mentioned earlier, Cley Marshes has been a reserve since 1926 and this is when a local birdwatcher called Dr Sydney Long bought the land for the sum of £5,100 and Dr Long then established the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. The reserve was expanded in 1962 through the lease of the adjacent Arnold's Marsh from the National Trust. New pools and hides were created on the reserve from 1964 and the sale of permits for access to the hides became a useful source of income for the NWT. Further pools and hides were established during the 1970's and a visitor centre was built in 1981 on the site of the current building.
Over the long history of the reserve it has only had three wardens with all of them coming from the same family. Robert Bishop was warden from 1926 to 1937, followed by his grandson, Billy, from 1937 to 1978 and Billy's son, Bernard, who was appointed in 1978 and still manages the reserve today.
Royal Artillery military fortifications were established during the Second World War at the beach end of the reserve including guns, five buildings, two pillboxes, a minefield and concrete anti-tank blocks. A spigot mortar emplacement and an Allan Williams Turret machine gun emplacement were sited closer to the village. One of the pillboxes and remains of the beach gun emplacements were still visible as of 2012.
The military camp held one hundred and sixty men and was later used to hold prisoners of war. Italian, but not German, prisoners were allowed to attend dances at the anti-aircraft camp at nearby Stiffkey. Near the end of the war the camp was used to house eastern European refugees and it was finally pulled down in 1948. In 1955 many of the wartime buildings were destroyed by the Royal Engineers, but the generator house was then taken over by the coastguard service as an observation post. The NWT acquired the building in 1983 and the upper part was put into use as a look out while the lower section became a cafe. The building was overwhelmed by shingle in a storm in 2008 and subsequently demolished.
The reserve is on the northern side of the A149 coast road with the visitor centre and car park to the south opposite and can also be reached by public transport. The present visitor centre was opened in June 2007 and is situated on a small hill and as stated earlier provides excellent views of the reserve with footpaths giving you access at three points each leading to one or more bird hides.
The key breeding species at the reserve include Marsh Harrier, Bittern, Bearded Tits and Avocet with other birds such as Lapwings, Redshanks and Sedge / Reed / Cetti's Warblers. Spoonbills, Ruffs and Black Tailed Godwits are seen at the reserve for most of the year with a pair of Little Egrets breeding at the reserve for the first time in 2010. Spring migrants such as Little Gulls, Black Terns, Temmincks Stints and Garganey make brief visits as well as Terns visiting from their colonies at Blakeney Point.
In Autumn birds such as Whimbrels, Curlews, Sandpipers & Little Stints arrive for a few days before moving on. At sea, birds such as Arctic Skua, Great Skua, Gannets and Black Legged Kittiwakes can come close to the shore in favourable winds. Once winter arrives large numbers of ducks such as Wigeons, Teals, Mallards, Gadwalls, Goldeneyes and Pintails visit the reserve. Rare migrants can also be found visiting the reserve, such as the following have - Western Sandpiper (2012), Great Snipe (2011), Trumpeter Finch (2010) and Collared Pratincole (2009).
The amount of shingle moved by a single storm can be spectacular and the spit has sometimes been breached, becoming an island for a period of time. The spit is moving inland at about one meter a year and in 1817 Blakeney Chapel, to the west of the reserve, was four hundred metres from the sea, but by 2000 it had reduced to just one hundred and ninety five metres. The sea defences at Cley were severely breached in 1742, 1897, 1953 and 1996 with lesser incursions in 1993 and 1998. During the great flood of 1953 the flood reached four miles inland at Cley resulting in destruction or severe damage to the hides.
I arrived just before 10am and it was a grey, but bright day and at times the sun would push its way through the clouds. After paying the £5 entry fee I made my way through the car park, across the road and onto the path turning left along the banks of the River Glaven. I had not gone more than a few yards when over the other side of the river the trademark pinging noise of the Bearded Tits erupted and out of the reeds came a group of five Bearded Tits before disappearing further away in the reeds.
About a hundred yards further on a couple of Tree Sparrows were picking at the Blackberries before the much larger Song Thrush descended perching for a while before flying off along the edge of the river. I carried on along the path and it turned to the right crossing the river before turning left to continue its path along the banks of the river. After following the path of the river for a couple of hundred yards the path turns north towards the beach with the path boarded by a thin line of reeds.
A third of the way along the path turns north east into a reedbed briefly moving to the left hand side of the reedbed before arriving at three hides. The three hides, called Avocet, Dauke's and Teal, were opened in 1996 by Prince Charles and all have a thatched roof. I went to the left hand hide first which is the Avocet Hide and this looks over a small pool and Whitwell Scrape. In front of the hide there were a few Shovelers & Teals with a couple asleep right in front and a small group of Knots near the back of the pool. To the left a trio of Greylag Geese were slowly making their way into the water and several Wigeon were gathered together further back.
I moved on to Dauke's Hide which is the middle hide of the three and looks out over a large pool with the North Scrape behind it. Out on the pool were several Shovelers, Mallards and a large number of Wigeon and quite a few Shelducks. Over in the distance above the reedbeds a pair of Marsh Harriers flew back and forth looking for food on the water and in the reedbeds. As I was moving on to the next hide the pinging started again from the reedbeds and ten Bearded Tits rose up from the reeds, circled round and disappeared over the hides.
The final of the three hides is the Teal Hide and it looks south east over Pat's Pool. Out on the far side of the pool several Black Tailed Godwits were wading through the shallow water amongst a trio of Herring Gulls as well as some Redshanks & Black Headed Gulls. The pair of Marsh Harriers were still on the prowl for food occasionally scaring the waders when they came too near. It was now approaching midday so I left the hide and made my way back to the visitor centre. On my journey to and from the visitor centre to these hides several groups of Starlings flew west overhead and by the end of the day there had been around ten thousand flying through.
After lunch I returned to the path and where I had turned left this morning, this afternoon I turned right heading for Bishop's Hide which is at the southern end of Pat's Pool and eastern end of South Pool. Out on Pat's Pool the Herring Gulls, Black Headed Gulls and Redshanks were still present and hiding in the grass to the right a lone Snipe was sleeping. Just before I moved the car to the car park at the start of Attenborough Walk the pinging started up again and a large group of Bearded Tits landed in the reeds to the left again disappearing from view.
I waited for a while to see if they would re appear but they didn't and I went to the start of the Attenborough Walk. From the car park I went up the small embankment and down the other side of East Bank following the walk as it followed the north bank of the River Glaven. On the grass to the left a few Rooks were walking about arguing with each other whilst in the distance a pair of Little Egrets were working there way along narrow channels at the edge the reedbeds.
About two thirds of the way along Attenborough's Walk there is a slight detour you can take up to the Babcock Hide. As I approached this potential detour, in the field there were a large number of Greylag Geese present and as I turned onto the path to the Babcock Hide at the other side there were several Egyptian Geese. The hide itself looks out north east over Watling Water and to the right of this I could see even more Egyptian Geese, a couple of Crows and Ravens and several more Wigeons. Out on the water's edge a few Ruffs were present and in the water a trio of Shovelers.
After a few minutes a Pied Wagtail flew in from the west and landed in front of the hide as the Starlings were still flying overhead in big groups. I left the hide and returned to the Attenborough Walk turning northwards along Iron Road at the walk's end. In the field to the left of the Iron Road were several more Egyptian Geese and as I reached the halfway point a couple of Long Tailed Tits flew south and a Meadow Pipit perched on a post with its back to me and a Little Egret stood in the middle of a small pool to the right.
At the end of the Iron Road I continued up the shingle hill to the top to look out over the sea, turning left at the top. As I walked along the shingle beach several skeins of Brent Geese flew low over the sea along with quite a few Cormorants, both moving in a westerly direction. Halfway between the Iron Road and the East Bank I moved back up the beach to the top of the shingle banking to look at a large pool at the northern edge of the reserve which was currently occupied by a very large number of Dunlins.
As I reached the north eastern corner of Arnold's Marsh the path turned slightly inland and on a fence post a Wheatear was perched before it moved onto the shingle and then out of sight. Moving along the top of Arnold's Marsh at the waters edge was a lone Little Ringed Plover and in some short vegetation which had a fence running through it a few Linnets were sat on the fence. As I stood watching these Linnets the number grew and grew until there were at least fifty Linnets either on the fence or in the vegetation below it.
I finally reached the East Bank and turned south down the path where a Little Egret was slowly walking along the western edge of Arnold's Marsh. To the west of East Bank a Curlew, Redshank and Black Tailed Godwit were moving along a narrow water channel with the Curlew chasing the Redshank away a couple of times. I took a seat in the shelter facing Arnold's Marsh and in the middle I could see several more Dunlins as well as a few Black Tailed Godwits & Redshanks. I finished walking down the East Bank to the car, spotting quiet a few Wigeon sat either in narrow water channels or on the grass and still the Starlings kept flying over in large groups.
Like Titchwell Marsh this is a fantastic reserve to visit with plenty of things to see and explore. I have attached a full sightings list and a few photos from my visit to Cley Marshes.