CRACKING RUFF @ CLEY MARSHES (NWT)


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. Rare migrants can also be found visiting the reserve, such as the following - 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.

It was a partly cloudy day when I arrived just after 9:30am at Cley Marshes with the sun just breaking through. After a quick trip to the visitor centre I walked down the path and across the road and turned left along the trail heading west. In the bushes at the other side of a narrow channel of water I could hear a Cetti's Warbler singing but after waiting a few minutes for it to appear I continued along the path following the water channel.


After about a hundred yards the path turns to the right and crosses the water via a wooden bridge and continues westwards for another hundred yards. Here the path turns right and into the reedbeds where a trio of Curlews flew overhead and after a few hundred yards I arrived at the first of three hides situated close together. This first hide is the Avocet Hide and from here I could see Avocets, Shelducks, Redshanks and Greylag Geese.


At the far side of the water in front of the hide there were a group of Black Tailed Godwits and in the far distance there were a group of Pink Footed and White Fronted Geese in a field close to the beach. A few minutes later a Swallow flew over the hide and swooped low over the water as a Snipe landed on the right hand side of the water. It started to make its way along the edge of water away from the hide probing the mud for food.

I made my way to the next hide which is called Dauke's Hide which looks out eastwards over two large lagoons. On the left hand lagoon I could see Shelducks, Black Headed Gulls, Shovelers and around fifty Avocets whilst on the right hand side of the lagoon I could see Black Tailed Godwits, Teals, Mallards and another fifty plus Avocets. On the grass in front of the hide a Lapwing was busy moving back and forth, stopping occasionally to look for food or stare right at me.


A Snipe now appeared from behind a small clump of grass, momentarily stopping in a gap at the edge of the water before disappearing into the tall grass. It very briefly emerged from the grass again before settling down and going to sleep and from here I went to the third hide which is the Teal Hide. This hide looks out over Pat's Pool where I could see more than fifty Avocets as well as several Black Tailed Godwits, Black Headed Gulls and Shelducks.


It was now approaching midday so I left the hide and followed the path back towards the visitor centre. As I crossed a wooden bridge over a water channel a Cetti's Warbler was singing amongst the reeds. It made a few flights through the reeds but never settled down in view, always singing out of sight. After lunch at the visitor centre cafe I returned to the path but this time turned right and headed for the fourth hide which is called Bishop's Hide and looks out over Pat's Pool and South Pool.

As I walked through the reeds to the hide I could hear Reed Buntings singing from amongst the reeds and saw Linnets flying overhead. From the hide I could see Avocets, Shelducks, Black Tailed Godwits and Black Headed Gulls. On a narrow strip of land separating Pat's and South Pools there were a group of four Shelducks moving their heads up and down, back and forth in a circular motion in what appeared to be a courting display.


To the right of the Shelducks there was a lone Greylag Goose sat on the grass right in front of the hide. In the water beyond the grass there were Teals, Black Tailed Godwits, Redshanks and Black Headed Gulls. A few minutes later a pair of Avocets had made their way across to the bottom corner of Pat's Pool in front of the hide and the Shelducks had moved from the grass onto the water too. I left the hide and headed back along the path spotting a pair of Avocets in a pool amongst the reeds.


I moved my car a little way down the road to the secondary car park which is at the start of the Attenborough's Walk. I climbed the steps up onto the East Bank path and down the steps at the other side and through a gate to the path along the southern edge of a field. In the field to my left there were several Greylag and Brent Geese as well as a pair of Jackdaws. A little further along at the edge of a narrow stream of water there were half a dozen Canada Geese and a pair of Little Egrets, one of which flew off as I walked past.

Around half a mile further on a pair of Skylarks rose up from the ground and against the reeds at the far side of the field I could see a pair of Egyptian Geese with several young chicks. From here I walked the short distance to a gate and turned left along a track to the Babcock Hide which looks out north eastwards over Watling Water. On the water I saw Shelducks, Tufted Ducks, Teals, Gadwalls and Avocets whilst moving along the edge of the water towards the hide was a single Ruff.


The Ruff flew off and landed on an island out on the water disappearing round the back of it briefly before returning to the water's edge just in front of the hide. From here I retraced my steps along the track and walked the last stretch along the bottom of the fields before turning left onto a path known as Iron Road. As I walked along this path towards the beach I could hear and see Skylarks singing overhead and a little further down the path I saw a pair Woodlarks moving along the mud at the edge of a large pool of water.


Also around the edge of this water on the far side were a pair of Redshanks and on a fence a little further along I spotted a pair of Meadow Pipits. The path eventually reached the shingle beach and after climbing up the hill to the top of the beach I turned westwards and walked along the top as I saw Herring Gulls and Cormorants flying over the sea. About half way along this section of beach I could see Avocets, Black Tailed Godwits and Redshanks down in the water to my left and a bit further along there was the remains of a dead Seal.

The path now turned inland going between Arnold's Marsh and sand dunes before reaching the northern end of the East Bank path. I turned to my left and headed southwards along the East Bank path with a Curlew in a small expanse of water at the bottom of the bank to my right. On Arnold's Marsh to my left I saw Avocets, Redshanks, Black Tailed Godwits and Black Headed Gulls. As I continued on a pair of Little Egrets landed on the water and on the grass at the edge of the water I spotted a Meadow Pipit.


Near the end of the East Bank path I could see Wigeons, Teals, Shovelers, Greylag Geese to my left whilst in a small lagoon to my right there were a pair of Pochards. There were also Reed Buntings flying over the reedbeds whilst nearer the visitor centre I could see Buzzards and Marsh Harriers flying overhead. I walked the final few yards and down the steps to my car and on the way back to my hotel I called in at Wells-next-the-Sea.

I parked next to the harbour where there were several Starlings moving between the cars as well as several Herring Gulls flying overhead. A Cormorant was fishing the water between the harbour wall and the sand banks at the other side. After a few minutes it left the water and stood on the sand bank preening itself before stretching out its wings to dry in the early evening sunshine. Also on the sandbanks were Oystercatchers and Redshanks with several Brent Geese on the marsh behind them.


After a bite to eat at Platten's Fish & Chip restaurant I headed back along the harbour wall and onto a path along a sea wall. Right at the start of this path I spotted an Oystercatcher probing the mud bank for food turning its bright orange beak to a muddy brown. A little further along there were three more Oystercatchers moving along the mud whilst some of the Brent Geese had moved down to the water channels running through the mud.

I walked a little further along and spotted another Oystercatcher and in the water behind it were two Turnstones busy washing and preening themselves. A Curlew made its way across the water to the edge of the mud in front of me as the number of Brent Geese to my right increased. Another Oystercatcher flew in and landed on the mud and began to preen itself as the majority of the Brent Geese now took off and flew across the marsh eastwards.


I now moved down to the end of the sea wall where I walked down onto the beach and I could see half a dozen seals sleeping. I walked along the beach and round the Lifeboat Station and out on the sand I could see several Gulls and around one hundred Oystercatchers. As I walked back over the sea wall to my car I saw a group of Pied Wagtails and a few Wood Pigeons flying overhead and I now drove back to my hotel in Hunstanton.


I have attached a few photos and a full sightings list from my visit to Cley Marshes (NWT) and Wells-next-the-Sea.

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