Tuesday, 16 August 2011


A dull East Bank, a great scrape; the Ruff and the smooth.

A weekend up in north Norfolk, the first for a while, brought on a bit of reminiscing as I walked around Cley, a place that, for a while, I seemed to visit nearly every weekend. I remember getting my newly published copy of ‘Where to watch birds’ back in the late 60’s and reading the following description of Cley:

“There can hardly be a serious bird-watcher in the country who has not made the pilgrimage to Cley. It has been the Mecca of ornithologists for the last 140 years...” wrote John Gooders, continuing ...”the East Bank at Cley is the best place in England to see passage waders – and to meet well known bird-watchers”.

I visited Cley soon after, on a YOC trip, meeting both Richard Richardson and Billy Bishop, but it was the couple of hours in the company of RAR on the East Bank that was truly inspiring as he seemed to magic birds out of thin air for us. My first solo trip to Cley was in 1970, and by chance, RAR was in a car that stopped for me as I hitch-hiked the final leg along the coast. The trip to Cley was to become a regular birding weekend over the following years and the walk around the Cley 'square' to became a favourite.  Many good birds were seen, with Caspian Tern, Red-throated Pipit and Black-headed Bunting amongst the better of my 'self-founds'.

Forty years on, Cley still delivers. Last weekend I saw plenty of passage waders (but there was a scarcity of well known birders, well, any birders in fact). Three Wood Sands, 2 Little Stints, Ruffs, Knot, Spotshanks, Greenshanks, numerous Dunlin, Whimbrels and godwits, and 9 Spoonbills were amongst the many birds on show. The scrapes looked in great condition, the hides blend nicely into the landscape and there’s a nice modern eco-centre containing a good range of books. I renewed my lapsed NWT membership, after all it’s only half the price of a tank of petrol.

But the walk around the ‘square’ is not what it used to be. East Bank is, well, dull, although Arnold's still produced as good a range of birds as any other pool. A bench has replaced the old flattened grass – and more than accommodates the number of birders there. A good walk should have points of interest along the way; variations in habitat, pools, openings, viewpoints etc, but those that previously existed, and the hides off the bank, have long since been removed or allowed to grow over.   Most disappointing of all, there is little sense of the history of this place. A few named hides or pools, and just a faded plaque for RAR on an obscure back wall. What could this place be like with a bit of imagination in both site layout and interpretation? This could be a birders Mecca, but currently it's just a well managed reserve with barely a nod to its past.

Returning home, I flicked through the pages of ‘Cley Marsh and its Birds’ by Billy Bishop and arrived at the page where he recalls a letter received from Lord Buxton in the 60’s. It seemed worth sharing. Lord Buxton writes:

“Within an hour I was sitting in the boat house watching a bittern boom – the very thing I had yearned to see for decades. But it was quite a shock. All the famous descriptions by experts were proved phoney. Quite honestly I was a bit embarrassed at first, because the bittern looked as if it was blowing off through its backside. This seemed rather a tawdry climax to the greatest discovery on earth and I wondered in what language I was going to announce it to the world!”

That Bitterns fart, rather than boom, is still a closely guarded secret.

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