Speaker: Lizzie Bruce, RSPB Warden
Reporter: Alan Hughes
Lizzie Bruce is the RSPB Reserves Warden responsible for 2 sites that she correctly
assumed most of us were familiar with – Titchwell and Snettisham – plus 2 confidential sites in NW Norfolk (interesting….did I notice some ears pricking up at the mention of those?), and she treated us to a look at the reserves through the seasons of the year – although 2020 turned out to be like no other, of course.
At this time of the year we could expect to see lots of garden birds on the feeders at Titchwell (T), as well as Redpoll and Siskin feeding in the Alder trees, some Brambling, and Woodcock in the woodland near the car park. The latter were sleeping but she recommended a visit at dusk to watch good numbers flying out into the surrounding farmland to feed through the night. Hen Harriers may be seen at either reserve, and may roost at T along with large numbers of Marsh Harriers (more than 95 had been counted in December and January): These could be seen arriving during the last couple of hours of daylight, although better still, leaving at dawn (so now I have to visit at dawn as well as dusk – do you think they would let me sleep in a hide?!). The Fresh Marsh at T was good for wintering wildfowl, both T and S for
waders and Brent Geese, the Salt Marsh at T for Linnet flocks and occasional Twite, these an attraction for hunting Merlin. The beaches at T and S attract Snow Bunting, Godwit, Sanderling and sometimes Shorelark, and on the sea Scoter, Longtail Ducks, Goldeneye, Eider, Scaup, divers and grebes could all be seen.
This is a busy time for those that manage the reserve at T: The islands on Fresh
Marsh were cleared of vegetation and leaf litter to expose a shingle bed suitable for nesting Avocet and Mediterranean and Black-headed Gulls. Contractors were brought in with floating machines to cut back the reeds at otherwise inaccessible sites, opening up channels, reducing their encroachment into the Fresh Marsh and in front of Fen Hide. More traditional brush cutting was used to create a mixed age structure in the reedbed as some species favoured reed of different ages, and scrub management was used to prevent succession to scrub woodland, whilst retaining some small trees favoured by Cetti’s Warblers and Marsh Harriers. A similar process of creating a mixed age structure was now in the 2nd year of operation (in a 10-year cycle) to increase biodiversity in the woodland, and the apple trees around the extension car park were cleared of brambles and pruned to increase their crop of
fruit for thrushes and Blackcap.
Wheatear, Swallows, Little-Ringed Plovers and Blackcap arrive at both reserves, and
rarer visitors at this time have included Snowy Owl, White-tailed Sea Eagle and Ameican Wigeon. Attention also turns (no pun intended!) to beach nesting birds: Common Ringed Plovers have shown a 70% decline in their breeding population, S is now one of their remaining strongholds, but emphasis has been placed on reducing their disturbance by human and canine visitors, especially (using rope cordons and better signage to inform visitors) although nothing can be done to prevent the increased occurrence of high spring tides due to climate change.
And then Coronavirus arrived….. The reserves were closed during Lockdown, and 14
of the 16 staff were furloughed. Remote access to the reedbed at T was achieved using a live microphone, and 80 species were recorded there, including Bittern (the first in 5 years), many warblers, overflying Stone Curlew and a pair of Turtle Doves (did they breed?). Despite human worries, birds continued to arrive including Common, Black, Sandwich and Little Terns, and overflying birds included Common Cranes, Osprey and even a Bee Eater. And, of course, birds got on with breeding: In recent years Avocet numbers have drastically declined due to increased mammalian predation, so a predator fence has been installed around the largest island on the T Fresh Marsh, and this has already increased breeding success to produce a stable population.
At T the heron family continues to thrive, with Spoonbills, Great White Egrets, Cattle
Egrets and Purple Herons all being seen regularly. T and S are also good sites for Autumn passage waders (less good in Spring migration) including Green, Curlew and Common Sandpipers, Avocets and Black-tailed Godwits, Ruff, Sanderling and Spotted Redshank, some still in their breeding finery. Some rarer waders have also been recorded at this time (53 wader species are now on record at T) including Semi-palmated Sandpiper, American Golden Plover, Lesser Yellowlegs and Great Knot, and at S the spectacle of tens of thousands of Knot begins.
Management work continued despite lockdown, and indeed when the travel ban
was lifted, parking chaos ensued all along the North Norfolk coast, and camping littering and car parking were all problems to be dealt with by the much-reduced workforce. Both reserves were then re-opened, and there was a lot to be done to clear overgrowth and fallen trees from the paths, path repairs, cleaning toilets etc all in preparation for the return of visitors. At S the lagoon-side roosting areas were cleared of vegetation to encourage the Knot – that great photo opportunity.
Autumn. At T Redstarts, Stonechats and Whinchats can all be expected, along with rarer birds such as Yellow-browed Warbler, Red-flanked Blue-tail, and Red-breasted Flycatcher, and the Little Egret roost has now grown to 60+ birds. Winter Thrushes, Robins, Dunnocks, Blue Tits and Goldcrests all arrive in large numbers from the continent, and Short-eared Owls and Rough-legged Buzzards are seen. Rarities such as Dessert Wheatear and Gull-billed Tern have been recorded at this time, and Water and Rock pipits are to be found on the Fresh Marsh margins. Over the sea a variety of Skuas are recorded, and at S the predominant feature is the huge number of Pink-footed Geese that roost at night on the Wash, leaving each morning to feed in the fields of Norfolk. Management work includes removing the beach cordons into storage, cutting the Fen Meadow at T to encourage orchid growth next Spring, and this year the new Visitor Welcome Hub was opened at T to provide a weather-proof reception, giving staff a better chance to engage with their visitors and to increase space in the shop. Also, thanks to a mammoth work effort at S the new Knots Landing hide was completed and opened (albeit virtually). The Future. The Wash and the NN coast have been designated a Priority Landscape by the RSPB, and a plan is in place to enhance and improve its key features; that includes improving the breeding success of species such as Avocet and Bittern, improving the visitor experience and increasing the area’s resilience to climate change. At T an enhanced team of ecologists and hydrologists has been on site, and work is to begin in August 2021:-
• To redesign some of the otherwise featureless reedbed, re-opening ditches and
digging more to increase the number of edge habitats.
• To add more water control structures to allow water to be moved around the site.
• To create a breeding habitat for Spoonbills.
• To improve the Fresh Marsh by splitting it into 3 areas of water divided by raised
banks, more islands for breeding birds, more bunds for passage waders, and the
installation of a predator fence in a ditch around half of the marsh.
Yes, I guess most of us are fairly familiar with both Titchwell and Snettisham Reserves as visiting birders, but it was fascinating and a privilege to be given an overview of the birding year there, to learn about some of the myriad of activities going on behind the scenes, and to understand some of the exciting developments planned to begin at T next year. I, for one, can’t wait to try out the new Knots Landing hide at S!
Thank you, Lizzie for an excellent presentation.