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birds on the Salthouse
by Steve Harris
There are two main sources of information about the bird life of the marshes: firstly Notes on the Birds of Cley, by H. N. Pashley, the taxidermist whose diary spans 1887 to 1924, and secondly the reports on the birds of Cley and Salthouse in the ‘Wild Bird Protection’ section of the Transactions of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society, from 1920 onwards. One of Salthouse’s early claims to fame was its colonies of terns, particularly those of the Sandwich tern, named after the place in Kent. The Sandwich tern was a very rare bird in the nineteenth century, but in 1922 a colony was established on islands somewhere south-east of Arnold’s Marsh. The colony increased yearly until, in 1940, over a thousand nests were counted; soon after, a decline set in and breeding last took place in 1944. A common wader which put itself in the record books at Salthouse is the dunlin. This bird visits the Norfolk coast in thousands in winter but always retreats to upland moors to breed, except in 1938 when a pair raised a brood on the marshes here. This was the first time the species had bred in Norfolk and possibly the first time for anywhere in the south east of England.
wader for which Salthouse is noteworthy, is the avocet. The avocet
became extinct as a breeding bird in Britain in 1820, and Pashley
suggested that Salthouse Marshes were the last place that they bred: ‘When
a youngster of 17 or 18, I talked many a time with two old gunners
who had taken their eggs. They used to call them clinkers from their
note’. Interestingly, the first eggs to be laid in Britain after
the avocet’s extinction in the 1820s, were at Salthouse in 1941,
six years before the species re-established in Suffolk.
Brent geese in the distance alighting on the marsh
For many, however, it is the numbers of birds that are impressive here, and none more so than the brent geese which visit in winter. When you look out over one of the flocks of several thousand that occurs now, it is hard to appreciate how rare brent once were. Pashley, writing in 1924, stated: ‘Not one seen in some recent winters’! The almost growling sounds of a feeding flock of brent on the grazed pastures, are now an integral part of a Salthouse winter. One particular goose was ringed as a youngster on the marshes in front of the Dun Cow in 1974, and returned annually to Salthouse for over twenty years. One bird that is being seen more frequently these days is the black-tailed godwit. It could, possibly, one day breed, and fortunately is not now under the sorts of pressure it was in Pashley’s day. His diary for August 1923 says, ‘9 black-tailed godwits for some time at Salthouse, but nearly all gone by 17th—shot and eaten no doubt by the Salthouse people . . .’! The wading birds are a special feature of these marshes. The tumbling ‘nuptial’ displays of the lapwing are easy to take for granted here, but in many areas of Britain lapwings are now totally absent as breeding birds. Through the summer, the omnipresent alarm calls of the redshank, the raucous courtship clamour of the oystercatcher, the ‘kleeping’ of avocets and soft piping of ringed plovers, combine to be a constant reminder of the huge importance of these marshes to wetland birds.
Steve Harris, February 2003
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