Friday, August 12, 2011

Cnut's last stand

Legend says that one day, King Cnut asked his fawning courtiers to put his throne on the seashore and then he commanded the tide not to come in. Of course, it did, Cnut got wet feet and probably his courtiers did too. But what he wanted to demonstrate to them, was the futility of earthly kings in comparison to the natural world, which he believed, was under divine jurisdiction. He is said to have never worn his crown again after this event. Apocryphal maybe, but noble.

The North Norfolk coast is beautiful; a dynamic mix of sandy beaches, dunes, sand-spits and brackish salt-marsh. Wild, open, desolate, wind-swept, a place to breathe deeply, roam and unwind. All quite within 'day-trip' reach of home.

Brancaster beach looking east.
After exploring the coast at Brancaster all day, an evening at RSPB Titchwell Marsh, before heading home, was too tempting to resist, even though the weather was (for 6pm in mid-summer) pretty dreary; windy, dull and drizzly.

The North Sea is gradually rising and eroding the sea walls on this stretch of coast, and the RSPB have, like wise Cnut, accepted the dominance of the sea at Titchwell Marsh.

The RSPB's Coastal Change Project is a big undertaking, and an upheaval for the site (the project is described here on Bird Guides). Essentially they are managing a sea incursion inland and recreating habitats to compensate for those that will be lost (if I have understood it correctly). 
The freshwater habitats at Titchwell are most under threat from the sea. This is freshmarsh (below) with its lowered water levels.
From Island Hide I could sit and eat my sarnies whilst watching our most beautiful wader; the pied avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta). I think that Recurvirostra means bent beak. The etymology of avosetta is unknown (according to Wikipedia) but Greenoak (1997) says that it is derived from the Latin avis, bird, with a 'diminutive ending, characteristic of the Italian language, which indicates charm and grace' (p81).

Who needs TV? This adult (below) was taking a nap. I love his/her bold monochrome plumage.

A juvenile, with browner markings, was feeding in the shallows. The unique sweeping, swooping movement avocets make with their elegant curved bills is mesmerising. Most photos came out like this......'bird with head under water'.... was just walking and feeding too fast. Avocets have been observed to use 4 different feeding strategies, the most common being what is called the 'normal feeding strategy' in which they make, on average 28 scything sweeps per minute (Moreira, 2008). No wonder taking photos was so frustrating. 
After becoming extinct in the UK in the 1830s, avocets returned to England in the 1940s breeding on muddy banks and islands in brackish water (Greenoak, 1997). Watching these gorgeous, graceful birds feeding within feet of the hide was worth the membership of the RSPB alone.

There were also black-tailed godwits (I stand to be corrected) with their enormously long bills, within camera range.

My goodness my id skills were rusty and I had no bird book with me, but I managed teal, black-headed gull, lapwings and ringed plover (although I'm now unsure if it was ringed or little ringed; cute whatever it was). There was apparently a green sandpiper feeding at the far side of the marsh. I say, apparently, as my binoculars are so old and frankly rubbish, that I couldn't see much except for a dim haze. I was persuaded today, for a late birthday present, to acquire some new ones from In Focus. A quick detour to London Colney on the way to London, means I am now armed and ready for the winter season :-)

In the hide a board explains the basics of the 'build a new sea wall or lose the reserve' plan. 
The plans include creating more suitable breeding habitat for the lovely scooping avocets.

From the comfort of Island Hide we could see the new jazzy award-winning Parrinder hide on the sea wall.

I am not sure how I feel about this new hide. I've not been inside, but I have many happy memories of attempted hypothermia in basic wooden hides over the years and as we had Island Hide virtually to ourselves, I felt no desire for more luxurious surroundings.

By 7pm the light was dreadful and the drizzle kept up. Despite the rain I was keen to go out past Parrinder to the beach, but I was dragged, rather reluctantly, back to the car and a 2 hour drive home. I might have seen spoonbills.......instead I passed this most handsome woodpigeon, sitting guard outside the hide.

I didn't realise, until I got back to the car-park, that he/she was one of the Titchwell night staff. Clearly these guys are responsible for site security once the day staff have gone home.
They certainly kept a close eye on comings and goings in the car-park.......
I've just looked out the window and it is a relatively clear sky with a full moon. Might be worth setting the alarm to peek outside in the wee small hours to catch a glimpse of the Perseids. [Edit: It wasn't to be. The cloud came over almost as soon as I pressed 'publish' and then it started to rain later on. And to top it all a cat (not actually the cat, the sparrows making a racket) woke me in the middle of the night, sitting on the bedroom windowsill, trying to fish roosting sparrows out of the rose bush. Grrrr.]

More information on...
RSPB Titchwell project here.
Greenoak F (1997) British Birds: Their Folklore, Names and Literature. London: Helm, AC&C Black
Moreira F (2008) The winter feeding ecology of Avocets Recurvirostra avosetta on intertidal areas. I. Feeding strategies. Ibis, Volume 137, Issue 1, pages 92-8. Abstract only online here


  1. Hi Mel,

    Have followed your blog for a few weeks now. I like the stuff about iSpot; what a brilliant resource of info. I've had most of my hoverflies identified on there this summer when they've not been obvious in my old and trusty Chinery.

    Keep up the good work - I'm only down the road from you!


  2. Hi Stu!
    Wow! Just visited your site - what fabulous bird shots. St Ives, St Neots? Just up the road! Now I know where to come for bird-spotting tips (I've just bought new bins and dusted off my scope).
    Agree. Both iSpot and Wild About Britain are great resources.
    I've been a bit caught up with stuff in the last few weeks so a bit less time for blogging, but will get going again soon.
    Thanks for your kind comment

  3. You can contact me through my website any time. I'm based at St.Neots.

    I'm just catching up with all the moths I've photographed in the last two weeks, it is taking ages!


  4. Thanks!
    Look forward to those moth pics.....once you're sorted