Potter Heigham Marshes, Norfolk, 2017
Passage waders, they’re hard to beat aren’t they? I grew up in southeast Shropshire where my local patch would yield a few Green and Common Sandpipers, perhaps a Greenshank or two with a bit of luck. Yet, every individual was received with open arms and with an excitement eclipsing the first Swallow, Cuckoo or anything else for that matter. These waders could grace my patch for a few minutes only, and this was what made it so exciting. They didn’t spend the winter here, they certainly didn’t breed, they made use of the dark sandy margins of my kettle hole patch for as long as they needed, so long as a marauding raptor or over zealous young birder didn’t flush them before those needs were fulfilled. Fast-forward a number of years, plenty of those in Norfolk, and it’s been a perennial struggle to find a marsh that would produce passage waders but without ubiquitous birders; perhaps somewhere brand new would satisfy my demands? Certainly, looking from afar at the numbers of birds that ‘new’ marshes such as Frampton Marsh, Rainham Marshes and Grove Ferry attracted soon after construction was enough to make any hardened birder envious!
So when in March 2015 I heard that the Norfolk Wildlife Trust were going to be constructing a new marsh to the south of Hickling Broad my interest piqued, and I took a look soon after. A solitary digger not doing a lot was the scene that greeted me, certainly no sign of any juicy margins just yet! I gave it a while.
By the start of 2016 things had started to pick up, with the first pools and scrapes appearing and the birds were quick to take advantage. In a short period at the start of May I was treated to Curlew Sandpipers, Temminck’s Stint, Little Stints and best of all, perhaps, breeding plumaged Grey Plovers and Bar-tailed Godwits, surely unbeatable looking waders at any site, especially so when inland. As spring progressed my visits declined in conjunction with passage wader numbers and just when I thought passage was over a Buff-breasted Sandpiper graced the site in early June. A lesson to learn there (again….)!
After a short hiatus I returned to Potter Heigham Marshes on 29 January. It was a stunning winters day with fantastic numbers of wildfowl, particularly Wigeon, Shoveler and Teal. A ringtail Hen Harrier flew low through, my first at the site, and at that moment I knew that my 2017 needed to be spent just here.
The following weeks were typically slow in terms of scarcities but there was always so much to look at in terms of diversity; every visit was a charm. Highlights of the first winter period comprised good numbers of Water Pipits, some excellent geese numbers (particularly on the adjacent Heigham Holmes), Cranes and hordes of ducks. Spring slunk in with the first Spoonbills, Mediterranean Gulls and Garganey in early April then, on the last day the month, things really started to kick off. As I woke that Sunday morning the bird news feeds indicated that many inland sites were receiving Black and Arctic Terns in good numbers, in addition to passage waders. I was at the marshes as soon as I could be.
Upon exiting the car I saw two Black Terns and an Arctic Tern flitting eastwards over the most distant scrape, like varyingly burnt fragments of cardboard escaping a nearby bonfire. The terns quickly drifted through but no matter, it was the waders that were the real stars. A couple of days previously I was scratching around for a few waders, today, I was beyond myself as the passage wader list comprised 12 Ringed Plover, braces of Grey Plover, LRP, Whimbrel, Common and Wood Sandpipers, 29 Ruff, 25 Dunlin, Little Stint, and 3 Greenshank! This turned out to only be the start…..Over the next few weeks the site was pulling in birds like a magnet, including a few days when a whopping 19 wader species were in residence. It was all a bit much! All the usual suspects were present along with Temminck’s Stint, Spotted Redshank, Turnstones, Knots and Grey Plovers.
Yet the real stars were of course the Black-winged Stilts. Prior to their arrival the site had looked ripe for a number of days and it came as little surprise when news dropped that a pair was present (on my first dawn off for days, gripping). I twitched them on the way to work later in the day though my haste to get them on my site list was unnecessary as they stayed to fledge three delightful youngsters, bloody brilliant (one of several pairs to breed in the UK in 2017). I then got lucky and found an extra male on 11th May! The site really felt Mediterranean at times, what with the stilts, Cattle Egret, Night Heron, Great White Egrets and plentiful Little Egrets.
The first of perhaps four Pectoral Sandpipers heralded the autumn and with Baird’s Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, decent numbers of Little Stint and Montagu’s Harrier, 2017 finished in fine style.
What a year! Unfortunately, for the passage waders and their watchers, the site is on its way to becoming a reedbed, planted as compensation for expected losses of coastal reedbed along the Suffolk coast. A shame, but it was great whilst in lasted…..