May is a great month for spotting birds, making it a window of opportunity for wildlife photographers. For me, there are few places better than Cley and Salthouse Marshes in Norfolk. Swaying grasses hum with the song of reed and sedge warblers, while noisy avocets rear newborn chicks on the muddy ground. This is an arrival and departure lounge for migrating birds, and wherever you look the wetlands teem with life.
1. Aerial acrobatics
Collect a permit from the visitor centre next to the car park, before setting out on this flat but often muddy circular walk. Just a few steps away is Bishop Hide, my favourite spot at Cley Marshes for photography. Out across the scrape (muddy depression) avocets will be conspicuous. Scan the reeds for marsh harriers. Their high-pitched cries may alert you to the male as he calls the female from above. Dropping his prey towards the nest, she will often catch the meal in an impressive show of mid-air acrobatics.
Cley Marshes – designated as a nature reserve in 1926 – is Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s oldest reserve.
2. Song flighting
Back on the path, the grazing marsh on your left supports breeding wading birds such as lapwings. Look for little egrets in the dykes and sedge warblers in the reeds – their territorial displays, or song flights, will offer a tricky photographic challenge. The next stop is Babcock Hide overlooking Watling Water. Avocets may be breeding here, but also keep an eye out for migrant waders.
3. Birds on the beach
Leaving the hide, turn left towards the sea. The many dykes here can be good for photographing patrolling dragonflies. For a longer all-day walk, continue towards Salthouse where the infamous Cookies Crab shop will be hard to resist for lunch. On the beach, I sometimes linger to capture passing sandwich terns or perhaps a migrant whinchat or wheatear along the fence. The sea pools on your left often buzz with birds, while yellow-horned poppies provide a colourful foreground for landscape shots.
4. East Bank to West
The path soon reaches the northern end of East Bank. For a worthwhile detour, head inland along the embankment. Singing reed warblers can be photographed from the path and bearded reedlings give away their location with noisy ‘ping’ calls. Return to the beach and continue to West Bank, which offers great views of the photogenic 18th-century Cley Mill. Turn left and follow Beach Road inland.
A barn owl hovers above the grazing marshes using hearing as much as sight to locate its prey.
5. Hide and then seek
The last stop is the Daukes Hide complex – a collection of three bird shelters. The rare garganey and migrating ruffs may be on show. Reed buntings can often be seen from the boardwalks, while at dawn and dusk barn owls hunt over the grazing marsh. Back at the visitor centre, relax with coffee and cake on the viewing deck.
All images: ©David Tipling