As part of my recent 60th birthday celebrations, (am I really that old?) Janet treated me to a special Photography Day on Havergate Island organised by Monika Koch of Wild Adventures under Suffolk Skies. Although I have passed the island many times, by foot and by boat, I had never actually landed on what is Suffolk’s only island. The weather promised an unexpected window of opportunity and did not disappoint on the day.
This island is a real gem for wildlife lovers. It has more designations than you can shake a stick at, including a National Nature Reserve,(with neighbouring Orford Ness), a Ramsar site, Special Area of Conservation, Special Protection Area and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, as part of the Suffolk Heritage Coast. Needless to say if you get the chance to visit this magical place grab it with both hands!
History of Havergate Island
The island was first banked to keep out the sea around 500 years ago in an attempt to reclaim agricultural land and main its strategic position – although I suspect more for smuggling than anything else! The last inhabitants left the island in the 1920’s but the land was still grazed throughout the 1930’s. Military intervention during World War II however failed to maintain the sea defences. Consequently the area was soon lost to agriculture for ever. In 1947 the first successful breeding of the avocet was recorded here, along with nearby Minsmere. As a direct result the RSPB was quick to secure the islands future by buying it in 1948. The RSPB continues to own and manage the site to this day.
Unsurprisingly the majority of the island is covered by salt marsh, around 40 hectares, with six saltwater lagoons. There is also around 4 hectares of vegetated shingle and some grazing marsh. If you get the chance to visit don’t wait too long! It will be impossible to retain these habitats as climate change progresses and regretfully they will be lost in the not too distant future as part of the current ‘managed retreat’ policy.
Getting to Havergate Island
We met at Orford Quay at 6.20am on a bright but frosty morning. It wasn’t long before all our gear, along with that of a group of anglers visiting Orford Ness, was safely stowed aboard and we were on our way. Twenty minutes later we arrived at our destination and unloaded plentiful supplies of coffee, soup and homemade bread. There are several wooden buildings used by the wardens and volunteers along with a ‘state of the art’ composting toilet. Much of the visitor facilities have been installed and maintained by the volunteers. There is a footpath that runs along the eastern edge of the island with four excellent, generously-sized viewing hides.
Numerous wader species and wildfowl use the island both for feeding and roosting. I managed to photograph avocets, curlew, grey plovers, black-tailed godwits and redshank to name just a few. Wigeon, shellduck, mallard and teal were also numerous. With this huge gathering of birds and the careful control of predators , there are ample reasons for a wide range of birds of prey to visit. We managed to spot, kestrel, marsh harrier (tagged VM – must try to identify it) and short-eared owls. In the past I have seen hen harriers quite frequently from the mainland.
Sadly the number of hares on Havergate took a real tumble in December 2013 as a direct result of the floods. From a peak of around 30 individuals Monika now informs me that there are only 10 -12. Let’s hope the number increases again soon. The population remains relatively undisturbed and visitors are able to get really close to them. They seem to spend most of the day sleeping or sunbathing on the shingle when we visited – retreating to the gorse thickets if threatened. Kevin, our professional wildlife photographer guide for the day, was really helpful in putting us in the rights spots and offered lots of tips to get the best photos. His enthusiasm and knowledge was indispensable without being overbearing. He was partnered by Jeremy who gave expert guidance for those more interested in landscape photography.
Well the time seemed to race by and I managed to photograph quite a range of wildlife. I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed taking them. Right at the end of the day a short-eared owl came very close. I had been hoping to see one all day but had missed out earlier when one was seen at the North Hide. The light was not great but I did managed to get a record shot. A perfect end to the proverbial perfect day.
Other great islands for wildlife