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Couples’ love story has a twitching twist

PUBLISHED: 06:30 14 April 2018 | UPDATED: 08:56 14 April 2018

Rob and Erin Wilton on their wedding walk at Carlton Marshes nature reserve. The American bittern was prowling the marshes just to the left of Mr Wilton's head. Picture: JOHN GRANT

Rob and Erin Wilton on their wedding walk at Carlton Marshes nature reserve. The American bittern was prowling the marshes just to the left of Mr Wilton's head. Picture: JOHN GRANT

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Suffolk Wildlife Trust Broads Appeal boosted - and the bride wore binoculars.

The American bittern stealthily struts through marshland at Carlton Marshes. Picture: GAVIN DURRANTThe American bittern stealthily struts through marshland at Carlton Marshes. Picture: GAVIN DURRANT

A combination of bridegroom, bride and bird made for one of the most extraordinary weekends in the nature reserve’s history - and one that will long be remembered in the annals of Suffolk ornithology. It started with a few simple, but beautiful, wildlife photographs, continued with a wedding walk across the marshes - and ended with one of the biggest mass twitches Suffolk has ever seen. The arrival of hundreds of birders from many parts of the country also boosted the trust’s £1million Broads Appeal which seeks to extend the Carlton Marshes reserve by the purchase of two adjoining marshes and the provision of a new visitor centre and infrastructure that includes new trails and birdwatching hides.

The story was so bizarre it would have seemed unbelievable even in a TV soap opera - as bridegroom Robert Wilton later said: “You just couldn’t have made it up.”

Mr Wilton, a Lowestoft area birdwatcher and a Carlton Marshes “regular”, married fellow schoolteacher Erin McCartney at Lowestoft’s St Margaret’s Church on Saturday. After the ceremony, Mr Wilton, who teaches at Lowestoft’s Northfield St Nicholas Primary Academy, and his Oulton Broad schoolteacher bride, went for a wedding walk with wedding guests at their beloved Carlton Marshes - the happy couple still in their full wedding regalia.

The trust’s reserve manager Matt Gooch drove them into the site in a decorated trust vehicle and the couple and guests did a spot of birding before their reception at Parkhill Hotel, Oulton Broad. During the evening reserve voluntary warden Gavin Durrant, at his home in Worlingham, posted on social media pictures he had taken a few hours before of a “bittern” at Carlton Marshes - and then the weekend took an amazing turn.

Local naturalist Rob Holmes realised the bird’s true identity - it was an American bittern, closely related to the great bittern for which East Anglian reedbeds are famed but rare enough in Britain to send birdwatchers into a state of shock. The species had never been seen in Suffolk before and had been recorded only a handful of times in the modern British birdwatching era.

Mr and Mrs Wilton joined hundreds of birders the following morning and saw the transatlantic celebrity visitor before flying off for their honeymoon in Italy.

“It was an incredible weekend and one that Erin and I will never forget,” said Mr Wilton. “It was completely bonkers - who would have believed that while we were out on the marshes on our wedding day such an amazingly rare bird as an American bittern was out there not far from us? In some of the photos that were taken out there you can actually see the part of the reserve where the American bittern was photographed! The story of this weekend is just brilliant.”

It was brilliant for Suffolk Wildlife Trust too. During the next few days, cash and online donations from grateful visiting birdwatchers topped £1,000 - a welcome boost for the Broads Appeal which is nearing its £1million target and this week stood at more than £904,000.

In yet another twist in an extraordinary run of events, it emerged that the American bittern twitch had a curiously coincidental forerunner. On May 31 last year a “bittern” photo from Carlton Marshes was posted on social media by another photographer - and that turned out to be a rare night heron, sparking another twitch, albeit on nowhere near the scale of the one triggered by the American visitor. And the day on which the night heron photo was taken? That was the exact day when Mr Wilton proposed to Erin.

In Mr Wilton’s words: “You just couldn’t have made it up.”

Donations to Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Broads Appeal can be made via the trust’s website, www.suffolkwildlifetrust.org/

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