Monday 14 March 2016

The sights and sounds of the Snettisham shore.

It was not as cold as on our last visit, the biting wind was absent. In contrast to this improvement, the cloud cover was less appealing as the birds would not be illuminated by the morning sun in the picturesque way that they had been last time. Although a blood red sun rose over the horizon, it was visible but briefly before it disappeared once more dashing our hopes that the Met Office had got it wrong again. The bonus though, or so we thought, was that this time the tide was going to be very high, and this we anticipated would increase our enjoyment of the spectacle.

Sure enough once we had reached the water from the car park the tide was well and truly in but, arriving a short time later at the vantage point for the wader spectacle, we were a little disappointed to find that the birds were, by necessity, a little further away. 

Despite distance and lack of light the patterns described by the birds were no less intriguing and aesthetically pleasing as they had been last time, setting my imagination to work once more. Elis went off to the hide to photograph the roosting birds on the lagoons and I sat and absorbed the scene before me. As I sat the chill of the morning began to seep into my inert limbs, but at the same time the unfailingly captivating sounds of the estuary started to invade my consciousness; this was a day for the ears to take centre stage so I closed my eyes in order to maximise the enjoyment of this natural, al fresco virtuoso performance.

The most obvious components were those of the gulls as both the myriad Black-headed and the less numerous Herring Gulls gave forth their opinion about the day's affairs. The grunting of Shelducks was rarely off the song sheet. Of the waders the most vociferous were naturally the sentinel of the marsh, the Common Redshank and the pied piper, the Eurasian Oystercatcher. Every now and then the mellifluous call of a Grey Plover would fall upon my ears sounding contrastingly melancholy in the excited tumult.

I spent some time in this magnificent state of euphoric bliss. My tranquil daydreaming led me to consider whether sitting there that morning and paying attention to what the estuary around me had so eloquently to say, was the reason I had been set upon this earth. As if to underline this fact a Eurasian Curlew wimpled behind me sending shivers of self-indulgence down my spine. A fleeting moment of perfection and peace in a world harried by doubt and care.

My reverie was broken by the fluting of a single Eurasian Golden Plover. I had rested my head on the back of the bench upon which I was sitting and merely had to open my eyes in order to gaze skywards. I did so and gradually they focussed upon a huge flock of these high flying beauties. There were many hundreds, if not thousands, of them apparently drifting around the leaden sky with no real purpose. On clear sunny days these flocks look like stars in a bright sky, this time they were small dark flecks against the grey. Every now and then the leading birds resolved to set off in one direction or another, apparently with some design or purpose in mind, these leaders formed a V formation which gathered pace and collected birds as it went looking altogether more purposeful. Eventually though, the impetus seemed to fizzle out like they realised this was not such a good idea after all and the flock swung in another direction resuming the ambling nature of before. Eventually they drifted from view and considering how many there were it is surprising they did not make a single utterance between them after that first individual who seemed like a rebel in a silent order drawing my attention to him and his chagrined brothers.

I resumed my state of meditation and noted other birds; the cascade of the ubiquitous Eurasian Skylarks, the frail Meadow Pipits and twittering Eurasian Linnets, all were punctuated by the odd whistle from passing Eurasian Wigeons, the rude honking of the Greylag Geese, the barking of their Dark-bellied Brent cousins as they sped by and the piping notes of the small flocks of Eurasian Teal that seemed to be fleeing some unseen foe as they headed out of the marsh.

While all this was taking place Elis was enjoying the high tide roost on the lagoon islands where every square inch of loafing room was occupied with birds spilling down into the shallow water that lapped lazily at their margins. As she glanced across at the seaward bank she saw what at first she thought was three sides of a square made up of Oystercatchers that appeared to be standing around the perimeter of a large slab of cement.

As her eyes adjusted she noted that the cement appeared to be shifting in shape and lifting her binoculars realised that she was looking at a huge pack of Knots. It dawned on her then just how appropriate this collective noun was, the birds being packed together so tightly that they gave the impression of being one homogeneous grey slab.

Every now and then an Oystercatcher would enter the seemingly solid mass of Knots and barge its way through them. If any particularly obstinate Knot were to bar the Oystercatcher's way and refuse to budge it would be rewarded by a prod from a blood red bill that is capable of smashing sea shells. Quite what the purpose of these vexatious forays by the Oystercatchers was remained unclear. They would eventually burst forth from the throng and settle down to rest again as if nothing had happened and having seemingly gained nothing from the excursion, except perhaps a feeling of superiority over their little grey companions. This scenario gave Elis the impression that the Oystercatchers were corralling the Knots and forcing them to remain where they were huddled together in abject fear of these larger, black and white jailers. This illusion was destroyed somewhat when they suddenly shot in the air and then, completely voluntarily, returned to their cells showing that, should they feel so disposed, they were at liberty to leave any time.

Tearing her attention away from this entertainment Elis noted many Ruddy Turnstones and Black-tailed Godwits along with a good number of Northern Lapwings which, for no obvious reason would suddenly throw themselves into the air, flop around lazily a few times complaining bitterly only to settle back down in the exact spot which they had just vacated. A Marsh Harrier flew across the lagoon but was too far away to worry the assemblage of resting waders. About halfway down the lagoon the flock of Pied Avocets that Elis had hoped would come nearer suddenly rose as one, but far from coming her way they elected instead to fly noisily out towards the sea. At that point she decided to rejoin me.

I heard those same Avocets and opening my eyes once more I spun my head to the right from whence the sound had come and had the glorious sight of a small flock of these elegant birds flying out from the lagoons over the estuary and alighting on the mud that was beginning to be exposed by the retreating tide.

Whilst my eyes had been tightly shut I had failed to notice that the tide had turned and when it recedes at the end of the Wash it recedes very quickly. Already there was some extent of mud showing and to my delight it was occupied by a great, grey pancake of Bar-tailed Godwits, Red Knots, Dunlins and Oystercatchers which were now much closer. At this point Elis appeared by my side.

We now eagerly anticipated what was perhaps to be the highlight of the morning. As we waited the pancake suddenly morphed into a boiling cloud and the massed ranks of waders was on the move. Once again the dullness of the day took the edge off the visual intensity of the show, but the sounds emanating from those myriad beating wings which were now so much closer stirred our souls as they thrashed hither and yon. The soft throb, like a distant wave breaking on a deserted beach as they turned in unison, was an acoustic feast for us both.

The birds settled once again and as they did the piping of a lone Oystercatcher came from behind us. Glancing back we saw it coming over the bank from the lagoon and flying out to the mud.

Gradually more would appear in small but increasingly cacophonous flocks and speed out to their friends gathering in the ooze gliding low, mirrored in the shiny, wet mud. Time after time they went and the jostling flock grew. We knew that what we had been waiting for was now only moments away. We turned our attention to the bank between us and lagoon the other side of which we knew thousands of Knots were discussing whether it was time to hit the buffet or not.

The first of them came over the top, 'Here they come' I blurted with undisguised glee, but a mere hundred or so appeared and raced around to our left. Not quite what we had hoped for, but we knew better was potentially still to come.

Then suddenly more came over, this time the vanguard dragged several hundred of their cohort with them streaming out likes bats from a cave. They flew directly at us and right over our heads, we could have reached up and touched them. The ripple of their collective wings was mesmerising and we could almost feel their presence. In wave after wave they came and with each the same, almost tactile, birding experience was repeated, I felt myself absorbing the energy generated by these tiny world travellers in a form of ornithological tree hugging.

After many such pulses of avian vitality we were quite exhausted by the pure pleasure that they had given us and, after one really protracted stream, I surmised that the show was over. As the last of them went over I spun with them to watch the rearguard performing distraction manoeuvres with chaotic trajectories designed to disorientate even the most determined, and single minded of pursuers. They spread out across the mud in an exuberant display of what could easily be misconstrued as playful glee.

We began to gather our things in order to return to our waiting car, as we did so small bursts came over stopping us in our tasks. After each I proclaimed again that it must have been the last, surely, this time. As we walked away we were forced to turn by the flurry of wings proving me wrong for the umpteenth time.

We walked back along the track quietly still revelling in the encounter we had just shared. Then a Mediterranean Gull called over our heads. I looked up and saw that beyond it the Golden Plovers had returned and were accompanying us along the beach. We stopped to observe them in their loose flock. As we did so they began to descend and then, as though being poured onto the mud like tiny fragments of glitter, they alighted, each new arrival landing just in front of the previous bird spreading across the mud like the turgid flow of the edge of a lava field. As they landed they seemed to form a solid line which spread like someone drawing a 2B pencil across the mudflats. Previously silent, the congregation had now become noisy, their twittering and tweeting enriching the sound scape adding a new dimension to the symphony.

Then a skirmish in front of us drew our attention to a trio of Common Ringed Plovers who were noisily disputing something or other. They called and displayed, crouched and ran about holding our attention for some time until they eventually sped away to another arena in which to do battle.

Sadly our waderfest was drawing to a close. Before heading away I turned for one last look at the now almost waterless vista, I would have liked to have stayed there for ever and watched the tides ebb and flow, bringing with them the birds and the sights and sounds of one of the world's most wonderful, yet unappreciated, environments and one that seems to register as worthless in far too many people's mind.

If only everyone who has dominion over the fate of these incredible places could come and share in their constantly moving vitality. There they could savour the sounds and marvel at the sights so redolent of them and witness their beauty first hand. Maybe then they would realise just how very important these places are to so many millions of living beings which depend upon them for absolutely everything in their simple and pure lives.

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