There were around 200 of us wrapped up against the cold – which never arrived as it was a mild and completely wind-less morning – and with our binoculars, telescopes and cameras, heading to the sea wall and then along to the southern end of the pits to look out across the vastness of The Wash. Looking west across The Wash the grey of the incoming tide merged with the grey of the sky. The mudflats to our left were dotted with birds in some places – curlews, redshanks and the occasional grey plover – and crowded with birds in others – massed ranks of knot, oystercatcher and bar-tailed godwits.
This was a day of flocks. There were a few desultory groups of starlings heading away from their night-time roosts but they weren’t going to be the stars of the show this morning; skeins of pink-footed geese moved inland from their roosts and called down to us as they travelled to feed on harvested sugar beet fields; birdwatchers milled around talking and chatting about the scene unfolding in front of them.
We knew, or at least we hoped we knew, what was about to happen. As the tide moved left covering more and more of the mudflats the waders would be pushed into a smaller and smaller area and then eventually they would lift off in their thousands and fly over our heads to sit out the top of the tide on the banks and islands in the pits behind us.
The knots were to be the stars of the show. A large flock, thousands strong, flew in from the right as their earlier roosting spot was inundated by the slow-moving but inexorable tide. The flock was dense but strung out over a large area as the birds flew in a long stream in perfect coordination to join thousands more of their species on the mudflats. Individually these are, at this time of year at least, grey birds. Grey on top and grey underneath, and when they fly they show their grey wings with a grey wing-bar. Maybe there were 50,000 shades of grey out there with a few black-and-white oystercatchers too.These knot have been breeding in the high Arctic of Greenland and Russia and some will stay with us all winter but most are heading south to places like the Banc d’Arguin in Mauritania. It’s silly of me, but I wonder how those knot think of the mess of beach huts along the side of The Wash at Snettisham compared with the icy coast of Greenland or the sweltering heat of West Africa. But maybe The Wash is one of their favourite places in the world. The huge areas of mudflats are full of food for these migrants to feast upon – and that feeding is only interrupted by the tides covering up the feeding grounds. Then for a few hours the waders need safe roosting places and we were waiting for the moment when those massed ranks of grey would switch from the mudflats to their high-tide roosts.
Watching the knot in the distance it looked impossible to fit any more into their dense flocks but that was nonsense as occasionally hundreds more would join the birds on the mudflats. The rising waters ate up the mudflats and the flock moved, as one; thousands of individuals walking a few paces at a time looked like a solid grey sheet moving smoothly across the darker mud.
The knot were showmen. They bided their time and we waited for the show. Large flocks of oystercatchers were already pouring into the pits with occasional dunlin, redshank, barwits – and some knot mixed in with them too. It was so still that the sound of wader calls and the beating of thousands of wings were the loudest noises.
The flock of birdwatchers was not as numerous as that of the knot. We were 200 shades of mostly green (green wellies, green jackets, green jumpers) and I wondered whether we all looked the same to the knot. An expert knot would have noticed, as he or she flew over us that there were all ages of birdwatcher from about four years to certainly into the seventies. There were experts and beginners, expensive optics and some who had come without binoculars. We were a bit of a straggly flock and I gathered that our flock had members from all over East Anglia (down to Essex and Cambridgeshire as well as Norfolk and Suffolk) but also from Northants (that was me), Gloucestershire and even north Wales. We had flocked here with different amounts of knowledge and different expectations of the morning but we were waiting for lift off.
And then the knot start to come in their numbers – right over our heads in their thousands and thousands. As the masses lifted off from the mudflats we could hear their wings and see a grey cloud rise into the air. For about ten minutes the air was full of waders – mostly knot. There were many flocks, some of hundreds but some of thousands of birds in the air at once. Some headed over our heads and straight from the mudflats into the shelter of the pits. Even these birds did a bit of wheeling around as they swooped down into the pits and then rose and swirled before some more swooping and settling to roost.
Other flocks put on a fantastic show. Some headed out over The Wash and banked and flashed dark and light, but mostly grey, in perfect coordination. We didn’t know which way to look as there were flocks wheeling and performing behind us, in front, to the left and right and above our heads. It was an amazing natural show and we ‘ooohed’ and ‘ahhhed’ as the birds performed as they have done for thousands of years at this stage on their cycle of tropics-Arctic migration.
There were still waders on the mudflats and some gradually added their numbers to the birds in their crowded roost but the peak of the show was over now. We talked with pleasure of how amazing it was and there were lots of smiles all round. Our flock now became a rabble. Some went to the hides to get a closer look at the roosting birds, some continued to look out at the mudflats, some thoughts began to turn to breakfast or maybe even getting back to work.
I took a quick look at the ranks of waders roosting on the bank of the pits. There was a black mass of oystercatchers divided by a thin bright green strip of vegetation next to a grey track- except on closer looking, the grey track was the knot in their masses.
Heading back to the car park, my mind was full of flocks, although there had been a few individual highlights too. A single bonxie had been sitting out on the water and a single swallow flew south which most people appeared to have missed. And then there was the slightly odd sight of a single immature gannet flying inland towards Sandringham. A single avocet looked ill and miserable near the edge of the mud. And there was the young (ish) single lady from Essex whom I remembered seeing at RSPB events in the past who was having a birding break in Norfolk.
But the flocks were what the day was all about.
Your next chance to see this spectacle at dawn (when the geese fly out of their roosts) and with a suitably high tide is on 17 November at 0635 – it’ll be colder that day but the spectacle will fill you with a warm feeling. I still have my warm feeling – knot!
- Posted in: Wildlife essays