Won­der­ful waders

Watch­ing a mass of waders on a beach in Nor­folk was an ex­pe­ri­ence that Ruth Miller will never for­get

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - Ruth Miller is one half of The Big­gest Twitch team, and along with part­ner Alan Davies, set the then world record for most bird species seen in a year – 4,341, in 2008, an ex­pe­ri­ence they wrote about in their book, The Big­gest Twitch. In­deed, Ruth is stil

See­ing a mass of Knot on the Nor­folk coast was an un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence for Ruth Miller

There are some bird species that taken in­di­vid­u­ally are fairly un­re­mark­able but, seen on mass, be­come as­ton­ish­ing. Take the Knot; as an in­di­vid­ual, it is a medi­um­sized, dumpy, grey wader, with medi­um­length legs and a medium-length bill, the Mr Av­er­age of the wader world. In fact, a Knot’s most dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture is its lack of dis­tin­guish­ing fea­tures. How­ever, pack tens of thou­sands of Knots to­gether in one place and they be­come a spec­ta­cle that will take your breath away. Per­haps the best place to wit­ness this trans­for­ma­tion is Snet­tisham RSPB on The Wash in Nor­folk. Time your visit care­fully. You need to be there at least an hour be­fore high tide in au­tumn or win­ter, when high tides and waders co­in­cide. It’s a bit of a walk to reach the best place at the far end of the re­serve and if there’s a northerly wind, it’s a cold and windy place to wait. But any hard­ship is worth it to ex­pe­ri­ence the phe­nom­e­non of the Snet­tisham High Tide Wader Roost.

It’s show­time

We ar­rived with our group re­cently, just as the sun was ris­ing, and we walked to the far end of the re­serve un­der a blood-red sky. Off­shore was a large ex­panse of mud. The tide was still a long way out, but the mud­flats are so low-ly­ing here that the water was com­ing in al­most faster than we could walk to keep ahead of it. We reached our favourite spot with the fresh­wa­ter la­goon be­hind us and set up our tele­scopes. The stage was set, and the au­di­ence had ar­rived. It was time for the show to be­gin. To the naked eye, the land­scape in front of us looked like noth­ing more than grey mud with a splodge of black­ish mud at one end. Through the binoc­u­lars, how­ever, ev­ery­thing was trans­formed. That grey mud was in fact a seething car­pet of birds, a huge flock of Knot packed in tightly to­gether cheek-by-jowl and their backs made a seamless man­tle of grey. The splodge of black­ish mud turned into a flock of hunched-up Oys­ter­catch­ers all hud­dled to­gether like the Knot. These birds shared the same patch of es­tu­ary, but didn’t re­ally in­ter­min­gle. Look­ing through our tele­scopes, the de­tail was notched up an­other level again. Now, rather than a Knot car­pet, we could ap­pre­ci­ate the fea­tures of in­di­vid­ual birds as they sprouted bills and legs. They all faced in the same di­rec­tion and shuf­fled for­ward con­stantly as they kept one step ahead of the tide, a molten mass of birds on the move as more Knot, dis­placed by the creep­ing tide, came to join them. The Oys­ter­catch­ers also shuf­fled for­ward and be­yond them was an­other mass of birds: a huge flock of Bar-tailed God­wits, their longer legs al­low­ing them to lag be­hind the other shorter-legged waders as the tidal wa­ters en­croached. Some birds paused for a sec­ond to probe the mud for food as they pro­gressed, but they only hes­i­tated briefly be­fore be­ing over­whelmed by the con­stant for­ward mo­men­tum of birds. As re­lent­less as the ris­ing tide, an end­less con­veyor-belt of waders shuf­fled past us to­wards the re­main­ing patch of ex­posed mud. Here, they packed in ever tighter un­til there was stand­ing room only. Then one Knot broke ranks, and that was the sig­nal they’d all seem­ingly been wait­ing for. As a sin­gle body, the flock of Knot lifted up into the air as they peeled them­selves off the mud and wheeled over­head. Their colours flashed grey then white then grey as they showed us al­ter­nately their grey backs and pale un­der­sides as they swooped and dashed in the air. A break­away group flew right over our heads to­wards the la­goon be­hind us; it was a heart-stop­ping mo­ment as the sound of so many wings rus­tled like leaves on a tree on a gusty day. An op­por­tunis­tic Pere­grine, at­tracted by the po­ten­tial for a meal, pow­ered across the es­tu­ary and caused panic in the flocks. Sud­denly, all the waders took to the air to­gether and bunched up tightly to avoid be­ing sin­gled out as the tar­get. We could track the progress of the hunt­ing Pere­grine by watch­ing the re­sponse of the waders, as the groups bunched and stretched in the sky around it, part­ing and re­group­ing like an aerial fish bait­ball as the preda­tor split the flock. We ‘ooh-ed’ and ‘aah-ed’ like spec­ta­tors at a fire­work dis­play, as the flocks made as­ton­ish­ing shapes in the sky: heart, spi­ral, Mex­i­can wave, ques­tion­mark and tad­pole. Grey, white, grey the shapes flashed as the sun lit up these amaz­ing aerial ac­ro­bats. We awarded them 10 out of 10 for artis­tic im­pres­sion, but what did the Pere­grine think?

Car­pet of waders

More flocks sought the shel­ter of the la­goon as the tide re­claimed the last part of the ex­posed mud. Clus­ters of Knot wooshed over­head to set­tle on the spit while the Oys­ter­catch­ers, noisy com­pan­ions at the best of times, bick­ered and squab­bled as they gath­ered in ever-in­creas­ing den­si­ties on the banks of the la­goon. By now, the car­pet of waders had re-laid it­self all around the shel­tered la­goon, again neatly ar­ranged by species. The Knot hud­dled to­gether in the shal­lows, Oys­ter­catch­ers lined up on the bank and Bar-tailed God­wits stood aloof in the deeper water, each keep­ing to their own kind. They would rest here un­til the tide started to re­cede, when they would all trickle back to the es­tu­ary to feed on the new­lyre­freshed mud. It was time for us to leave. Break­fast and a hot cof­fee called as well as the lure of even more birds to look for on the North Nor­folk coast. The fire­work dis­play was over un­til the next high tide.

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