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