It was 4:30am and the alarm going off several inches from my ear heralded the beginning of a new day. A new and bitterly cold day in late January to be exact. Dawn was a distant future event and as we bundled into the car clutching steaming mugs of coffee and watching our breath rise in misty clouds in front of us, Ellie vocalised what we were both thinking, “You know we don’t have to do this”. We agreed however, that as we had achieved the great feat of leaving our warm beds and making into the baltic interior of the car we should probably continue on with the rest of our plan. This, I must admit, was probably far easier for me to come to terms with as I wasn’t the one driving.
The plan was to visit Snettisham reserve in East Anglia. A small strip of sand and fen on the North Norfolk coast owned by the RSPB, Snettisham borders a large estuarine area known as ‘the wash’ and is home to huge numbers of waders and geese. It is also the site of one of the country’s most magnificent wildlife spectacles and it was this that we had risen in the middle of the night in order to go and see.
Over the winter months at dawn thousands of pink footed geese leave their roosting grounds on the mudflats and move inland to the fields behind the reserve in order to forage. We arrived just as the geese began to take flight and watched awestruck as skein after skein flew overhead, silhouetted by the pale peachy sunrise. After what felt like minutes, but what the crick in my neck and my numb toes suggested had been slightly longer, the last of the geese flew over and with a rustle and a murmur the waders took to the sky; the second half of the show had begun.
Now the mudflats are home to thousands of wading birds that will only leave the relative safety of the estuary when forced off by a high enough tide. This particular high tide had coincided with dawn meaning that the whirling clouds of birds glinted and flashed in the glow of the newly risen sun. A huge number of oystercatchers and knot eventually flew inland and congregated in a tight flock on the sheltered side of one of the reserves ponds, where the knot became so tightly packed that at first, I mistook them for a gravel bed. The knott and barwitt that had remained up in the sky continued their breath taking displays of revolving, winged skill. I have never been lucky enough to see a starling murmuration but I imagine this experience came something close.
The only other species that was as obviously numerous on the day were ‘birders’. Young and old, experienced and novice, they were there enjoying the sights through binoculars and camera lenses. The reserve had a jamboree sort of feel to it, all be it a very quiet and watchful one. As a committed ‘bird noticer’ I always find that the success rates of correctly noticing something are dramatically increased when in close proximity to equally as committed bird watchers. This morning was no different and it was due to one bearded birder in particular (and his telescope) that I got to see a Slavonian Grebe and a Goldeneye. If, like myself, you were actually unaware of these bird’s existence then follow the links, they really are a sight for sore eyes.