Monthly Archives: March 2016

Winter in the Wash

One of the ‘must see‘ natural events in the UK occurs in the winter when hundreds of thousands of ducks, waders and, in particular, geese spend the season on the mudflats of the Wash. The Wash is a huge bay on the east coast of England into which the rivers Witham, Welland, Nene and Great Ouse all drain into the North Sea.

When the tide recedes, like Morecambe Bay in the previous post, enormous areas of mudflats are exposed which provide sustenance and a roost site for colossal numbers of birds. Every morning at dawn thousands of geese take flight to head inland to feed, and the geese are what everyone goes there to see.

Multiple skeins of pink footed geese at Snettisham at dawn (Anser brachyrhynchus, Dansk: kortnæbbet gås)

I arrived at the coast at Snettisham on the north Norfolk coast around 6am when it was just starting to get light. Already sizable flocks of geese were in the air and I was concerned that I’d missed most of them. But then as the sun rose higher gargantuan flocks started to pass overhead and it was a truly incredible sight!

I don’t know how many thousands of geese were there but at the end of the day I went back to the same place to see them return. It was getting dark and all was still, so, as in the morning, I thought I’d missed them. And then they appeared, quite suddenly in their tens of thousands. I tried to estimate the numbers by counting small numbers of each wave and multiplying up, and I estimated there were between 30-40,000 birds returning.

Skeins within skeins, I like this formation

And if you’ve ever spent any time near geese you’ll know that they’re not afraid to announce their presence, so the other thing that I hadn’t expected, but maybe I should have done, was the noise. It was a magnificent cacophony! And not just the squawking, but the sound of them flying when they came over lower to the ground.

These birds breed in the summer up in the Arctic, in Greenland, Iceland and Spitsbergen and then head south to the relatively balmy conditions of the UK coast in winter (!).

Another skein of pink footed geese passing low overhead

It’s unknown why geese fly in skeins, but it’s thought to provide an aerodynamic advantage to the ones behind as they slipstream in turbulent air generated by the bird in front. Which makes me wonder if they constantly switch the pacemaker or if the biggest and strongest bird is always the one at the front.

I estimated there were around 500 birds in this huge flock, but even that was a tiny proportion of the total

To see this meant getting up and out at 4am which is never my favourite thing to do, and it was ferociously cold, but it was worth it to see such a unique spectacle. And as the sun rose and it got lighter, it soon became apparent that the geese weren’t the only seabirds in the area:

A shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand) on final approach past a lone dunlin in the foreground

Small flocks of shelduck and dunlin were mingling and feeding close in to the shore

The Wash is now not the only significant area of coastal mudflat in East Anglia. In order to attempt to mitigate some of the anticipated ravages of climate change, flood defences protecting areas of farmland on the coast further south in Essex have been deliberately breached. This has allowed the land to be reclaimed by the sea and to regenerate the tidal mudflats that were there before humans originally interfered. The new habitat  was created with the millions of tons of earth removed the ground under London in order to build the Crossrail tube train tunnels. And as soon as this happened the wildlife started to recolonise, and even though it is still fairly barren in comparison to established habitat, I hope that in the near future it will also provide refuge to hundreds of thousands more birds, and lots of other wildlife too.

Dunlin (Calidris alpina, Dansk: almindelig ryle)

But more of dunlin in the next post, and plenty more species of sea birds both at Snettisham and after that at the RSPB coastal reserve at Titchwell.

Morecambe Bay

Since my posting rate plummeted a couple of years ago, due mainly to the increased pressure of work, I’ve still been out and about accumulating a lot of photographs so now I’m going to try to get some of them into posts.

In early spring 2014 I found myself at Morecambe bay in Lancashire which is famous for its vast tidal mudflats that constitute a well stocked larder for a multitude of seabirds, and maximum danger for the unwary beach walker. The Irish Sea tides race in and swirl about at incredible speed and there are areas of treacherous quicksand too.

A pair of shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand)

The bay is so enormous that when the tide’s out it’s not always easy to see much wildlife, but by the pier in front of the Midland Hotel there were shelduck, curlew and oystercatchers and I also caught a tantalising glimpse of a distant red breasted merganser.

A curlew on full power for take off (Numenius arquata, Dansk: storpsove)

As I didn’t have my camera with me and I’d never succeeded in getting a picture of a merganser, I returned to the same spot very early the following morning with the relevant optics. It was the end of February and the weather was filthier than a Springbok in a ruck (which as any rugby fan will know is as dirty as it gets!) –  it was freezing cold and blowing a gale, so I sat on the ground with my back to the wind, and waited.

Despite what I said earlier, there were a good number of birds in the vicinity including curlew, shelduck, redshank and this oystercatcher who landed right in front of me and every so often he popped up into view as he mined the crevices in the rock for his breakfast.

An oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade) landed close by on the rocky shoreline

And I didn’t have to wait too long before not one, but a pair, of red breasted merganser appeared in the water just 20 or so metres away, which justified getting out early and braving the elements:

Male (dark headed) and female (brown headed) red breasted merganser (Mergus serrator, Dansk: toppet skallesluger)

I think these are spectacular birds. They are generally resident breeders on the west coast of England and winter visitors on the east, so these were probably residents. They are one of two species of saw-toothed ducks, the other one being the goosander, which are resident in the UK. They have serrated beaks which they need to grasp their fishy prey which they can catch by chasing them under water. According to the BTO there are 2200 pairs in the UK in the summer and their conservation status in the UK is green suggesting the population is stable at least in this part of the world. The only other time I’ve seen a merganser was a month ago down on the south coast at Keyhaven, so they’re an uncommon but splendid sight!