Tag Archives: Snettisham

Ducks and more waders

I wrote a couple of posts a while ago about a trip to the north Norfolk coast in the depths of winter, but I didn’t get round to completing the story. All the wader (‘shore birds’ in N.America) images in that post were taken on the beach at Snettisham, and as I was leaving there at around half past nine in the mornng to head along the coast a short hop to the RSPB reserve at Titchwell, the sun had risen and more birds were discernible on the previously invisible small lakes immediately behind the beach.

A handsome male goldeneye (Bucephela clangula, Dansk: hvinand)

The goldeneye is a diving duck which has recently colonised Britain and there is an annual breeding population of around 200 pairs but it’s also a winter visitor when around 27,000 individuals arrive here to seek sustenance on lakes, rivers and tidal mudflats.

A lone redshank poking around for molluscs and crustaceans in the tidal mud (Tringa totanus, Dansk: rødben)

Also prominent on tidal mud flats is the redshank, or ‘the sentinel of the marsh‘ as it’s often the first bird to raise the alarm when a disturbance occurs, is amber listed in the UK although there are 24-25,000 breeeding pairs and up to 130,000 winter visitors. As with many other birds, encroachment by humans and habitat destruction has limited their range and therefore numbers in the UK. But despite their struggle with humans I always expect to see redshank when I visit the coast, and the other wader that I’d be very concerned if I didn’t see is the unmistakable oystercatcher:

A few members of a big flock of oystercatchers passing overhead (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade)

Despite high expectations of seeing some of the 340,000 wintering UK oystercatchers their conservation status in the UK is amber, the European status is ‘vulnerable’ and globally they are ‘near threatened’ due to recent population decline. But there are still good numbers of them in the UK so I hope their numbers can be stabilised.

Another amber listed wader in the UK is the grey plover:

Grey plover (Pluvialis squatarola, Dansk: strandhjejle)

The grey plover is a truly global bird, it breeds on the Russian tundra and in northern North America but can be found as far afield as southern Asia, Africa and even Australia – it has a huge annual range! So it’s remarkable to think that this little guy came from Canada or northern Russia to feed on a Norfolk beach – and also that some of its relatives may be in Australia. It seems that many of our birds are struggling, including the statuesque black tailed godwit which is faring even less well than the grey plover and is red listed in the UK.

Black tailed godwit taking flight (Limosa limosa, Dansk: stor kobbersneppe)

According to the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) the taxonomic name derives from the Latin word ‘limus‘ meaning ‘mud‘. In order to name such a handsome bird ‘Muddy muddy‘ I can only imagine that particular  taxonomist was having a bad day. It deserves better! The black tailed godwit also breeds in the north and like the grey plover can also be found in southern Asia, South Africa and Australia. Another accomplished globe trotter.

Curlew (Numenius arquata, Dansk: storspove)

The largest European wader is the curlew which can be easily distinguished by it’s enormous downcurved beak and it’s equally unique call. Alas for the curlew, it is also red listed in the UK with 66,000 pairs recorded by the BTO in the UK in summer 2009. Even though it’s numbers are declining it’s still not unusual to see one or more on an outing to the coast.

At this point, between 9 and 10am, I decamped along the coast to Titchwell, pausing mid way where another iconic winter visitor was patrolling an adjacent hedgerow:

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris, Dansk: sjagger)

It’s pretty depressing to report that the fieldfare is also red listed, but fortunately this is a local UK phenomenon and it is a species of least concern in Europe and globally. It’s our most colourful thrush and visits the UK from Scandinavia in the winter when it can be seen in large flocks in fields and hedgerows, often mixed in with redwing – another Scandinavian thrush which overwinters in the comparatively warmer climes of the UK.

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All those flocking waders…

A couple of posts ago I wrote about the vast flocks of geese which overwinter on The Wash; and there were also big numbers of other birds including small groups of dunlin close in by the shore:

Dunlin (Calidris alpina, Dansk: almindelig ryle)

But a little further out, and almost invisible until they took to the air, were enormous flocks of thousands of dunlin. I couldn’t see what flushed them, but every few minutes they rose en masse and put on a stunning display of aerobatic prowess:

Thousands of dunlin moving in very close proximity at high speed and never colliding

Occasionally they turned into the sun creating a shimmering ribbon of grey and white across the sky:

And as with the geese in the previous post the other thing which I hadn’t thought about until they were swirling overhead was the noise. It was a very different sound to the geese which gave a slow muted beating sound, the dunlin sounded more like a fast moving cloud of enormous insects. It was a really exciting spectacle. And as well as the dunlin flocks of oystercatcher wheeled over from behind and landed in a line on the mud flats:

Several hundred oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: Strandskade) seeking safety in numbers

… and it’s always good, but increasingly seldom, to see flocks of lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe):

When I was a kid in the 70’s vast flocks of lapwing were a relatively frequent phenomenon in the fields out in the countryside around home, but their numbers have plummeted twixt now and then, so it’s good to see there are still places where thay can still be found doing what lapwing should be doing!

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.