The feathered whirls fret over the adjacent gravel pit, demanding reassurance that the coast is clear before pitching down, legs extended. Once on dry land, each species keeps to its own. Knot take the lower shingle, oystercatcher linger higher up the bank, dunlin are relegated to the island.
After an hour or so, the tide abates and the waders return to their salty restaurant. Their departure is straggling, with none of the emphatic urgency of their arrival. It takes me some time to realise that every single bird has vanished. The curtain has fallen on Snettisham’s show. My own breakfast beckons.
Sited on the northern side of Norfolk’s share of the Wash Estuary, Snettisham is justifiably famous for its high-tide shorebird spectacle. Particularly on a spring tide, incoming salty waters smother muddy feeding grounds before inundating the saltmarsh, depriving tens of thousands of waders of safe, dry terrain on which to roost.
And so the air starts to bulge with birds and their cries.
Oystercatchers take to the skies, straggling piebald flocks with carrots for bills, bleating hysterically. Searing overhead, curlews bubble away. Turnstones quip, dunlins wheeze and redshanks yelp. Best of all, knot fly up en masse and billow through the air, alternately flashing silver and white to bewilder would-be predators. Knot rarely call, but nor are they silent. Their wings do the talking as they whoosh astonishingly low over our scalps.
The air stills. We – the privileged audience – come back down to earth, and breathe normally again. Some people depart, sated. I stay, craving more.
I home in on individual birds and watch them for minutes. Most are motionless, eyes closed. Some jolt awake and shuffle. Others fidget, changing their standing leg. Yet others open an eye, confirm all is well, and return to the Land of Nod.
The eastern sky has started to glimmer hopefully, but I am directing eyes and ears westwards. It is November, and – here on The Wash – it is very nearly showtime.
For the first ten minutes, the assembled crowd (and we are quite some grouping: perhaps 100 huddled shapes, all told) strains for either sight or sound.
We hear before we see.
A muffled chorus metamorphoses into a cacophony of cackling as the first skein of geese departs its estuarine roost and wings overhead to graze inland. A second game of 'follow-my-leader' – this one with more participants – hurries through. Thirty seconds later, a flock of a thousand birds arrows the sky.
And so successive ‘v’s of ganders continue until some 30,000 pink-footed geese have awoken and absented themselves. A procession both remarkable in itself and for being merely the entrée to the morning experience at RSPB Snettisham.
The knot in particular cram so close together that 20,000 birds merge into molten mercury. The oystercatcher, hunched and sullen, bring to mind a conference of Parisian brasserie waiters. The dunlin bicker. After a few jittery flits and the odd commuter-like surge, the gathering settles down for some shut-eye.
The RSPB has revamped itsSnettisham reserve on the edge of The Wash, northwest Norfolk. As part of a promotional campaign to raise money for a new hide, the RSPB asked several local writers to offer a short blog about their experiences of and feelings towards the reserve. Here is mine.