On Saturday I got up early and drove to the Essex coast for some winter bird-watching. Getting to the coast, and in particular being out on tidal salt-marsh and mudflats on a cool, clear day is something I always look forward to in winter. The rest of the family just sees mud so I didn’t invite them. For me though it is thrilling spectacle with a rarefied atmosphere created by thousands of wintering water and wading birds.
There’s never a dull moment and I was struck this time as to how constant movement was the order of the day for the mudflat inhabitants. Not only would vast flocks of Lapwing, Dunlin and Golden Plover reel into the air at the slightest perceived threat but the tide itself, having retreated to expose the muddy feeding grounds, suddenly turned and without delay began to race back across the mud again. This in turn forced the many flocks of feeding birds to move every few minutes, en masse, to higher ground.
Observing the individual birds in their flocks revealed another level of movement too created by a feeding frenzy as each Dunlin beak percussion-drilled into the mud leaving a trail of stitch marks. The Avocets swayed their curved beaks back and forth while Grey Plover ran to and fro, stopping on each turn, as if trying to remember where they had buried something. Only the Redshanks took a break but even then I guess they had one eye open and had switched their busy internal monologue from ‘feed, feed, feed!’ to ‘rest, rest, rest!’
I did encounter a couple of birds that had declined to join the constant state of agitation. Their refusal to rush around served them well as feared predators whose perspective allowed them to pick out their quarry amidst the confusion and chaos of tidal life. One, a Peregrine falcon, sat quietly on a low post in the middle of the rising tide while the other, a Marsh Harrier, soared effortlessly above the swirling masses. Both waited for their moment to pounce, the Peregrine cutting like a knife through the swathes of waders and the Harrier suddenly swooping from above pick off the unlucky slow-coach.
This spectacle never fails to capture my soul, not least because it is played out in wild and beautiful landscape that assaults the senses. The low sun, although unable to reduce the chill, brightens everything in view. The sparkling mud flats simmer and fizz as the water retreats allowing the mud to breath, albeit briefly. The sea breeze dispatches the last of the dead leaves from the shoreline trees and alerts the land to wake up and look for the coming spring.