A Wader Spectacular tour today. It was foggy as we drove across to West Norfolk early this morning, but thankfully we came out into the clear as we dropped down to the Wash coast – relief all round as it might not have been so ‘spectacular’ in the fog.
When we arrived at Snettisham, the tide was already coming in fast. There were lots of waders gathered already – a huge throng of Oystercatchers were walking away from the rising water, shining in the morning light, but the main body of Knot was further up, a huge grey smear across the mud. Behind them, the Curlews were more widely spaced.
We stopped ahead of the tide to scan the exposed mud. A Bar-tailed Godwit was feeding closer to us in a muddy puddle and while we were watching it a Greenshank walked past just behind. A Knot and a Sanderling both dropped in along the edge of the main channel, giving us nice closer views. There were little groups of smaller waders, Dunlin and Ringed Plover, running around on the mud and we watched a Grey Plover calling plaintively.
Grey Plover – the first of many today
Small groups of Common Redshanks were already peeling off and flying in, over the bank behind us and onto the pits. We heard the distinctive ‘tchueet’ call of a Spotted Redshank too. As the waders became more and more concentrated on the last section of mudflats left uncovered by the rising tide, the Oystercatchers were the next to break ranks, with wave after wave passing over us.
Oystercatchers – flying in off the Wash to roost on the pits
However, the real spectacle was the vast flock of Knot. As the tide rose, they would periodically lift in a huge swarm, swirling over the mud, flashing alternately dark grey and silvery white, as they banked and caught the light. They would then settle again, higher up, ahead of the incoming water.
Knot – about 60-70,000 birds in one huge swirling flock
Finally, the remaining area of open mud was too small to hold them, and the Knot took flight again and started piling overhead in waves, dropping down onto the pits behind.
Knot – finally heading for the pits to roost
We made our way round to South Hide first, to have a look at the birds on the pit. The bank on one side was covered with roosting Oystercatchers. The islands below us were chock full of Black-tailed Godwits and Knot. The latter were jostling for position. Whenever more arrived, the ones on the edge of the flock were pushed out into the water and even having to swim away.
Waders – jostling for position to roost on the pits
Looking carefully through the flocks, we could make out a few other waders too. A Curlew Sandpiper appeared below the hide. A juvenile, with scaly back and pale peachy wash across its breast, it was chased off by the increasing number of Common Redshanks.
Curlew Sandpiper – a juvenile dwarfed by a Black-tailed Godwit behind
There were several Bar-tailed Godwits in with the much more numerous Black-tailed Godwits (on here at least). The majority of the Bar-tailed Godwits choose to roost on the fields inland, rather than the pits. However, it was great to see the two species side by side.
Bar-tailed Godwit – with Black-tailed Godwit behind
A Common Sandpiper flew in calling and worked its way along the shore, bobbing up and down as it walked, before it too was chased away. Further out in the middle of the pit, we could see a small group of Spotted Redshanks roosting on some rocks in the deeper water, five of them, four pale silvery grey and white winter adults and a duskier juvenile, plus a couple of Common Redshanks too for comparison.
The few Dunlin roosting on the pit had been pushed off by the Knot and for a while they flew round and round looking for a place to land. There were some empty islands further up, but with nothing else on them, the Dunlin were loathe at first to land on them. As they flew round, we could make out the distinctive white rump of at least one Curlew Sandpiper in with them. A much smaller bird was in with them too, very hard to pick out in flight, but a Little Stint. When they finally settled again, we made our way round to Shore Hide to get a better look.
At first we couldn’t find the Little Stint in with the Dunlin, but we did manage to find three different juvenile Curlew Sandpipers scattered in with the various groups, all asleep. Eventually, the Little Stint moved from where it had been hiding and we got a look at that too, though it was still mostly asleep. It was clearly very small, even next to the Dunlin, and much whiter below. When it woke briefly we could see its much shorter bill.
Little Stint – roosting in with the Dunlin
When we made our way back outside, the tide had already started to recede and the mud was already reappearing. A large flock of Knot had already returned to the Wash, presumably flushed from the fields inland. However, as we stood and watched, several more waves of birds flew back from the pits, in long drawn out flocks. Mostly Knot, we could hear the rush of wings as they flew past.
When there was quite a throng gathered out on the mud, they suddenly took fright and started to fly round, though quickly settling back down again. We looked up to see a Red Kite circling over, and nearby a Marsh Harrier too.
Waders – still nervous, gathering back out on the Wash
We made our way back to the car and headed round to Titchwell for the rest of the day. It was already lunchtime, so we stopped for a bite to eat in the picnic area before heading out onto the reserve.
A quick look at the feeders on the way through added Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Blue Tit and Great Tit to the day’s list. Walking up the main path, the grazing meadow ‘pool’ how has several puddles after the recent rain and high tides, but no birds. The reedbed pool had a few ducks on it – several Gadwall and a single Tufted Duck.
There had been a Pectoral Sandpiper on the reserve earlier in the day, but it had been mobile and elusive. On the walk out, we were told it had been showing recently from the main path, so we hurried along to try to see it. Unfortunately, when we got there, we found out it had flown off towards Thornham about 10 minutes earlier. Still, there was a nice Curlew Sandpiper wading in the shallow water just out from the path, so we had a good look at that through the scopes instead.
Curlew Sandpiper – showing well from the main path
There were plenty of other waders out on the freshmarsh too. Several Ruff were close to the path, including both buff/brown juveniles and white/grey-brown adults. The large numbers of Avocet which were here in late summer have now moved on but there were still four out on the freshmarsh today. Over the back, we could see more Black-tailed Godwits and, beyond them over by the reeds, a couple of Spotted Redshank.
The largest number of waders were Golden Plover – a big flock had dropped in and were standing around out in the middle.Through the scope, we could see their golden-spangled upperparts. Some still had the remains of their black bellies from summer plumage. There were also a few Lapwing, numbers of them too increasing now for the winter.
Lapwing – numbers are now increasing
We could hear Cetti’s Warbler and Reed Warbler calling from the reeds below us, but we couldn’t get more than an in-flight glimpse of both as they darted across the gaps. We decided to head out to the beach and have another look at the freshmarsh on the walk back.
The Volunteer Marsh was fairly quiet – a Redshank, a Curlew and a Little Egret fishing in the muddy channel were the water was still flowing off after this morning’s high tide. There were more birds on the tidal pools, with several roosting waders including small numbers of Redshank, Dunlin, Curlew and a few Grey Plover, some of which were looking very smart, still mostly in summer plumage. A Little Grebe was lurking under the overhanging vegetation on the edge of the island.
Out at the beach, the tide was out. We could see a couple of flocks flying in over the sea, Wigeon and Brent Geese arriving from the continent for the winter. A quick scan revealed a few ducks out on the water – three Wigeon were more unusual, but it was nice to see a little raft of Common Scoter diving offshore. There were several Great Crested Grebes too, but the best was a single Red-throated Diver close inshore. Through the scope we could see that it still had a mostly deep-red throat patch.
Further out, we could see a dark juvenile Gannet flying past and behind it another dark bird, smaller and rather more gull-shaped. It was an Arctic Skua and it was chasing after a Sandwich Tern. The tern tried to manoeuvre out of the way but the Arctic Skua twisted and turned after it for a second or two before seeming to lose interest.
Bar-tailed Godwit – on the Volunteer Marsh on our way back
It was time to start walking back. At the Volunteer Marsh, a Bar-tailed Godwit had appeared and gave us more good views as we passed by. We stopped again at the freshmarsh, but the birds here were much as they had been on the way out.
Past Island Hide, we could hear Bearded Tits calling. We stood for a while to see if we could see them, but despite being very vocal they remained tucked down in the reeds out of view. When all the waders took off from the freshmarsh, we scanned the sky and eventually picked up a Hobby high to the north. It turned and started flying powerfully in our direction, eventually banking right above us, giving us a good view of its streamlined, rakish outline and swept back wings.
Hobby – swept in past us after buzzing the freshmarsh
It looked like the Bearded Tits wouldn’t show themselves, so we gave up and started walking again. We were almost past them, when we heard more Bearded Tits calling on the other side of the path, over the bank on the edge of the grazing meadow. We looked over the bank and this time we could see the Bearded Tits feeding in the tops of the reeds – a cracking male, with powder blue head and black moustache, and a browner female both perched up nicely.
Bearded Tit – a smart male finally showed very well for us
That was a great way to end the day, so we headed for home well pleased.