A transformation took place 45 minutes from home. Up until then I had been driving through a landscape enshrouded in autumnal mist, with hedgerows and trees looming islands seen through a sea of grey murk. But as I approached Fakenham the mist simply disappeared, as though a curtain had been pulled aside to bathe the world in warm morning sunshine, blue skies and white fleecy clouds. This was rather fortuitous, because the plan of watching and photographing waders at RSPB Titchwell Marsh would have been a tad more challenging when you couldn’t see further than your own wellies.
The walk down to the foreshore with my mate Allan Archer, timed to coincide with the ebb tide, revealed masses of wildfowl and various other birds loafing around on the mill pond covering the freshwater marsh. A large flock of Golden Plover sparkled in the sunshine surrounded by groups of colourful Teal and roosting Lapwing. A herd of braying Brent Geese flew from the saltmarsh to bathe and preen whilst various other species went about their business, each mirrored perfectly in the shallow water. Curlews and Redshanks, oblivious to human presence, probed successfully for worms in the glutinous mud, and a pair of perky Stonechats fly-catched from fence posts. Always plenty to see here.
Once past the brackish marsh and through the belt of dunes, we were greeted with a wonderful scene of expansive open beach, surreal colour transitions between sea and sky, and of course the birds piping, fluting and bubbling; evocative sounds that are the essence of these lonely shores. We looked around to realise there was not another soul to be seen. Between Brancaster a mile to the East and Thornham a similar distance to the west, there was not a single human being visible. Just us and the birds; and the sea, and that wonderful sky bedecked with pink hued clouds bubbling up from the horizon. There was even a distant rainbow to enhance the sense of drama.
Positioning ourselves at a suitably safe distance from the birds so as not to disturb them during their essential feeding and roosting times, we simply waited for things to fly past or shuffle close. And they did not disappoint. I enjoy the challenge of trying to capture birds in flight, and with the perfect light conditions it was hard to fail. Over the course of the next couple of hours, until the tide turned and began flowing up the beach, Black and Bar-tailed Godwits, Knot, Oystercatcher, Dunlin, Grey Plover, Little Egret and Curlew all passed close enough to see the glint of sunlight reflecting from their beady eyes. The toing and froing of the birds as they sought prime feeding areas was exciting enough, but there were other mini dramas being played out here all the time, jousting egrets, skirmishing gulls, bickering godwits; its never dull.
After a time, we decided to move position and were able to walk over spongy beds of peat, pockmarked with holes bored by shellfish and encrusted with mussels and seaweed. Beneath our feet were the remains of a petrified forest, estimated to be 10,000 years old yet still identifiable as tree trunks and stumps. Incredible to think that in the times when these trees stood tall and proud, the inhabitants of this land would have been able to walk unhindered on a land bridge into Continental Europe. Now millennia further forward in time, hungry birds poke around their salt preserved roots seeking morsels to sustain them for another day. This area has an interesting recent past; wartime tanks, artillery range, a sunken wreck, as well as a potential site for cold war rocket launches. One can’t help wondering what it will be like 10,000 years hence – markedly different for sure.
By early afternoon, the available feeding grounds began to become slowly submerged beneath the relentless flow of the tide. The higher, exposed ridges now held concentrations of several species, with others gathering along the edge of the incoming water. Singly or in small groups the birds abandoned the shoreline to fly to sanctuary on the marsh, there to while away the intertidal period catching up on their rest. Before long, the remains of the forest were once again consumed by the sea, concealed now beneath the silty waters of the ever-invasive North Sea. We moved back to the main reserve very satisfied with the great morning we were fortunate enough to have experienced.
Later, in the fading light, we watched Marsh harriers gather to roost, spiralling over the reed beds beneath flocks of pinkfeet moving to their own roost. The sun, a golden orb, set ablaze layers of gentle cloud, the still air became chill, but we could still hear the lonely cries of the birds echoing across the flats. A misty beginning for sure, but the knowledge that we had experienced a quite outstanding combination of conditions and wildlife was crystal clear.