Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Finally Tying The Great Knot

It's not great...but it is a Great Knot!
The lucky bride-to-be
I have an announcement to make. Sue and I, after 27 years of blissfully living together, are finally getting married!
It's not going to be a huge wedding and we started planning it at the back end of last year. The first question was, what date?
We didn't want it in the winter. Nor, of course, could we have it during the spring or autumn migration periods. This left midsummer as the safest time.

Eventually we plumped for 1st August. I reckoned this would be easy to remember and hopefully the weather will be good too. There are also only a tiny handful of birds likely to turn up in Britain which would cause me significant levels of inner stress on the day and distract my mind from my beautiful new wife!
At this time of year the chances of a lifer turning up on any given day are extremely slim. In fact I have only had 10 July lifers since the turn of the century and I have never had a new bird on my birthday. The only realistic chance of a lifer for me lies in a lost wader, of which I only need five species to complete the set. Of these, two are outrageous rarities which have not turned up since I've been birding and two have only put in one brief appearance each.
The fifth is Great Knot, with four previous visits, but two of them in the last days of July.

Several years ago I enjoyed a mad dash to Breydon Water, on the Norfolk/Suffolk border to see a distant blur which eventually was judged to not be a Great Knot but just to be a Knot (aka Red Knot) - I hope you're knot confused.

And so to yesterday morning. After a late start, I logged onto my computer at 8:15am and the first thing I clapped eyes on was "Great Scott, Great Knot". In my initial sleepy panic I put two and two together and started considering the drive to Scotland. I'd really like to see a Great Knot, but I really didn't fancy driving to Scotland right now. Besides, I didn't even know where in Scotland.
A couple more keyboard strokes and I found my answer. Breydon Water! The Norfolk part of Scotland! Holy mackerel (or something like that!) Why had my pager not wailed into action and woken me earlier? Why had my phone not alerted me? I'd foolishly left them both in the 99% portion of the house which enjoys absolutely no signal whatsoever.

It took me five minutes to let the turkeys out, let the geese out, let the chickens out, let the ducks out, feed all the aforesaid, grab my bins and scope, crisps and chocolate and I was off!  Like a rocket.

For the next hour and a half I enjoyed the delights of the A17 and the A47 - what a pair of roads to negotiate when you're in a hurry. All this time the bird was still present in the high tide roost though mostly not visible.

Breydon Water is a huge inlet from the sea with vast mudflats enjoyed by swarms of waders. However, they are often mobile and distant, with views not ideal due to heat haze and the direction of the sun. At high tide, birds get forced onto a small patch of salt marsh at the east end, near the bridge and Asda car park, which is where I hastily abandoned the car at some time just after 10.
As the tide recedes, bird fly out to feed on the mud, mainly on the south side.

There were maybe 30 or 40 people already assembled along the footpath which runs under the road bridge. Some had already seen the bird earlier when the tide had allowed it a little exposed mud. Another similar size group were assembled along the sea wall on the south side.
I perched my bottom precariously on a grassy slope and started to scan the salt marsh. Avocets, Curlews, Whimbrel, Godwits, Redshanks, a Spotted Redshank. Yes, all the taller birds were just visible, their heads and shoulders poking out above the beautiful purple flowers of swathes of sea lavender (I may be wrong on that one?) For ten minutes a grasshopper used my knee as a perch.
But the Great Knot hadn't been since since 9:55 when a brief aerial foray had at least confirmed its rough location. As the tide rose higher and higher, all the waders were clearly getting wet feet. Occasionally a group would briefly take to the air before settling back down again. I'd been there about half an hour when a large group of avocets did this. Then the call. In amongst all those black and white feathers and recurved bills was, somewhere, a Great Knot in flight. Briefly, very briefly, what was probably the bird shot through my scope, but I was then completely unable to get on the bird again despite several people calling directions to it. I came off the telescope and went for the wider view of the binoculars, but still I couldn't get on it. By now it had joined up with a group of golden plovers and was heading away at height! "In the blue patch of sky", someone said. I aimed my sight at a random blue patch and there, third from the left in the line of golden plovers, was a not-golden-plover! I followed it for a couple of minutes, almost always heading away, until that thin line of waders became undiscernible dots and disappeared.
That had not been in the plan. The Great Knot was supposed to sit it out on the high tide and duly start waddling around on the mud as the tide receded, even if it failed to poke its head above the salt marsh before then.
So, I had definitely seen the bird that was a Great Knot, but no way had I seen enough to be happy.

Why had it gone off with Golden Plovers? Surely it would land in a field with them and then feel out of place. It may even realise its mistake and return on its own. Anyway, for now the tide was still rising - typically it was unusually high - and all I could do was wait. At least it was sunny and there were lots of old friends to catch up with, as well as friends on the way and texting for updates. I was pretty hungry though, having dashed out of the house without breakfast. Asda was only 5 minutes away, but I daren't go just in case the bird put in another brief appearance.

Eventually the tide started to turn and the first patches of mud appeared. Squadrons of Avocets marched down from the saltmarsh to begin feeding and gradually all the waders were becoming visible. But the tide receded quickly and in no time distance and heat haze were rendering our views far from perfect. And still no Great Knot.
The mud on the south side of the channel was now becoming exposed. Most of the waders were heading over there and the light was better from that direction too. Gradually we too left our high tide roost and filed over the bridge, scrambling down the other side. As we did this, the line of birders who had chosen to wait on the south side began moving noticeably quicker. There was even running. Had the bird been refound or was this just a panic? Should I play it cool or break into a trot?


When I caught up with the crowd, there were confused messages passing this way and that. At the extreme left end... near the tyre.... by the avocet (not helpful). But the tyre was nowhere near the extreme left hand end. All the birds were still distant, but not too distant to pick out a Great Knot, surely.

A long line of birders finally enjoying views of the Great Knot
Then, four hours after I had arrived, the dumpy figure of a Great Knot was walking across the mud in my scope view. By now people were starting to arrive from as far afield as Bristol and Sussex.

I had waited a long time for a crack at one of these. I had even had one snatched away from me, bizarrely in exactly the same spot as I found myself now. Views weren't ideal but, as well as the distinctive shape, you could clearly see the dark amber-spangled upperside and the distinctive black chest.

It's out there somewhere!
But we couldn't put the birders on the opposite bank onto it.
We watched the bird for almost an hour, which included a rather comical phone call trying to give directions to the bird to someone on the other side of the basin. Perspective can be so deceptive.
Then it flew west and out of view.

However, it's not often I'm going to see a Great Knot, so I joined the line of birders who decided to yomp the couple of miles along the seawall in the hope of better views. We weren't disappointed. All the waders were feeding on the South Flats and the Great Knot was dabbing into the mud at a distance of less than 100 metres. Now that may sound like it's still a bit distant, but when the light's good the 60x power of the telescope zoom allowed every detail of the bird to be admired. For the first time I could make out the intricacy and beauty of the feathering on the back and I could finally clearly see the spotted flanks. Now I could relax and enjoy the bird.

My attempts at bird photography go no further
than sticking the phone up to the telescope,
so I was quite happy with my record shots.
It was great to bump into some old friends too, some who I'd not seen for a long while. That's how this twitching game works. You never quite know where you'll be, what you'll be seeing or who you'll bump into when you're there.

Let's just hope a Royal Tern doesn't rock up on 1st August! The 2nd August would be okay though!

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