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A million birds? It’s normal for Norfolk - Patrick Barkham

Blog | By Patrick Barkham | Jul 13, 2022

I parked in RSPB Snettisham car park PE31 7RA (left off Beach Road) and walked north and then south in a loop. But there is immediate access to the estuary edge if you prefer to skip the shacks. A nice, day-long round takes in the rewilded estate of Ken Hill

Surrounded by sweeping coastal landscapes and thousands of Arctic seabirds, Patrick Barkham takes a walk along the Wash Estuary like no other

We rarely encounter an abundance of species other than our own Homo sapiens in Britain.

Not so at Snettisham on an icy winter’s afternoon. A bitter wind swept from the Arctic straight into the Wash, keeping people at bay but blowing in the tide – and many thousands of birds.

The Wash is one of the biggest estuaries in Britain, a vast expanse of salt marsh, mudflats, sandbanks and grey, blue and silver water. It is a spectacular place – though the muddle of caravan parks, shacks and flooded tracks at its edge called Shepherd’s Port was unprepossessing.

I began my walk in the RSPB car park on the remains of an old military site where concrete led into hummocks of brambles. The space was shared with King’s Lynn Angling Association who had erected tall, otter-proof fencing around deep, old gravel quarries, now fish ponds.

BANG! BANG! Gunshots rang out from all sides. It took me a moment to realise that they must be a deterrent to scare away cormorants, which love to swoop like black bats on to the lakes and help themselves to its carp.

I took the track north back to Shepherd’s Port where the land seemed sunken down, broken and vexed by water. There were huge puddles everywhere, and signs warning of floods.

The ribbon of shacks, sheds and bungalows built on the shingle sea bank on the rim of the Wash had not been gentrified, unlike most of north-west Norfolk. Everything was made tatty by the scouring salt wind and salt water.

Any metal was rusted. Any paint was flaking. The place shared the bleak, end-of-the-world spirit of Dungeness. There was a sailing club, but an ever- so-’umble one, a scattering of shipping containers and other flotsam and jetsam.

As I turned south beside the Wash, the shacks petered out, to be replaced by scrubby Suaeda vera, or sea-blite, and more brambles.

The sun lowered, the land darkening as if shrinking from the silver majesty of sand, sea and sky. Wind turbines and tiny dark dots which were the trees of Lincolnshire were just visible on the far horizon.

As the wind bit and the sun flashed briefly in the western sky, the mudflats turned deep purple. Where the tide washed over, the mud became sheened with metallic turquoise, even though there was no blue in the scudding-cloud sky.

A group of oystercatchers picked their way over the mud. I’m used to seeing 20 but here there were 500.

Then a larger pulse of birds rose up, moving sinuously against the horizon. They looked like a murmuration of starlings, but these were bigger, stockier, wading birds – knot, which spend summers in the Arctic Circle.

Every autumn, the knot in Greenland and Canada fly south to enjoy a balmy British winter. The Wash’s mudflats are as appealing to knot as Benidorm is to the British: 220,000 of them fly here each winter to feast on cockles and other muddy inhabitants.

The tide walked steadily in, improbably covering this arena with water, and the entire bird population of the Wash was pushed to its edge.

With each wave, the knot hitched up their proverbial skirts, rose up and relocated so they wouldn’t get wet. As the knot were driven closer by the tide, the noise of thousands of wingbeats hit me: a vigorous, high-pitched squeal not unlike the sound of a jet engine.

The departing sun left an unearthly pink glow on the horizon and revealed a blizzard of birds: pink-footed geese flying in, shelduck, bar-tailed godwits and starlings. Every species in their hundreds – except for the solitary short-eared owl that looped over the sea bank.

A few hardy birders watched from a wooden hide, and I admired the darkening scene until ice entered my bones. Then I staggered back to the car, shivering with cold and wonder.