On Friday at lunchtime I found myself at Thornham on the North Norfolk coast, a small village at the slightly less popular end of a series of now rather twee coastal villages that lie along this stretch of coastline. Thornham village itself is accessed by two narrow lanes off the main coastal road and is hidden from view by trees and bushes, nestling discreetly and quietly out of sight and relatively undisturbed by visitors in the winter months. It tends to be by-passed by the throng of birders and humanity that descend on this part of the world as nearby Titchwell RSPB reserve with its cafe, shop, facilities and hides proves a more diverting attraction, at least for birders.
Thornham stands guarded from the sea by the saltmarshes that in turn lead out to the wide open skies of North Norfolk and The Wash to the north. At this time of year there is an almost spiritual quietness to the place with any sound muted by the presence of sky and sea and an endless panorama of saltmarsh that seems to stretch to the very sky itself. Some would call it desolate, even unsettling, but it is a raw beauty that burgeons insidiously in one's consciousness and if anywhere was deserving of quiet contemplation this surely is it, as you sit on a bench and look out at the sea and skyscapes going on forever.
Today I turned off the coast road and drove in contemplative mood down Staithe Lane between the brown hedges of winter with the centuries old village houses of Thornham visible through the bare lattice work of twigs. I carried on along the narrow lane, leaving the village and shortly afterwards the lane opened out onto open skies, marshes and a tidal channel with a steep muddy bank, alongside which were moored a few small craft. This was 'The Staithe', the word meaning a landing stage for loading and unloading boats, but those days are long gone and the whole area has been allowed to decline into modest disrepair. The few pleasure craft still moored to the bank and the old Coal Barn where many a time I have sheltered from the raging elements whilst birding, bring a reminder of times past when presumably it was busier and folk sought and earned a hard and tenuous living here, far removed from the wealth and expensively refurbished houses that have now, as with all the other villages along this coastline, changed this area for ever. But one can still, in the considered abandonment of the harbour, sense like some diminishing echo, the feel of how it used to be in times past.
The long disused Coal Barn in the distance
This past week had been one of wind and rain lashed days but today there was a respite before the next weather front arrived. A light wind and indifferent sun cast a reflective glow upon the varied winter browns of a saltmarsh that spread in a wide vista on all sides, with the distant sea reflecting the insipid but welcome blue from the sky above. There were few people around and those that were seemed to be almost absorbed and made invisible by the enormity of sky and space.
I had come to see a flock of Twite that had taken up winter residence here. Thornham is almost a traditional wintering spot for them with varying numbers being recorded during virtually every winter that I can recall. This time there was a flock of around fifty frequenting the saltmarsh and feeding on the seeds that they found on the dried withered stalks of marsh plants that looked like they could hardly sustain one bird let alone fifty, but the Twite seemed to find them sufficient and would move the short distances from one area to another as one, the flock tight and compact, conversationally twittering to themselves before fluttering like falling leaves onto the stalks to feed.
Twite are superficially like the more familiar Linnets and seen from a distance they appear similarly brown and drab, a typical 'little brown job' in birder's slang parlance but on looking closer they are very different to Linnets, possessing a subtle, understated beauty that blends perfectly with the sparse winter habitat they prefer. Their bills are stubble yellow, their face and breast suffused with pale caramel that glows almost orange in the sun. The rest of the plumage is an overall stripey brown, more so than Linnets, enlivened by the white in wings and outer tail feathers, most visible when they take flight.
They are more northern in distribution than Linnets although both can occur in some areas but the two species usually keep their own company and the Twite show a more marked preference for open saltmarshes and the less hospitable, wilder seashores, braving the elements in all weathers. As true a hardy northerner as you could wish to encounter.
Like a group of errant schoolchildren the flock would skip and dance above the saltmarsh, restless and eternally mobile, wheeling in unison and twittering as they sought another feeding area to their liking. Little dreads would seize them for no accountable or apparent reason, causing them to rise as one and the flock would fly off only to turn and come back, bouncing in the wind, to almost where they took off.
On flying up they would appear as dots against the wide, sun brightened Norfolk sky and then disappear as their brown forms sank below the skyline and merged into the wet grey folds of the tidal mud banks and the brown vegetation, only to re-appear and disappear as they rose and fell above and below the skyline before finally settling once again.
North Norfolk in winter is a land of huge bare fields running in endless folds inland from the coast, intersected by narrow byways and lanes that in winter see few cars or people. The wide open skies complement the vast areas of desolate, hedge bisected fallow land spread out below.
Here there are no rugged, snow covered high mountains or glens through which rolling tumbling rivers pass. This is a winter wildness that is very different but just as complete, and brings with it the very epitomy of the wild - grey geese and Pink-footed Geese in particular.
The geese number in the tens of thousands, the numbers are incredible, with around one hundred thousand estimated as coming to the whole of Norfolk. Truly one of nature's more wondrous manifestations as they cackle and bicker to themselves, riding the air currents in wavering lines high in the morning sky, heading inland from their night-time roost out on the wilds of The Wash. You often hear them before you see them but on looking up it is certain they are there and the familiar formations soon become reality, sky high, constantly changing shape as they press onwards to their chosen feeding areas inland.
The geese know where to go and descend on those fields still strewn with abandoned sugar beet where they gorge themselves. The geese already feeding on the ground attract others passing over and soon there is a constant arrival of geese following in formation after formation, arriving high in the air calling endlessly, then on approaching the field they stall and drop in crazed flying aerobatics called whiffling, losing height alarmingly only to come out of a seeming terminal dive to glide on broad grey wings and make an effortless landing.
The numbers in a chosen field can be huge and on a bitterly cold, windswept early afternoon I found myself stood in the lee of a wind blasted hedge, my eyes watering from the biting wind as geese in their thousands descended on a favoured field. There were close on five or six thousand in this particular field after about an hour, their grey forms like a moving, undulating carpet on the dull earth.
All will appear calm amongst the flock and then suddenly all necks will go up and every goose is on high alert, tensed, silent and still. Watching. The slightest movement will now cause them to panic and rise and you almost hold your breath in the nervous hope that they will relax and not fly off, but sometimes it is impossible to legislate for their alarm and even a car stopping on the lane will cause them to rise in a cacophony of rushing, roaring wings as they cleave the air, accompanied by a babble of calls as they protest their alarm. The spectacle causes the heart to rush, as such a sight is truly wonderful.The geese literally darken the sky as in a dense, rising, swirling mass, they slowly spread out, sorting themselves into smaller flocks or families but then, as one, the majority of the flock like smoke in the sky, drift and return to land either back in the same field or an adjacent one.
When the flock is on the ground there is constant movement and sound, with some geese feeding, others sleeping or just standing as yet others leave in small groups to go to another field.
I could watch them all day, these truly wild creatures, bringing to these fallow fields of winter a sense of the Arctic and the desolate places in Greenland and Iceland where they breed,
Often these huge flocks have other species of geese within them. I have seen one or two Barnacle Geese and on a number of occasions and much more exciting, single Snow Geese. These latter standing out like the proverbial sore thumb, the white plumage amongst the grey browns of the Pinkfeet obvious for all to see, but the hardest to pick out from all are Tundra Bean Geese that are sometimes to be found within the Pinkfeet flocks but only in very small numbers, say four or five. So similar are they to Pink-footed Geese that the only way to truly pick them out is to look at their legs which are orange compared to, well yes, the pink ones of the Pinkfeet. Easy you may say but try looking at six thousand pairs of legs through a telescope from necessarily a long distance, with sunlight and angles of shade causing all sorts of optical illusions and it is not that easy.
It is a harmless although at times frustrating entertainment trying to see how many Tundra Bean Geese one can find in a flock of Pinkfeet. To make matters even more difficult the Tundra Bean Geese are often scattered randomly throughout the flock and not together, but that often means that one spends much more time lingering with the flocks of geese than would be normal and that surely is no bad thing.