Monday 20 June 2016

Get Knotted 16th June 2016

Great Knot with friends c Andy Last
June is always likely to bring a few rare birds to these shores and this year it has certainly not disappointed. Checking my RBA (Rare Bird Alert) app. on my i-phone in the early evening of Wednesday 15th June I noted a mega alert for a Great Knot at Titchwell RSPB in Norfolk.It had been found at lunchtime, roosting on the Freshmarsh with a flock of its close relative, Red Knot.

Now, although I saw the last Great Knot to be found in the Britain two years ago, coincidentally also in Norfolk but at the other end of the county at Breydon Water in Great Yarmouth, this was only the fifth to be found in Britain and also, being a very attractive looking bird, was well worth going to see.

I sent a text to the Clackmeister suggesting we go the very next day, Thursday, as the weather looked good but suggesting we should wait until we heard news that it was still there on Thursday. I duly received a text in the affirmative from Clackers and I said I would confirm one way or the other the next morning as soon as any news came through. 

Fast forward to 5am on Thursday. I rolled over in bed to check my i-phone. There was one message from RBA. 

'Great Knot on beach at Titchwell.

We were going to Norfolk! I called Clackers immediately and we agreed I would be at his house at 6am and having achieved this we set off eastwards for Nelson's County.

The roads and miles passed easily enough despite the traffic and we chatted about Clackers recent holiday in Scotland whilst making regular checks of RBA to try and get any updates about the Great Knot. It is a three hour drive to North Norfolk and we heard no further news from RBA which I found strange, even a little disconcerting and when we were well past Peterborough, about two thirds of the way there, the dread news came up on RBA 

'No further sign of the Great Knot at Titchwell. Flew West'

We both groaned as this was not looking good and the Great Knot would be a lifer for Clackers but ever the optimist I mulled the news over and came to the following conclusion which I relayed to Clackers as we drove along.

'Clackers, the Great Knot was found at midday yesterday roosting on the Freshmarsh at Titchwell at high tide. It has already been seen today but its whereabouts is currently unknown. It cannot have gone too far and I think it will return at high tide with all the other Red Knot to roost on the Freshmarsh, which will be around noon. Currently it is 0830 am so why don't we take it easy, grab some breakfast on the way and just go to Titchwell and see if my hypothesis comes true? We are most of the way there now and Titchwell is a good place anyway and we will see some good birds in the meantime. For instance there is a Spoonbill there'.

Hardly adequate compensation for the missing Great Knot but we agreed that this would be a good plan. I slowed the car and we drove sedately in bright sunshine into an uncertain future. 

'Let's stop here for some breakfast Clackers.'  

'Great idea,' 

So we turned off into the estimable Chill Out Cafe at Guyhirn.

I checked RBA while we were eating but still there were no updates on the Great Knot. Very strange. We left the cafe and carried on towards Kings Lynn and after an abortive impromptu drive around the Wolferton Triangle in search of Golden Pheasants arrived at Titchwell and found the regular car park already full. Strange at such an early hour? Maybe other unlucky twitchers and birders have come for the Great Knot? The overflow car park was also full and a figure in a high viz jacket was waving at us from further down the drive indicating we should make for him and park in yet another overflow car park. Again this was unusual. What's going on? 

We found the figure was known to Clackers as he had been the former assistant warden at our very own local Otmoor RSPB Reserve some while ago. Clackers said  

'It's gone then?

To which the smiling reply came '

Yeah no sign'. 

We sighed and then came the words

'Only joking lads. It's showing really well on the beach'. 

We looked at him unsure whether he was serious but he was. Apparently there had been some problem with getting the news out that morning due to technical difficulties or whatever. Who cared, we were now in with a very good chance of turning round our fortunes. Life took on a whole new and positive meaning.

The car was parked in double quick time and we fairly sped around the Visitor Centre and out along the track leading to the beach. I had forgotten just how far that is but we persevered, passing a constant stream of happy and smug birders returning from the beach. We were also overtaken by others who could not endure the strain and in their anxiety to see the bird broke into a run. There was no need really but if it made them feel better that was their privilege. We passed the various lagoons and scrapes on our right with Avocets prominent and a large flock of Bar tailed Godwits in the middle of the Freshmarsh opposite The Parrinder Hide. The Spoonbill was also here but we hardly gave it a glance in our haste.

At last we got to the end of the track and marching through the narrow strip of dunes walked onto the wide expanse of beach and looking east we saw a long line of birders on the beach about a quarter of a mile away, scoping a very large flock of Red Knot feeding amongst some low rocks on the seashore. The sand, thankfully was firm to walk on and crunching our way over thousands of dead razorshells we made our way to join the crowd of birders. The knot were quite distant and there was a slight heat haze which made viewing quite difficult. 

Anxiety levels rose to astronomic heights. This was not going to be as easy as we thought. There were at least two thousand Red Knot running about out there, constantly moving and spread over quite a wide area. Where was the Great Knot amongst that throng? No one seemed to have found it and everyone was waiting for someone to locate it. Clackers thought he found it but then the whole flock shifted and he lost sight of it. To add to the confusion there were a number of summer plumaged Red Knot amongst the predominantly grey plumaged flock, as well as a few summer plumaged Turnstones and I am sure some birders were mistaking these latter for the Great Knot. The flock suddenly flew and then settled with the consequence we had to start all over again, going through the flock bird by bird.

Various people who thought they could see the Great Knot tried to be helpful with directions, coming out with gems such as  

'See those two gulls by the furthest rock' or 'It's left of the Oystercatcher', 

'A gull has just walked past in front of it' or even 'It's moving left'. 

Whether they were looking at the real thing or not I had no idea as frankly I could never follow the instructions.

Finally a man next to me announced he had definitely found it  and indeed he had and I at last saw my second Great Knot. I called Clackers over and he saw it very briefly before it walked out of sight behind a rock. Then another fifteen minutes passed with no one seeing it.

The rocks on which they were feeding were becoming covered by the incoming tide and the flock rose as one and impressively whirled up into the air. Now where were they going? The flock wheeled in tight grey and white unison and then settled on the sand to the right of the rocks, no longer spread out but now in a typical tight knot flock. We followed some other birders further out onto the sand to get closer to the flock. I turned and everyone else was also following! We walked closer and closer hoping against hope the flock would not flush. Finally we stopped and scoped the flock. Closer now and with minimal heat haze it was much easier. I found the Great Knot almost at once and then promptly lost it as the constantly moving bodies of other knot obscured it. I looked to my left and there it was, blindingly obvious, stood virtually on its own in a pool of seawater. It was easily visible now and we both enjoyed extended views. Other birders with a slight panic in their voice asked to look through our scopes or for directions and we were happy to oblige. The Great Knot just stood there, mainly asleep, unmoving as other birds swirled about it. I looked away and coming back to look again was fearful I would be unable to re-find it but now I had my eye in it was easy to locate and the same went for Clackers too. Wherever it was in the flock we could always find it.

Marginally larger than its commoner cousin the Red Knot, it was noticeable that it kept itself slightly apart from them. All the diagnostic features were now on show, the black breast and random black spots on the white belly, the dark upperparts relieved by bright chestnut patterning on the scapulars similar to a Turnstone and its longer bill, slightly decurved at the tip. We stood in the sun and just enjoyed these precious moments watching it. All tension, all anxieties long forgotten. I turned and there, stood right behind me was a birding acquaintance of both myself and Clackers, none other than Richard Thewlis who was sketching the bird from life, such an unusual sight these days. It is always nice when things like this happen especially when the person concerned has not been seen for a long while. We chatted briefly and then carried on looking at the Great Knot. Newcomers anxiously enquired about where the Great Knot was and those already present, relaxed and benificent now they had seen it, happily showed them.

I spoke quietly to Clackers.  

'I suggest we go to the Parrinder Hide overlooking the Freshmarsh and grab a place there, as soon the incoming tide is going to persuade the flock to go there to roost'. 

Clackers agreed and we quietly left the crowd and made our way back along the beach and down the track to the ultra modern Parrinder Hide. It was not quite full yet and we got  seats right by the panoramic windows. A lady told us the Great Knot was straight out in front of us. Huh?  

We had just left it on the beach? It became apparent that the knot flock must have left the beach shortly after us and flown over our heads as we made our way to the Hide.

Great Knot c.Andy Last
No matter, now we would not have to wait and we settled down to watch the Great Knot as it hunkered down amongst the other knot and godwits. The light was truly awful for photography but in the scope we got great views of it as it idled about, disturbed and made restless by the constant arrival of various other waders coming in to roost. Again I noticed how it kept itself just that bit apart from the other waders. Other birders, foregoing the Parrinder Hide scoped the Great Knot from the track at the far side of the Freshmarsh which was probably just as well as the Hide would never have coped with the numbers.

Great Knot c Andy Last
The Freshmarsh was alive with birds. The Great Knot of course and many Red Knot but also a large flock of Bar-tailed Godwits and a smaller number of Black-tailed Godwits. Avocets were everywhere and a pair with young, close to the hide, provided much entertainment as the parents chased off everything they perceived as a threat including a Pied Wagtail. A pair of Mediterranean Gulls flew past us yelping.

After about thirty minutes a slight sea mist developed, drifting past the knot flock, obscuring it and the other birds. Slowly and steadily the sea mist got ever more prevalent and visibility declined to virtually nil. 

The sea mist arrives
The birds were now just shapes and there appeared to be no sign of the mist lifting. Never mind we had been here three and a half hours already and seen the Great Knot really well so were quite content. We left the Hide bidding farewell to Richard Thewlis who had joined us in the Hide and took the track back to the Visitor Centre, meeting Gnome who had left Oxford later than us, coming our way.  As we talked the knot flock rose from the Freshmarsh and headed back to the seashore. We wished Gnome good luck and went our separate ways. The sun was now long gone and rain was not far away.

We stopped at a very nice pub for a quick celebratory pint and then it was full speed for Oxford with that quiet contentment that only a successful twitch can bring.

With grateful thanks to Andy Last for the images of the Great Knot on the Freshmarsh at Titchwell

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