Wednesday 16 July 2014

We tie the Knot 15th July 2014

An image that accurately reflects the plumage of the Great Knot we saw today.
This image was taken in Korea but due to the distance of the bird we saw today
it was impossible to get an image of 'the real thing' so this will have to do
Monday evening and I learn that a mega has been found in Norfolk, , in the form of a Great Knot in full summer plumage and only the fourth of its kind to be seen in the UK. Its precise location was on Breydon Water at Great Yarmouth. Many, many miles off course it should be heading from its breeding grounds in eastern Siberia to its wintering quarters in coastal Australia yet here it was on the other side of the world. I sent a text to Badger and Clackers enquiring if they wanted to accompany me to Breydon Water but Badger was unable to do anything until the weekend and Clackers had the sad task of helping to arrange and attend his mother in law's funeral. So it looked like I would be making a long and lonely trip to Norfolk. I then recalled I had an appointment at my local surgery at nine thirty tomorrow so resigned myself to making the trip on Wednesday as naturally my health must come first above all things.
A few minutes passed as I sat in front of the computer checking tide times and the latest reports of the Great Knot and then my I-phone vibrated on the desk  as an incoming call announced itself and I received a call from Paul Wren. "You going for the knot tomorrow? I can only do the morning so will need to leave very early" says Wreny. "Errr, what time had you in mind? I replied tentatively knowing what was to come.  "I suggest 2.30 am". This was decision time for me. Paul would be good company and we have a bond, having made two epic twitches to the Siberian Rubythroat in Shetland and the Harlequin Duck in The Hebrides a few years ago. All good intentions, worries about health and connections with sanity disappeared in a trice as I agreed with unseemly haste to meet Paul at the hallowed hour. By the way, have you ever noticed how popular 2.30 is as a suggested meeting time, be it morning or afternoon? Or is it just me?

It is now ten in the evening and I am going to die tomorrow as I will have to leave my house at 1.30am to get to Paul's on time. Three hours sleep is not nearly enough.Ye gods. Not enough but what the hell, its a Great Knot. A lifer. I can save any thoughts of imminent expiry and survive on adrenalin until after we have seen the knot which incidentally was, as always with twitching, by no means a certainty. The thrill of the chase, leaving the mainstream of everyday life for a day, an adventure, the ongoing anxiety of not succeeding but spurred on by the knowledge of the great wave of emotion and good feelings that can be expected if it all comes off is all there. It is a heady mix and irresistable.
It is the middle of the night, reality hits home as I stagger downstairs at 1.30am and move very slowly, my mind trying to function and catch up with my physical movements, I try to remember all the things I will need for a successful birding trip. I lose the piece of paper on which I have scribbled Paul's postcode or more correctly forget where I have put it not five minutes ago. I refind it where I carefully put it down. Glasses - where are they? I find them on my head and realise it is going to be a very long day but I am driven on by the prospect of seeing a much wanted bird. A lifer that I now have a chance of seeing in the flesh rather than just admiring pictures in a book and idly day dreaming of one day actually seeing one. Out into a sultry night moistened by soft summer rain and into the car with the practised routine that is almost automatic now, I have done it so often. Many moths are flying in the wet lanes and futilely I try not to hit them with the car but they are intent on suicide by car headlight. A Muntjac freezes in the glare of the lights, its fawn coat shining with rain drops as I pull up at a crossroads in the middle of the Cotswolds.  I get to Paul's far too early and park on a dark road for ten minutes. As the engine dies it is deathly quiet but a light goes on in a nearby house. I move on before anything untoward happens, only realising that in doing this I look even more suspicious.
Paul is already waiting, as eager as I am, to get on our way and we set off for the three and a half hour drive to Norfolk. The rural roads are wet and dark as we leave Paul's village but we are alone, encountering not a single car and only the occasional lorry. As we progress east more and more of the roads we encounter are being altered or dug up and we are diverted off our preferred route. I follow the dulcet tones of the Satnav's instructions and we take an unwelcome tour of Cambridgeshire, having to make an enormous  diversion but much later we reach somewhere we recognise, near Norwich. A grey blue sliver appears in the the eastern sky which slowly turns to pale pink and broadens, as the immediate world around us slowly comes into a grey focus. We stop at a garage for a tea and coffee respectively but at this ungodly hour we really do not need the attitude of the female behind the counter. Obstreperous and condescending and really she has no right to be so. We are the only car on the forecourt which is full of container lorries and such as us are given 'the fish eye' look whilst she fawns over squat, overweight lorry drivers stocking up on chocolate and all things unhealthy.

We carry on into the dawn, heading ever eastwards and slowly the miles on the signs to Great Yarmouth decrease as we head for the Rugby Club Car Park by Breydon Water. We have planned our arrival to coincide with low tide at 0530 and soon find the car park and a collection of carefully parked cars. I can see silhouettes of birders on the skyline  standing on top of  the sea wall overlooking Breydon Water but not really looking intently at anything. An ensuing short walk brings us up to the sea wall where we  contemplate narrow channels of water and a vast expanse of silver, shining mud, liberally dotted with the dark forms of various sized wading birds, all very much on the far side of the mud and therefore as we say 'distant', meaning they are hard to identify due to the extreme range. The light is not good yet but dull and sombre as if undecided whether it will let the sun shine through.

We walk west along the sea wall and I meet Matt, a friend  from Sussex and a couple of his colleagues. A bit of early morning banter ensues and then it starts to get serious as after a few minutes we simultaneously notice a wader far out on the mud that looks 'different'. It is certainly a different shape to the numerous Common Redshanks that surround it, being more attenuated with slightly shorter legs, a bill with a pronounced down curve towards the very tip, a small head and showing a subtly different jizz and feeding action. The light slowly improves and we all feel we can see a dark pectoral band on the bird's breast, markedly defined from the remaining white underparts. Still not fully confident of our identification we watch it avidly, unwilling to firmly nail our much prized reputations to the mast of Great Knot but that is eventually, by common concensus amongst us, what it turns out to be. We have found it, it is still here, the gamble has succeeded and we watch it feeding on the mud. Optimistically Paul tries to digiscope the bird but it is hopeless at such extreme range. The Great Knot patters around on the mud and then for no apparent reason flies further west upriver but then turns and comes towards us. I can now clearly see the black pectoral band, the white underparts and its rump which is pure white contrasting with the all black tail. The wings are long in relation to its size and featureless with no white wing bars. Happy, I now watch as it again turns towards us and makes to land much closer but then frustratingly retreats and flies far up river pursued by another larger wader which annoyingly makes it fly even further away. It appears to land on the mud and is lost to our view. We walk further west down the seawall to try and relocate it, on the way meeting a Frenchman who has flown from Montpelier in the South of France just to see this bird. He is a bit of a celebrity amongst us, being recognised as a kindred spirit. A true fanatic, the last time I saw him was when he marched around an oat field in Shetland last autumn clapping his hands and trying to flush a Thick billed Warbler. Ca va bienC'est la vie! 

He had not seen the Great Knot flying past him earlier so he followed us until we stopped as a group to look out over the mud and to his credit he quickly relocated the knot. Vive La France! Merci beaucoup! We watched the Great Knot all over again from the seawall, now being joined by a steady stream of birders anxiously asking for directions to the bird of their dreams far out on the mud. It was so far out it was christened the Great Dot but with the scope eyepiece zoomed up to maximum it was clearly visible and now, crucially some of the plumage details were much more evident as the sun broke through. Paul then discovered he had dropped his digital camera and £200.00 looked like it had gone the same way as the Great Knot - west. Paul was stoical about the loss and put it to the back of his mind so as to concentrate on the Great Knot. A true birder!

The tide had turned and was inexorably advancing and covering the mud so that slowly the birds moved downriver eastwards as the rising waters pushed them off the mud. A Marsh Harrier disturbed five or six Grey Herons in the rough grassland behind us.  The Great Knot flew again, back towards where we had originally located it and we retraced our steps accordingly, looking for Paul's missing camera on the way but there was no trace of it. We arrived opposite the Great Knot to discover it was now  marginally closer although still too far out on the mud to discern too much detail and was now being surrounded by a steady procession of Avocets and Common Redshanks, arriving to join it as they were forced to flee the rising tide. A Red Knot, still with the orange face and underparts of full summer plumage and so fully justifying its name, provided a comparison in size and jizz with its rarer cousin which appeared more attenuated and slightly larger. A moulting Spotted Redshank flew in, joining two Greenshank, a Whimbrel, numerous Curlews and Black tailed Godwits feeding on the ever decreasing mud banks. Sandwich and Common Terns followed the tide, calling loudly and fishing in the channels of brackish water.

Paul received a message alert on his pager  about his camera. Another birder had found it and was in the nearby Asda Car Park, waiting, if Paul wished to be re united with it. Paul went off post haste while I kept an eye on his scope until his return. On his return, happily reunited with his camera  I suggested we relocate to the eastern bank where the birdwatching hide was located near to the Asda Car Park, as I figured the Great Knot would slowly be forced nearer and nearer to us by the incoming tide. More and more cruising boats were now making their way upstream towards the Broads slowly chugging up the now increasingly wide channel of water.The tide was rising fast.

We made for the car and drove to the nearby Asda Car Park and after a short walk under the road bridge and along the eastern seawall past the hide we came level with the Great Knot still stubbornly and in splendid isolation making its way along the last remaining exposed mudbank.  Many waders, principally Avocets and Black tailed Godwits were now flying in to their roosts in the little creeks and inlets in front of us. It was busy here as a constant stream of waders arrived to sit out the high tide. More Black tailed Godwits came, their black and white wings and tails flashing as they joined their already sleeping companions. Avocets formed a separate flock whilst the occasional Common Redshank tucked itself into the flocks and summer plumaged Dunlins, ever hungry continued feeding, running with ceaseless energy over the muddy margins around the roosting waders. 

It was now 1030am and high tide was in another hour or so. The Great Knot finally rose from the mud and treated one and all to a couple of close flybys, allowing me to scope its main features and again to notice its long wings, black breast and black tail. It flew around as if unsure of its bearings and suggested it was going to land close to us but then rising again and flying around, it came in relatively close once more and pitched down amongst a packed throng of Black tailed Godwits, the majority still rusty orange in their summer plumage. We quickly moved our position on the bank to try and pick the knot out from the godwits but at first it was invisible. Someone claimed to have found it and set everyone's pulses racing but it was a misidentified Common Redshank, however a few moments later we found the Great Knot, clearly to be seen amongst the larger godwits and now, at last we could see so much more of its plumage in detail. The densely streaked grey head and neck, the smallish head and a medium length black bill were immediately obvious as was the broad black pectoral band on the breast with the white underparts liberally spotted with black. Even the  irregular chestnut scapulars, now somewhat faded with wear on the greyish toned upper-parts were clearly visible and we felt our  vigil, almost six hours long, was well worth it to get views such as these. It was undoubtedly the crowning moment of the day for us. 

The Great Knot was fidgety in the roost, at first it spent much of its time preening amongst the longer legged godwits and was often hidden by other godwits arriving to roost that inevitably landed precisely in the wrong place and totally obscured the knot from our view but if we remained patient the knot or the offending godwit eventually moved and we could clearly see the Great Knot again. And so it went on for another hour or so with us getting occasional peek a boo, tantalisingly brief but unobscured views of the Great Knot  before it was lost behind yet another late arriving godwit. The godwits themselves presented quite a spectacular sight as they stood in a long line by the rising tide, a line of glowing orange birds.

Slowly more and more birds became confined to an increasingly small area of land as the waters rose. Late arriving Common Redshanks came to roost as did hulking Curlews, diminutive Dunlins and peevish Lapwings. The occasional Bar tailed Godwit was picked out amongst the throng whilst Common Shelducks guarded their now well grown young on the saltmarsh with Whimbrels hiding in the bright green spartina behind. Four Little Egrets sat together, hunched and motionless on a slight rise, their white forms like beacons in the roost.

As if by a given signal Paul and I  knew we had seen enough. Seven hours had passed since we first saw the Great Knot and we felt we had now done the bird justice. A quick late breakfast in the adjacent Asda  and then we were on our way home, arriving back to a sunny Oxfordshire three hours later.

PS The next day there was no sign of the Great Knot. It had gone.

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