I decided on this outing earlier in the winter when visiting the site to see Norfolk’s wintering Pallid Harrier (see here). The RSPB markets two “spectaculars” at its Snettisham, Norfolk reserve. One is at daybreak when thousands of wintering Pink-footed Geese fly inland from the mud flats of The Wash where they spend the night. The second is the high tide wader roost, that can be unpredictable but is reputedly one of England’s finest.
Today’s high tide just before 9:30am meant the two events could be witnessed one after the other. The dawn start required a 4am departure from Oxford that surprisingly for me I made on time. But this still necessitated comfort breaks en route and approaching Snettisham I realised timing was getting a bit tight where the geese were concerned. On arrival at 7:15 multiple skeins were already flying over the car park.
I always enjoy Pink-footed Geese whose gentler calls than the feral honking species in my view give them an evocative feel similar to winter Brent Geese. But this fly past was really no more spectacular than when I had observed PFG moving out at dusk on my previous visits here. It was a frosty morning but thankfully with no strong wind as I walked out to the reserve’s wader watch point. On the way I got talking to a lady photographer from Southend-on-Sea, then we stood chatting to watch the waders coming in with the tide.
Out near the horizon there was a long shadowy band on the water that inspection revealed was indeed countless thousands of birds. Closer in the most Shelduck I have ever seen in one place were feeding, interspersed with Mallard and common waders such as Redshank and Dunlin. Some of the latter were already flying over the sea wall behind us and onto the reserve lagoons. A scan in that direction also revealed a nice group of Avocet.
Naively I hoped the main concentration of waders would be driven inshore towards us. But by 9am it became plain the tide was pushing these birds across our line of sight towards the inaccessible salt marsh that lies off the reserve’s southern end. Oystercatcher very noticeably always made up the front rank. The roost’s most impressive feature was the sheer quantity of pale plump Knot that made up the second rank. The larger waders Godwit and Curlew grouped together further out again.
If the tide is high enough to cover all of the mud inshore, some of these birds will relocate onto the Snettisham lagoons where they are watchable from two hides. But today was not such an occasion and most of the congregation remained concentrated on exposed mud at the edge of the salt marsh. Murmurations went up continually on the horizon and there were clearly zillions of waders out there, but it was all rather distant.
So whereas it was good to observe such huge numbers of common waders interacting with the tides, ultimately I felt disappointed with the spectacle here. In my earliest days of birding with a RSPB local group in Broxbourne, Herts I witnessed large wader roosts in Essex and Kent that in retrospect offered equal or better value. Indeed my on-site companion today concluded that she could have got as good views of these birds if she had stayed at home.