Peregrines, Wild Geese and Avocets
Chapter five - a week on Havergate Island
AVOCETS GALORE - August 1950
August 1950 was one of the most exciting periods of my life, when I spent a week on Havergate Island helping keep an eye on nesting Avocets and make sure that nothing disturbed them. A year or so before, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had found that Avocets were breeding on this island in the River Alde, near Woodbridge, in Suffolk. They took immediate action, bought the island and installed a warden. To help him in his activities, and to protect the birds during their breeding season, volunteers manned the island throughout the summer. Not only were they able to help this beautiful bird re-establish itself as a British nesting species, but they were able to enjoy watching a wonderful selection of waders, ducks and terns. This action has proved extremely successful, and hundreds of young Avocets have been hatched in the Sanctuary. Every year efforts are made to improve the facilities for the bird and extend the area of the habitat they need for successful feeding and breeding. This particular year, fifty pairs nested around the brackish lagoons. I applied to join the bunch of helpers, and was offered a week on the island in early August. I accepted and made arrangements to be there one Sunday about lunch time. That week is described as I saw it at the time.
SUNDAY: After a very pleasant journey down to Suffolk by train, which travelled for miles through fir woods and heathlands shimmering in the hot sun, 1 arrived at Woodbridge, took a taxi to Orford. Here I was met by Reg Partridge, the R.S.P.B. Warden, and introduced to John, a medical student, who would be my sole companion for the next week on the island. We soon had the gear in Reg Partridge's open launch and were chugging up the Alde. At last we spotted our future home - a low lying sea wall sitting in the middle of a wide stretch of the river, and soon landed ourselves and our stores. We watched Reg Partridge turn back and disappear out of our sight, before turning to have a look at 'home'. This was a comfortable wooden hut near the landing stage. We quickly stowed our kit and had a light meal before doing a rapid survey of the island, which was just over a mile and a half long, about half a mile wide, completely surrounded by a seawall. Inside the seawall were three partlially flooded smaller areas, with beds of soft mud. These give the shallow, brackish lagoons which the Avocet need for feeding, which previously had only been found in areas of Holland. These lagoons were surrounded by sub walls, and at various strategic points, observation posts had been built: little shelters which enabled people to watch the birds without disturbing them. A careful approach round the walls would enable one to get to any observation point without being spotted by the birds, and, once inside, many could be watched from a distance of only a few feet. It was indeed a paradise for any ornithologist, offering opportunities, which it would be difficult to find anywhere else. On top of all that, the remoteness of the island meant that, barring unforeseen circumstances, one could watch for hours, confident of being undisturbed by anyone except one's companion.
Our first sight of Avocets came at Dovey’s marsh, where we saw seven of these lovely birds. It is difficult to describe the impact they had on my senses. They were familiar from photograph and drawings, yet how much lovelier they were in life, and how much more unreal they seemed. They are delicate and extremely graceful birds, with longer legs than 1 had realised, and such a long, upcurved beak, which looked too mechanically frail for its job. Their colouring is strange to an eye used to hosts of brown and coloured waders, seeming almost incredible for the advertisement it gives to the bird's presence. It was fascinating to watch such exotic birds feeding in these muddy, unromantic pools, and to be able to see them at such very close quarters and, consequently, in such detail. I had to get back to meet a day visitor, and, unfortunately, disturbed the birds, but it did give me a chance to see them in flight, where they look even more unfamiliar. One of the most noticeable points was the way their long legs project so far behind the tail, like a miniature heron. It was also clear how easy they would be to hunt, as their black and white plumage is visible for miles in flight or at rest.
After meeting the visitor, and arranging for him to help carry out the daily Avocet count, I crept back to Dovey’s on my own and spent a long while in the hut with telescope and binoculars. There were eleven Avocets on the pools, while numerous other waders were feeding near and around them. On my way to the hut, I put a large wader up from a ditch; it was about the size of a Redshank. It had a vividly white rump, olive-green back and wings, and appeared a little more angular than the Redshank. This bird was the first of several Greenshanks I was to see on the island, during the week of my stay. I love this bird for its elegance and poise; it is perhaps, the most photogenic of all waders, for all its modest colouring. Every photograph I have seen shows a different angle to the last, and each portrays the clear, pure line of the bird. From the artist's point of view, the Greenshank is the perfect model, with amazing clarity of line, which painters have shown to great advantage.
However, to come back to the marsh; I was lucky enough to see Dunlin in both winter and summer dress, standing within a few feet of each other. It is not often the opportunity arises to compare the sombre winter plumage with the wonderful glow of summer dress, and I lost no opportunity for making notes and sketches of the points I noticed. In particular, the curve of the beak was hardly noticeable in some birds, while in others it was obvious at even a considerable distance.
There was a rich variety of birds in the smaller pools, Ringed plover scuttled round like little insects, while Lapwings stalked by majestically, looking enormous beside the other plover. The Lapwing is often dismissed as a black and white bird seen flying over our fields in winter. Seen on the marshes at close quarters, I realised how handsome they are in full breeding plumage. A painting by C.E. Tunnicliffe, does full justice to this, but few other artists seem to appreciate to the full the depth and range of colour in its plumage. Against the mud and water, in the brilliant sun, I had the full effect of the depth of gloss in the black flanks and breast, the purple and green reflecting metallically off its back, while the orange-chestnut under the tail appeared to be on fire, set against the purest white of its belly. Apart from the lucky watcher secure in the hut, few except ploughmen have a real chance to see these birds so close, to gain the effect of the full brilliance.
Beyond the Lapwing, a few Redshanks, kept a close eye out for intruders, acting as watchdogs for all the other birds. The Redshank is beautiful, but in a different way. It is not notable for its overall colour effect, but rather for the delicate marking and edging of each feather on its back. This delicacy of traced featherwork has been captured beautifully in a number of photographs I have seen, and it is this, as well as the purity of its call, which give special status to this bird. Alongside the Redshank party, was a solitary Oystercatcher which, each time the others called, piped mournfully in return, as if to show that he, too, was awake. The two very different, but equally striking calls, were most appealing and ensured that I knew I really was on the island, not just dreaming the whole thing.
It was soon time to leave to meet John at the Hut but, before I went, I saw an odd sight. I had been watching one little Dunlin who was fast asleep on one leg, with his head tucked into his back feathers, when suddenly he woke up and started feeding. He was obviously not fully awake, for he began feeding without lowering his other leg, hopping uncertainly from clump to clump. I thought perhaps he had lost one leg, but soon he woke properly, lowered the rest of his undercarriage and started feeding in earnest.
After supper we went out to No.1 O.P. to check a ringing trap we had set there. There was nothing in this, but we did see a few more birds in the waning light. Near the post, there was some movement ast a few Turnstones kept busy scuttling round every little piece of reed and stone. It is remarkable how well camouflaged they are, for all their seemingly bright and obvious colouring. As usual at this time of evening, there were a number of wader flocks in the air, and we picked out two Bar-tailed godwits firmly attached to a party of fifty or so Dunlin. They looked rather odd, twisting and turning in perfect harmony with their much smaller cousins. Walking back to the hut, we listened to all the sounds of life round us, with a sense of peace and a feeling that life had a lot to offer in such a place. My last sight and sound before going to bed was a solitary Whimbrel flying past the door, uttering its strange cry "titterel".
MONDAY: Before breakfast, we had a quick walk over to Doveys. On the way there we put up a couple of Black-tailed godwits, easily and quickly identified by their size, the black-tipped white tail, and white bar on their wings. As they flew away they called with clear, repeated notes which were very distinctive, while I saw that their long bills were dead-straight and their legs projected well beyond their tails. They were extremely handsome birds, particularly so when the sun caught their chestnut necks and underparts, flushing them into burning life.
We reached the hut without too much disturbance and gazed out onto the lagoons and pools beyond. The first to catch my eye was one of my favourite birds, a Grey plover in full breeding plumage. It is not often I have the luck to see this bird in its full glory, which belies the sober description of its name. It glowed like well polished silver in the morning sun, and the contrast with glossy, jet black underparts has to be seen to be believed. The Grey plover is a much bigger bird than generally realised. I believe this is because we normally see it in its sober, ghostlike winter attire, where it tends to sink into the background of the mudflats. The black chest of summer throws it into relief and brings out the chunky, square, yet streamlined and powerful shape, and with a shock makes one realise that it is a big bird - not far off the size of a Lapwing. This plover is another artist's delight, but not so difficult to paint, as it has such definite and attractive shape and colouring. If it was more often seen in summer plumage, It should have been called 'silver' rather than 'grey'.
A host of small waders was playing round this bird, flitting round in the shadow of its legs. It was surprising how at first glance the pools appeared almost empty, yet a few minutes' observation brought out the fact that the place was teeming with life. It was like walking along a woodland glade, seeing nothing, then sitting down and watching the insects and ants hard at work under one's feet, yet invisible to most people. Watching birds brings out an innate ability to see, which many people do not appear to possess in the hurry of modern life. This ability to ‘see’ properly means that nowhere need be dull, even the dirtiest patch of hedge can hold a world of its own. This spills over into everyday life, encouraging one to look at everything more carefully, adding vastly to the interest in what might be a dull or routine life.
In this surge of waders, we picked out many Dunlin, a pair of Common sandpipers, and numrous Redshank. The sandpipers were readily recognised among the rest, looking out of place to someone used to seeing them flitting away on walks down Devon streams. Further out, a single Avocet was eeding and preening between whiles while next to it, in magnificent contrast, was a Black-tailed godwit in full chestnut summer plumage. Further off still, was a group of three Grey herons standing stock still for minutes on end, before making a quick dart into the waters of the pool, to withdraw a quivering fish or frog. We left these undisturbed in the far corner of the lagoon, and walked back to the hut for breakfast.
As I walked away, I reflected that, for the first time in my life, I need not feel I had to stay for ever to watch one particular bird, as I was living among them. No long walk lay between me and their haunts. Even over breakfast, the bubbling, piping and whistling was all round, as well as the sound of their wings as they passed over the hut. Over my coffee, I watched a female Wheatear perched on a fence only a few feet away from the window, happily preening herself in a hot, windless spot protected by our walls. This sense of being among the birds is one of the most delightful I know. How rare and how pleasant to stay for a week away from the ceaseless roar of traffic, to know that no such noise can possibly be heard, nor can the fumes associated with it come within range of the nostrils. Tensions fade quickly in this atmosphere, but it does not lend to laziness - or not to me at any rate. Instead, the day becomes fuller, and time even less, for everything that has to be seen and done.
Later that morning, John and I went over to the top lagoon and settled down in O.P.2 for a while. The water was shallow, dotted with little islets of mud, while there were patches of weed and greenery on the water's surface. It was obviously an ideal spot for waders and we were not disappointed as we searched the ground with our glasses. In the weed, close by the hut, so close indeed we nearly did not see them, was a little party of Turnstones, busily dipping in among the greenery and flicking over the odd stone in their ever-present search for food. They appear to have insatiable appetites, rarely are they seen asleep like other waders. Their energy is supreme, and it must be this which burns up the calories so quickly, leading to their frantic search. Beyond the Turnstones, the islets were thick with Dunlin and Ringed plover: the Dunlin, as usual, had at least half their number asleep, while the plover equalled Turnstones in their energy when moving, but took occasional periods off for a quiet snooze, sitting on one leg on an exposed hummock of mud.
It was a lovely, cheerful, busy scene, but we had a job to do, so moved on to O.P. 3 for a quick check that all was well. Inside the post, it was warm and comfortable and we soon settled down to sweep the area. Immediately outside the hide, we had a fortunate sight of one of our most attractive waders, a young Common sandpiper in an unfamiliar state of plumage. It had an even patch of sandy colouring over each side of its throat and breast, with a pure -white strip running in between and up to its bill. Beside it, was another Black-tailed godwit, glowing with rich cinnamon round the head and breast. It did not stay long before flying off to give a wonderful sight of its distinctive white rump and black-tipped tail. Its place was taken in a. few seconds by its cousin, the Bar-tailed godwit, which gave us a splendid opportunity for comparing the two. Indeed I managed to make sketches of each of them, which demonstrated the differences and key points of identification. I am sure I will never again query which is which, even at very long range. It is opportunities such as these which make this sort of holiday so worth while and so unusual.
That afternoon and evening, we had a feeling that migration was in the air. All the birds seemed restive, with numerous parties flying over or past the island without stopping. Particularly noticeable, was the ever present call of the Whimbrel beyond us in the marshes and high in the sky, though we did not see any until a party of about twelve flew over and landed in one of the lagoons - filling the air with their strange nervous calling. That night, just before it became too dark to see, a flock of about fifty Dunlin flew south over us at a great height, their calls getting thinner and more distant until they finally went from sight and sound into the dark sky of the horizon.
TUESDAY: This morning I wandered out of the hut into streaming sunlight; I had overslept again. Sitting on a wire fence were two small birds, and so they remained, quite unworried while I sketched them. The bigger was a magnificent cock Wheatear, flaming with colour, flaunting its detergent-white rump. Seeing it this close, made me realise what a handsome bird it is – even more striking than the familiar coloured plates show it to be. It was a restless soul, like a fidgety child, for ever hopping along the wire or flicking its tail. Next to it was a more drab little bird which I was convinced I had never seen before. It had a pale buff head, and dark olive-brown back, while the throat was pure white fading into a pale buff belly. The most striking point was that the primaries were almost black, with a triangular white patch on them. She, a female Pied flycatcher, was even more restless than her neighbour, flying down to the shingle and as quickly up again. Like the Wheatear, she had a habit of flicking her tail, but sat more upright on the wire, like a soldier at attention. I was thrilled with seeing this bird as, although by no means uncommon, I had never been lucky enough to spot one previously.
We had a quick look at Doveys before cooking breakfast. On our way there, the whole island seemed alive and pulsating with an enormous population of birds, some seen and some felt as a presence in the reeds or undergrowth. Small warblers and Whitethroats flitted silently ahead of us and, wherever the eyes strayed, the vivid white flare of the Wheatear would be seen just vanishing round the corner. The sun blazed, and there was not a hint of breeze; the effect was to produce one of those perfect mornings which can only be obtained in Britain, where the heat rises, yet the air is clean and fresh from the cool night dew, seen in droplets under every patch of cover. Overhead, the skies were full of life. Here a small party of Avocets – gorgeous in black and white - flew busily over to another lagoon; then a small party of Whimbrels coming from where and going whence no-one knows, calling their strange eerie call; while in the distance the sound of Redshank and Curlew bubble out across the river. It was one of those days which 'Vole' and ‘Ratty' seemed to live on forever on their 'River'; one of those days which makes any holiday memorable, regardless of the rest of the time.
At Doveys, the lagoon was busy with life, everyone feeding for all they were worth. Wherever you looked, the waders were stabbing their long beaks into the mud or, in the case of the Avocets, feeding with that strange sideways swish of the beak, like a housewife sweeping with a besom. The smaller and less dignified were scuttling back and forth like hordes of mice, getting every scrap of food into their bodies before the sun became too hot for activity. I have never seen such a bustle of life - clearly the perfection of the day struck them in the same way as it did me.
Close by, were the dignified brigades; Avocet, Redshank and, to my joy, Greenshank. The latter only stayed for a few minutes, but here was a wonderful opportunity to watch their graceful movements, the strange but beautiful angles of their necks and shoulders as they fed. Beside the Redshanks, they appeared larger, yet they are very little so in fact. Their bodies are higher off the ground, because of the longer legs, while their body appears a shade bulkier, yet the main difference is that the Redshank normally sits with its head sunk in its neck, while the Greenshank extends it - giving it such grace. The colour of this bird is unexceptional when put down in bare words, yet in life it has a beautiful almost black-and-white contrast. As they flew away the dazzling white of the rump showed up like a beacon as long as they were in sight. Their call is as attractive as their appearance, a double liquid note - 'tu-tu'.
Later that morning, two visitors arrived in a yacht and I showed them round the island. I already felt quite proprietary about it, even though I had only been there a few days, and felt great pride showing them everything. These visitors were extremely experienced ornithologists and I learned a great deal from them, particularly the meticulous way they made notes and the care they took to identify every bird by keen observation of all details. When I think how I usually scan one flock and pass on to the next, I realise how many different species I may have missed during the last few years. Still, each to his own, I get just as much pleasure out of it all, and feel that the atmosphere of the background to the birds is just as important as the bird itself. I suppose this is the difference between the dedicated ornithologist and the artist/photographer-bird-watcher. The latter looks mainly on birds as the subjects of his pen and brush, while the former is more akin to the true scientist in his search for ultimate truth. I like to think I am between the two, as one who enjoys sketching, even if none too skilfully. The lagoon at OP.1 was covered with another dense, seething mass of waders and we spent the rest of the afternoon trying to sift through this lot.
These people had never seen Avocets before, so we were lucky enough to have about twenty or so feeding at one end, slightly separated from the main bunches of birds. They looked very regal and extremely graceful. Our visitors told us that the Avocets looked slightly unreal and unlikely in their surroundings - exactly the same feeling I had had when I first saw these amazing creatures. It was as if royalty had been seen sweeping its own front door step. Avocets always bring home exactly where I am - the other birds were homely and natural and to be expected, but the sight of the Avocets was sufficient to convince me I really was seeing a revolution in feeding and nesting habits in the person and presence of these birds.
Among the main flocks we picked out four little Turnstones busy living up to their name, but still looking rather out of place in the flats and among the tussocks. Then one of the visitors spotted a couple of Knot in full summer plumage, larger than Dunlin, but lower and more hunched. I had not realised before how much shorter their legs were in proportion to their bodies. It made them seem slightly roly-poly against the athletic Dunlin. The cinnamon of the Knot was remarkably similar to that of the godwits, and like them they seemed to stand out of the crowd and glow like one of those new 'day-glow' colours favoured by advertisers on London buses.
We were lucky enough to have a flock of about twenty Common terns fishing the lagoon and the river. My visitors and I were delighted to watch these strange birds, an unusual mixture of the graceful and the ungainly. Photographs or drawings of these birds usually show them in their more ungainly attitudes, indeed it is remarkably difficult to draw them as they appear in life. To the eye, they are graceful, because of their ceaselessly changing pattern of flight, yet the eye reveals that if any moment of flight is stopped, it shows as angular and disjointed. I have never worked out why this should be, but it does appear to be so. In particular, one common attitude in flight proves particularly difficult to appear graceful on paper, yet it is graceful in life. This occurs when the bird is quartering the surface fairly low down, with head and tail both curved downwards, ready to drop down at the first sign of movement beneath the water.
As I took our visitors back to their yacht they expressed envy for my next few days and I have no doubt that they will be among the voluntary wardens in the following year. I left them excitedly discussing their day and, I am convinced, surfeited with the sight and sound of the birds of Havergate - their memories should keep their winter evenings long with reminiscences.
WEDNESDAY: Woke up to the sound of high wind; outside, everything was on the move with the south westerly gale bringing in hordes of birds. The impression given was that migration was in the air and that a lot of the birds we saw were merely stopping to recuperate, before moving on again. It was a strangely restless feeling, which we felt rather uneasily; an urge to get on to the next refuge over the horizon; a feeling not unlike the wanderlust which many of us sense at some time or another.
Reg Partridge brought over some more visitors in the morning and I took one of them with me on my rounds. Our first call was at O.P.2, where there was a great deal of activity, with migrating birds arriving and departing continually, causing little flurries of activity in a corner of the lagoon, then a further bustle in another. Some of the most noticeable visitors were Swifts and Sand-martins, hovering over the waters. Neither of which I had seen here before. They made a strange contrast to one or two terns lazily hunting the same stretches, but seemed to add a touch of loneliness to the scene. In the hide, we settled down for a good look and almost immediately picked out a Sanderling feeding in the shallows nearby. It was still in winter dress and appeared to have no colour at all, with pure white underside and palest grey back. As usual, it reminded me of the black, white and wash illustrations so popular in early bird books. It sat there on one leg all the time we were there, not really asleep, as it had his head out most of the time, but obviously enjoying a good rest after what I can only assume to have been a long flight. A disturbance at the other end, sent a whole lot more waders over our way including five handsome Bar-tailed godwits, glowing with the fire of their summer plumage. Our visitor was more than impressed with this sight and told me that this alone was worth the long journey down for his day out.
An added excitement was a flight of ten Teal that whirled in from the sea and hurtled down to land over the far side. They are inconspicuous little birds in the water, and I always think rather difficult to identify at a distance; but are unmistakable in flight. They jink and twist like a snipe, and are the wariest duck I know, always rising before the others and settling that maddening amount away which makes a proper view so difficult to achieve. If you see one at close quarters, it is brightly and distinctively coloured but, far off, they are grey-brown little birds with no real distinguishing characteristic.
Once again we had the opportunity of watching a Greenshank and a Redshank feeding within a foot of each other. My companion was amazed at the striking differences yet many similarities between the two birds. One difference lay in the carriage of the bodies, the Greenshank slender and horizontal, and the Redshank puffed out and sitting fairly upright, while the redshank's bill looked almost coarse against its cousin's delicate, slightly upcurved beak.
Before leaving the hide to go back for lunch, we had a couple more interesting sights to record. A screaming outside made us glance up to see two terns flying past within a few feet of us. One was a Common tern while the other was unmistakably a Little tern. It was easy to spot its yellow bill, while the slender build and buoyant flight, as well as the long oddly angular wings; were such a contrast to the familiar shape and colouring of the other species. Unfortunately, they only stayed for a minute or so before drifting off - still together - over the sea wall and beyond the river. I wonder why those two had chosen to fish together that day, or was it a permanent arrangement?
After lunch, back to O.P.2 for a further look as our visitor particularly liked this viewpoint. After studying the flocks intently through his binoculars, he said he had spotted some Curlew-sandpipers among the other birds. I was most interested at this as I had never before seen this species, but I searched and searched and just could not see anything that looked even remotely like it. As I was about to give up and look elsewhere, I spotted a flash of cinnamon-red on a small bird. There they were; three Curlew-sandpipers, all in different stages. One was in full breeding plumage, with that glorious chestnut colour extending from its legs right up through the chest and head on to its back; the next had the chestnut only in a patch where a Dunlin would have had black in summer, and the third was in nearly full winter plumage except for a spot of chestnut about the size of a penny on its chest. At the distance from which we were watching I was unable to spot any curvature of the bill, but the 'Handbook' does emphasise that this is often no more noticeable than that of a Dunlin, and from experience I know that this means it is often impossible to spot unless really close.
As a pleasant comparison with these birds, there were two Knot in full summer colour feeding close by, screened from the Curlew sandpipers by two or three Dunlin. The shape and size really distinguished these two species, the Knot appears altogether larger, though the colouring is similar. Those who know neither species might easily confuse them. Later, a further flock of eight or ten Knot arrived and joined the others, making a most colourful patch in the sea of busy Dunlin and twinkling Ringed plover. The wind proved to have tired us out, so we were off to bed early that night, lulled to sleep by the calling of Curlew far off on the mudflats.
THURSDAY: John woke me early this morning and I felt like cursing him as I poked my head out. The wind had dropped, but it was a bitterly cold day, and- far from conducive to getting me to stir my stumps. Still, the week would not last for ever and I had a lot still to see and soak up. After this week I could get back into my usual slothful habits - here I must store up the sketches and memories for winter nights to come.
During breakfast John pointed out a Cormorant flying across the island; I was amazed at his excitement, being used to seeing hundreds of them when I go sailing, but apparently it is quite a rarity up here, in fact it turned out to be the second recorded on the island during the year. I rather like the old Cormorant; he appears a steady and dependable 'pipe-smoking' character, even if a little dirty and scruffy in appearance; not like his cousin the Shag who, although more elegant, always seems to me somewhat reptilian in appearance, with strange snake-like eyes and unnatural metallic plumage. To me he appears a slightly unreliable character; the very antithesis of the Cormorant. After breakfast, we walked across to Doveys, where I managed to crawl in without disturbing anything. My care was well rewarded. Right in front of the hide was a group of four Avocets, all fast asleep. Three of them were juveniles, with blurred brown in place of the sharp black of the adults, but still handsome enough. During the whole morning they remained there, aloof from the busy life of everyone else in the lagoon. In fact the only time one took its bill out from beneath its back feathers was when a plane went over. It cocked its head on one side, squinted up and very deliberately yawned. This was in distinct contrast to the Redshanks, who leapt into the air and screamed their heads off every time an aeroplane passed over.
Next to come along was a party of Shelduck, emerging from the shelter of one of the runnels. There were six youngsters, all of different sizes, with father swimming proudly in front, while the mother perched on a hummock of mud and watched over proceedings; obviously making sure that father didn't lead his brood into too much trouble. It made a delightful family picture. Behind the Shelduck, a Grey heron stood absolutely stationary, not asleep but concentrating deeply, hoping that some small fish would swim invitingly into range of its enormous beak; but no such luck. Round the heron's feet, three or four Turnstones were busily feeding, disturbing any hope of the heron getting a meal. Herons must be born with tremendous patience, since I have so often watched them sitting like this for hours on end, without any apparent success for their silent vigil.
I was also treated to a wonderful display from three Lapwings chasing each other and tumbling through the air, displaying the most remarkable skill in aerobatics. I don't think I have ever seen such an exhibition of sheer controlled flight. They rose and fell in the air, turning almost inside themselves, with their black and white plumage flashing in the reflected light from the water. Eventually, they landed and one ran towards the others with its body tilted forward to display the rich orange under-tail coverts. Just as suddenly they lost interest in each other and started feeding, as if nothing had even happened. Were these just vague memories of their springtime passion, or does their courtship and display continue through the whole summer?
In the afternoon we had many special jobs to perform but did manage to have a quick look at O.P.'s 1 and 2. I went to O.P.2, while John visited the other. About forty yards from the hide were a couple of Black-tailed godwits in full summer plumage. They were a particularly fine sight as, with clouds racing across the sun, the light kept on catching their red breasts, which momentarily shone with an intensity of colour which stood out like a signal against the dull grey mud. Later, they flew to the other end of the lagoon to join a further large flock of their fellows. In all, I counted a hundred and twenty three Black-tails, with a dozen Bar-tails to one side. About thirty of the Black-tails made an interesting contrast, as they were already in their grey winter plumage. Three Knots were feeding rather lazily at the feet of the larger birds, making a pleasant picture. Apart from the flock of godwits feeding on its own, the most noticeable feature was the number of small waders. They were there in considerable numbers, which we estimated to be at least three times their usual complement. It was likely these were migrants stopping for a feed on their way through.
After supper, we went for a walk just as the sun was setting. We slowly wandered round the perimeter of the island while the shadows lengthened and each little bump and hollow became dark and mysterious, hiding life from our eyes. On the sands by Dovey's, a flock of well over a hundred Curlew were huddled up together, clearly about to go to sleep, but we came on them so unexpectedly that we put the whole lot up and were then treated to a magnificent sight as they wheeled and flashed in the red glow of the evening. The sound of them all calling was like water trilling along a mountain stream, with pan-pipes playing as the accompaniment. They gathered into one flock, circled once and flew off down river, until their mournful but exciting calls vanished from earshot. The wind had fallen with the vanishing sun, and the calm waters of the river reflected the far, black banks, while the sky turned from red to apple green, then to moonlit silver. Trudging home, the only sounds were our footsteps and the occasional final call of a Redshank. Pausing outside the hut we were unable to hear anything except the constant murmur of water. It seems the birds had all settled for the night.
FRIDAY: Sunny but with a very strong breeze, and a lot of well-reefed boats going out to Lowestoft Regatta, making a magnificent picture as they swept past us with creaming bow-waves. Reg Partridge brought us a visitor for the day. He knew the island well, having spent a week as a watcher last year, and was calling in for the day before taking up a post as a watcher on Minsmere Level, a nearby R.S.P.B. sanctuary. I took my visitor down to O.P.I, but the huge wader flocks had disappeared overnight and the numbers had dropped below their normal level. However, we had a chance to watch an Avocet feeding a few feet away from the hide and were able to observe the peculiar method it employs. It was swishing its bill from side to side in the mud, stirring the ooze and allowing it to catch the rich food released, in this way. These birds are extraordinarily graceful as they move slowly forward with constant sideways swish of the bill; so perfectly adapted to its feeding habits, the upturned end remaining parallel to the surface and just under the water, while the long slate-blue legs keep the tail high in the air.
The scene was very peaceful until a lone Redshank flew in and pitched near our friend the Avocet, who became frightfully excited and chased the Redshank all over the place. It ran after that unfortunate wader with great ferocity, and in a most strange altitude, with its head hunched into its shoulders, leaning its whole body forward. The Redshank did not like this little display of temper and moved off; finally, when the latter was some distance away, the Avocet stopped its display and walked back to resume feeding in its special runnel. Perhaps the vulgar Redshank had called out some insult to it. Redshanks are rather similar to House sparrows in this way, full of self confidence and abuse for all and sundry. My companion picked out some movement over the far side and we decided to move to O.P.2. The birds were a fraction remaining from yesterday's flocks of godwit. Our visitor was entranced with the two varieties alongside each other, as they are difficult birds to get near and not general on our coasts. There were only half a dozen of each species left, so I imagine the others must have been passage migrants. Among the little flock, was a most unusual Bar-tailed godwit. It was in summer plumage, except for a little white patch on the nape of its neck and a strange little patch of white behind the legs, similar to that of a Black-tail. It was definitely not a Black-tail, as it had no white wing bar. I suppose It could have been a wader species I had not seen before, but I feel it is more likely a genuine Bar-tail, with some albino characteristics or even white feathers where it had been damaged, perhaps by gunshot.
SATURDAY: After breakfast, John left the island on his long journey home. I stayed for the morning, so as to be able to show a couple of visitors around, and also to prolong my visit to the last moment as I feared - rightly as it turned out - that it would be years, if at all, before I returned to this remarkable island. My visitors arrived on a large yacht and I explained that I would be leaving after lunch, so we quickly toured the various hides and huts in the short time available. At O.P.2 we picked out three Curlew sandpipers in full colour. The one nearest me had a definitely decurved bill and a curiously blotched red chest. Near these little birds, was a party of about ten Black-tailed godwits. Moving to O.P.5, we spotted a further forty Black-tails, this time mostly in winter or juvenile dress. The different sizes of the various flocks and the varying state of plumage, seemed to indicate that we had been seeing different birds each day, which indicated that we were on the line of migration for these beautiful birds. On the side of the lagoon, I was able to point out a flock of twenty eight Avocets to my companions, who were very excited at their first sight of these uniquely beautiful creatures. After a while, watching them draw slowly nearer and seeing them steadily feeding up the runnels with swishing bills, I realised with a shock that my time was up and I would have to rush back and clear up if I were to catch my train.
My last sight of Havergate and its birds was a low sea, wall being rapidly left behind and a flash of black and white appearing over it for a second, as an Avocet crossed from one lagoon to another. So ended one of the most remarkable and happy weeks I have ever spent.
SPECIES SEEN DURING THE WEEK
(This visit was so long ago, it is interesting to see that list now)
Arctic tern, Sterna paradisaea
Avocet, Recurvirostra avosetta
Bar-tailed godwit, Limosa lapponica
Black-headed gull, Larus ridibundus
Black-tailed godwit, Limosa limosa
Carrion crow, Corvus corone corone
Common sandpiper, Actitis hypoleucos
Common snipe, Gallinago gallinago
Common tern, Sterna hirundo
Curlew, Numenius arquata
Curlew sandpiper, Calidris ferruginea
Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo
Dunlin, Calidris alpina
Gadwall, Anas strepera
Great black-backed gull, Larus marinus
Greenshank, Tringa nebularia
Grey heron, Ardea cinerea
Grey partridge, Perdix perdix
Grey plover, Pluvialis squatarola
Guillemot, Uria aalge
Herring gull, Larus argentatus
House martin, Delichon urbica
Jackdaw, Corvus monedula
Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Knot, Calidris canutus
Lapwing Vanellus vanellus
Lesser black-backed gull, Larus fuscus
Linnet, Carduelis cannabina
Little tern, Sterna albifrons
Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos
Meadow pipit, Anthus pratensis
Oystercatcher, Haematopus ostralegus
Pied flycatcher, Ficedula hypoleuca
Pied wagtail, Motacilla alba
Redshank, Tringa totanus
Reed bunting, Emberiza schoeniclus
Reed warbler, Acrocephalus scirpaceus
Ringed plover, Charadrius hiaticula
Sanderling, Calidris alba
Sand martin, Riparia riparia
Shelduck, Tadorna tadorna
Skylark, Alauda arvensis
Starling, Sternus vulgaris
Swallow, Hirundo rustica
Swift, Apus apus
Teal, Anas crecca
Turnstone, Arenaria interpres
Wheatear, Oenanthe oenanthe
Whimbrel, Numenius phaeopus
Whitethroat, Sylvia communis
Willow Warbler, Phylloscopus trochilus
Yellow wagtail Motacilla flava
NEXT: Chapter 6. Aberlady Bay; the Firth of Forth in 1951