Peregrines, Wild Geese and Avocets
Chapter six - Aberlady Bay
Hummel rocks - January 1951
The vast expanse of the bay, with its miles of sands, was still hidden in darkness as we left the car and trudged away over the saltings. The season was mid-winter and the place Aberlady Bay on the Firth of Forth. Many may wonder why we had decided to spend a day in such desolate surroundings. Although the sands are famous in summer; they are usually left deserted in the cold weather, except for a few fishermen or wildfowlers. We had gone there because we had heard that its unique saltings and seashore attracted an incredibly rich variety of bird-life, and in particular, those in which we were most interested, ducks and waders.
Aberlady Bay has an amazing shore line, with nearly all types of habitat in a comparatively small area. The coast forms a vast horseshoe of sand, with a small creek running out at one end, and cliffs and rocks at the other. In between, saltings lead into mud in places and sand in others. Thus a great many varieties of birds are found together, that normally would be separated by different feeding habits. Leaving the saltings it was lighter, although fog still cut visibility, at least we could see enough to go safely onto the tidal mud still covered with cat-ice, which cracked viciously with noise enough, we felt, to disturb every bird in the bay. About a mile and a half along the shore, we sat down on some hard sand by the edge of the burn, and just listened. Around us the mud vanished into patches of white fog and every now and then, now to the left, now in front, there was a burst of musical quacking, with perhaps a glimpse of shadows flying across the fog banks. Then, as our ears became used to the variety of sounds, we started picking out the early morning conversations around us; the first being the contented bubbling of curlew, feeding happily on the wigeon grass, Zostera marina, out on the edge of the liquid mud. The most magical, unforgettable of all calls was, as always, that of the Wigeon. There were apparently hundreds round us, all out of sight and whistling to each other with those lovely, double flute-like notes, with the silvery tone.
Suddenly, there was a swish of wings, and we looked up to see seven grey geese appear out of the fog and as suddenly disappear into the swirling white blanket, leaving behind an impression of long necks and broad grey wings. Walking on, we disturbed several small flocks of waders, which disappeared without their usual pipes and whistles; even the Redshanks flew off without screaming abuse at the people who disturbed their feeding grounds, one of the strange effects of that always mysterious time of dawn. The fog slowly cleared, and the bay was lit by the early sun, which produced some most wonderful colour effects on the water. No wind disturbed the surface as yet, while the oily rollers were tinted with softest pinks and apple green.
In one corner some Dunlin enabled us to come very close, as they fed in the shallows. They were a most varied collection of birds; some still had the rich black apron of summer, some wore the sober brown and white of winter, while others were in mixed transitional plumage. These little waders are quiet and slow in their feeding. They show none of the dash and verve of the Sanderling, which run as fast as their legs will allow and are never still for one moment. We spent the morning watching the sands and sea, sketching the birds around us and, by lunchtime, were sitting by the side of a long drain, which runs down into the sea. We were fairly well hidden, yet had a good view of crowds of Wigeon bobbing up and down off the edge of the outlet. To my mind, these are the most beautiful of all our duck, with the possible exception of the Pintail, and I can spend hours looking at them. There were about a hundred birds in the flock, mostly drakes. One bird after another swam into the field of view of my telescope, and I had a succession of glimpses of palest yellow foreheads and cinnamon heads glinting in the sun, as a contrast to dazzling white flanks, which almost hurt in their intensity.
While watching these, I was fortunate to spot a very unusual visitor. A gleaming white duck flew in with the wind and landed among the Wigeon. It cocked its long thin tail in the air and swam slowly off, finally being lost to sight in the turmoil of the surf. Although I only saw it for a short while, its delicate, clear-cut shape, with black face and unmistakable tail, identified it immediately as a Long-tailed duck; a species I had not seen before. This duck appeared so weak and frail, yet it survives the worst gales at sea, where it lives out the bulk of its life. Walking over to the nearby rocks, the whole mass of duck rose in a cloud, and, wheeling, flew out to sea, away from our sight. We lay down again, on top of the rocks, and once more scanned the sea with the telescope. There in front, covering an enormous area of water, were little parties of duck, each about eight or ten strong, playing among the waves. Most were Common scoter and had a curious trait of raising their odd little pointed tails in the air, very suddenly, dashing them down in the water and rushing after other duck with a flurry of foam; behaving like Coots in spring. They came right in to the rocks, diving and chasing each other into the heart of the surf. I will always remember these scoters as they raced and dived among the foam at the base of the rocks. They looked like a bunch of naughty children enjoying themselves in a waterfall, giving a light-hearted air to those forbidding waters.
By four o'clock that afternoon we were again lying down by the edge of the burn, waiting for the evening flight. All round us, gulls were gathering in flocks, and, excited by the light, waders were flying in shimmering masses over the mud. Some Knot flew like a dark cloud of smoke, straight at us then, when 20 feet away, banked with a roar of wings, exposing their silver under- sides for an instant, and blew out to sea again. At last, there came the wonderful sound we had been waiting to hear the whole day; the yelping of a skein of Pinkfeet high in the glowing sky. With unhurried wing-beat they flew out along the sands, chattering and murmuring to each other. Suddenly, with no warning, part of the flock dived straight at the ground, falling 50 or 60 feet before settling with madly back-fanning wings. The rest of the flock hovered in the air for some seconds in the same space, before settling a foot at a time to the sand below, as light as a feather. I would never have believed these heavy birds to be capable of such delicate manoeuvres. Then came the vanguard of the duck. A couple of Wigeon drakes rushed across the sky among the high flying wader flocks, while the sound of evening flight was heard all round. For the next half hour, until it was dark, the sky was never without duck, or the evening free from their many voices. Into our sight came many a flight, with quick-wristed wings and neat-compact bodies, whirling into view, only to be lost in a second, through their sheer speed. Quite soon, darkness came over the bay and all was quiet; the end of a perfect day.
GREY GEESE AND SCOTERS - January 1951
When I visited Aberlady Bay with Adam, it was always an exciting place. Perhaps this was because I saw it at its most wild and lonely, in mid-winter. Since then, I have been there on a bright summer day in August, and the whole character had changed completely. The dunes looked dirty and were strewn with cigarette packets and recumbent bodies. The lonely place where we left the car by the bridge was packed out with cars and we had to step over the sandwich-eaters to get out on to the open marram-grass. The sands and saltings were crowded with people and filthy with ice-cream cartons and orange peel. As for birds, there were none in sight; I never would have believed it was the same place if I hadn't recognised the Hummel rocks in the distance.
On another of our mid-winter prowls, the place was back to its old familiar self, deserted and windswept, looking as if the world had passed it by - or never discovered it at all. It was early in the morning, but with no mist or fog, just a clear steely grey sky and white-capped seas. The tide was right out when we arrived, and miles of sand merged into great expanses of mud, before joining the rollers washing in from the Firth of Forth. For once, there was not a wader to be seen or heard. The place was as if deserted by all life. We walked slowly across the bay over to the point and sat down under a rock out of the keen, cold wind. Under the cliff face was a mass of foam and breakers, while further out the sea was filled with flying spray and the white-capped waves rode out to the horizon. Far out, we spotted a dozen or so scoter bobbing up and down, but that was all, and silence still lay round us. We waited and watched and listened, but nothing, just the whining and tugging of the wind. This was most unusual, for normally the sea beneath the rocks would have been full of duck, and the waders calling everywhere.
It became too cold to stay where we were, so we decided to warm up by a quick walk back along the sand dunes among the rough Marram grass which edged the shore above high tide mark. We were half way over, picking our way among the brackish pools, part-edged with ice, and over little streams, and our circulation seemed to have returned, when suddenly the air of desolation seemed right and fit for its new population. Far off, a faint murmuring arose, and soon we picked out a ragged vee in the sky, closely followed by two more echelons. The wild geese were coming, their formations made up from hundreds of huge calmly-flying birds. The first formation was vaguely vee shaped, with a small line of geese flying across the mouth of the vee. The second vee was much smaller, fairly close to that in front, while the rearmost was several hundred yards behind and composed of very large numbers of geese. The birds flew with slow lazy wing-beats and they quietly chatted to each other as they went. The sound was quite loud in total, but the effect was a quiet well-modulated conversation between gentlemen.
These lazy-going skeins flew on to the edge of the sand where, all at once, the birds lost formation and became a mass of individuals. The air was filled with wildly diving and corkscrewing bodies as they lost fifty feet or so in a matter of seconds. It felt as if they were going to settle but something caught their eye and off they all flew, in formation once more, after gaining the height they had lost. On and on they flew and vanished, only to reappear a few minutes later, but settle well out of sight. The whole sight and sound of those few minutes was fantastic; first the silence, then the clamour of the geese, finally fading into the distance, to leave silence in the air. There must have been well over five hundred grey geese in sight at once, but in the speed and excitement of them going we never learned whether they were Pinkfeet or another species.
After the grey geese settled, the place settled down to its normal life. The sounds of birdsong break out over the countryside, and the missing waders started to appear. As we wandered back over the saltings, a flock of little birds about the size of sparrows flew past with an undulating flight. From the amount of white on the wings, we realised they were Snow-buntings, a species I had never seen before, but which Adam said were quite common here at this time of year. It is strange how one's ideas of scarcity can change in such a short space of time. Down south, the Snow-bunting is a rarity, and a flock would draw in bird-watchers from all over. It came as quite a shock to hear them so casually dismissed. By now it was drizzling, and we quickly walked over to the Hummel Rocks and sat down under the lee of the Old Man, one of the larger rocks. We felt rather sorry for ourselves, being both cold and wet, but soon forgot this when one of us spotted a tiny speck out at sea. This little creature was diving and playing continuously but we did manage to see that it was a tiny grebe, looking black and white in its winter plumage. The bird was making its way inshore and we soon had a splendid view of it diving and bobbing up in viciously breaking waves round the rocks below. It rode these like a cork, swimming with its neck very stiff and upright, for moments looking like a carved toy in a child's bath. The next moment, it would dive and stay under water for long periods. Often, we noticed, it would see a wave about to break and dive headlong into it. I cannot believe that this was just the serious business of feeding and keeping alive. If ever I saw a bird enjoying itself and just playing for the sheer joy of living, this bird was it. We puzzled for some while as to what sort of grebe this bird was, the smaller ones are very similar in winter plumage, but a lucky glimpse through the telescope showed that its bill was slightly upcurved, which confirmed that it was a Black-necked grebe. This was another species I had not come across previously. It is a pity it is not more common, or easier to find, as it is a most attractive and delicate little bird.
But it was not long before yet another new bird was added to my list. We were rather wet by now and, in crawling behind a rock trying to get out of the very penetrating, fine drizzle, we opened up a new bit of ground. Slightly below us and about fifteen yards away, was another small clump of rocks with four birds moving round the base. Three of them were Turnstones, which are always worth watching, and the other was a bird strange to both of us. The first thing I did was to make some notes in my sketch book and write down a full description, which was later noted in my diary and which I quote here in full. ‘Feeding with the Turnstones was a tubby bird about the same length as its companions, with a dark brown, slightly purple-sheened back and dark heavily streaked chest. It had a faint white streak at the end of the closed wing. The beak was largish and orange with a black tip, while the legs were yellow – lighter than those of the Turnstones.’ When we looked through the books, we found that this description was almost word for word that used in at least two of them for the Purple sandpiper, and of course the rocky foreshore is the natural habitat for this bird, as it is for the Turnstone. This little group of birds was very tame, and we spent a long time watching them feeding. In fact when we did move off and had to come out into the open they paid little attention to us, whereas a Golden plover hidden nearby went off like an express train as soon as we showed an arm in the open.
Walking back from the rocks we got a good view out over a very dark and windy sea and, as usual in bad weather, the Scoter were having a wonderful time in the white capped seas, while little parties of Shags were flying back and forth - a change from the more usual cormorants. Over the dunes we trudged, thoroughly wet, cold and tired, but excited by the sights of the day. It had not, however, finished completely. As it began, so it finished. There was a faint yelping in the sky, far off. It grew louder, and we saw about a hundred and fifty geese, in a long extended skein, flying really fast towards us. Then they must have spotted us, for they all banked hard to port and swung out to sea, honking wildly until they were out of sight. At one time they came fairly close and we noticed dark necks against paler bodies, spotting enough to convince us they were Pinkfeet. Nearer the bridge, where we had parked the car, another skein flew over, chattering gently, and vanished over the Firth in the gloom of a wild evening.
The next day we again visited the bay for a final day's ramble before I had to return south. Once again it turned out to be both remarkable and memorable. In fact, Aberlady Bay in winter always seems to produce surprises, and I have seen many birds which were supposed to be rare during my few visits. This prompts me to believe that birds are often not as rare as is made out; it is merely that few people have noticed them. The proportion of ornithologists in the population must be small (at the time to which this refers), especially those who can properly distinguish between the many species, therefore of all the given birds in a certain area, how many are actually recorded? I believe this is being realised increasingly, as my latest copy of ‘A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe’, by Peterson, Mountfort and Hollom, records many species as reasonably common in Britain, which used to be counted comparative rarities.
As we left the car we saw a number of birds at the edges of the creek, past the bridge, among them a very handsome drake Eider in full plumage and what must have been his wife, a dull brown bird of hefty build looking like an overfed 'hausfrau'. Also with them, was an Eider in most odd plumage, which we decided must be a young male in one of its many different stages. Apparently the young Eider goes through so many colourings that it is impossible to record them all in the text books, however the shape was unmistakable, and the general description could easily fit in with those recorded in the ‘Handbook of British Birds’. This bird had the characteristic eider shape, with its distinctive heavy build and wedge-shaped head. The beak was a light yellowy colour, while the head was dark which, when the sun caught it, appeared a rich 'pochard' red, while there was a sharp demarcation between this and a white neck and chest. The belly was dark - again with a fairly sharp separation from the chest. This we spotted when the bird stood up in the water and flapped its wings, which were dark beneath. There was a spot of white above, and in front of, its tail; and another white spot on the shoulder, fairly low down. A sighting like this, made me realise how easy it was, before the scientific age, for our ancestors to record many specimens as being separate species, which were in fact plumage variations of the one bird.
Later, we saw other eider in flight across the water; they appeared overweight compared with other duck, as well as more hump-backed, like grebes. Close to them, was another party of large ducks flying low across the water; some twenty five Shelduck, spectacular in their contrasting plumage. Behind these came a large bird, about the size of a Shag, which flew rapidly across the bay and as quickly out of sight. It had short, stubby wings which beat fairly rapidly. One of the most noticeable points was that these wings were light coloured above. The head, neck, and powerful bill, were held low in flight, giving a distinctly long-backed appearance. As it flew away, seen from a three-quarter back view, it showed a white spot at the side of the neck and underneath, while it had another white spot at the side of the tail. This large and slightly ungainly bird was a Great northern diver; a species I had come across before but never seen in flight. Indeed, it is true to say, I had never even thought of divers in flight, so at home do they seem swimming and gliding through the seas.
Further along the bay, we stopped and had another look at the Scoter out at sea. Through the telescope, we had a very good view of their games and I managed to finish several sketches, showing various angles. Among them, here was a single Velvet scoter which, although the white wing-patches were brilliantly distinctive, seemed to be treated by its cousins as one of them. It joined in all the sport with the others, and moved quite happily from group to group.
Soon the light got too bad for seeing anything, with the evening drawing in and slight sea-mist appearing over the Firth. Reluctantly, we trudged back to the car and started to remove our wellingtons and mountains of clothing, before a drive back to Adam's house and the start of my journey back to London. However, Aberlady had not finished with us entirely as, at that moment, we heard a bugling in the sky and looked up to see four great Whooper swans pass about twenty feet over our heads. It was an awe-inspiring sight, as we could see every detail of their plumage, and they seemed to fill the air above us.
SOME ABERLADY BIRDS
Black-necked grebe, Podiceps nigricollis
Common scoter, Melanitta nigra
Dunlin, Calidris alpina
Eider, Somateria mollissima
Golden plover, Pluvialis apricaria
Great northern diver, Gavia immer
Knot, Calidris canutus
Long-tailed duck, Clangula hyemalis
Oystercatcher, Haematopus ostralegus
Pink-footed goose, Anser brachyrhynchus
Purple sandpiper, Calidris maritima
Redshank, Tringa totanus
Ringed plover, Charadrius hiaticula
Sanderling, Calidris alba
Shelduck, Tadorna tadorna
Snow bunting, Plectophenax nivalis
Turnstone, Arenaria interpres scoter
Velvet scoter, Melanitta fusca
Whooper swan, Cygnus cygnus
Wigeon, Anas penelope
NEXT: Chapter 7; The Chapel by the Sea; Essex marshes in 1951