Peregrines, Wild Geese and Avocets
Chapter seven - The Chapel by the Sea
BRADWELL MARSHES - December 1951
A day I will long remember is when I saw my first Brent geese. I was staying down in Essex near Bradwell-juxta-mare and it was Christmas Eve. Bradwell has always been a favourite haunt of mine, I know of few lonelier places than the Dengie marshes, but 1 had never before been there in the winter. Bradwell used to be one of the finest centres for birds on that coast, what it is like now I do not know? They have recently built an atomic Power Station near where where the birds were most numerous; but I have no doubt that they will soon have come to terms with this, as they have with many other factors over the ages. In the summer, Bradwell is remote enough to still have its deserted marshes. This, 1 think, is because this stretch is one of the spots on the Blackwater where it is difficult for yachts to put in, or even come close to the shore, because of the miles of shallow, mud-edged marshes. There are many other fine creeks and harbours for the yachtsman, so he tends to leave this part alone. The casual wanderer would find little to his liking - no cafes, no special scenery, no paths except that along the sea wall, so he, also, leaves it alone. To the birdwatcher, it is unique and wonderful, typical of the wilder Essex coast.
The land is flat and largely below sea level, the sea being kept back by massive sea walls while, as always in that flat part of the world, the massive skies dominate everything. This sky is what gives the particular quality and measure to bird watching here. It is a perfect background to the numerous waders and waterfowl which may be seen in abundance. Beyond the sea wall, the narrow barrier of grass changes quickly into marshland. At first sight this looks like a further field of rough grass, but is all water-logged at high tide. The whole area of sea grass and reeds is divided by numerous little streams and rills into a mass of tiny islets. These streams are perfect little tidal creeks, but are often only a few inches to a foot wide. The marsh extends for up to a mile before it ends in mudflats running down to the sea. As can be imagined, this marshland and its associated mudflats, supports a tremendous number of sea birds, and I am covinced that if you waited long enough, most of the sea-based species recorded in Britain would be seen here.
That morning I set off early, as I was impatient to see the area during winter. I drove down to the end of a lane and walked down a farm track to my usual starting place, the little Church of St. Peter-ad-Murum. This church is quite remarkable, and very old. It is built on the sea wall and is a simple one-roomed chapel which goes back in origin to the 7th Century. I am glad to see that it is still active and is being rebuilt and preserved. There is an interesting history behind this little Chapel. It is where St. Cedd landed and it is said that he built it in thanks for his preservation from a storm at sea. The only other buildings are a little cottage under the sea wall, and a large tower on stilts out on the marshes, used as an observation post for a bombing range yet further out. The cottage used to belong to one of the most famous of the old professional wildfowlers of Essex.
It was a crisp, cold morning, which kept me walking at a fair speed, and the only sound was the lonely call of the Curlew further out on the marshes. It was still nearly dark when I reached the chapel, but the light soon improved, and I could walk out among the little creeklets on the open marsh. As the darkness vanished, the sky went through a series of colour changes, from a dense grey-black through pastel greens and pinks to the final stage of rolling clouds in an enormous grey-blue expanse. The first sight of bird life was during the pastel period.
A familiar whickering made me look round and I saw about 50 Mallard hurtling across the sky to finally settle out of sight in some tidal pool. Then I spotted a lot more duck further out on the open water. They -were in little parcels of a dozen or so birds and, in the dim light, apparently stretched as far as the horizon. Looking round the marshes, it was clear that there was no way of getting close to the birds if I continued out this way, so I turned round and trudged back to the sea wall. Once back over this, I walked for some way down to the left and then had another cautious look over. I was lucky; in front was a quiet lagoon of water enclosed in a shingle bank. On the edge of the lagoon and sitting on a spit of mud was an enormous flock of waders, which I estimated to be at least a thousand strong. The species were difficult to distinguish, but did manage to pick out five or so Grey plover just to the left of the main flock. These were all in winter plumage and seemed but a shadow of their summer-selves. Although their plumage is so sober at this period, they still have a distinction of their own. They carry their bodies and head in a special way, which seems to have great dignity, and their pale plumage is still attractive, even if not so striking.
At that moment someone must have disturbed further wader flocks over to my right. A dark cloud appeared in the sky and millions of waders were on the wing. The cloud altered shape continually and gradually changed into a line many hundreds of yards long. This line was very thin and tenuous and could only just be seen by the naked eye but, through binoculars, it could be seen that it was made up of thousands of Knot streaming backwards and forwards across the sky. It was a most extraordinary sight and without logical explanation, as they seemed to fly from one end of the line to the other, and then back. The line held its position in the sky for some five minutes; then all at once it was gone, in a tearing flight away over the marshes and out of sight. Other flocks now appeared, though none so numerous as the Knot. First came Dunlin, twisting and turning in snake-like flight, with thousands of birds playing a mad aerial follow-my-leader, then a flight of a hundred and fifty or so Oystercatchers flying very fast, but on a much more even keel than the other waders. In fact, they resembled a flight of heavy bombers demonstrating solidity, while the young, flibbertigibbet fighters danced around the skies.
The waders may have started out originally in fright at someone walking along the seawall, or even have been disturbed by the sound of a shotgun, but now they appeared to be possessed entirely by the sheer joy of living. They hurtled across the sky, falling and looping at vast speed, their bodies dark against the grey, then flashing brilliant white as the light caught thousands of simultaneously exposed white bellies. Until they finally settled, the sky seemed filled with these speeding flocks, looking like thunder clouds of ever-changing shape,
Visibility was excellent now and, as I walked along the sea wall, I spotted small packs and groups of birds fairly well out to sea. Their shape was difficult to see, as they were bobbing up and down, appearing and disappearing as waves hid them from sight; but the outlier did seem different from anything I had seen before. I watched one gaggle of fifty birds which seemed to stick together. Another party was apparently disturbed by a black-backed gull, and took off after pattering along the water like diving ducks.
When they landed a bit further away, they did so with much back-fanning of their wings and came down vertically like a bunch of helicopters. At last! I had seen the Brent geese which I had hoped would be here. While these geese were feeding on the zos grass by the edge of the tide, a number of other birds were very much in evidence, including a flock of Redshank, which restlessly quarter the sea, as if to keep an eye on me and warn that, if any false move were made, they could soon have everyone on the wing again. On one of the old target towers, a number of Cormorants sat digesting their breakfast, like a lot of scruffy undertakers. Every so often, one or two would fly.off and out of sight, but their place seemed to be quickly taken by their friends coming back in over the horizon. When they fly, they appear overweight; each stroke of the wing seems as if it only just keeps them out of trouble. This appearance is accentuated by the fact that they fly at wave top height for most of their journeys. In the water, the picture is very different. They become incredibly graceful birds, which move like snakes through the waves. Their favourite position is with head and neck sticking out of the water and the rest of the body almost submerged.
I watched all these birds for a couple of hours before I had to leave for London. The geese fed undisturbed, aloof from the rest of the world. Indeed, their presence seemed to have discouraged the sea duck normally seen here. I searched the waters with my binoculars, yet could see no sign of duck of any sort. Perhaps the bursts of harsh calling that I heard every so often warned the other birds away from the beds of zos grass on which the Brent were feeding. The geese were all of the dark-breasted variety; I looked everywhere to see if by any chance a light-breasted bird might be among them, but in vain. I managed finally to slide away without disturbing them, and walked back to the Chapel, feeling that I had seen a very different world feeding and talking at the edge of the tide. The huge Essex skies were empty of life, and anyone waiting nearby would never believe that anything lived behind that desolate sea wall or that, hours earlier, those same skies had darkened and glinted with the tearing hosts of the wader flocks.
BIRDS OF THE BLACKWATER
Brent goose, Branta bernicla
Cormorants, Phalacrocorax carbo
Curlew, Numenius arquata
Dunlin, Calidris alpina
Grey plover, Pluvialis squaterola
Knot, Calidris canutus
Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos
Oystercatcher, Haematopus ostralegus
Pink-footed goose, Anser brachyrhynchus
Common pochard, Aythya ferina
Red-breasted merganser, Mergus serrator
Redshank, Tringa totanus
Shelduck, Tadorna tadorna
Tufted duck, Aythya fuligula
NEXT: Chapter 8. Peregrine & Geese; Slimbridge in less constrained times, 1966