Peregrine, Wild geese & 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 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.

SATURDAY: We arrived at the Green Man in Bradwell at 11 in the morning, having set off at 7-00. We are evidently the first visitors since my last stay before Christmas. We immediately went for a walk following the seawall round to the right from the quay, until we reached the sand-spit, although we saw remarkably few waders up to then. I did pick out one rather lovely Grey plover, in pale winter plumage of course; it looked almost white against the nearby Dunlin.
In the afternoon, we went off to look at Marshouse Decoy but sadly were turned away, but not before we had glimpsed the curving pipes in the distance. It was starting to darken and the sky had tinges of red when we reached the marsh wall at the Marshouse outfall, where we met some gunners out for the evening flight. One had a huge double four-bore which looked as though it weighed a ton and was complete with a large pistol grip. We sat down and watched the birds moving around in the slack of the tide. The air filled with birds; at least a couple of thousand Knot were manoeuvring around the edge of the flats and a stream of ducks were pouring in from the south to land on the sea; bobbing up and down like corks at the edge. Surprisingly for this time of year, half the ducks were Shelduck, but I was unable to identify the rest. I reckoned there must have been nine hundred ducks in sight, stretched in a line as far as you could see to the right. There was no way of estimating how far they stretched towards Burnham.
Then, there was a first shot from out on the saltings and some two hundred black geese flew along the tideway in a double line; a wonderful sight – Dark-breasted brent geese, the birds we had hoped to see. Later, smaller parties flew over and joined the others where they had settled, near St. Peter’s-ad-Murum. There must have been over three hundred geese in the eventual flock. Numerous other duck appeared after this, most small and rapid-flying, or so we thought. What was strange was the sight of apparently slow-flying Shelduck overtaking these speedy-looking ducks, with ease. All this time, there was a great deal of movement, especially among the ducks but, when the red vanished from the sky and it became distinctly darker, all the waders and duck dropped down into the marshes and suddenly went silent. So, back to the pub for the night.
SUNDAY: Up at 7 and tried to start the car, but it was quite dead, so we left it and walked round to the right from Peewit Island, along the seawall. After we reached the break in the wall, I decided to sit and watch, while my father, needing exercise after weeks in London, decided to push on. He enjoys looking at birds, but prefers to push on ahead to make sure he stretches his legs properly. It was fairly light now, and I saw a great many very dark, large birds flying towards me, looking vaguely like Cormorants. As they drew nearer, it revealed the distinctive black body and white tail of the Brent goose. From a distance, where size is difficult to judge, they can also look like slow-flying ducks, particularly so because of their relatively short necks. The whole of the area behind the wings is the most lovely, glistening white. There were about a hundred in the air and they flew on up-stream till I lost sight of them. For the next half an hour, little parties of 20 or so kept on flying up river – a further 50 or so at least.  
Four ‘different’-looking duck flew after them, further off. All I could see was that they had dark heads, light collars and white on the wings, while they flew with oddly down-curved bodies, similar to grebes. Following these, a further four of the same ducks which then alighted in the water opposite where I was sitting. There was one drake and four ducks. The drake had a bottle-green head, white collar and buff chest, while the head had a definite double crest. There was a thin line running back from the shoulder, which separated a grey flank from a darkish back. They were Red-breasted mergansers, one of the most elegant diving ducks. The females were similar to the drake in body shape, but the head was red-brown, with an ill-defined white throat. When the these duck dived, which they did repeatedly, they showed a shape like a cigar. Lifting themselves out of the water, they then shot in head first, like miniature torpedoes. When they were going under, they looked like a herd of porpoises - showing the same curved backs. The long, thin saw-bills were easy to recognise.
MONDAY: In the morning, we spent much time with a local mechanic while he fixed the car, then drove to St Peter’s chapel and walked out to the sand-spit. The tide was almost, if not completely out, and there were miles of sand and mud in front of us, sparsely covered with Zostera marina, zos or wigeon grass, upon which so many birds depend. All along the tide’s edge were birds, with hundreds more in the sea beyond. A flock of around two hundred Brent geese was put up by machine-gun fire at the nearby Dengie ranges, out on the far flats. They flew with a curious wave motion and had a habit of flying along close to the waves until they reach a certain point, when the leader rises steeply and, instead of all rising at once, each one flies up only when they reach that same point. The whole flock flows up and down like water in a wave, a most imposing spectacle. The skein landed close to where hundreds of other geese were feeding and resting in a space of some hundred yards, a real concentration. I counted a large bunch and estimated how many times this would fit into the total, ending up with a suggested figure of at least a thousand geese. At first, I thought these were all black geese, but someone disturbed them and many moved off into the sea, leaving a number on the shore. These were definitely different, but identification was difficult telescope at this range. Careful study, showed the characteristic back of a grey goose and eventually decided that they were Pinkfeet, from the dark head, neck and paler body. That explains their reluctance to go onto the water, for they are notoriously un-maritime in their habits. When the visitor walked out towards them, they briefly flew down the coast, rather than joining the others offshore, and started feeding once more; at which time their necks appeared strangely angular. When they feel anxious or disturbed, one goose and then another, will stand absolutely bolt upright with their necks fully extended, turning their heads from side to side, until they are satisfied there is no danger.     
Along the edge of the tide, a hundred yards or so beyond the flats, were hundreds of ducks, too far away to identify, bobbing up and down with the waves. They stretched as far as you could see to the right and began opposite St Peter’s chapel. At a conservative estimate, there must have been at least two thousand in sight and goodness knows how many beyond and over. The telescope was at the very edge of its definition, so further determination of numbers or identification was impossible. It would have been amazing to have had a closer look from a punt but, as it was, it was a wondrous sight to satisfy us on our way back to London and 'normal' life.


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


to Chapter eight


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