Nature notes for December by Malcolm Cox

A juvenile gannet

A juvenile gannet

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There is a line from Emile Zola’s “Blood Sex and Money” (do not be put off by the title) when the hero Gervaise Macquart turns to Katherine as she nears death which runs: “The sea, just look at the sea, when you look at it you can believe that anything is possible.”

This line came to me as we stood on the famous cliff top at “Sunny Hunny”. Indeed the seeming limitlessness of the ocean distracts the mind from so much human folly that anything might indeed be possible.

Common scoters

Common scoters

There is a rare breed of bird watcher who spends endless hours watching the sea. Even easterly winds are ignored. These folk are hardier than me. Nevertheless we endured a chilly hour or two recently attempting to discern what is out there.

There was a flurry of excitement a few weeks ago when sharp eyed observers further north spotted a black-browed albatross skimming the North Sea.

Alas we did not get to see this disoriented visitor. These birds are wanderers from southern oceans. I recall something about a lone albatross who apparently lived happily in the far north, Shetland or similar.

I guess if he/she had found a partner we might have witnessed a truly weird breeding record. There is currently great concern about the number of these birds killed by the long lines of commercial trawling.

Snail shell spirals

Snail shell spirals

I no longer bother with my telescope, there is nearly always a fellow watcher with a superior instrument to chat to. Their superior identification skills are worth tapping.

We spoke to a watcher from Lincolnshire who allowed us a view as we exchanged information, gannets, of course, are easily identified.

The nearest breeding colony is at Bempton Cliffs. Adult gannets are spectacular creatures. Snow white gliders with black wing tips, even at considerable distance they are obvious. Juveniles are rather dull by comparison, brown/grey shadows which will not take on adult plumage until about four years old.

Common scoters can also be fairly easily seen. These black sea ducks will spend the winter in our coastal waters before returning to breed in fresh waters of the far north. We saw a group of perhaps two hundred, birders refer to these groupings as “rafts”.

Occasionally, the larger velvet scoter joins these rafts, though not in such numbers.

Some wildfowl that we normally think of as strictly fresh water species such as mallard, great crested grebes and swans will show up at sea. Shelduck are happy at sea or inland breeding sites, they stand out easily in their white, brown livery, heads appear black or dark green depending on the light and distance.

Winter waders can be confusing at first glance.

Not all are as neatly marked as oystercatchers who sometimes appear with a white chin strap. They are as happy on the golf course as they are the shoreline.

Dunlin, like so many in winter plumage, look nothing like the chic little bird of summer, appearing mostly pale grey and white, confusingly they can vary remarkably in size depending on which ‘race’ they are.

The casual observer need not though be concerned with such things.

Field guides write of a bird’s “jizz”, an odd made-up word meaning demeanour or attitude. Most European birders treasure Lars Jonsson’s Birds of Britain and Europe. His book is now rather old but the illustrations are exquisite. Most ornithologists prefer illustrations to photographs, they capture that “jizz” in a way that photographs do not.

A bit of a digression there so back to what is on offer round our coastline right now. Sanderlings are unmistakable as they dash along the shoreline. Often described as resembling clockwork toys, they appear at first as entirely white in body with jet black legs and beak – that beady eye always scanning the sand. Much larger knot are similarly whitish and in a massed flock are mesmerising in flight.

The pick of winter waders however for me is the greenshank, oh so elegant and so easily identified by its “tew-tew-tew” call. Its cousin the redshank is much more common, being a resident breeder.

The greenshank is a winter visitor to our shoreline in small numbers.

I cannot end this month’s notes without mentioning molluscs. Probably not world-shattering news but just the sort of story which appeals to us naturalists/eccentrics (delete as appropriate). We are indebted to the evolutionary geneticist Dr Angus Davison for his discovery of – wait for it – a left-handed snail. Apparently we have hitherto assumed that all snail shells spiralled in a right handed direction – until now that is.

Another expert, Jade Melton, followed up Davison’s discovery with one of her own which she described as a “million to one find”. Just remember folks, you read it in the Lynn News first. Who needs fables about reindeers when news like this is on offer!