November “Nature Notes” with Malcolm Cox

Swooping low, a Great Skua
Swooping low, a Great Skua
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When I wrote October’s notes we were all revelling in early autumn sunshine, the month was indeed “golden”. We knew of course that this respite would not last long.

Even so the approach of winter has so far offered fairly mild weather. Some readers may have joined the RSPB for its annual “Wild goose chase.” Alas I am too ancient for these early morning starts.

Snettisham at this time of the year is a huge draw for birders.

The numbers of over wintering wildfowl and waders can reach bewildering totals. If the wind is from the north east it can seem an inhospitable location in which to while away the winter. Compared to their arctic breeding grounds however The Wash will feel positively balmy.

For maximum bird numbers you might want to check the tide times otherwise this site is a pleasant stroll at anytime.

Brent geese sometimes divided into pale or black-bellied “brants” are easily identified. In The Wash we see mostly the black-bellied type. Rather elegant in their smart plumage of grey, black and white and of course their distinctive croaking almost purring vocalisations are obvious. Binoculars will reveal varied neck markings and the black and white rear end shows nicely in flight.

Pink-footed geese are a bit larger than “brants” and are especially vocal in flight, their fluting calls are such an iconic sound of our winters. At first mostly grey/brown a close view reveals subtleties especially on the neck and flanks and of course those pinkish legs and yellowish bill with a black tip. In flight a black chevron shows against a white tail.

Graylag geese are mostly resident and occur in fewer numbers, they are at first sight very similar to “pinkies” but paler wings and larger size are usually evident.

Occasionally less common white-fronted geese show up in low numbers. These usually produce a bit of a rush from birders so if you see a sizeable gathering of watchers stop and ask.

As November ushers in the winter we say welcome back to so many thousands of shorebirds which to American birders are collectively “peeps”.

On the beach itself the noisy oystercatcher always demands attention. Such well-liveried birds in sharp black and white with flashy red legs and beaks. In winter some will be “chinstrap” birds, smaller waders such as sanderling scamper at the water’s edge. Like many they too are refugees from arctic nest sites. You maybe rewarded with purple sandpipers though I have often found these most confiding on the quay in King’s Lynn where they pluck morsels from the tarmac and concrete.

Turnstones may be present doing what they do, yes simply turning over pebbles in search of prey items. Sadly they will not be in their splendid breeding plumage. So many of our winter waders opt for sombre grey tones.

Ringed plovers and knot may mooch among the mud and rock pools not forgetting one of our commonest waders the redshank and if one is really lucky its green shanked cousin may provide a blast of its strident “tew-tew-tew” call. Bar-tailed godwits and occasionally black-tailed may stalk the water’s edge along with the familiar curlew. These though really do like it quiet, no dog walkers or kite flyers please.

Out to sea the possibility of highly predatory skuas. Our American birding friends know these as “jaegers”, a germanic term meaning “hunter”. They are pirates of the sea who will roam from their northern breeding sites, harassing other birds to disgorge their crop contents. Great skuas are huge dark birds with obvious pale wing patches. With wing spans of up to 1.4m they are serious thugs. Many birders know these by their northern name of “bonxies.”

The smaller Arctic Skua is likewise not to be messed with while keen observers often spot the less common and more graceful long-tailed or even Pomeranian Skua.

And then there may be passing gannets, no problem in identifying these huge white birds. Hunstanton’s cliff tops will offer a better view of these, juveniles will appear greyish. As autumn bites there will be ducks, geese, and grebes also seeking less stormy pressures of the really open sea.

If the sun shines make the most of our coastline, there is plenty to see.