Winter is my favourite time on a wetland reserve. Wild weather, crisp cold, flocks of finches and whopping numbers of wildfowl on the water. Venturing onto the reserve at first light, the air is full of the party blower whistle of wigeon and the spluttery dabbling of teal. And, if I’m honest, another good thing about winter is that first light doesn’t come three hours before I like to get up.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Winter isn’t here yet. We’re still in the autumnal throes of late October, but in many ways winter has already begun. Temperatures have dropped, leaves have fallen from the trees, but more excitingly for me my morning walk to work has been enlivened by the regular sight, and sound, of one of my favourite birds. As I head along the road out of Titchwell village, skeins of hundreds of pink-footed geese pass by overhead, leaving their roost sites out on the mudflats and heading inland to feed.
Pink footed geese by Andy Thompson
I was lucky enough to be on the north-western tip of Scotland a month ago, at the tail-end of summer, and even luckier to witness part of these birds’ incredible migration. Walking along a cliff top near Dungeness in some pretty stormy weather, with dark, heavy clouds overhead and distant rain hiding the horizon, a friend called my attention to a v-shaped formation of birds in the sky, struggling in from the sea. At first their calls were muffled by the buffeting wind, but soon enough we heard an unmistakable ‘wink-wink’ – these were pink-footed geese reaching shore for the first time since leaving Iceland, a journey of some 600 unbroken miles over the Atlantic. Even more impressively, some of these birds might have been part of the Greenland pink-foot population, for whom that 600 mile flight is only the second leg of a truly formidable journey. It was a special moment.
Of course, theirs is not the only impressive migration to take place this autumn. Redwing, brambling, golden plover, pintail, teal, wigeon and others are all arriving from Scandinavia and beyond, and let’s not forget the swallows, martins, cuckoos, turtle doves and warblers which have left us behind and headed south to their own wintering grounds in Africa. These are all epic and dangerous journeys which many birds won’t survive, and those that do need to find safety and food when they finally reach journey’s end. By continuing to create, manage and protect habitats such as the freshwater scrape at Titchwell Marsh or the saltmarsh and mudflats in the Wash at Snettisham, we can make sure that’s what wintering or breeding birds find when journey’s end is an RSPB reserve.
Wintering golden plover by Andy Thompson
Dan Snowdon, Reserve Assistant, NW Norfolk reserves