Plodding along a narrow muddy track in the dark before dawn, path lit by a small torch and breath freezing in the cold- does not seem to be the ideal way of starting a Sunday morning. Yet here we were, walking along in a single file, hurried on by the bird cries and geese cackles heralding the flocks waking up before day break. We needed to be at the view point and fast.
The bird spectaculars at Snettisham RSPB reserve, bordering the mud flats of the Great Ouse river are natural events which tie in with high tide, at certain phases of the moon and at certain times of the year. The RSPB publish timings for each year, taking into consideration the time needed to walk from the RSPB car park up to the beach bordering the mud flats where there are points from which to witness hundreds of birds fly overhead in waves of choreographed formations. The spectaculars last for less than an hour before complete daylight breaks through. Hence to witness it all, one has to be there whilst it is still dark and the surroundings have just started to come to life with bird sounds.
We are not regular bird watchers, much less bird experts. Yet a chapter on the best places to experience nature in January in the UK, within the pages of a travel book, brought Snettisham to our knowledge and a desire to see for ourselves if reality was as dramatic as the photographs. We ultimately settled on a weekend in January this year to see the pink footed geese spectacular.
We reached the RSPB reserve in darkness on the A149, Beach road leading up to a triangle of parking space. A wet and muddy track seemed the only way out. Another couple stopped by us and confirmed that we were in the right place and they had checked out the path the day before. Reassured we set off, our torches guiding the way ahead.
The walk could have been a 20 minute one but we were slowed down with the slush and the darkness made us more cautious. The skies were already lightening as we approached the mud flats and a few flocks had flown above us, cackling loudly. Shivering in the cold we took our positions, eyes straining out towards the horizons for the hundreds of birds to come our way.
The first flock was of smaller birds, not the geese. They seemed to silently glide out of darkness like dancers on a stage and form a globe above us. Flickering delicately, the globe contracted into a dark ball, then collapsed on itself, melting ethereally and reforming in a wave of harmonised movement. Mesmerized I watched, until my husband brought me to my senses, calling for me to take out the cameras from the heavy bag hanging on my shoulder, forgotten in a moment of awe.
We had hardly got ourselves ready with cameras and the horizon came alive with a dark line which cackled and honked loudly. Nearer and nearer they came, until we could see them- the geese with their slender necks outstretched, in a giant V, gently gliding, turning in one smooth motion, a ripple moving along their lines and then suddenly they had vanished over the fields in the distance. Hardly had they disappeared that the next wave flowed in with their distinctive pattern; this time two Vs joined in a huge X. An enormous arrow followed. Dark lines would rise from the horizon, joining into clouds of fluttering wings, stretching out into Vs, Xs, arrows and waves; swirling, twirling, swishing; coming together one moment, flowing apart the next until it all merged into one big drama with act after act of passionate choreography.
In forty minutes it was all over. The horizon quietened other than for a few stragglers.
Around twenty minutes after sunrise when it was clear that the show was over, we made our way back to the muddy path. It seemed to get over too soon, leaving something unquenched, somewhat overwhelmed with what we had experienced, yet wanting more. My husband pointed out to the skies beyond a line of holiday caravans which bordered the water bodies. One last group of birds was engaged in a late show. Like curtains on a stage they swung in droves, gently waved like velvet drapes and swirled like a dark cloud. Suddenly they formed one pointed mass and drove like an arrow below the horizon. The show was truly over.
Check the timings of bird spectaculars in the Snettisham here: