Seeing as I was in Norfolk for the weekend, I thought it would be rude not to try to add to my bird spotting challenge list by popping along to the RSPB nature reserve at Snettisham. I had read somewhere that the reserve is the site of one of nature’s great spectacles – with over 40,000 Pink-Footed Geese spending the winter commuting between their overnight roost on the beach and their daytime feeding grounds in local fields. Great for ornithologists, bad for farmers!
I had yet to see a Pink-Footed Goose this year, so I figured that I stood a good chance of coming across one if there were enough flying around to fill Goodison Park… or The Gabba – for you cricket fans… or the Fisht Olympic Stadium – if you’re more of a speed skating aficionado. Obviously, by fill, I mean that they would all have to sit in an orderly fashion in an allocated seat.
I had done my research, so knew what to look out for: A medium-sized, predominantly grey goose, with a brown head and neck, a pink beak and pink legs. I imagined that it would be quite an easy task picking one out from the other waterfowl dabbling around the reserve.
I, of course, was wrong!
There were plenty of other birds… Greylag, Canada and Brent Geese, Lapwings, Teal, Wigeon, Little Egrets, Moorhens, Coots, Mallards and even a Short-Eared Owl. But could I find even a solitary example of the purported 40,000 Pink-Footed Geese? Could I heck?!
This was possibly turning out to be my biggest bird-watching failure of the year so far. To put it in context, it is a failure comparable to going on holiday to Liechtenstein and not seeing a single one of its residents.
As if to mock my failure, there was a notice up in one of the hides with sightings at the reserve that helpfully informed me that there were 15,000 in the area two weeks previous to my arrival and that the numbers were swelling by the day. Where the bloody hell were they?
It transpired that elements of my research were significantly lacking… Yes, I would comfortably be able to recognise a Pink-Footed Goose IF I saw one, but, as it turned out, I would apparently only stand a good chance of a sighting if I arrived at the reserve at the crack of dawn to see them flying inland to feed from their roosting sites far out on the mudflats. By turning up at lunchtime, I had missed all the geese by a good six hours.
On my return journey to the car, I remained hopeful that I might see a stray goose who had been out the night before and had a bit of a lie-in, but the closest I got was discovering the putrefying remains of a dead one on the beach. If my decomposition calculations were correct, I had found 61% of a Pink-Footed Goose. A poor effort and, of course, not countable for the year list.
My failure to espy a living, complete Pink-Footed Goose had meant that if I wanted to see one, I would have to return at some silly time the next day. And that is just what I did.
Flash forward to 6am the following morning…
There I was, not very well dressed for the cold, standing at the edge of the beach in the pitch black at some ungodly hour, listening to thousands of geese honking from the darkness in front of me. You could say that this wasn’t so much a wild goose chase, as a wild goose wait… and not especially dramatic.
As the early morning blackness began to slowly creep towards the misty gloom of a grim mid-November dawn (and my toes contemplated the potential ramifications of impending glaciation), I could begin to see some movement on the beach in the distance – There were clearly a lot of somethings out there in the murk, but I couldn’t see well enough to tell what they were. The honking persisted, indicating the presence of geese… but which ones?
It was then the ‘spectacular’ commenced: Wave after wave of Pink-Footed Geese started to fly inland towards the fields for breakfast from the mudflats and over my head in traditional v-formation. Some in groups in excess of two-hundred. I had a new addition to my list – one I had to really put some effort in for.
However, as with most spectaculars I’ve witnessed before, I was a little underwhelmed. Yes, there were an awful lot of geese flying overhead and they kept coming for a long time, but the fact that the process happened in drip-fed instalments rather than one big airborne mega-flock somewhat took the edge off the experience for me. Maybe I’m just one of those people who are never happy. Maybe the earliness and chilliness of the occasion had clouded my judgement. Maybe I am simply unable to appreciate anything before I’ve had breakfast.
This is not the last you will hear about my weekend in Norfolk…