I remember an October day at Cley beach a few years ago. I sat seawatching on the shingle bank. Distance is hard to gauge without reference points. The sea was calm and I settled down to watch and wait. The sound of the sea on the shore mesmerizes me, lulls me into a torpor, as does the constant rippling of the water seen through the haze. The waves slump lazily onto the shingle and drag their fingers through the stones. The hiss as the water moves stone against stone, multiplied by a million times, is hypnotic. The longshore drift drags the stones south. This is a dynamic shoreline and although the scene appears constant this beach is a shape shifter, gradually clothing itself with fresh stones. It was an unseasonally warm afternoon with a bank of fog lying a couple of hundred metres or so off shore.
The fog was a blessing because it brought birds that are normally little more than dots close in too the shore, meteors blazing along the horizon above the swell of the sea . Small groups of Guillemots, their wings a blur as they skimmed the surface were punctuated by the more measured, languid flight of occasional Gannets. Suddenly I was awoken from the mesmeric altered state that seawatching engenders as my ears became attenuated to a faint sound from the blank canvas of the middle distance. As it grew louder I recognized the familiar “gronk” of Dark-Bellied Brent Geese reaching the end of their long odyssey from their summer breeding grounds in Northern Russia and Siberia.
Skein of Brent Geese over Stiffkey Harbour
Suddenly the first bird of the skein emerged from the fog. Chubby and black with the distinctive white neck band. Then the other birds emerged in their V-formation, just above the surface of the calm sea, like the Lancasters of the Dambusters raid, calling all the time. I guess this helps them maintain contact with the other birds and keep that energy saving slip streaming formation. They flew over the shingle bank and dropped onto the fresh marsh, feeding in earnest to replenish the energy burned whilst crossing the vast emptiness of featureless sea.
Fast-forward a couple of months and to a different day altogether. Lagged against the ferocious northerly driving off the sea, I stood on the exposed beach at Titchwell. Tendrils of sand whipped past and insinuated their way into every gap in my clothing. I could feel the shape of every grain of sand as they found their way insidiously into my mouth, which was clamped shut. I scanned the boiling sea for birds moving up the coast but it was difficult to follow progress as they appeared momentarily in a trough to be obscured almost immediately by the next crest. A few Sanderlings sprinted along the sand, occasionally pausing to search out a morsel of sustenance.
As I gazed through the frosted air, heavy with spray, I became aware of shapes approaching, out near the horizon. They appeared and disappeared. Where they real or just an illusion? After a few minutes it became clear that they were swans. Whooper swans. It was a family group of two adults, dazzling white against the steel grey sea, and three cygnets. These birds fly down the North Sea from Iceland, a distance of more than 1100 miles and as they grew closer to the shore the small group of us watching their progress began shouting encouragement. After what seemed an eternity they dropped exhausted onto the sea, around 100 metres off the beach, to much cheering and backslapping from the gallery. They would recover their composure then head inland to begin restoring their depleted reserves of energy.
© Kyoichi Narukami
I don’t know how they manage such a journey through the utmost of adversity. They are driven by urges which we once probably shared but which have been beaten out of us by years of “civilisation”. Anyway, the boys are back in town. The boys of winter.