Day 54

Back on the beach. The tide is on the way out. Two of the three tiers of shingle are visible. From the water line to the top of the shingle is a climb of about ten metres. The depth of the beach this evening is maybe fifty metres from the top to the foaming wash. The beach has three distinct shelves.

Despite this being a receding tide, the north wind drags heavy, breaking rollers to the shore. I walk along on the ridge on the second shelf. Pebbles spill seaward under my tread if I get too close to the shelf edge. The waves surge up to the raised line of rounded stones, occasionally pouring over the step.

The wind is unrelenting. It is cold, about five degrees centigrade.

At Great Eye the only evidence of sand martins is the line of nesting burrows they have excavated over the years on their summer visits. The lie of the land is such that their colony directly faces the North Sea. The burrows can be up to metre in length and are always several metres up a sheer face, offering security from non-flying predators. I wonder how they are dealing with this cold wind off the water.

Even the sand martins struggle to keep a footing when waiting outside a nest hole for access. One of the returning adults may fly straight into the hole, but I have seen them land just underneath the entrance and then flip up before disappearing into the cliffside. When another adult, or two, arrives at the nest site they have to cling to the sandy bank and wait to enter. Sometimes they just wait until the original returnee comes out and they fly off together. As with the greylag geese and their goslings, I notice that some nests have more than a pair attending. Have the females arranged additional home help? Are the males competing to support the young, not certain of paternity?

When I first closely watched these birds yesterday, I noted that the colony’s adults would all arrive over the top of the sandbank together in a loose flock. There was then a lot of activity and chatter around the sandbank for several minutes, before the flock would gather again and disappear over the grassy top to seek more food. Few if any adults remained on duty.

Today I find them at their feeding site. A small, shallow lake that is set well back from the shingle bank. The sand martins are struggling to maintain balance in the forceful breeze. Any gliding they do is for short periods and unstable. Adjustments to catch midges and mosquitos have to be matched by adjustments to keep steady flight. They stay close to the water’s surface and rarely fly above the height of the hedge that offers something of a wind-shield. The journey back to the sandbank at Great Eye will be heavy work.

As I make a way to the village, a solitary avocet is being knocked around by the gusts. Its long legs do not look strong enough to carry the black and white body. The bird is leaning into the wind to remain as upright as possible. When the wind strengthens it wobbles, unsteady on its pins; even crueller is when a gust blows by and loses strength suddenly, causing the bird to nearly fall onto to its chest. It is moving as if punch-drunk. The avocet is determined to scour the pond for food despite the blustery conditions. Its upward-curved beak, as fine as its spindly legs, is a delicate piece of engineering that is quite strong enough for the work required.

Today I see only one hare grazing, huddled in the lee of a hedgerow. The mute swan sits tight on its huge nest in the reed bed along the drain, hugging its clutch of pale green eggs. Rooks are dispersed evenly across the marsh plugging away at the turf.

A flight of four mallards, (three drakes accompanying, (or chasing) a lone duck), somehow manage to maintain a fixed display formation, despite the unfavourable flying conditions.

I head home without cobwebs.

Christopher Perry

10th May, 2020