A thousand shimmering flakes of gold twisting and flowing through the chill October air above a thronging beach-side pool. They mass together and break apart, they fall and rise in rhythmic motions like feverish dancers, the gold flock flashes in fear and reacts to the wind with exuberance. Then like autumn leaves in a gale they scatter downwards and settle as individuals once more upon the shallow water – Golden Plover may raise their broods separately atop the moors, but they fight the winter as one species united.
The little Sussex town of Rye is perched upon its hill to the north, the church stands grandly at the very tip, visible from every meadow and lane in this otherwise flat landscape. A suffuse haze in the air blurs every horizon so that the distant hills appear as no more than paper cut-outs, against which scatty groups of wandering starlings and trilling skylarks stand out boldly. Two tiny bodies jump about amidst the tangled vines of ivy that clad a tree like a winter coat, they flit to-and-thro and scurry like arboreal mice – and all the while whistling at a pitch barely audible to human ears. With wide-open eyes and a gold and black streak across their crown these birds can only be Goldcrests – the clockwork bird that never winds down.
In a great triangle of land from Rye to the sea, shingle replaces mud; these wave-worn stones have accumulated over centuries to separate the hill-top town from the life-giving, trade-bringing ocean which had once brought it fame and power. Now this stretch of otherwise useless land is striated with deep and shallow pools, made by man for his own ends but adopted by ever resourceful nature. Wildfowl gather on the wide waters in pairs or groups or flocks of hundreds, appearing mysteriously out of the sky from grim countries to the north and east. In human eyes there is now a riot of colour, noise and graceful avian forms of great interest and beauty – dozens of distinctive species gathered together for a common purpose.
Shovelers sail unconcernedly across the pools, akin to royal barges with the males flaunting bright, crisp colours of green, mahogany, black, white and a dash of eggshell-blue on the flank. Wigeon whistle, male Teal stretch and flick their patterned heads in display, Pochard tuck up their heads in sleep, tufted duck and mallard mingle while serene and delicate Gadwall silently steal the show. Hunched up against the wind at the waters edge, silent and motionless sit the snipe; colours of dark chocolate and caramel blended in stripes and striations hide this wily creature from passing falcons or keen birders.
A bird stealthily beating long, rounded wings approaches, its movement through the air is soft as a cloud, colours become visible as it lists; honey and charcoal in a complex pattern – its body is the shape of a cone with eyes bright as the evening sun set into the broader end. Three chakkering magpies follow closely in the hope of driving it away, with good reason; this bird has razor talons concealed within its fluffy mitts – though crows are not its prey. In one swoop of its huge wings the Short-eared Owl rests on a fence post, not having a care for the magpies now sitting either side it lazily turns its great head, perhaps deciding which side of the fence looks better for voles.
This place hums with bird life; stonechats peek out from bushes, gulls of every kind scream and peck at everything else, lapwings crouch in hundreds on the shingle, kestrels flicker over the grassy patches – there is plenty for a predator to eat. Such a predator soon appears; cruising at speed on short, sharp wings, with a short, sharp beak and talons to match. This tiny falcon turns and disappears behind a hedgerow, revealing steely-blue back and wing feathers that give it away as the ever-elusive and wonderfully named Merlin.
The sun is now inches from the wooded crest of a distant hill and its weakening orange rays are cast low over the wet fields, an ancient castle the shape of a four-leaf clover rises from them looking as though it had been there forever – jackdaws flutter over its crumbled walls. A reed fringed pool nearby has gathered noisy crowds of Greylag and Canada geese, joining them are the angular shapes of cormorants perched on dead, guano-coated bushes. A dazzlingly white flock of common and black-headed gulls splash and throw water over themselves as they wash the salt and silt from their feathers. Ducks, snipe and lapwing fill in the gaps and gathered with some Shoveler stand five long-legged waders with dappled plumage preening in a relaxed manner. Shortish bills, orange legs and white faces mark these odd-ones-out as Ruff; strange waterbirds that breed on communal leks where males dance and display their ridiculous, magnificent ragged manes which they grow specially for the occasion.
As John and I leave Rye Harbour a single chiffchaff gives himself away as he calls from a waterside willow; the only summer migrant seen all day, he might very well stay on with us for the long winter ahead – along with the myriads of waders and waterfowl that have already gathered so spectacularly in this corner of Britain.