The high tide waterbird count has been going well on my section of the Boschplaat. It is the start of the first bitterly cold spell of winter, but the wind is light, the light is good and birds are not moving around too much. As I walk to the second vantage point, labouring over a kilometre through dense, tussocky Marram Grass to make a necessary detour around tidal channels, the weather changes. Colour drains from the landscape as mist blows in from the southwest, the wind strengthens and humidity rises. A ringtail Hen Harrier drifts past and disappears into the mist.
I set up the ‘scope at the second vantage point and do a rapid scan. I can see the Curlew and Redshank roosts on the fringe of the saltmarsh well enough, and all the Brent Geese, Wigeon, Pintail, and Teal along the shore, but the Wigeon flock extends out of sight into the mist. I do quick counts of the visible species and do the best I can with the Wigeon. The gathering mist is a growing problem and frequent stops to wipe glasses and optics are slowing me down. A fine adult Peregrine is sitting on a post on the edge of the saltmarsh. I make a decision to walk towards the shore even though this will flush the Peregrine. I feel I have to try and get closer to those Wigeon to improve the accuracy of my count. The Peregrine flies off powerfully, disturbing some of the Redshanks and Curlews but causing less havoc than expected. Later, the Wigeon take suddenly to the wing, their whistles rising in volume and intensity, sub-flocks whizzing around, appearing and disappearing out of the gloom. Then I see what disturbed them: across a wide tidal channel, Marc, one of my counting colleagues, has been working along the edge of the adjacent counting unit in order to count the Wigeon. I give him a call to see whether he has got to grips with them. He is reasonably happy with his count – over 4,000, more than twice as many as I have seen – and we decide, because of the conditions, to end the count and head back to our bikes 3 or 4 km away across the featureless, foggy landscape.
The walk across saltmarsh and low, grassy dunes through dense mist is hard work but very atmospheric. I maintain my bearings by keeping the wind blowing into my left ear. If I’m heading too far west, I feel it on my nose, if too far to the east, I lose it from my ear. This works well enough, but detours around tidal channels cause some anxiety. I flush two Brown Hares and, to my surprise, two Roe Deer in the dunes. They bound effortlessly out of sight through the dense tussocks. On the saltmarsh, I disturb four more hares, and in twenty minutes, over a hundred snipe zig-zag up at my feet uttering harsh, quiet calls. The bird of the day is nearly the last I see, a shadowy Short-eared Owl that catapults off the ground ahead and glides smoothly into the fog on stiff wings.