The island is heaving with migrants. The hedges are alive with Song Thrushes, Blackbirds, Redwings, Robins and Goldcrests and small flocks of thrushes are dropping in wherever there is cover. Chaffinches, Meadow Pipits and Skylarks are passing through steadily, their presence revealed by calls high above. Siberian vagrants have been found by other birders in exceptional numbers along the coast, with several each of Yellow-browed and Barred Warblers, Radde’s Warblers and Olive-backed Pipits. We find one of the Pipits in a small Pine plantation before the start of the waterbird count, a couple of hours before high tide.
The tide has pushed most of the waterbirds on the south side of the island up to the seaward edge of the saltmarsh and teeming flocks are already visible as I cross from the high dunes to the north. The saltmarsh vegetation is resplendent in autumn colours, with spectacular clumps of succulent red Marsh Samphire set off by the grey-green leaves and brown flower heads of Sea Plantain and the coarse, dull-green Couch and Marram grasses which grow thickly in places where sand overlays the marsh. A Peregrine surveys the scene from a fence post in the middle of the marsh and stays there all afternoon. As I hurry out to count the flocks, I disturb a few Grey Plovers, Redshanks, Shelducks and Greylag Geese resting on brackish pools. I flush dozens of Snipe and in a breathtaking moment, a Short-eared Owl flies up from the marsh at my feet with a soft snapping sound and settles in the open only five metres away. A few seconds later it is joined by another. The owls blaze in the dull light, their gorgeous buff, ochre, white and black patterned plumage a match for the vivid autumn colours of the marsh. I don’t have long to admire them because the tide will soon be turning and my count has hardly started.
I choose two principal vantage points far enough from the flocks to minimise disturbance but close enough to identify and count the birds. Through the binoculars I can see other members of the counting team at work far off to the east and west of my section of the marsh. There are eight of us today and we expect to find around 100,000 birds. There are sizeable roosts of Redshanks and Curlews which are difficult to see among the Spartina and sedges. Mixed flocks of Wigeon, Pintail, Teal and Shoveler are drifting close offshore and resting among the waders. Further off, The Brent Geese are joined by Shelducks, a few Red-breasted Mergansers and a Goldeneye. I scan steadily through the flocks with the ‘scope and there is just time to count each species in turn. Time is pressing and I count all the gull species in one go, estimating the proportion of each.
Heading back across the marsh to my bike three km to the north I make rapid progress because the tide is dropping and I can now wade across the channels. A Marsh Harrier, probably a juvenile, is being harried itself by crows, and soon after, a splendid male Hen Harrier drifts across the inner marsh. By the time I get back to the bike I have filled two pages of my notebook and am looking forward to a cup of tea.