Fieldwork December 2023

Friday 15 December

Cathy did the recce on Friday morning, arriving at the dam by 07:50 and found no birds on Snettisham beach. There were three flocks of Oystercatchers on Heacham Beach with 21 Curlew at the northern end of the flocks. The Curlew were flushed by the first dog walker and flew inland. As each Oystercatcher flock was approached, the birds flew south, joining the southernmost flock. In total there were about 110 Oystercatchers on the tide line.

Toby visited Heacham North at 10:08 as the tide uncovered the mussel scar and watched a mixed flock of 40 waders, the majority being Oystercatchers with only one or two Knot. One of our Oystercatchers A3K and a couple of our Turnstones were resighted during the morning.

The decision was made to try for the Oystercatchers at Heacham the following morning with long stops in place to steer dog walkers around the back of the beach. The team packed the trailer ready to go out and, after supper, headed out to set. 

Saturday 16 December

The longstops did their job but, sadly, once the light was sufficient to see, it revealed that there were no birds on the beach! The team collected the equipment and returned to base from around 08:00 hrs. With the missed attempt at catching, we arranged for two groups to stay out and look for colour-marked waders. This was a success, with four Bar-tailed Godwit, 15 Curlew and 13 Turnstone previously colour marked by the group resighted over the course of the morning.

Plan B was to mist net on the outer pool from the White Barn (‘But it’s not white!’ ‘Well, it used to be!’), where we had made some good catches since we started catching there. Optimism was cautious, perhaps exacerbated by the failure of the morning’s catch, but Nigel said a good total would be of around 70 birds – his assumption was that there would be little water in the pool which would limit the catch.

After a thorough briefing from Lucy, the teams set out in convoy to Terrington Marsh, parking up by the White (grey, it’s grey) Barn. With little time between resighting and setting mist nets, we decided to set them after dark, rather than before dusk when the wildfowlers would be out. Half of the team set off across the marsh with equipment and trepidation, led by David. Bamboo poles were affixed en route with alternating red and green lights to mark the pathway back to base. This proved to be a highly necessary aide when traversing the pitch-black flats later on.

Two separate lines of mist nets were set in a series along the seaward side of the pool, a near continuous line stretching almost from one end of the pool to the other (almost entirely across the water, c. 4 metres short of the bank farthest from base), with only a small break in between them. Setting was going well, deftly led by David, who gave plenty of advice to experienced ringers and newbies alike. However, midway through setting the final nets, a Knot flew into one shelf, followed, moments later, by about 15 more. This, copied and pasted, would accurately describe the events of the following hour.

After radioing base for backup and to forewarn those staying at the barn of the size of the overall catch, the net team set about extracting. The total of birds gave opportunities for both experienced extractors to quickly empty nets and for inexperienced ringers to try their hand at easier birds who were perhaps resting within a pocket, relatively untangled. David and other senior ringers oversaw such cases and clearly explained the need to handle birds by the body and not the tarsi, to back up the pre-warnings back at base and via email before the weekend.

An extra troupe of helpers made their way from the barn with a Redshank sound lure. This was played briefly but proved unsuccessful in drawing such birds immediately into the net. However, as it turned out, we had netted some Redshank amongst the prevalence of Knot, as well as Turnstone, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit and a single Grey Plover – surely the bird of the day, and a late year-first for one or two of the team.

At fairly close to an hour since nets were first set, the decision was made to dismantle them all, as we had plenty of birds to transport, process and release. To store the birds during extraction, bags were hung from two bamboo poles which were supported by two tripods. The poles were then carried by two people across the marsh back to base. This proved a very useful technique in transporting the catch and freeing up the overall dexterity of extractors, who were thus unencumbered by carabiners holding multiple full bags. It was also easier to unload the bird bags and put the birds into keeping cages back at the barn.

Processing at the White Barn proved a lengthy and varied task, which all were involved with. Nonetheless, there were plenty of opportunities for inexperienced wader ringers to learn about processing and handling methods of nearly all the captured species. Focus was kept throughout the evening but there were a few humorous moments, including the following exchange between Nigel and the team:

‘Where shall I write that this is the wrong ring number?’ ‘In the wrong ring number column.’

We wrapped up around midnight, and, shortly after this, it was confirmed that the incredible number of Knot we had caught had proven the largest singular catch in history for this species on The Wash. This was made doubly important by the fact that it allowed us to significantly add to the colour-ringing totals for this species, with the majority being marked.

Grey Plover 1 1
Knot 1892191
Dunlin 22 22
Black-tailed Godwit1 1
Bar-tailed Godwit5 5
Redshank15 15
Turnstone 516
Totals 2383241

Sunday 17 December

Following the extremely busy (and late) evening, resighting proved a welcome respite. Rob P briefed us on the plans and two teams left to cover different parts of The Wash. A relaxed session brought the total of encounters of marked birds to just over 50 for the weekend.

Bar-tailed Godwit44

Thanks to Toby Moran Mylett for writing this report. Cover photo by Cathy Ryden