To Turn, Flush and Then Fly Away

In late November, I’d had enough of my profession—the pointless disputes, the dull meetings, the stress of monthly results, everything. I concocted a story for my boss about an obscure religious holiday that merited a three-day weekend, but in the end, I just sneezed into the phone and took a sick day. I was sick, worn down by my workday habitat of steel desks, files, flickering computers and sallow fluorescent lights.

Checking online, I found cheap lodgings in King’s Lynn, an ancient port and market town located in the eastern English county of Norfolk, the perfect base for a long weekend at great nature reserves along the North Sea. Rummaging in my closet, I grabbed my binoculars, British bird guide, fleece hat, sturdy boots, jeans, flannel shirts, underwear and down jacket, shoving everything into a rolling suitcase. I booked a mid-morning taxi to the King’s Cross train station, so I could go “off-peak,” meaning I’d avoid the higher fare for commute hours.

It was a slow-poke rail journey, but I settled in with strong PG Tips tea and biscuits to read up on King’s Lynn, a town situated near the mouth of the River Ouse and the sea. King’s Lynn was once called Bishop’s Lynn because it belonged to a bishop (that made sense). The word “Lynn” in Old English meant “pool,” and probably referred to some long-gone tidal feature.  

After stashing my stuff at the hotel, I was ready to wander and forget about pleasing clients and instead please myself. Since I was a “twitcher” (bird watcher), I was given a map for an afternoon nature walk, the Overy Marsh Circular—a level river trail of dunes, undulating grasses and flitting creatures alongside the still, slate-blue water.

Pink-footed geese


Along “The Wash,” a large estuary, I took a seat on a wooden bench as daylight was drawing in quickly. I heard strange noises in the fading pale light above the sea.

Thousands of pink-footed geese assembled here from mid-October to February, migrating from Iceland and Greenland. There they were, a skein of geese in a V-shaped formation heading to their roosts at the close of day. I heard their high-pitched ‘wink-wink’ sound, maybe an aid for each other to stick together. The sound resonated across the seascape, then slowly diffused as they headed inland for the night. A wonder of nature I’ve never forgotten!

The highlight was the many thousands of knots, pushing off the mudflats by the fast-incoming tide.

The following day at dawn, I took a taxi to the Snettisham Reserve, managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). This reserve is known for its spectacular flocks of migratory waders and shorebirds that winter here. I headed for the wildlife observation hides, which gave me a panoramic view across the saline lagoons to catch the show.

At high tide, the encroaching sea takes over the vast mudflats, forcing tens of thousands of knots (a wading bird) to take flight over and over again, until there is no mud to land on and they have to rest on the lagoon on the other side of the sand. I wrote down what I saw, making little check marks next to the pictures of the birds in my book—the little ringed plover, oystercatcher, bar-tailed godwit, shelduck and sanderling, among many others.

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The highlight was the many thousands of knots, pushing off the mudflats by the fast-incoming tide. It caused them to fly up all at once into the sky, creating the most amazing shapes. A commotion of thousands of wingbeats, excited calls and swirling flocks created an exhilarating nature spectacle.

The world of work was gone. My spirit joined the flock of swirling knots—obeying, like them, some ancestral instinct to suddenly turn, flush and then fly away.

«RELATED READ» THE BIRD’S SONG: Learn from birds how to live in the now»


image 1 Starling Murmuration – RSPB Minsmere by Airwolfhound via Flickr 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) 2 Pink footed Geese spooked by a heron, Martin Mere October 2009 by Stephen Gidley via Flickr 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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