Thousands of knot in flight are one of autumn’s great spectacles

A murmuration of these birds is among the most beautiful sights in Britain

A A A

You don’t get mist and wind together, do you? You encounter mist. Or you encounter wind.  Not both at the same time. But here was the strangest thing – the noise of the wind, a great swishing sound, a giant whispering, coming from inside a mist bank.

It was not long after dawn on Monday. The sky above was a piercingly clear blue but the mist still draped itself over the land and over the vast immensity of the Wash, whose mudflats were rapidly turning into mirrors as they were flooded by the incoming tide. Around 50 of us early risers were standing on the beach, watching the offshore mist bank intently, the one from which the sound was emanating.

As we gazed at it, somebody hissed “Here they come!” and the swishing got louder and then out of the mist burst a cloud, a swirling, eddying cloud drifting rapidly towards us, and the sound became a spectacle – one of the great wildlife spectacles of Britain.

It was a blizzard of birds, and the swishing was the sound of wings beating together – 10,000 pairs of wings, 20,000, maybe 25,000, perhaps even more.  They were uncountable and as they reached the shore and passed over our heads the blue of the sky was completely eclipsed by flickering white, by the white of the birds’ bellies.

They were knot. (That’s a plural). Knot are smallish, dumpy  sandpipers which breed in the  High Arctic and winter in Africa in places like Mauretania, and on their way between the two they stop off to refuel in several of the larger British estuaries, such as the Dee and the Ribble, and here in the Wash, the largest of all.

When they do, they congregate in astonishing numbers and colossal flocks can be observed, in September especially, containing more than 100,000 birds; and if you go at the right moment – when a very high tide pushes them completely off the mudflats – you can watch these flocks dance in the sky, snaking and shifting together in mesmerising co-ordinated twirls, as they move en masse on to the land.

The scientific name of the knot is Calidris canutus and the bird is thought to be named after King Canute, or Cnut, the Danish king of England and Scandinavia in the 11th century, who, legend has it, set his throne on the beach and commanded the waves of the incoming tide not to wet his feet – in vain. (The true point of the story is allegedly that Canute was showing to his flattering courtiers that only God was truly all-powerful).

Certainly, in the Wash on Monday, the knot resisted the tide’s advance later than any other wading birds, and as we walked along the Norfolk shore from the car park at Snettisham we had a glimpse of them roosting out on  the mudflats, when the mist  briefly lifted.

It was one of those revelatory moments beloved of early Hollywood film directors, when the camera crests a ridge and discloses a whole army in the field. Here it was an army of oystercatchers, plump black and white waders with scarlet bills: I estimated there must have been at least 8,000 of them massed together about a quarter  of a mile offshore. Then the mist lifted further and behind the oystercatchers were the knot, at least three times as many; an endless grey carpet fading into  the distance.

As the tide spread in, waders everywhere were coming ashore, as individuals or in small groups, shooting overhead and calling, redshank and greenshank,  black-tailed and bar-tailed godwits, dunlin and ringed plovers. Then eventually the oystercatchers  took flight, in bigger of flocks of  100 or 200 birds, and streamed on to the land.

We watched and waited in silence for the finale. And then at last, the enormous murmuration, the giant whispering, coming from within the mist.

You think leaves turning gold make the great spectacle of autumn? You should see the knot.

Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum