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.

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: HGV Fitter - Technician

£16 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity for someone ...

Recruitment Genius: Automotive Service Advisor - Franchised Main Dealer

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful, family owned m...

Ashdown Group: Account Payable Assistant - SW London

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Account Payable Assistant - SW Londo...

Recruitment Genius: Bathroom Showroom Customer Service / Sales Assistant

£14560 - £17680 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Even though their premises have...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence