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Hear starlings performing an extraordinary imitation



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We enjoyed the bracing mixed autumn weather on a recent visit to North Norfolk, our lungs and spirits refreshed by long walks over dunes, saltmarsh, and shell-strewn sandflats. While some brave souls were still paddling and swimming, the cool air confirmed the turn of the season.

Swallows twittered and gathered on the wires, feeding up on aerial insects and looking distinctly restless as their inner urges geared them up for the long migration to Africa.

Brent geese grazing. Picture: Martin Walters
Brent geese grazing. Picture: Martin Walters

The muddy banks alongside the harbour entrance were populated by flocks of Brent geese and oystercatchers, interspersed with groups of grey plovers, redshanks, curlews and turnstones.

A curlew. Picture: Jonathan Heath
A curlew. Picture: Jonathan Heath

Curlews breed in the moors and uplands of Scotland, Wales, and northern England where there have been worrying declines in their populations. Like most waders they winter mainly on the coast, and it was good to see so many flying over the marsh or feeding at the edges of tidal channels, and to hear their delightful fluting calls.

Later, another sound caught my ear. Distant yelping cries, faint at first, got gradually louder as loose skeins of pink-footed geese soared over, heading towards wet grassland behind the sheltering belt of black pines.

As well as grazing on pastures, they also feed on spilled grain, cereal stubble, and sugar beet tops left on agricultural land after harvest. These sturdy geese are faithful to this coast as a favoured winter habitat, though far from their breeding grounds in Iceland. Their numbers have swelled in recent years and there are now over 100,000 wintering in Norfolk. By early spring they will have left, heading back over the ocean to Iceland.

Pink-footed geese. Picture: Martin Walters
Pink-footed geese. Picture: Martin Walters

Beyond the estuary and out over the sea with its breaking surf, flocks of gulls followed fishing boats, and there was also a steady passage of gannets: long-winged and graceful, the brown young birds were accompanied by dazzling white adults with their jet-black wingtips.

Suddenly they would stall, turn and plunge-dive amongst shoals of fish. Such a feeding strategy must be tiring, but in flight they conserve their energy by soaring on the near endless air currents.

Brent geese in tidal creek. Picture: Martin Walters
Brent geese in tidal creek. Picture: Martin Walters

We returned from the open shore and rounded the lifeboat station at the entrance to the channel towards the harbour, found a sheltered spot and gazed out across the water.

A couple of water birds caught my eye. Duck-sized, but swimming low in the water in the manner of a cormorant, these were wintering red-throated divers. We watched a pair as they dived after prey in the water at close quarters. Some 1,300 pairs of these fascinating birds breed mainly in Shetland, Orkney, the Hebrides, and northern mainland Scotland, wintering to coastal waters, especially in the east where their numbers are swelled by migrants from further north in Europe.

Red-throated diver. Picture: Jonathan Heath
Red-throated diver. Picture: Jonathan Heath

One of the divers was showing signs of changing plumage, with just the hint of a red patch beginning to show on its throat. Both clearly showed the distinctive bill, upturned towards the tip. Like the geese, they will eventually leave these coastal waters, returning north in March or April.

As we walked back from the coast, I was surprised to hear a curlew, but softly, and from close by. The call seemed to be coming from a shed-like structure near the harbour, and I soon detected the source.

Starlings. Picture: Martin Walters
Starlings. Picture: Martin Walters

Huddled under the eaves were several starlings gathering ahead of their communal roost and twittering. Among the typical starling clicks and whistles were sounds they had clearly picked up from the estuary, including some accurate curlew calls!

Visit Martin Walters’ author page for more articles like these

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