Trip reports

Mud, glorious mud

Mud, glorious mud
Graeme Hutchinson

Friday, 13 February 2015

Mud is a much maligned resource. We dismiss it as dirty, unpleasant and a thing to be avoided. Arriving at Two Tree Island last Sunday and walking down to the jetty we were confronted with mud as far as the eye could see. It was low tide and the mud looked rather beautiful gleaming in the sunshine.

From the jetty you can see Southend pier on the horizon, the longest pleasure pier in the world at 1.34 miles. It had to be this long to reach water deep enough for boats full of day trippers to dock at low tide. The tide here recedes a mile from the shore. Even with a telescope it was hard to make out the water's edge.

The mud, of course, is what makes Two Tree Island such an excellent birding spot. It is full of food. Waders winter here to take advantage of this bounty, each having evolved different bill lengths and shapes to allow them to winkle out their preferred seafood treats. And while the tide is out, the café is open.

So the key to birdwatching here is to arrive on an incoming tide. We arrived just after 10am, with high tide due at 3pm.Throughout the day the tide was pushing the birds towards us. Our plan was to be at the hide overlooking a small lagoon at the western end of the island by an hour before high tide, by which point, the café would be closed.

Having been pushed off their feeding grounds, the birds need somewhere to roost, and this is an ideal spot to await the tide's retreat. It is also an ideal spot to birdwatch. The lagoon is dotted with little islands each of which has a sign with a letter painted on it. This makes it easy to describe to others where you have seen something.

We saw greenshank, redshank, avocet, ringed plover, dunlin, snipe, shelduck, widgeon, shoveler, and best of all, knot. Arriving en-masse in an elegant aerial ballet then funnelling down to an impossibly small space, they shuffled around for a while, perhaps jockeying for the best position, then settling for a doze, packed shoulder to shoulder.

Unlike ours, their clock is set not to the Sun, but to the Moon, or more specifically, it's effect on the tide. The knot will feed when the tide is out regardless of the time of day. You may have seen some fantastic infra-red film of knot flying in the dark at Snettisham on Winterwatch, performing acrobatics every bit as intricate as you would see in daytime.

There is also another café on Two Tree Island, not at all muddy and serving arguably the best toasted tea cakes anywhere in the country, and here we ended our day.