Shellness

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British Wildlife

The tide is running in fast and the crowd of oystercatchers in the bay walks up the beach like an invading army in black and white tunics. Then the bulk of the birds flies to the shelving bank of cockle and osyter shells on the spit to sit out the high tide like a well-drilled regiment; the muddy bay is empty for a few minutes until the water washes in to create an elegant, sinuous shoreline.

The oystercatcher flock is hidden from view on the path that runs to the far side of the spit, the sounds of squabbling birds rise on the wind then die away like roaring fans hidden within a stadium. The water continues to surge up the narrow creeks and drown the Spartina. Grey plovers linger on the muddy edges along with a few redshanks and dunlins. A kingfisher flies up the main creek and swerves over the saltmarsh and down another smaller one. A pair of redshanks swing over the saltmarsh and down a creek, flying low over the water at dazzling speed like a pair of fighters on a sortie.

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The gathering tide at Shellness 

A pair of jet skiers bounce noisily along the edge of the roost and up the oystercatchers go in a swirling flock. The birds quickly settle and some birds watch as the pair ride more sedately back down to Leysdown. At this time of year, disturbance from weekend boats and assorted craft is probably frequent. This is unlikely to be a major problem unless so frequent that flocks have to abandon a roost location entirely. The pressure comes in freezing weather during the depths of winter when birds need to conserve energy and at these times, human disturbance events, such as an errant jet skier, is likely to be much less common than on a warm, windless day in September.

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Oystercatchers take off as jet skiers fly past

Curlews gather on the edge of the saltmarsh before flying in streams to the centre of the saltmarsh; here they settle before a motorized hang glider runs across the sky as loud as a Sunday motor mower and puts them up in another swirl. A peregrine tears across the sun on razored wings and suddenly stoops at a dunlin-sized wader but misses, twists and tries again. The oystercatchers and curlews stay put; the peregrine hangs over the estuary then disappears as it heads out over the water. The next hour is uneventful as the tide pushes up the creeks and floods the marsh. Then the wind drops, the birds fall silent and the tide ceases to run.

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Flower-rich cockleshell shingle

The yellow horned-poppies are a blaze of autumn colour on the cockle shore. Young Sandwich terns squeek and scream at their parents and all sit out the high tide on the groynes, occasionally being washed off in a flurry of wings by a freak wave. Ringed plovers squat on the cockles close to the path and rely on their cryptic camouflage. On anther visit, a weasel ran across the path and perhaps they try their luck at high tide but the saltmarsh is full of voles, which is the more likely prey.

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Yellow horned-poppy in the afternoon sun

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