Country diary: cockle-picking birds are a poignant reminder of tragedy

Arnside, Cumbria: The mudflats gleam like sheet metal in the winter sun, but there is great danger on Morecambe Bay’s sands

Somehow we didn’t notice the tide race out. A short time ago, the brown Irish Sea was lapping right up against the coast near Silverdale; now it has made a leap away from the land and is strung across the sand of Morecambe Bay in a curving, rapidly receding line. Glazed with seawater, the mudflats exposed by the retreating tide shine like sheet metal in the winter sun.

We walk along the shoreline path, through woods of birch and juniper that hug the rocky coastal edge in a way that feels novel for England, almost exotic. Every time we look out, more of the bay has emerged; a complex swirl of sinuous channels and sandbanks that, at 120 sq miles, comprises the biggest intertidal expanse in Britain.

Against the molten gold glare of the flats, my eye catches a formation of small silhouettes flying low and fast. More similar-looking wading birds appear, racing across the sands and congregating in groups, where they busily probe for their quarry in newly exposed sand.

A knot foraging among seaweed on a beach in the Shetland Islands
A knot foraging in seaweed on a beach. Photograph: FLPA/Rex/Shutterstock

The path eventually takes us near enough to a couple of these groups to identify dunlins (Calidris alpina). There are also stockier knots (C canutus) in their grey and white winter plumage. In some coastal locations, like north Norfolk, tens of thousands of these overwintering Arctic birds form iridescent murmurations that change colour as they wheel in the sky, flashing their pale underwings. I see only a few here, but even so they seem a poignant match for the location.

The knot’s Latin name refers to Cnut, or Canute, the Saxon king who famously failed to hold back an advancing tide. The dangers of the Morecambe Bay sands have been underscored by tragedy for centuries, but the very modern disaster of 2004, when 23 Chinese cockle pickers drowned, impressed them again on the national consciousness. (The knot, as it happens, is a specialist feeder on molluscs like cockles.)

I have not seen those sands with my own eyes since I was young. Watching the tide receding so rapidly, I chill at the thought of it reclaiming that advance at the same speed, and how far away home must seem if you were marooned there in the dark.

• This article was amended on 27 January 2020 because an earlier version wrongly referred to cockles as crustaceans, rather than as molluscs. This has been corrected.


Carey Davies

The GuardianTramp

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