To Isley Marsh on a chilly morning – a wildlife sanctuary on the North Devon coast, owned by the RSPB. Meeting up with a large group of fellow nature-lovers. It felt strange approaching the site from the Estuary Business Park, with its noise of machinery and vehicles, and at the same time seeing clouds of birds flying way beyond the distant trees. A glimpse into a distant world. A promise of adventure.
Walking along the track in a light wind… gentle bird calls all around… the noise from the business park, now softened and blurred into the background… quiet talking within the group, as birds were spotted: redshank, oyster catcher, spoonbill, lapwing… Most of us carried binoculars and used them enthusiastically, a few had telescopes. I was surprised the focus of the group seemed so much upon searching and identifying. No-one mentioned the shimmering birdsong all around us, nor the soft sweep of the sky and water – the shifting clouds – the earthy physical qualities of mud, stones and marshland vegetation – nor the scents of wet leaves and animals from the ground, and the cold wind on one’s cheeks. Maybe these things are best not spoken about. Maybe.
I wanted to ask about wildlife sanctuaries, and whether these days, when natural throughways and migratory paths are systematically obstructed by human activity, there needs to be greater emphasis on creating ‘safe passage’ between the safe places. But I didn’t – because I know the answer. And it would have disrupted the flow of the day.
I am embarrased to say I eventually got bored with bird-spotting. It was great learning to recognise a few species by the colour of their legs, their beak or their markings, and great realising how much I already knew. I was thrilled to see a flock of spoonbill for the first time. And when I looked through our leader’s big telescope and saw a vast flock of birds, circling in what I thought was a completely empty sky – I was astonished, and realised my very limited vision.
But after an hour or two, wandering the marshland tracks, I found I was amusing myself by observing our own behaviour. I watched myself instinctively find the most sheltered place to stand out of the wind: behind a group of large men. I watched also, as someone took the lead, moving forward along our pathway, and the rest of us gradually began to follow, in twos and threes – until the whole group was moving as one, like a flock of … birds.
That was interesting! and reassuring. We are a part of nature, after all – and obeying natural laws just like any other life form – we are not running the show, after all.