It’s true that we first saw the dunlins at night, scurrying along the oozing mud of the Colne at Wivenhoe as the tide receded. Their shapes were indistinct, spectral, shades. Were they voles or vermin of some sort? They moved along the shore unlike any birds we had ever seen.
Our eyes, adjusting to the low light, said they were birds. Research suggested dunlins, or sanderling maybe. And there were other birds, too: turnstone, sandpiper, redshank, ringed plover. So soon out of the city we had stumbled into a new vocabulary, brought to us by the birds at our new doorstep, birds that had been absent during that first hot summer in Wivenhoe, that had arrived at some point as winter had stilled and greyed the estuary.
The birds understood this territory more than us. They were overwintering here, or in passage on their way to southern France, the Iberian peninsula or west Africa. They had come from the far north as part of their incredible annual migratory circuit, seeking food and a temporary home – a safe environment in which they could, for a time at least, continue to exist. Food and shelter are the most basic of urges.
But we were migrants too. We had also lived temporarily in Wivenhoe before, more than a decade earlier. The paths of our own migratory stories took in locations from the north to the south of England, east and west. Before us, our families had moved from Ireland, Scotland, France and Scandinavia. Our own family folk histories told of us having followed the migratory paths of Celts, Saxons, Vikings. Go back far enough and, like so many families, we were not from here or there, we were from everywhere. The migratory paths of our own lifetimes told of economic migration: of moving home to find work, build a better life, feel safe. This is the essential tale of so many migrations.
The dunlins of the Colne disappeared, it seemed, as soon as they had arrived. We caught them once or twice in daylight, on the wide silted river banks near the Ferrymarsh, pecking at the mud between black- and bar-tailed godwits, and the redshanks flitting past, low over the water – their mournful, beautiful, ‘tyu-tyu’ call piercing the near-silent afternoon.
It was a year before we discovered that the dunlins would return. And they are still the most secretive of the waders we see on the river near our home that now, for us, is not quite so new. We still see them mostly at night when the black-headed gulls have flown back out to sea. And while the overwintering godwits linger here for months, the dunlins’ stay here is just as fleeting as ever. It’s easy to miss them and almost heartbreaking if we do.
Out of the blue they arrive. Into the blue they go. Crossing oceans and continents on their way without any notion of borders, always to plan, as necessity dictates, and always welcomed here.
A new book from Dunlin Press, The Migrant Waders, will be published in Spring 2016.