Christmas Day on the mudflats. A day to remember with plenty of exciting birds and a sea breeze taking the heat out of the sun.
After a lunch of turkey and plum pudding at a St Helens hotel I had taken off for an afternoon of holiday bird-watching. I didn’t have to wander far, a vantage point overlooking open water, marsh and mudflat was a short walk along the road to Binalong Bay.
Before me lay a tidal pool, an island of saltmarsh and beyond this the wide expanse of Georges Bay.
As I approached the vantage point – which since I last visited St Helens a few years ago had obtained a bench and display panel – a great white egret was fishing in a shallow creek a few metres away.
I paused, not wishing to disturb the egret but it rose all the same, croaking angrily as it went. Spread out before me was a passing parade of wetland birds, of all shapes and sizes. The smallest, red-necked stints dashed across the mud at the high tide mark. The stints, no bigger than sparrows, were visiting from the far north of the planet, where they breed in the Arctic tundra.
In shallow waters out in the bay much larger waders, bar-tailed godwits, balanced on lanky legs, thrusting their long slightly upturned beaks into dappled sand below the bay’s surface.
White-faced herons paced in still deeper waters, and above them crested terns spun in wide circles, every now and then pausing in mid-flight to dive into the blue waters, to emerge with flashing silver fish in their beaks.
All the while chestnut and grey teals, shelduck and pelicans cruised among them.
The peace and calm was disturbed momentarily when masked lapwings took to the wing from a wet meadow bordering the road behind me. I soon saw what the fuss was about – a traditional lapwing foe, the feared swamp harrier, was on the wing.
The birds out on the mudflats and open water, the tiny stints among them, did not seem bothered by the harrier, a migratory bird which times its arrival from the mainland at the end of winter and early spring to coincide with the nesting season of the lapwings.
The lapwings, swooping and dive-bombing, soon sent the harrier on its way, and momentarily peace returned.
It proved, however, to be a brief lull in the traditional war between predator and prey.
What followed next was an explosion of sound, a cacophony of alarm calls: screeches and quacks, piping and squawks. Hundreds of fluttering shapes had taken to the sky in urgent, rapid flight and without looking skyward, or across the bay, I knew immediately the cause of the commotion.
A white-bellied sea eagle had appeared on the scene. I had actually caught a glimpse of the sea eagle earlier, while eating my Christmas lunch, but at that time it had been too high to trouble the roosting birds, the eagle riding the thermals of hot air rising off the ocean. It may have been on a leisurely hunt then, but now there appeared an urgency about its brutal business. Here was a bird looking for a feed late afternoon before sunset. It flew hard and fast, straight towards me, scattering birds as it went. None, not even the belligerent lapwings, dared challenge it.
The only birds to stay put were a small flock of stints close to my vantage point and the godwits out on the bay, but I noticed both species had stopped feeding, the godwits with knitting-needle beaks thrust skyward.
The eagle had clearly showed its hand, approaching low from where it could be spotted from some distance, instead of spiralling down from a great height, and the element of surprise had been lost.
It rolled its head from side to side, perhaps looking for an old or injured bird that might make an easy Christmas dinner, but it was to be disappointed.