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The gathering of knot: an experience of a lifetime

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Chris Packham Chris Packham | 16:39 UK time, Thursday, 22 October 2009

There is a marvellous quote from The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. I can't remember it verbatim (it will come to me, probably this evening when I pick up another book). It basically confronts the reader with their own mortality. How many full moon rises will you see, it asks. How many times will you recall a certain instance of your childhood? It ends by pointing out our misplaced ideas that life seems to go on forever are a dangerous precedent, likely to reduce our thirst for experience.

I was moved to think about this when on Monday and Tuesday morning this week I stood on a bank of shingle and felt thousands of birds fly through me. It was a very special moment.

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The wings of thousands of red knot slashed the air like sabres and their underwings twinkled superfast as they twisted up and over my head and veered into an exploding sunrise. The scene is simple: expanses of sea, mud and sky and the players a multitude of unremarkable individuals who unite to form an unbelievable whole.

To witness this thing could be described as 'an experience of a lifetime'. But having that experience is not easy because it is choreographed by the forces of nature and astronomy and the fickle hand of the weather. You can't just buy a ticket and turn up; the cast may not, the whistle may not be blown, the curtains don't always rise.

Basically, it has the potential to happen maximally on just three mornings a year. (We explain why this is on the programme.) So let's say I plan to live an average 65 years. That's a total of 195 opportunities in a lifetime. But, let's face it, up to the teens it can't really be appreciated through the lack of comparative experiences. So maybe by 16-18 it could be a truly formative moment. So 65 minus 18 is 47. Multiply that by three and you have 141.


A multitude of unremarkable individuals who unite to form an unbelievable whole (photo: Andrew Parkinson/NPL)

Then say you're at university or training in some way, that's minus another three or four years - down to 129. Then you get a job so it's weekends only - down to around 36. Then you have kids and weekends are out. And then you're into sport or music or whatever and this rules out quite a few more days. What shall we say? Down to ten. Then there's the weather, ever unpredictable especially in autumn and winter.

I think that I've been to try and see it about eight times and have succeeded on four. That's 50%. So maybe that's just five mornings in a lifetime you might have a chance to be utterly elated by birds. Five days in 23,725. Over a lifetime that's 0.25%.

I hope you are able to enjoy and relate to mine and Kate attempts to convey our excitement. It's all genuine of course and quite spontaneous. But whatever, I don't think it is any kind of substitute for the real thing. So, RSPB Snettisham, north Norfolk, two more 'good' days to go this year.

Thus cancel the Christmas shopping, dump the pantomime, find a patch of dirt on the edge of a big cold sea as it gets light and seize an incredible moment for yourselves. And don't put it off, it has only been happening for the last 30 years and given the rising sea levels it isn't guaranteed to be happening for the next 30.


  • 1. At 8:50pm on 22 Oct 2009, Wildlife Filmer Adam wrote:

    Cheers mate.

    *SWOON* as Skylark would put, I'm guessing...

    Adam L Canning

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  • 2. At 09:38am on 23 Oct 2009, Denice_Stout wrote:

    If I actually had a way to get up to norfolk I would, but alas i'm stuck in bristol with no car & hardly any finances to spare for such an outing.

    It looks like an incredible and overwhelming site, something one could quite easily wheep of joy over.

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  • 3. At 09:44am on 23 Oct 2009, Awesomejourney wrote:

    Looking forward to tonight's AutumnWatch...great show....all you guys and gals are GREAT......

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  • 4. At 12:51pm on 23 Oct 2009, littlejojo61 wrote:

    Wow - what an experience.
    Wish I could write like that Chris. Nearly moved me to tears.
    Thank you so much

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  • 5. At 2:16pm on 23 Oct 2009, AberystwythCumbrian wrote:

    I've experienced Knot at morecambe bay at sunset but probably nowhere near as many as in norfolk! maybe you could bring them all with you to aberystwyth in november? Great blog really brought your experience to life....


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  • 6. At 4:02pm on 23 Oct 2009, fabdawn22 wrote:

    Hi There, Can't wait until tonight's programme. I love Autumnwatch. Sent a drawing in of a Red Kite, so hopefully they will like it. Really enjoyed seeing the Red Kite last week on Unsprung, they are beautiful birds. Hi to everyone on the team.

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  • 7. At 10:16pm on 23 Oct 2009, sax_man_al wrote:

    I got to see a few summer plumage Knot in Shetland towards the end of the summer, very smart birds. Would love to see these massive flocks, but am going to the Falklands for the winter, so out goes another year of my equation! I have seen the Greenland Whitefronted Geese going to roost at the Wexford Slobs in Ireland though, that is an incredible experience too and happens every night at dusk.

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  • 8. At 10:28pm on 23 Oct 2009, lindsayloodle wrote:

    Does anyone know if allelomimisiss is the same thing that fish have when you see the great schools if them swirling around in the sea?

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  • 9. At 10:42pm on 23 Oct 2009, chramm wrote:

    How can we find out when these two more 'good' days will be?

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  • 10. At 08:25am on 24 Oct 2009, littlejojo61 wrote:

    Good question widcombeboy. Using Chris's calculations I realise that I am running out of opportunities to witness this amazing spectacle. Did the team have inside knowledge, weather,tides, etc. or was it just good luck?
    Whatever, it was brilliant and even a little swoon from Chris!

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  • 11. At 3:55pm on 24 Oct 2009, Joannacja wrote:

    Anyone who lives around Bristol, get yourselves along to Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, with a flask of something warm and your binoculars. this flight happens at dusk there, and it is amazing, brought tears to my eyes!!
    Am loving Autumnwatch. Noted that Chris and Kate were in Bristol yesterday. PLEASE CHRIS, any chance of a quick visit from you to my Reception children, at a school near the BBC centre in Whiteladies road? We've got great grounds at school, but I'd like to do more with the children than just making dens and watching Fred our squirrel! If you can spare a few minutes, we'd love to see you1

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  • 12. At 3:57pm on 24 Oct 2009, Joannacja wrote:

    Oh yes, meant to ask, is the badger related to a weasel? The face looks really similar..and why do they have a stripe down thier faces? beautiful creatures. Joanna

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  • 13. At 4:00pm on 24 Oct 2009, visualcornishcrow wrote:

    afew years ago i had a wonderful experience at the sight of two hoopoe that had been blown in by the autummn wind. at the time i thought it was two strange looking woodpeckers, until they spread thier wings and flew. this was in a field near plymouth sound

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  • 14. At 5:59pm on 24 Oct 2009, Awesomejourney wrote:

    Hi everyone.. the BBC Autumnwatch was again brilliant ...just gets better and better every week and again not long enough....
    I am curious as to the movement of the Knots' undulating flight formation in the sky is it caused by the same sequence of events as fish when they are swimming in their undulating formation?

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  • 15. At 5:59pm on 24 Oct 2009, LateNightSkies wrote:

    Soo lucky, to be able to go around looking at these things as a career! i think i might have to try and get myself a job at the NHU!

    Ps Thanks for Swooning :)

    You may be oblivious to its meaning, but it made lots of the messageboarders extremely happy last night, and today! :)

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  • 16. At 6:14pm on 24 Oct 2009, lizziebee3 wrote:

    Chris, what a truly amazing spectacle this was on last night's Autumnwatch and fabulously described here in your usual eloquent style. Natural spectacles like this never cease to amaze me.

    Thanks go to you, Kate and the team for bringing it to us. Being there for yourselves must have been quite amazing - a very special experience. For those of us who couldn't be there in person this came a pretty close second and you did both convey your excitement successfully. Well done!

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  • 17. At 8:53pm on 24 Oct 2009, RamblingRosi wrote:

    Thank you for sharing the joy of your experience, which was wonderfully well conveyed. It really took me back to the very similar elation we experienced one evening a few years ago in Hervey Bay, Australia in April (their Autumn), when literally millions of flying foxes(large bats)flew over our heads on their way to Fraser Island to feed. For over an hour and from dusk to darkness the sky was full of the slightly ghostly, whirling mass of those amazing creatures. Such experiences restore faith in the survival of species!

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  • 18. At 10:34pm on 24 Oct 2009, Dustybaboon wrote:

    Chris, Simon, Kate, Gordon and the team.

    Fantastic Autumn watch. The format works well for me and by the reading of the blogs it's not only me. I have a question that has been asked earlier, but would like to back it up. How do we work out what the "conditions" are for this 'Knott' experience to be had at least once in my lifetime? If i were to work things out i have 25 years to get to the "65 year" benchmark. This leaves me with a very slim chance, but would love the opportunity.

    I and many viewers would like to claim a swoon for ourselves. Chris, Kate or any of the team. Would you point us in the right direction?

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  • 19. At 11:35pm on 24 Oct 2009, misscleggie wrote:

    I was at Snettisham earlier in the autumn, it was an unbelievable experience. The cold wind and early morning drifted out of my head as soon as the waders started moving. The noise and atmosphere were incomparable, so beautiful, swift and swarm-like in their movements. Then the mixed bag of waders splurged overhead in small clusters, oystercatchers, godwits, redshank, greenshank, more oystercatchers, more godwits. Living in the furthest city from the sea, I'd never witnessed anything like it. It nearly moved me to tears and wasn't nearly as spectacular as the one shown on Autumnwatch.

    Then someone asked me if I was off to the hide yet. I looked confused as I hadn't realised this was a two phase spectacle. There were more godwits than knots but thanks to some experienced, very kind birdwatchers, I was able to pick out the redshank, greenshank, grey plover, the different godwits. Its one of the reasons I love birding so much, that people are always willing to point things out to you and even let you peer down their very expensive scopes for a better view.

    I'll definitely be back next year!!! Even with Chris' calculations (loving the geekness).

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  • 20. At 4:28pm on 25 Oct 2009, mr-woodlark wrote:

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  • 21. At 4:34pm on 25 Oct 2009, mr-woodlark wrote:

    Was curious that chris didnt correctly identify the worm cast he dug up to illustrate the knots food source...The cast is that of a lugworm that rest in a U shaped burrow beneath the mud...nearby would have been a blow hole to show the opposite side of the chamber.
    The worm shown by chris was a white ragworm that often frequent lugworm population areas.

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  • 22. At 5:55pm on 27 Oct 2009, kralcenna wrote:

    Can somebody tell me what the Latin term was Chris used when he was explaining why birds don't crash and collide into each other when flying in these enormous flocks?....Something beginning with "A"! Thanks very much!

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  • 23. At 9:29pm on 27 Oct 2009, enwage wrote:

    Great programme.. knot, killer whales, deer, badger and geese, what a winner. Kate being a bit unfair about your record collection Chris, seems pretty respectable to me. I'm liking the album cover abstracts on the backs of your prompt cards. Having trouble with recognising a few of the ones last Friday, glad you managed to get Lust for Life into the show.

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  • 24. At 08:39am on 28 Oct 2009, vet_tash wrote:

    Its allelomimesis!

    Please can you let us know how to work out which dates of this year we'd be able to see this happen?? Would love to see it for myself! THank you. (loving the geekness)

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  • 25. At 7:04pm on 28 Oct 2009, bobbud wrote:

    What a wonderful reminder of my first experience of Knots. My husband and I were walking along the sea banks at Frieston Reserve and observed on one of the islands a huge sight of what looked liked grey cobbles. We were quite puzzled as we hadn't noticed this on previous visits, then suddenly the grey cobbles took flight, I can't express my astonishment, what a sight. As soon as I returned home I telephoned my local RSBP group and was advised the flying cobbles were Knots.

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  • 26. At 10:09am on 08 Nov 2009, Helen wrote:

    Hi Team
    I love AutumnWatch in its new format and I am sorry that next week will be the last programme. How about extending the Spring and Autumn Watches to create a NatureWatch for more weeks in the year? Being computer illiterate, I would love to know how to download the fantastic video of the Knot flying - I would like to play with getting some 'stills' to try a bit of arty stuff. Would the copyright rules allow it?

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