The magic of hiding | Rye Harbour Nature Reserve

The magic of hiding

Sunday, 22nd May 2022

Posted in: Rye Harbour Wildlife
The magic of hiding
© Sam Pyrah

By Sam Pyrah

My boots crunch over gravel as I make my way to Parkes hide. It’s empty when I go inside, which, I admit, is how I like it. The shutters are closed, the light dim; I breathe in the garden-shed smell of wood and cobwebs.

I open one of the viewing windows and sit down. ‘Greys and blues and soft greens are the colours,’ wrote Paul Gallico in The Snow Goose. He was writing about the liminal space between land and sea on the Essex coast – a patchwork of marsh and mudflat, salting and sea – but it describes Rye Harbour Nature Reserve perfectly.

Wind ruffles the surface of Ternery Pool. Oystercatchers in a row on the shore, stock-still with their traffic-cone bills and red button eyes. Avocets strutting on supermodel legs, sifting the shallows with their glossy upturned bills. Cormorants hanging their wings out to dry.

© Sam Pyrah

As I watch, I feel my breathing slow; my shoulders drop their tension like a couple of heavy shopping bags. There is something uniquely soothing about looking out from a hide window – the way it narrows the world to a manageable strip, inviting you to focus only on what’s before you and forget the rest.

I visited the nature reserve for years without ever entering the hides. I would walk – or run – straight past the little wooden huts that I didn’t think were for me. But lockdown rekindled a childhood interest in nature, and I finally ventured inside, a scuffed old pair of binoculars tucked in my bag. I was hooked instantly.

I’m not here to tick off species or spot rarities. I’m here to take a moment away from the usual daily rush, to pause and open my senses to the sights and sounds of nature. It’s no surprise to learn that research from the University of Exeter found that doing just that can help reduce stress, anxiety and depression.

All life is here. Breeding and brooding, feeding and fighting, preening and snoozing. On a shingle island, Turnstones fossick along the shoreline while a pair of Tufted Ducks nap, their heads turned backwards, bills tucked into their back feathers. Then a commotion erupts – Common Terns, or Sea Swallows, as they are sometimes called – explode into the air to divebomb a Herring Gull that has landed on their nesting site. Their screeching is like a games teacher’s whistle.

Black-headed Gulls
Black-headed Gulls © Barry Yates

The intruder labours into flight, and peace is restored. For now, at least. A Black-headed Gull flies by, twig in bill, and I watch it land, laying the offering in front of his partner. She picks it up and arranges it on her threadbare nest, then settles down, satisfied.

We can see and hear birds when we walk, of course. But they see and hear us first, and often, they’re gone before we even knew they were there. Sitting, unobserved, in a hide offers a chance to catch more than just a fleeting glimpse of wings or a snatch of song.

In an essay from her collection Vesper Flights, the author Helen Macdonald suggests that hides distance us from the landscape we’re looking at: “reinforcing a divide between human and natural worlds.” But I don’t see it that way. For me, the barrier is protective, not divisive. As the sign outside Parkes hide reads: Birds gather here because they are not disturbed. Hiding, figuratively and literally, gives us a window on the non-human world, enabling us to bear witness to acts of tenderness and bravery, resourcefulness and determination while simultaneously reminding us that it – the life, the universe and everything – is not all about us.

I’m not sure how long I’ve been in the hide, but when I close the door behind me, the sun is pinking the edges of the smoke-grey clouds to the west and a cuticle of moon has appeared. A flight of cormorants in single file draws a high black line across the sky, heading in from the sea to roost. I head home, too. The same, but different.

Guide in a Hide events usually take place once a month at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve - more details here

Sam Pyrah is a Rye-based writer with a passion for nature and the outdoors. She volunteers for the Sussex Wildlife Trust and runs a local nature project, Wilder Iden. She is currently studying for an MA in Wild Writing at the University of Essex.


This post is also available on Sussex Wildlife Trust website

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