Peregrinations (part two).

Cwm Coke Works, near Beddau

A couple of weeks ago I drove down to Cardiff with my mate Jonathan to see Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets at St David’s Hall. Nick was one of the founder members of Pink Floyd. A few years ago he put together a band to play music from “the Floyd’s” earlier and arguably most creative years, prior to Dark Side of the Moon. No Roger Waters dirges here, thank you very much! The gig, originally scheduled for spring 2020, was postponed, postponed again, and then again. You had to hope that Nick would still be fit enough to eventually play. That Wednesday, it finally happened, and he was. I don’t think he could be described as the most original or inventive drummer in the world, but he sets a rock-solid foundation for the other musicians around him. At the age of 78, it is astonishing that he is still able to undertake gruelling sequences of one – night stands, and to keep alive some of the most compelling rock music of all time.

I won’t say much more about the music, other than this : both Jonathan and I are of the opinion that the 22-minute long track “Echoes” (on the album Meddle) is one of the most sublime pieces of music ever created. I personally believe it should, and eventually probably will, be considered alongside the great classical music of its era. I had been worried that I wouldn’t be able to cope with experiencing it live. But as we left the venue agreed that the version of Echoes which ended the second set was a bit of a let-down. It was as if the band were wary of reproducing the space and tranquility which so permeates the studio version. Or perhaps they were unable to do so?

But I digress. My next encounter with peregrines, on the way back from Cardiff, was in a very different setting to the previous one; from the sublime to the ridiculous, you could say. I have briefly visited the Cwm Coke Works site twice in recent years. It only finally closed down in 2002, so I must also have seen it in all its working glory on earlier visits to the Valleys. I just wish I had given it the time it deserved as photographic subject matter, because this extensive site is now derelict and rapidly being demolished. Last summer I heard the unmistakeable calls of peregrines there so vowed to re-visit the site during the breeding season if at all possible.

The Coke Works bar and coffee shop, Beddau. (Mural hand-painted by Jenny Ross)

At first it was very quiet. A raven was calling and song birds singing from the woodland which is rapidly regenerating around the site. Then came the sounds of two peregrines in conversation. I spotted one bird circling low around the building in the main picture and shortly later J. picked out the female hunched down in the dirt on an inaccessible part of the site. Later the male brought her some food, and when she stood up you could see two tiny white downy bundles beside her. It is worth mentioning here that at the time Derek Ratcliffe wrote his masterwork The Peregrine Falcon (publ. 1980) it was virtually unknown for the species to nest on man-made structures in the UK : now it is commonplace. I suppose this site gives the birds all the security they need, but it was strange to see such dignified creatures in such delapidated surroundings.

A group of naturalists appeared on the coal tip behind us and I discovered that one member of the party was Carys Romney, who I had also met by chance on a previous visit. She is an ecologist and the leading light behind the Cwm Tips Appreciation Society. She told me about her new venture – a peregrine- and cwm tips-themed bar/coffee shop in the ex-mining village of Beddau a couple of miles away. As you can see from the picture above, there are some fabulous murals there by the artist Jenny Ross, and I can certainly vouch for the quality of the coffee! So why not give the Cokeworks Bar a visit if you find yourself in the area?

NB : I hesitated before posting details of the peregrine site, but it should be noted how well-known and valued the birds are locally; and how they are protected by some very keen site security staff.

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Peregrinations (part one).

Female dipper at Aberaeron

Over the last few weeks I’ve been exploring parts of the Ceredigion coast with the aid of an excellent bus service. I leave my van in the out-of-town-supermarket car park in Aberystwyth and hop on the bus. It’s a relaxing way to arrive at your destination, and stepping out of the bus in New Quay or Aberaeron on a sunny morning can feel like being on holiday!

I’ve never had much success photographing dippers, but there is a pair on the river at Aberaeron which is semi-accustomed to the presence of walkers passing by. I spent one morning there recently where I was able to photograph both birds at close range. The male has an unpleasant growth on his right ankle but that doesn’t seem to have affected his ability to supply his mate (and possibly youngsters) with larvae from the river bed. The female is a very fine specimen indeed.

I wouldn’t like anyone to think that I come back from a visit like this with memory cards full of perfectly composed, focussed and exposed images of birds like this. Quite the contrary. I’m often frustrated at the results I manage to achieve and I really don’t understand why some appear so mushy – especially those taken with my long zoom lens. Is it equipment failure or user error? I’d love to know. But I usually manage something to be proud of.

Checking me out …… peregrine near Aberaeron

After one visit I walked along one stretch of coast to the north of Aberaeron before catching the bus back home. It was delightful on a warm spring afternoon to be out in the fresh air with birds singing and the first wild flowers in bloom. Walking above some sheer cliffs I suddenly saw what I had been hoping for – a dark shape appearing above the waves and very obviously checking me out as it flew past. A peregrine! It repeated the maneouvre several times before disappearing back out of sight. Photographing fast-moving birds birds in flight has never been my forte but I was as prepared as I could be for this eventuality. Following the bird as it flew back-and-forth a few times, I attempted to keep it in focus, and I largely succeeded. I think the main reason for my success on this occasion was that the birds stands out so clearly against the background. There is very little chance that the autofocus will be confused. But it was still an anxious time until I opened the files up on the PC!

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Firestarter.

Conflagration on Mynydd Mawr, with the village of Y Fron in the foreground.

Apparently this time of year is widely known as the burning season. This year, in particular, after ten days of continuous sunshine and desiccating southeasterly winds our natural vegetation is now tinder dry.

Last Wednesday morning I set off into north Wales on the last of this winter’s postcard delivery trips. I didn’t have a very full timetable of calls so by lunchtime I was in Porthmadog. I decided to have a leisurely sandwich and birdwatch by the artificial tidal lagoon on the edge of the town. As the water was high few birds were to be seen there but there was a nice selection of waders on Traeth Mawr nearby. Turning back towards the van I noticed a pall of smoke drifting over from the north. I phoned a good friend who lives in Nantlle, about ten miles in that direction as the crow flies. He was very concerned about a fire in the hills nearby that he believed had been set by a farmer the previous evening. It had been burning out of control ever since. I wondered if the smoke I had seen was the product of that fire.

After a final call in Beddgelert I continued northwards. A huge mass of smoke was rising vertically in the still air from the summit of Mynydd Mawr, and then drifting northwards. The mountain looked like an active volcano. But it didn’t really fit the description of the fire I had heard about. Turning westwards at Rhyd Ddu towards Nantlle, the fire was to my right whereas the fire he had described would have been on my left. Entering the village I could see a few wisps of smoke rising from the crags and moorland south of Llyn Nantlle while the main fire was now raging behind me. There were two separate fires.

Mynydd Mawr from Nantlle

My friend – an ecologist by training and with many years of professional experience – was outraged to see the second fire. He had just returned from Argentina where he had had a bout of Covid, and probably wasn’t in the best frame of mind to see both sides of his beloved Nantlle valley being consumed in a conflagration! We walked a short distance to get a better view of it. It was his opinion that both fires had been set by the respective landowners/farmers. Upland vegetation is burnt like this to kill the older, more woody stems of heather, producing more younger shoots, and more grass; in other words better grazing for sheep. But over long periods of time repeated burning and grazing prevents heather from regenerating and results in upland vegetation being restricted to coarse grasses that can resist fire but have little wildlife value. It is one of the reasons why there is now so little heather moorland in Wales.

Mynydd Mawr again……

I was anxious to get more photographs of the fire so headed off in the van towards the village of Y Fron, at a higher altitude than Nantlle. Cresting the brow of a hill the fire in all its destructive reality was visible – see the main photograph above. Four fire engines were present and I had a quick chat with one of the firemen. It was while they were attempting to tackle the original fire to the south of Nantlle that they noticed this second fire take hold. “Whatever can you do about it?” I asked. He spread both arms in front of him, fingers on both hands conspicuously crossed. He said it could have been started by bored teenagers or careless walkers, but I think we both knew who the culprit was. He said that farmers are allowed to perform controlled burns but that they “sometimes got out of hand”. I spent a few more minutes taking photographs before leaving the area.

Near Pant Glas……

I spent the night in the van on the open shoreline of Foryd Bay ; it is one of my favourite places in Wales. But around breakfast time another pall of smoke began rising into the sky to the south. I had enough time to investigate the source of the smoke and fairly quickly located it near the hamlet of Pant Glas. I parked up and walked towards the fire; a figure was visible, moving around near the base of the flames. Through my binoculars I could see him carrying some kind of fire-lighting implement that every so often he would dip into a plastic container of brown liquid. This was a job for my long telephoto lens! I ran back to the van to fetch it, cursing that I hadn’t brought it with me in the first place. On my return I could see he was slowly, methodically and calmly lighting fires in the dry vegetation, without a care in the world. He was completely oblivious to my presence and I took a whole series of photographs. I don’t know how far this fire spread but the BBC Wales News website referred to a wildfire “at Pant Glas” on that day.

Firestarter………

Normally farmers can ignore the guidelines for “controlled” burning because they know no-one will ever see them. The most unprincipled can light destructive fires in the expectation that they WILL rapidly get out of control and be all but impossible to extinguish. But the expenses involved in the Fire Service attending these wildfires, including the cost of helicopter hire, are, unfairly, borne by the public purse. I have sent a batch of photos like the one above to North Wales police, and I believe that the identity of the man lighting this fire would be identifiable from them. How seriously the authorities will take them is another matter, because all too often unscrupulous farmers are given the benefit of the doubt.

Update : A petition asking the Welsh Government to ban so-called “controlled” burning has been started; please click on the link below to sign it.

https://petitions.senedd.wales/petitions/245129

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Letters to the Editor (1)

The first in an occasional series of pieces originally written for the Letters page of our local newspaper, the Cambrian News. Most were never published ……… although this one was, with the second paragraph omitted..

Dear Sir,

Many people in north Ceredigion will recently have received a note stuffed through their letterbox telling them that the Rali Bae Ceredigion will be held again in September 2022. In their usual self-congratulatory style, the organizers tell us what a success the first rally was in 2019. What they will not have been told are some inconvenient truths about that event.

For example several so-called “sponsors” have since denied any involvement in the rally.  Natural Resources Wales were said to have been “partner sponsors” but have denied that this was the case. The same goes for Visit Wales; the then relevant Government minister denied any involvement with the rally. A third “Partner Sponsor” – Statkraft, who operate the Rheidol Hydro-electric Scheme, and are heavily involved in renewable energy – were oblivious of this “fact” until it was pointed out to them, and have pulled out completely from any future rallies.

One hundred and twenty cars took part in the 2019 rally, over four stages totaling about 90 miles. Distance between stages was a further 90 miles.  On the day prior to the rally itself, drivers’ recces totaled another 180 miles. The total mileage involved in the 2019 rally was thus approximately 43,200 miles. A rough and conservative estimate of the carbon emissions created by the rally in 2019 was 16 tonnes. This did not include incidental journeys connected with the event or journeys by competitors, spectators, etc to north Ceredigion.

Furthermore 45 miles of public roads were closed to enable the rally, restrictions were placed on many others, and 58 public footpaths were closed.

We don’t know at this point what the mileage of the 2022 rally will be or the number of cars. But we do know that rally organizers intend to expand the rally in future years to cover more stages, have more competitors, and also include night stages. The question which must be asked is this – “which alternative planet do these people live on?”

It has become even more obvious since 2019 that global warming is seriously affecting ALL life on earth, and there is no doubt at all that human activities are the root cause. We are all being urged to use public transport (pandemic apart) to reduce carbon emissions. In mid-Wales private car use is a daily necessity for many but this rally is an entirely frivolous source of climate-wrecking emissions.

We are ALL going to need to make sacrifices in our daily lives to prevent climate catastrophe. When are these overgrown boy racers going to realize this and cut down on their driving activities? Perhaps it is unrealistic to ask them to do so voluntarily  but those in positions of power and responsibility should urgently remind them that our futures, our children’s futures, and the planet’s future are all at stake here.

The Chief Executive of Ceredigion Council has that power and responsibility. He should put aside his love of car rallying and nip the 2022 rally in the bud before its organization becomes too far advanced. He can do that by not permitting the road and footpath closures. His council announced a climate emergency in 2019; let us see him translate these fine words into actions.

Yours sincerely………….

(October 2021)

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Something of value.

During a thirty year career photographing the landscape and more than a decade ago adding wildlife to my repertoire, I’ve also been maintaining a bit of a sideline.

Dead seabirds (mostly common scoter), Freshwater East, Pembrokeshire. February 1996. I spent a couple of days in Pembrokeshire after the Sea Empress oil tanker ran aground. Some of the photographs appeared on TV at the time.

While out in the landscape I’ve sometimes come across quirky, incongruous or downright ugly scenes which tell us more about our relationship with the landscape than most of my (or anybody’s) actual “traditional” landscapes do. As an early example, in the early days of Fuji Velvia (the late 1980’s) , I remember taking a picture of a pile of bright blue plastic pipes close to a reservoir in the wilds of the Ceredigion uplands; it’s probably still in a filing cabinet somewhere. At first I called these images “human landscapes” although I don’t feel that that description now does them all justice. Many are informed by my environmental concerns in a broad sense and some actually say more about us than the landscape. Some ask more questions than give answers.

Near Bangor, Gwynedd. July 2019. An exception to the rule: having seen this phone mast from the driver’s seat of my van, I revisited it some months later and searched out the best spot to photograph it from.

Throughout my life in photography I’ve been a big fan of the brilliant Joe Cornish and his contemporaries as well as the almost unique world-view of the late Fay Godwin; both have their place in the world of outdoor photography. Fay Godwin, it seems to me, began her photographic career specialising in traditional black-and-white landscapes. But as her consciousness developed about the damage we are inflicting on nature, so her images became more closely aligned to her environmental concerns. She disliked the description of “landscape photographer” that people gave her, despite the fact that she worked mainly in the landscape; she preferred the term “documentary”. I understand exactly what she meant; it’s unfortunate that in the photographic world the term landscape means only one sort of landscape.

Near Trefenter, Ceredigion. March 2021

Going back to my own human landscapes, I’ve often been able to sneak them into my books and exhibitions while no-one was looking! I can imagine that many viewers’ reactions would be along the lines of “But Wales is such a beautiful country, why photograph that?” It has long been an ambition of mine to put them all together and exhibit them. Over the years it’s been known variously as my ” Black and White Project”, my “Retrospective of Sorts” and my “Homage to Fay Godwin”. As a prelude to this (I hope), at the end of last year, I put together a one-off photobook of more than fifty of them.

Pembroke castle and Oil Refinery, December 2009

How this eventually came about is worth a mention. I’d been putting it off for years. I had had some very dispiriting criticism of the project from a photographer in the Joe Cornish tradition who I had previously admired tremendously. I whittled the selection down to about a hundred, including plenty of new work but some already published in colour. I converted them all to black-and-white, and had some cheap test prints made, but still couldn’t put them together. Then while browsing on the internet one day I saw a promotion from an online company offering £100 off one of their top-of -the-range photobooks. I responded immediately and was sent a coupon valid for 30 days. This was the impetus I needed, and within a couple of weeks I had the finished product on my desk. Compiling it was the most fun in photography I had had for years! The quality of the book was excellent except for one thing; it had been designed online and the mid-grey front cover with white and black lettering looked fine on-screen. But in reality my name in black was almost invisible against the grey unless you saw it at a certain angle to the light. I pointed this out to the printers and they offered me a full credit for the cost, amounting to £118.23p, most of which I hadn’t paid in the first place!

Tywyn, Gwynedd. (June 2010). Taken while researching locations for Wales at Waters Edge

The content of the book, when I saw it, was really quite an eye-opener. I realised most of images had been seen almost out of the corner of my eye, while I was actually intent on taking other photographs. Mostly other landscapes, sometimes wildlife and surprisingly often while I was driving from A to B and just saw something. Many of them are at places where I stopped, took a picture and moved on. I know I will never be back there again. I’m sure I’m not the only photographer who sees a fantastic landscape from the driver’s seat of a car, stops, walks back and the finds the potentially world-beating image has completely disappeared. My snapshots are quite different to traditional landscapes, however, where the quality of the light is critical and a significant amount of pre-planning is usually required. In many cases individual images have limited value on their own but in the company of a few dozen others, the photographer’s vision becomes more clear.

Near LLanwchllyn, Gwynedd. September 2008. This could be described in terms of the media, or the message, or both. Not everyone gets both………

The good luck didn’t stop at the refund for the cost of printing the book, either. The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth has quite a large collection of my colour work already. Just after Christmas I was strolling along the sea-front in Aberystwyth when I met its curator of photography, Will Troughton. After a bit of a general chat he asked me if I was working on anything at the moment. My usual response these days to that question is “well, er, no …….. not really…….” but fortunately I remembered to mention the retrospective/Godwin/b&w project. He expressed an interest and I arranged to meet him, book in hand. A couple of days after seeing it he phoned to say that he had “found some money” and would like to buy a selection of prints. The importance of the sale is not so much in the cash, but rather the recognition that I still produce photographic work of some value.

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Long past sunset.

Long past sunset……. peat and boulders in the submerged forest. (5 seconds at f13)

The weekend before Christmas there was a break in the relentlessly cloudy and wet conditions that continue to plague us here in west Wales. While this allowed me to do some garden chores – getting a new load of logs under cover, for example – I was also able to visit the submerged forest between Borth and Ynyslas, about eight miles from here. My first visit was “on spec” after a birding walk on the Dyfi estuary. It was immediately apparent that a very large expanse of peat, together with hundreds, if not thousands, of tree stumps had been exposed after recent storms.

It was about half an hour before sunset and the tide was coming in, washing over the peat and through the stumps as it did so. From previous experience – see this post – I quickly worked out that timing would be better the following day as the advancing tide would be about fourty minutes later. Nevertheless I hung out there for a while and took a few pictures before the sun set.

Sunset over the submerged forest

I was back again the following afternoon. Although it had been a warm still day further inland, here near the mouth of the Dyfi estuary a cold easterly breeze was blowing. The light was extraordinary. The intensely clear sky was cloudless, bathing my surroundings in blue light, which I found quite unpleasant. The dark brown peat seemed to soak up whatever light hit it and become almost black. The breeze created countless ripples running at right-angles to the sun which put paid to any hope of any reflections. It was only when the sun neared the horizon that any relief came, in the shape of incoming waves breaking and being backlit with sunset colours.

Blessed relief from blue light!

Although my Olympus kit has remarkable image stabilisation, when one is considering exposures in the order of several seconds a tripod is indispensable. So this time I had my tripod with me and as the sun disappeared I set it up on a solid section of peat. I took a few long exposures but the tide advances very quickly here and before long the submerged forest was once more submerged! I determined to return the following evening.

The day of my third visit skies had been cloudless again but there was little wind; water levels were that much lower and there were still walkers on the beach. I explored a little but discovered that pleasing compositions were difficult to find. This figure seemed to add a sense of scale and I knew that I could easily clone him out if I felt he intruded on the timeless nature of this landscape.

A two image stitch in Lightroom

The sun had sunk below the horizon before waves began to encroach upon the forest. When they did I took a series of images at shutter speeds of up to eight seconds. On an incoming tide one needs to work quite fast to avoid getting wet feet (or worse) and I had time for just a few exposures. It was actually the last one (main photo) that I found most satisfying, and the tree stumps are only a minor element within it. I happened to notice that a few rounded boulders lay within the peat and that they were “rimlit” by the extremely bright post-sunset sky. I quickly moved the tripod over to place them in the foreground and pressed the shutter.

After processing them I posted the above image online. There followed a discussion on whether it was more effective with or without the figure – it was probably about 50/50. Further, and more interestingly …….. is a landscape with a human figure actually still a landscape at all?

For more technical information on the Submerged Forest, see this article by John Mason, a local geologist.

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With Seasons Greetings

This is one of the very few photographs I took last winter. If I drop down into the valley below my hilltop home and, dodging irate farmers, walk upstream for about half a mile, I reach a waterfall which virtually no-one knows about. If it wasn’t for the trees that have toppled into the mini ravine below it, it would be the perfect waterfall, and I would photograph it in all weathers. Last February after a couple of frosty days and nights I thought I would go and investigate. Water droplets thrown up by the falls had collected on the mossy sides of the ravine and frozen. Risking life and limb (well, maybe), I took a series of extreme close-ups, and this was the best of the bunch.

It’s a shame to have to mention Covid after nearly two years have passed but it doesn’t look like we’re out of the mire yet. Who knows what the future holds?

So I hope you are all well, still sane, and that your plans for 2022 actually come to fruition. With best wishes for Christmas, the Solstice and the New Year!

jerry

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Carpets of knot (part three).

After the drama and intensity of my session in the hide with waders arriving in countless thousands (see this post), it was a relief to find myself outside in calm and sunny conditions, with the waters of the Wash gently lapping at the shoreline. Other birders and photographers were moving towards the main hide, however, and I thought it was about time I headed in the same direction.

To my surprise the photographers’ screen was more sparsely populated than it had been the previous day. Rather than squeezing onto the bench I stood at the back and set up my tripod, which enabled me look through the viewing slot without the discomfort of bending down. And there, just a few score yards away, was a veritable carpet of knots. Within this huge throng of life, large groups of birds surged from right to left, forwards and back, The predominant colour at any one time varied between the white of their breasts and the mid-brown of their backs. The occasional brick-red remnant of their summer plumage could also be seen on a few individuals (see below). It was an entirely charming spectacle, and I couldn’t help smiling. The light was perfect, bright without being harsh, illuminating the birds to perfection.

I recognised a couple of well-known bird photographers in the screen – Chris Gomersall and David Tipling – and there may have been others. There was clearly a workshop session going on, although I’m not sure who the leader was. An authoritative voice announced that “this is as good as it gets”. I took burst upon burst of images.

Having now examined all the results, I do question some of the photographic choices I made during the session. Among other things I was trying to show how groups of birds moved within the flock while others stayed still. I hoped to do this by reducing the ISO rating below Olympus’s base level of 200, and using shutter speeds as long as 1/25th second, but the moving birds just looked blurred. Using long focal lengths such as 300 mm (equivalent to 600 mm on full frame) resulted in too narrow a depth of field in many cases. But looking on the bright side, when I got it right, the images showed what excellent results my kit is capable of in good, contrasty, light.

I mentioned taking ” burst after burst” of images. During this one session alone, lasting about two hours, I took more than seven hundred images. Only a limited number of compositions were possible from the hide, so many bursts differed from the next only by minute differences in focus, exposure or depth of field. At something like 10 frames a second moving birds moved only a few millimeters between frames, if that. Ploughing through such a huge number of files while processing is a real chore. To be frank, it does my head in! But I fear that is the lot of the bird photographer. On a recent session photographing bramblings in a rowan tree I took 638 images over a period of four hours, and only about 1% of them are really worth keeping. I’m beginning to wondering if taking jpg’s rather than raw files might be the answer.

Most photographers waited till most of the knot had returned to the mudflats. I think we were waiting for all of the massive flock to burst into flight together, but it wasn’t to be. They flew off in dribs and drabs. All in all, though, it had been a fabulous morning, and I walked back to the car park a very contented man.

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Carpets of knot (part two)

The following morning dawned clear. It was still dark when I set off but stars were visible overhead and there was no wind. This was promising. As the day began to dawn I began to see what a lovely morning it was – slightly misty and with low-lying fog in places. Birders and photographers were already gathering by the time I arrived at the wader watchpoint on the banks of the Wash. A golden glow was just beginning to appear to the east. I noticed another hide which faced eastwards across the lagoon.

What if?

The sun had not yet risen. I don’t want to sound too heroic about that – sunrise is quite late in October. But there was potential for exciting images if flocks of waders flew around above the still waters of the lagoon before settling at the southern end as they tend to do. I wouldn’t be able to see westwards as the birds gathered offshore but I had nothing to lose, really. The hide was almost empty but some strategically situated vapour trails made some wonderful geometric shapes in the sky. I sat and waited for some action.

At 7.30 the sun appeared as a crimson ball in the mist and the first small wader flocks arrived. I was able to reduce the camera’s ISO rating from a pre-sunrise 1000 to the Olympus-recommended 200, which helped no end in terms of image quality and processing. It was a slow start but as the sun rose higher more birds flew in. There was no-one else in the hide.

Fifteen minutes later the first big flocks had appeared and so began one of the most intense photographic sessions I have ever experienced. There was still no one else in the hide and I had free rein to capture different perspectives on the action from different angles.

By this time I was feeling very emotional. Partly by chance and partly through intuition I found myself able to experience and photograph an astonishing spectacle. The wide range of focal lengths on my 12 – 100 mm lens (effectively 24 – 200 mm) allowed me to continue shooting whether the action was close to the hide or a little further away. I was also able to include a little foreground in some images,

At some point there was a sudden influx of other birders and it became almost impossible to move. By that point I had managed to stick my arms and head out of one of the windows; I had a lump in my throat and tears were streaming down my face. I stayed where I was and kept my finger on the shutter. Thank goodness for automation………..

By about eight o’clock the intensity of the action had begun to wane and I regained my sense of composure. Over a period of half an hour an atmosphere of gentle tranquility quickly turned into one of frantic hyperactivity and back as the knot flocks flew in and gradually settled down to roost. And that was just how I felt!

I emerged from the hide and walked the short distance back to the shore. It was lined with birders, photographers, and other sightseers. What a gorgeous morning it was, and what a sight!

Part three will follow.

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Carpets of knot (part one).

A carpet of knot at Snettisham

It was still well before dawn. I had left my van and was searching for the footpath to the shoreline without a torch. Around me dark figures were emerging from vehicles, dimly lit car boots were open and people were hurriedly donning extra layers, rucksacks and waterproofs. The sensible ones had headtorches. I had a very dim memory of the carpark layout from my last visit, and realised I had walked past the exit. I turned round, pretended to know what I was doing and fell in behind a couple with a powerful torch.

I was on the west coast of Norfolk, at Snettisham, and had come to see one of the great wildlife spectacles in the UK. I visited twice in autumn 2013 whilst working on my Bird/land exhibition (see this link), and was last here in March 2016. Snettisham is on the eastern bank of The Wash, which is the winter home to many, many thousands of waders. At the highest of tides waders are pushed onshore and most gather at an old gravel pit, where the RSPB has constructed some hides. The rhythm of the tides is such that the highest waters are between 6am and 9am, or 6pm and 9pm, and in winter are without fail before dawn or after dusk. Therefore there’s a very limited number of “spectaculars” (as they are known) during daylight hours. It is well worth the effort to get there.

After half an hour’s walk a little grey light had begun to seep through the heavy cloud cover. Wader flocks were gathering offshore and beginning to fly into the gravel pits. It was a dazzling display as thousands of tiny birds flickered overhead in the gloom. I saw several photographers hurrying towards the hides at the southern end of the lagoon and decided I ought to follow them. The small wooden viewing “screen” has room on a bench for about eight people and it was standing room only by the time I squeezed in. At one point photographers were three deep!

It has to be said that conditions were not ideal. Thanks to their small sensor m43 cameras struggle at medium/high ISO’s and I don’t trust my Olympus kit at ISO’s higher than 1600. Even though many images at that ISO rating can be rescued by software such as Topaz Denoise, some just can’t. It was still very gloomy and shutter speeds were far longer than I had hoped for. In the case of the example above exposure was 1/60th at f8 – which, at an effective focal length of 500 mm, is really pushing it. However when this particular flock flew I kept my finger on the shutter button and made a series of images which – when fully processed – will be impressionistic and “interesting”; traditional bird photographers won’t like them at all.

Once the action was over I took a quick look at the new “observatory” – the word hide really doesn’t do it justice. It’s a huge, glass-fronted structure with stepped seating inside, rather like a theatre auditorium. And what a show! Low down to one side an area of the front wall has been reserved for photographers. Holes have been provided through which they can poke their lenses but they are very close to ground level; although mats have been provided it’s an uncomfortable position to work from. Has this been over-thought, I wonder? But full credit to the RSPB for providing such a facility which, to be honest, absolutely anyone can use, member or not.

Following high tide the birds return to the higher mud flats and roost until their feeding grounds become available. As I walked back to the car park I vowed to return the following day when better light was forecast.

NB : A timetable for next year’s “Whirling Wader Spectaculars” can be found here.

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