Knots landing (Part One).

Knot, Snettisham, Norfolk
Knot, Snettisham, Norfolk

For many years I hardly took a single photograph outside the borders of Wales. It is an infinitely varied country with enough landscape interest to last a lifetime, and it was how I defined myself as a photographer. ‘Wild Wales’ was my brand and in one way or another I earned an income from Welsh landscapes. Despite a passion for wildlife that pre-dated one for photography, my two interests ran largely in parallel for almost thirty years. But gradually my priorities began to shift and the purchase of the requisite equipment (a secondhand Canon 100-400 L zoom) in summer 2011 allowed me to extend my range of subject matter significantly. While I’m still earning a living from landscape – just – it is bird photography that gives me more of a buzz these days. In a rather unstructured way I’m working on a wildlife project which I hope will see the light of day at some stage.

With this new interest in mind I’ve given myself permission to travel outside Wales to seek out new subject matter – hence two visits to north Norfolk this autumn. Lying between Norfolk and Lincolnshire, the Wash is an extensive area of mudflats at low tide but totally inundated by the sea during the highest spring tides. It is a rich source of food for tens of thousands of wading birds – notably knot – during the autumn and winter. At peak spring tides all these birds are forced onshore by the sea and a large percentage of them congregate on some old gravel pits at Snettisham, near Kings Lynn, now an RSPB reserve.

Tidal rhythms dictate that the highest springs at Snettisham are at roughly of seven o’clock, morning and evening. During the short days of winter the roost thus usually takes place in the dark, and even in autumn it may be necessary to begin one’s walk to the gravel pits in total darkness. So one morning about a fortnight ago I began the journey from my camper van towards the wader roost about 6 a.m. The first few other vehicles had also already arrived: shadowy figures emerged from them, torches in hand, rummaging for equipment in car boots, and quiet voices could be heard. There was a sense of anticipation apparent in the air. Conditions overhead were clear; it all augured well for an exciting morning’s photography.

It was still more or less dark when, half an hour later, I reached the vicinity of the gravel pits. A quiet stream of other visitors were also arriving, many of them laden with photographic gear. Dark figures engaged in quiet conversation as they waited. Small groups of oystercatcher and knot were already moving (and other species) but many more could be heard offshore. Gradually dawn blossomed and a wonderful pink light flooded the area. I couldn’t help noticing as light levels increased that the woman I was chatting with was a lot older than I had imagined! I then had a difficult decision to make: enjoy the tranquillity of the dawn or move quickly to the hide where there would still be room in the ringside seats? As more and more flocks moved into the roost I decided to make a break for it.

I first discovered Snettisham on a bird photography workshop with Chris Gomersall and I am a great admirer of his work – not flashy at all and often paying more attention to the birds’ surroundings than that of other photographers. I’d like to think his work is an inspiration for me rather than something I am consciously trying to copy. I had made some reasonable images of roosting birds two weeks earlier and this time I also wanted to try something more experimental – slow exposures of birds in flight, for example, to try and capture attractive movement blur. From the hide I was hoping for close-ups of wader flocks landing and taking off. In practice the results one can expect using these techniques seem to be unpredictable and it would be difficult to emulate exactly what another photographer has already achieved, so my conscience is clear.

Over a period of an hour and a half I sat in the packed hide and watched the wader flocks arrive and then depart. The rapid-fire clicking of motor-driven shutters was interrupted by short periods of calm. A rather lovely old man squeezed in next to me – a newcomer to the world of birding, I guessed. His comments and questions showed how he was over-awed by the sheer number of birds and their closeness to him. It was far more a reflection on my own attitudes that I found this rather childlike innocence at the spectacle slightly irritating. It was a very intense, goal-oriented experience for me. The sense of wonder that one might hope to feel at such a marvellous natural phenomenon was over-ridden for this photographer by the desire for results.

But such is our lot. It is the same, I feel, for the landscape photographer. A stunning landscape may be unfolding in front of your eyes; a moment when light and land come together completely. It is almost essential to subdue any feelings or emotions that might naturally be felt in that situation – only the calm, collected and efficient operation of one’s equipment will allow the image to be successfully made.

At the very moment the biggest knot flock in front of the hide exploded into flight Sod’s Law dictated that I would be fiddling with my camera bag on the floor! Nevertheless I did get some interesting results like the one above, which, incidentally, looks far better viewed large. I’m still on a fairly steep learning curve, but one thing is for sure: there is so much potential at Snettisham for creative bird photography that I just can’t wait to go back.

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