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 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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