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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Knots landing (Part 2) -or why we need a 7D mark 2 as soon as possible!

Oystercatchers, Snettisham (Canon 7D, 100-400L zoom
Oystercatchers, Snettisham (Canon 7D, 100-400L zoom
In the first part of this post I described in a general sense my recent visit to Snettisham to photograph its big wader flocks. This time, without getting into too much detail, I’m going to discuss some of the technique and equipment issues I experienced.

The big difference was that I had changed camera bodies between visits. About eighteen months ago I had purchased a Canon 7D to use as my bird photography body, and I thought it would be the answer to all my prayers. How wrong I was. At first I was surprised at how difficult the 7D’s autofocus system found it to distinguish between subject and background – a bird on a branch, for example. It often seemed specifically to focus on something outside the AF point that was placed so carefully on the bird. I’m still not sure if it was a malfunction, user error, or if I was just expecting too much of it.

Probably more seriously, I was taken aback at how poor the ISO performance was. Even at ISO 400, the results I was getting were markedly inferior to those I was accustomed to from my 5D2. That is perhaps to be expected from a camera with a crop sensor, and I have managed some absolute belters. But more often than not the resulting images have been what a fellow photographer described as “mush”. Underwhelming to say the least! Again it could be down to user error: at 400mm on a 1.6x crop camera any minor inadequacy will be magnified by almost thirteen times. Most wildlife photographers will be pushing a 7D to the limits of its abilities – long, heavy lenses, high ISO’s, narrow depth of field. What could possibly go wrong?

Just about everything. Image not quite sharp for some reason? Easy – turn to your software. Underexposed? Ditto. But in both cases the noise levels quickly become almost intolerable. It may be – and probably is – a good camera in the fairly undemanding situations where a DSLR is typically used. Many people swear by them. But as far as I can see, for its intended purpose – fast-moving action at long distances – the 7D just can’t quite cut the mustard. In my opinion it boils down to this: for good results the 7D demands absolutely immaculate technique.

So following the advice of other bird photographers, it looked like it might be possible to replace both my camera bodies (a 7D and a rather elderly 5D mark2) with a 5D mark3. This became viable once the camera’s firmware was upgraded to allow the use of autofocus on an f5.6 lens with a 1.4x extender. The 5d3 could do the job of both.

My second trip to Snettisham was its first outing as a bird photography lens. There are disadvantages. To reach the same level of magnification (roughly) as the 7D (with its crop sensor) I would also need the 1.4x extender, and this adds bulk and weight to my outfit. I cannot leave the 5D3 attached to my long zoom as I did with the 7D – I also need it for other things. The burst rate is slightly slower on the 5D3 – 6fps compared to 8fps – and this may be to be a slight disadvantage. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, and I’ve been very pleased with the quality of the images so far. It is early days yet, and I’ve only just begun to dip in to the 402 page manual. But the latest images sharpen well, noise is negligible, really, compared to the 7D, and cropping down into the images gives very acceptable results.

On the first visit, dawn was bright and clear but thick fog very soon arrived. Very few of the waders on the pools were actually visible. It really was that thick! But over time the fog lifted to low cloud, leaving lighting conditions that were subdued but very even. Ideal, in fact, for photographing birds with high levels of contrast in their plumage, like oystercatchers (see above). It is difficult to expose correctly for any black and white bird in bright sunlight, so that was an unexpected bonus. Second time around, a gorgeous pink dawn was quickly replaced by powerful low sunlight, which cause some contrast problems for a while.

Photographing birds is a very different discpline to landscape. In some ways it takes me back to my early days when I tended to point, click and hope! But one refines one’s techniques over the years and I expect my hit rate will improve. As it is I’m spending a lot of time deleting images. But I’m sure even the most experienced pro’s will be looking for that one image from a motor-driven burst that catches the action perfectly. A far cry from parsimonious picture-taking of the landscape specialist.

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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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