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NOVEMBER 2017

 

Snettisham

Snettisham

These years seem to go past very quickly. The annual pilgrimage to Snettisham for the highest of the autumn spring tides didn't disappoint.  This trip is just as much a social occasion as a serious photography expedition for me.  I picked up my friend from Stansted airport and we drove to Hunstanton to stay in the same hotel as previous years.  It's a bit like going home!  The staff don't seem to change, the decor doesn't seem to change and some members of the group don't change either.  Love it.  

There's nothing about photography at Snettisham that's easy!  If only the tides, the wind, the light and the birds would cooperate as well as the humans do, it would be a doddle.  Photography is never a doddle!  If it all goes according to plan, the wind pushes the tide further and further onto the mud flats so that eventually the huge flocks of waders have to give up on their feeding activities and take to the air in huge swirling flocks.  Not that I wish them any harm, but I always hope for a passing bird of prey to force the flocks to swirl and sweep in the sky to avoid predation.  The next hope is for the flocks of knot and oyster catchers to swoosh overhead on their way to drop into the gravel pits to roost for the day.  The icing on the cake is for the flocks of waders to swirl around over our heads before dropping into the pits or even, to rise up and swirl again when spooked by a predator.

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Each year, I spend time dithering about whether to spend time on the shoreline hoping to watch the murmurations and the overhead swoosh or whether to dash straight into the 'hide' for the hope of bagging a ringside seat from which to watch the birds on the sides of the gravel pits.  It's never an easy decision!!  

The overhead 'swoosh'? When thousands upon thousands of tiny birds fly just above your head in huge flocks, it's like watching an endless stream on a giant roller coaster but it isn't just a visual spectacle.  The streams of birds make the most extraordinary sound.  You can hear their calls and more than that, you can hear the wingbeats just a few feet above your head.  

After the birds have circled around the pits for a bit, they drop down onto the gravel banks.  Literally, they drop.  One minute they're whirring and whirling and circling and the next minute, the entire flock seems to point towards the ground and plummet downwards onto the bank.  It's an extraordinary sight.

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In 2013, the huge storms that battered the north Norfolk coast completely destroyed the exisiting hide.  The temporary replacement has been there ever since.  Each year there's a promise from RSPB that the new hide will be up and running by next year.  Each year the temporary hide looks more permanent!  It's not much more than a wooden bus-stop.  The angle from the hide to the gravel pits is not good.  It's too far away to be much use and although the visual spectacle is beyond description and out of this world, photographically it's a disappointment but... there's still a decision to be taken.  Do I stay on the shoreline and wait for the birds to fly overhead or do I take a chance on the hide?  Decisions, decisions.  I'm not good at those!

First morning on the shoreline, and although the tides were theorettically high enough, the birds didn't really perform their usual aerial acrobatics.  Why?  No idea.  In the end, I dashed towards the hide hoping to bag the seat of my choice with the best vantage point onto the gravel bank and waited for birds to whirl around and eventually drop in.  Did they drop in?  No.  Just before high tide when there should have been 40-60,000 birds dropping into the pits, there was nothing.  Not one bird apart from the resident kingfisher!   Eventually I packed up again and went to join my friends on the shoreline who'd been watching a subdued performance by the waders.  I think in the end, we theorised that the wind was holding the tide back from totally covering the mud and so the vast flocks of birds had simply toodled along up the Wash and carried on feeding.  We went back to the hotel for breakfast!

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Vastly restored by a 'proper' breakfast and fortified for the rest of the day, we car-safaried around the nearby local fishing ports and inlets and nature reserves.  Titchwell usually comes up trumps with something to photograph.  This year it was just as challenging as ever until the last moments of the day when I found that I could photograph a flock of golden plover as they prepared to roost.  Every now and then, I find myself engrossed in a special photographic moment.  I'd define that as any moment when I stop looking and start to 'see'.  I get really excited and absolutely lost inside my own head, trying to create the ideas that I'm half seeing on the back of the camera.  It's the interaction between the cleverness of the camera and the desire to create something that satisfies my imagination.  It's really hard to explain!  At this point, I find that most 'normal' people have gone home because it's dark but I'm still compelled to peer through the viewfinder and try 'just one more' shot... and generally when I'm in a group, my friends are clearly forming the view that it's time to go!

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Do these 'in the moment' images work?  No, not always. Sometimes not at all but this creative process is strangely exhilarating and I get far more pleasure from an 'almost' picture taken in these circumstances than from a perfect shot taken in ordinary circumstances.  I'll include some of my 'almost' shots here.  Do let me know if you like them... or not.  I have an emotional connection to them and see them through rosy tinted spectacles.  Your views would be fascinating and helpful. I tried to look for patterns in order to help composition.  Don't know whether it always worked.

Morning two at Snettisham was weird too.  Once again the birds managed to avoid taking off and ambled along the mud flats feeding as they went.  No aerial acrobatics,  No whirring, No swooshing, No whirling.  And... the light was strangely flat.  Oh, it was hard work!  At one point I was convinced that I'd simply forgotten how to take photographs because nothing looked right on the back of my camera but then I heard others say much the same!  Phew!  

When I was processing these images, I decided to try a lot of the bird flocks and the more abstract subject matter in black and white.  I like it.  Does it work?  Please tell me!  To be fair, some of the images here benefit from being enlarged and seen in really big sizes... and certainly not in the 600pixel width of this website.

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Later in the day we got a tip off about a Grey Phalarope and a Spotted Redshank.  I didn't really think that we'd see either and so walked along gloomily but was astonished to find that both birds were still feeding in the same small pond where they'd been spotted before.  Such beautiful birds. Both of them.

A final trip to Titchwell where I concentrated on the golden plover again. This time, I was determined to try to show them settling down for the night.  I'll leave you to be the judge of whether I did or not!  

Spiders

Can't say that I've ever really liked spiders. In truth I've got a bit of spider-phobia but I won't bore you with the real-life stories that contributed to my uneasy relationship with these many-legged beasties.  So, when I was asked to go to Brompton Cemetery to photograph Edward Milner doing his spider survey for The Royal Parks Mission Invertebrate project, I didn't really know what to expect.  I certainly didn't expect to fall in love!

I met Alice (the programe director) and we spent a happy few hours together documenting the habitat and the processes, while Edward conducted his spider survey and then, Edward found a female 'Mile End' spider in his net and I got extraordinarily excited!  

Edward is a spider expert and has a history of recording rare spiders including two species new to Britain that he found in Mile End Park...  the jumping spider Macaroeris nidicolens in 2002 and the buzzing spider Anyphaena sabina in September 2011.  The spider he found was a female Macaroeris nidicolens (also known as the Mile End Spider as that's where the first specimen was found)!  This teeny little beestie with silver coloured fur on her legs, 4 big round black eyes and long black eyelashes really stole my heart on this trip to Brompton Cemetery. 

I can't say that I managed to get the best photographs of Macaroeris nidicolens but I'll do better next time, now I know what to expect.  Roll on my next survey with Edward. His work in Mile End cemetery led to a new habitat management plan and the number of spider species went up over the ensuing years from 100 to 150.  The work in Brompton Cemetery will similarly influence the Royal Park's management plan.  

I hope to spend more time with spiders in 2018.  Who'd have thought?!  Just the small, cute ones though eh?

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