My Scotland project is stalled, but I’ve been keeping a close eye on the weather forecast and the tide times. I’m not just looking at high tides, but at a series of spring (ultra-high) tides which have a big effect on one of the bird reserves I visit when I can.
It’s a massive project which I have seen occasionally in the last 2 years, and each time the flocks are bigger and more interesting, the vegetation more varied. This last week-end I wanted to see what happens when, only at the highest tides, the whole reserve will be inundated. In theory that should push the birds closer to the hides. Carefully balancing the times when the tide would be at its highest with the weather and the absence of other fixed commitments, I chose this weekend at the end of November and the beginning of December.
First though, I went to the RSPB reserve in the north Somerset levels: Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath, part of another huge project to maximise the potential of old peat diggings for wildlife. I spent a happy hour waiting for the perfect shot of this fella with a fish in it’s beak. Finally I got it, but the light was low and the quality too poor for a sharp image.
Light was slow to come to the levels this morning. This is part of a huge area of old peat diggings now turned to marshland with Glastonbury Tor, grey in the dim light, looming above it. I arrived at the car park before dawn and made breakfast – my usual meusli, fruit (grapes today) yoghurt and hot milk, with a cup of industrial strength coffee from my aeropress device. Yesterday I did without my little Vortex Razor 50mm telescope and regretted it. Today I packed it plus tripod (which takes up much more space) into the small rucksack. Carrying camera and binoculars on a harness, I set out. Five minutes later I was at the first viewing platform and a few of the typical birding fraternity were there, gear assembled, each in their own space, not talking, just waiting.
“Is it here?”
“Yes, but you’ll get a better view at the next viewing platform – straight down the path.” They’re usually nice when you get past the carapace.
Light was low, but it was such a pleasure to be in this environment – all around are endless acres of reed beds and water with this long straight track running through the middle of them. The gravel path is bordered by tall bushes just fading from a mix of yellow, pale green and brown, to just brown. All around, the colours are slowly becoming de-saturated, the landscape ageing gracefully into winter. No wind, no sounds but the first cries of the morning birds. It’s a long and welcome walk, my feet crunching on this track and the feathery tops of the reeds gently glowing in the pale light, until I see another group of bird people in their good outdoor clothes and their binoculars, telescopes and cameras. They are all gazing intently at the marshes to the right, and then I see it: a black mass, like a disease, like a million flies on a corpse, a moving, trembling stain on the reed beds: a thousand starlings muttering and twitching, waiting for the moment.
I’ve timed it well. Within a minute of my arrival the mass dissolves, and disperses into a sea of moving black dots which swirl upwards, across, around, spread out, contract and suddenly are gone. Then another black cloud appears and they all swarm over us, silently, determinedly, the hive mind in perfect control. This moving living being knows exactly where it’s going once it has gathered itself together. It’s impossible to photograph in this light but I try anyway. Click click click.
Within minutes, they’ve gone, and we all look around, grinning at each other in our joy at this encounter. We think it’s all over, but no, another huge swarm from the opposite direction, bulging, swirling, breathing in and out, comes straight towards us and passes overhead intent on a different destination. Last year at this time I was thrilled by the sight and sound of thousands of Pink Footed Geese in Norfolk. I’ve seen two of the greatest displays of mass movement in the living world.
Light of heart I set off back down the track, full of the hope of catching a bittern or a great white egret or a marsh harrier or even a little Cettis warbler. I stay in my favourite hide for an hour and, just as I had missed the bittern yesterday, I missed an ibis and a great egret today. There are Marsh Harriers, Mute swans and more Great Egrets, but it’s not working for me. I take lots of pictures but it’s still cloudy, it’s December, the light is poor, and the big beasts stay tantalisingly out of range. Hardly a single picture is worth keeping, and the telescope was a waste of space.
The highs and the lows of bird photography.
At mid-morning I set off for Steart and arrive in good time. I’m the first person at the first of the hides and there’s a kestrel perched on top of it. He’s in no hurry, but languidly flies off well before I can get the camera into action. With up to 2 miles between some of the hides and good solid paths, I take the (Brompton) bike this time with telescope and all, so lots of kit to sort out before I get into place. The hides here are glazed and leave the watchers rather exposed. As soon as I get to a window, the most interesting birds – a group of Godwits – takes wing, and they are followed less hastily by most of the other birds. The ones left behind are those you see at every wetland: the redshanks, gulls, crows, and the heron. There’s always a heron.
The morning passes pleasantly though. There’s a big flock of Golden Plover doing nothing on a mud bank. I try to count them but get distracted when I get to the first hundred: the guess is 400. If that lot takes to the air it will be worth seeing, so I wait.
An hour later they have taken to the air twice and it was indeed worth seeing, though again the pictures are disappointing. I’ve watched a crow swooping up to drop shellfish in the hope of cracking them open. Only corvids are clever enough to do this. I’ve also watched a gull and a greenshank interacting. Is it hostile or friendly? Are they competing for food resources or just teasing each other?
Tomorrow morning the highest tide of the month is at 6am; black night, but they will still be there, I hope, when it gets light, and so will I.
I’m writing this on a patch of concrete in front of the garages belonging to a big campsite. It’s a place I’ve stayed in before, but this time there is no sign of the management. I try to ring but there’s no signal, so I put up the shutters and settle down for the evening, roosting in my little metal bower.