BY JULES COX
Jules Cox is an award-winning professional wildlife photographer, with a passion for nature and the wild places of the British Isles: here Jules takes us to the coast for an extraordinary experience with a unique murmuration…
I’m currently working on a long term project for a book documenting the UK’s most spectacular wildlife events. The British Isles offer some of the richest sights and sounds in nature, and I want to be able to share these with my son as he grows up: it’s something we can do together.
As part of the project, I wanted to capture Norfolk’s high tide roost whirling wader spectacular. The North Norfolk coast and the Wash provide some of the best year-round bird watching in the UK: visiting the RSPB’s reserve at Snettisham on a high tide provides a wonderful opportunity to watch thousands of waders moving from the vast mudflats of the Wash to the gravel pit lagoons where the birds roost.
As the tide begins to turn and cover the mudflats, this forces the different species of wader, Knot, Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Godwits, Curlew and Grey Plovers to move from their feeding grounds. When the last of the mud is covered the birds rise to the air, making their way to the lagoons to roost. The sight and sound of the rush of wings is simply breathtaking.
As the birds jostle for position in the pits, the ebb and flow creates a ripple effect through the flock that is truly mesmerising to watch. To capture that feeling of the sense of tension and energy within the heart of the roost I often experiment with slow shutter speeds. It’s a bit of a hit and miss approach, but you do end up with one or two keepers that are suitably arty!
Spring tides are the biggest and best tides to visit during, presenting a number of opportunities to witness this spectacle – but I also visit Snettisham a number of times over the autumn months when numbers swell with an influx of birds from Northern Europe, Iceland, Greenland, Russia and Canada.
Inevitably, the vast congregation of birds attracts the attention of predators such as peregrine falcons, short-eared owl, Great Skua and sparrowhawks. The birds are alert to the threat and whilst sleeping, always keep an eye open for approaching danger. Should a predator appear then the waders will immediately adopt an alert posture, necks extended, wings ready to take flight. When they do take to the air, they move as one, forming a huge swirling murmuration as a way of evading their hunter.
The RSPB have opened a new hide this autumn, appropriately named Knots Landing, which enables you to shoot low with the birds roosting just feet away. It’s a big hide with glass-fronted panels, which mean that when you are not taking pictures you can just sit back and enjoy the experience of the birds performing over the hide, casting reflections into the water. The RSPB have done an amazing job with it. On the last occasion I visited, the RSPB warden had counted a record number of knot, over 140,000, beating the previous record by a clear 20,000. It is thought that three good breeding years for the knot have increased numbers significantly.
The morning I visited, I was blessed with some lovely light. After the birds made the short hop from the roost and regrouped on the mudflats they settled into two different groups, one a fair distance out, the other much closer to the traditional vantage point on the beach where birders gather to view them. With not very much happening, those that had come to watch the spectacle including the guided groups started to drift away, until there were just two or three of us left. My instinct was to stick around – it would only take one predator for all 140,000 to lift.
To document the spectacular I was relying on two lenses: the Olympus M.Zuiko ED 300mm F4 IS PRO and Olympus M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm F2.8 PRO. Combining the 300mm lens with the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital MC-20 2x Teleconverter enabled me to get right in amongst the roost and convey a sense of the sheer numbers of waders in the pits.
My hope was to get a nice frame-filling shot as they lift – you have to really concentrate as it’s easy to miss it. The ultra-fast high frame rate that the Olympus system offers, combined with Pro Capture, gives you an opportunity to get the full sequence of the birds going through a variety of wing movements. At the same time, you need to try and judge the shutter speed correctly. You want to get a sense of the energy of the beating wings, so just a touch of blur. It can be tricky – but it’s good fun trying!
I don’t mind saying that as I sat there and as time passed, a little bit of doubt did start to creep into my mind – but I fought against it. To be honest it was nice just to be sitting on the shore line, chatting to the few watchers that remained.
And then suddenly, without warning, it happened.
The group of knot furthest away took off, their white bellies shimmering in the sunlight. This caused a chain reaction and the flock nearest the shore also took off. In front of us the birds swirled and danced in tight patterns taking evasive action against a hunting peregrine falcon. I don’t mind saying there were a few exclamations – it was a stunning spectacle.
Putting my eye to the viewfinder, I could see the furthest flock murmurating whilst watching the closest flock murmurate also with my other eye. At this point I was so grateful to have the 40-150mm with me – it enabled me to zoom in and out of both murmurations. It was a thrilling, exhilarating experience, and I could feel my heart pounding as the adrenaline kicked in. This gave me intense focus, and I worked hard to capture the murmurations at their most defined peaks. I’m pleased to say the camera didn’t miss a beat.
Compositionally, I wanted to incorporate the environment in the frame. I’ve visited Snettisham since I was a child. My dad is a top birder, and my abiding memory growing up is of the beautifully bleak, sculpted landscape of the mudflats. As a photographer, I wanted to try and convey this and its place as a living landscape. The sculpted mudflats over which the nearest group of birds were murmurating was particularly photogenic.
As soon as it had begun it was all over, the knot settling back down again to feed, the epic drama of life and death played out. When I reviewed my images I could make out the peregrine flying off with its prey, for the rest of the birds though safety had proved in numbers. I’ve had some wonderful experiences during my career as a wildlife photographer, but that morning on that beach looking out over that vast, wild landscape as the knot put on that epic, balletic display was definitely up there as one of, if not the best – and a reminder that even in these challenging times, nature can provide such uplifting solace. I hope sharing some of my images with you documenting one of nature’s most spectacular events brings some of that to you.