How to photograph the Snettisham Spectacular and wading birds

There is a place on our shores which hosts among the world’s great nature eyeglasses, bring in birders and professional photographers from everywhere: the fall gathering of red knot (knot). The Wash, a huge tidal bay separating Norfolk from Lincolnshire and surrounding the North Sea, attracts over 100,000 of these wading birds, a species that nests in the Arctic. Numerous use our coasts and estuaries to feed in winter season however in fall newly arrived from the far north, they gather to take advantage of abundant feeding grounds that the mudflats offer.
Red Knot, Calidris canutus flock arriving at roost at Snettisham RSPB Reserve on The Wash, Norfolk
Red Knot, Calidris canutus flock reaching roost at Snettisham RSPB Reserve on The Wash, Norfolk. Image: David Tipling

E-M1MarkII · f/2.8 · 1/1000s · 142mm · ISO400

The spectacle takes place on Spring Tides which have absolutely nothing to do with spring, however occur when the sun, Earth and moon are lined up forming a strong gravitational pull developing the greatest tides. When these occur the mud and big parts of the salt marsh are inundated, pressing the knot and other waders– notably oystercatchers– to roost on gravel pits on the Norfolk side of the Wash at Snettisham.

As the tide covers the mud, substantial numbers of birds are pushed ever closer to the edge till ultimately large flocks take to the air and descend on to their roosting banks and islands on the gravel pit. Here the knot type rivers of birds moving restlessly as they rise in tightly jam-packed groups, prior to eventually settling down up until the tide starts to fall. Red Knot, Calidris canutus, North Norfolk.
Red Knot, Calidris canutus, North Norfolk.
E-M1X · f/8 · 1/1000s · 600mm · ISO400
When to get here for the Snettisham Spectacular

This whole cycle extends across an amount of time of around six hours, and it is recommended to arrive at least 2 hours previously high tide to provide the best series of photographic chance– this will often imply arriving in the dark and being in position as the sun comes up. In more than 30 years of visiting the roost in fall I still discover brand-new ways to picture; every high tide is various. If there are peregrine falcons prowling all set to hunt, then you may be dealt with to a spectacular murmuration as they dance in tight flocks over the mud, shape-shifting as they jink and weave to avert attack.

While photographing on the foreshore you may want to utilize a range of focal lengths, from a wideangle to a long telephoto lens. Big wheeling flocks can be photographed within the environment of the estuary perhaps utilizing the mudflat pools or the old pier as a foreground to offer scale. While a telephoto lens of 500mm or more will allow you to get in near the birds.
Red knot (Calidris canutus) flock at Snettisham RSPB Reserve on The Wash, Norfolk.
Red knot (Calidris canutus) flock at Snettisham RSPB Reserve on The Wash, Norfolk. Picture: David Tipling

E-M1X · f/4.5 · 1/1600s · 40mm · ISO400

Constantly be prepared for the unanticipated. If peregrines are searching then the knot may without alerting take off into the air turning and twisting, so you want to be ready as soon as this takes place. I frequently have lenses establish on 2 camera bodies throughout my visits to be able to switch from a brief zoom to a long telephoto and vice versa, depending upon what unfolds in front of me. Which aperture and shutter speed you pick are essential considerations.

If you photograph a big flock close to or on the ground, or in flight, it is always best to use as small an aperture as you can so your depth of field is as huge as possible– this will ensure you have the majority of the birds in a flock in sharp focus. If you utilize a shallow depth of field, then often out-of-focus birds, specifically if they remain in the front of the frame, can end up being a distraction within the image.

Knot (Calidris canutus) being chased after by a peregrine over pits at Snettisham RSPB Reserve on The Wash, Norfolk. Photo: David Tipling
Knot (Calidris canutus) being chased by a peregrine over pits at Snettisham RSPB Reserve on The Wash, Norfolk
ILCE-7RM3 · f/9 · 1/10s · 556mm · ISO500
How to record the action

Knot are fast-flying, and when photographing individuals or little groups I would suggest using at least 1/2000sec to freeze their wings. When they begin to leave the roost as the tide turns, they fly fast and very low overhead. If you remain in the ideal place, then a wideangle lens can be utilized to record little groups. The rush of air and sound from their wings as they skim low overhead is exciting.

There are a lot of other species to picture. Oystercatchers roost in large numbers, providing some various chances to the knot. They and redshank are frequently the first types to arrive to roost. Dunlin, sanderling and ringed plover move in flocks along the foreshore at high tide and can keep you occupied when the knot have actually settled.

Whether it is wheeling flocks of birds in golden light as the sun increases or the restless movement of tens of countless birds packed together on a misty autumnal morning, the Snettisham Spectacular never ever stops working to disappoint. Photographic chances abound, it is a location where you can get imaginative, and you do not always require a long expensive telephoto to enjoy it.

Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus moving restlessly at high tide roost Snettisham on the Wash Norfolk. Photo: David Tipling
Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus moving restlessly at high tide roost Snettisham on the Wash Norfolk.
NIKON D4 · f/22 · 1/6s · 500mm
Snettisham visiting information

There is a pay-and-display cars and truck park at Snettisham (complimentary to RSPB members) which does get busy on roost days, so it is a good idea to arrive early. The roost is at its best from early September, visiting in July and August offers the chance to photograph numerous of the knot in their brick-red breeding plumage.


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