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Ham Wall RSPB bird photography – day 1

Orange sky over Glastonbury Tor

My first day at Ham Wall RSPB nature reserve (check out Ham Wall day 2 here).  Today has been a wonderful day, I haven’t been this excited about taking photos at a nice location probably since New Zealand.

Yesterday I overheard someone at my Pilates class talking about watching starling birds swarming over the Somerset Levels.  When they swarm and move around in patterns, it is called murmuration.  Intrigued by this, I asked a few questions.  I was then told that if I called the RSPB, they would tell me where the starlings would be roosting that night and I could then visit whichever nature reserve, to see the starlings flying en masse in the sky.  As a little boy, my brother and myself were fascinated by how the starlings would fly near our house in the same way.  There would be hundreds if not thousands of them and they would fly repeatedly from one electric pylon to the next, back and forth, back and forth.  At length we loved to watch them.

According to my source, the best time to catch the starlings as they fly in swirls in the sky, is dawn and dusk.  Well it was already too late for dusk, so I thought I would go the next morning.  We’d had a fantastic magenta sky that evening, so I felt confident that the next morning it would afford me a really good opportunity to see the starlings, and also hopefully see a nice sunrise.  However it did mean I would need to set my alarm for 5:30am, not something I relished the thought of!

I rang the RSPB number, which when connected, gave a recorded message of the location where the starlings were roosting that night.  It was Ham Wall nature reserve on the Somerset Levels.  I don’t think I have been there before, but I have been to similar places, although in the daytime, not very early morning.

To be honest, as I drove out to Ham Wall in the dark, I didn’t have very high expectations and thought I would have probably been better staying in bed!  Whilst on my way, I realised I probably should have left a touch earlier.  Sunrise was just after 8am, but the sky was plenty bright before that and as much as I wanted to get photos of the starlings, I also wanted the warm glow in the sky.  Not to mention, in order to get these photos, I’d need to find a good spot and spend a few minutes setting up my cameras.  Time was beginning to become precious and every minute counted.

Arrival at Ham Wall

I arrived at the Ham Wall car park around 7:15am.  There were only 2 or 3 three cars already there.  I didn’t really know where I was going, and not until later when it was light, did I see the map on display.  I found the first path that I could and vaguely walked in the direction of where I thought I should be going.  I had already seen the Glastonbury Tor by this point and there was a nice morning glow behind, so this had already pricked my interest.

Hopeful I had indeed made the right decision to get up at such an ungodly hour, I plodded along the path, each step making a frosty crunching sound.  With each hundred metres, things got increasingly more interesting.  I enjoyed views across the wetlands with the reeds in silhouette and a glimmer of warm morning light reflecting in the surface of the water.  As I continued to walk, I hadn’t initially noticed the increasing chatter of birds in the reeds.  Then it became such a volume that I realised that was where the starlings were.  I hastened my pace, not wanting to miss their airborne dance and tried to find where might be a suitable location to get the best photos and video.  I saw a track leading down into the reeds near where I could hear all the commotion and decided to head for that.

As I turned a slight bend and got a view into a small bird hide, I thought I would be met with other bird watchers/photographers, but as it turned out , there was no one there.  This was actually great, as it meant I could set up a tripod and my cameras without bothering anyone.  By this time the starlings were already airborne and I was hastily trying to remember how to properly set my camera to the best settings for video (remember, I am a photographer rather than videographer), and then with one camera on a tripod, have hands free to take photos too.  As I said, I should have probably arrived a little earlier.  This would have given me more time to get the best results, as by this time I had already missed a few minutes and I didn’t know how long the starlings would fly for.

I just about managed to get some photos and video, but I hope to go back again and have another go.  Most annoyingly, I had taken the wrong zoom lens with me.  I have two that look very alike and I had picked up the one that wasn’t able to get quite as close.  No matter, but I won’t be making that mistake again!

Starlings at sunrise at Ham Wall RSPB nature reserve

Probably tens of thousands of Starlings.  An almost never ending swarm would fly by for minutes at a time.  You could also see layers of starlings, as you could see starlings flying en masse simultaneously in the distance too.

Starlings roosting at Ham Wall RSPB nature reserve
Starlings at sunrise at Ham Wall RSPB nature reserve

Just as the starlings had left a few mintes before sunrise, a couple of ladies arrived with their binoculars.  We exchanged pleasantries and they told me they had also come to see the starlings; only they had come from Manchester!  I felt a bit guilty that I live on the doorstep (well, 10 miles away) and didn’t think I had been before!  After a few photos of the sun coming up, I made my way back to the car.

Sunrise at Ham Wall RSPB nature reserve
Orange sky over Glastonbury Tor
Sunrise at Ham Wall RSPB nature reserve
Frosty landscape at sunrise at Ham Wall RSPB nature reserve
Frosty reeds at sunrise at Ham Wall RSPB nature reserve

The cold morning had made everything look like an artist’s painting.  There were pastel colours, and when looking toward the light, the frost wrapped all plantlife in a glowing white halo.

Frosty reeds at sunrise at Ham Wall RSPB nature reserve

Frost bitten plants stood quiet and still in the crisp winter air.

Frosty reeds at sunrise at Ham Wall RSPB nature reserve

The reeds looked a lot like they had been dipped in liquid nitrogen as they looked cold and brittle.

Looking over a distance, there were layers of mist and this created a feeling of depth, as each layer of vegetation overlapped the other with the furthermost being a faint silhouette.

Ham Wall RSPB Somerset nature reserve on a frosty morning
Frosty landscape at sunrise at Ham Wall RSPB nature reserve
Frosty reeds at sunrise at Ham Wall RSPB nature reserve

This was the stuff of chocolate boxes or postcards.  Everywhere you turned there was a picture, whether it be light shining through the trees, ice in the water, or plants shrouded in frost.  It was almost too easy to take a pretty photo!

Ham Wall RSPB Somerset nature reserve map
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