Monday, 6 February 2012

London Wetlands Centre's Winter Wonderland

On London Tonight on Friday, photographer Iain Green was shown demonstrating how best to take photographs on an icy day at the amazing London Wetlands Centre in Barnes. A fortnight ago, I was there photographing some of the same subjects on just such a day, but whereas he’s a talented photographer whose work turned out beautifully, I barely know how to switch on the camera. I have little concept of how to translate what I’m seeing in my mind into something impressive on display (I can’t say on paper; most of my photos end up as a slide show on my screen saver, which cheers me up as I love to see animals). I take snapshots, not photographs, to remind me of walking around somewhere wonderful on a pleasant , and that’s enough for now.

One day I will do as I’ve long intended and blog generally about visiting the sublime London Wetlands Centre (LWC), particularly as I still retain ‘outsider’ status despite being a member for over a year, since I get there rarely and know nothing about birds. I always say I’m not a birdwatcher; I’m a wildlife noticer. But I love going there for the amazing peace it offers, and given that just seeing mallard ducks on a park pond or starlings whistling in my tree thrills me, just because I adore seeing wildlife, it’s fantastic to find a spot where one is guaranteed to see plenty of it. Plus I figure if I keep taking pictures, one day I’ll figure it out, the theory being that practice makes acceptable. I will never be a committed wildlife photographer who lies in a frozen field for 20 hours in hopes of getting that perfect photograph of some rarely spotted creature. I like my creature comforts and can barely bend to bird-level to photograph the ones walking around thanks to my bad back. (I can bend down there; I’d just to remain down there until some kind passer-by passed by and offered to pick me up.) I don’t mind taking pictures with my unimpressive minor zoom lens of distant common ducks when I’m sitting in the comfort of one of their hides, and I tend to get shy and self-conscious around anyone who knows what they’re doing. But I just love being at the Centre and hearing the sublimely peaceful whisper of the breeze in the wheat-like fields with an orchestra of beautiful birdsong playing in the foreground. (One comes to zone out the sound of the planes flying overhead and the whistles from the nearby rugby ground, the latter of which rather adds to the atmosphere anyway).

But before I get to a sort of beginner’s blog to visiting the LWC and the true joys every step of the way, I thought I’d just put up a few of my snapshots from that icy January day, if only to show you the difference between what little I can manage when simply preserving a memory of the moment compared to similar subjects taken by professionals like Iain Green or the many mind-blowingly talented amateurs who regularly visit the Centre. I’m not just doing my part to make them look good, as they don’t need it. But maybe if I post a few of my mediocre snaps of a splendid day, it will show anyone reading that they can see some cute and pretty things on their visit and come away happy even if they’re ignorant and untalented as I am. It’s a great place to be. These aren’t my best photographs from the LWC ever (and there are many worse!) but they might give a slight impression of the loveliness of even an icy day at the London Wetlands Centre.

The ice, of course, brings the chance of seeing many apparently holy birds walking on water, like these coots. I think they must be the Torvill and Dean of the coot world, as they were very much at home on the ice together. Unlike Torvill and Dean, the ice seems to make them downright frisky.

This next photograph is a bit of abstract art, or a cold coot bathing in golden waters. It does not quite have the synchronised swimming look of water ballet that so many ducks give their audience, but I found it entrancing just the same.

Another enchanting episode repeated at the Centre is the sight of swans flying. The sound of swans flying is unreal; their flapping wings sound like the whirring of machinery in an industrial revolution factory, or the hum of a sleek classic car when it was a high-tech novelty. More than that, it puts one firmly in mind of aviation, which rather makes sense. Seeing such huge but graceful birds plough roughly into the water is another joy. They look as though they’re struggling to balance, trying out their new angels’ wings for a maiden flight, practically calling out ‘Whoa! Who-a!’ as their feet hit the water.
Their take-offs can seem just as unwieldy—but then even when we fly, take-offs and landings are the trickiest part of the flight. In this picture, I feel I should call ‘beware of low-flying objects!’ to what I think is a herring gull. It was like watching one of those films where the hapless protagonist is about to be run over by a lorry, and you have to hope that if he keeps his head down, it might just pass safely over him. (I’m guessing this big, brownish gull who was lone amongst the smaller black-headed gulls is a herring gull wearing his winter coat. His face is much more noble than I expected; he looks quite wizened. I wondered if he were a bit lonely, one of his kind amongst strangers who might have been thinking “You’re not from around these parts, are you?” and shutting him out. (No, I’m not really mad with Dr Doolittle Disease).

From huge to little….I saw a Little Grebe (and an astonishing number of other birds) on my first trip to the LWC and had never even heard of one before. Really, I first saw a little Little Grebe, as its mother was at the time underwater, diving for food for its….uh, grebeling? Dabchick chick? They wore flashier colours then, and I find them charming, so sweetly delicate, and they dive for so long whenever I raise my camera that I assume they’re trying to shake me off like celebrities try to ditch the paparazzi. Seriously, I think they are. If celebrities bothered to invest in scuba gear, far fewer photos of them looking fat in a bikini would show up in The Daily Mail.

Tufted Ducks are another charming group that always look like they’re shooting me an annoyed look. They remind me of Looney Tunes’ Daffy Duck, in which case perhaps the Tufted Ducks are just a bit self-conscious about their lisp and staring me down before I pick on them, which I would never do. But such a tough glare could easily give one Anatidaephobia. Though I still think it’s cute.

This blurry chap on the left is, I believe, a Water Rail. I caught him (insofar as I did) by pointing my not-outstandingly-long-zoom lens towards a very distant slightly bulbous blob amidst the far away reeds that I thought there was the tiniest chance could be the Jack Snipe that I had been looking at from a different hide (thanks to kind souls welcoming me when I arrived and letting me look through their scope to watch it bob). My cheapo binoculars don’t bring things much closer, so I snapped away on the off chance and was surprised to see the Water Rail when I got home. Which is grand because I didn't know I'd seen one. I know little about birds so I could be wrong, but it’s blurrily purdy, innit?
Similarly blurry but with little excuse is this group pruning session of a Wigeon with Eiders either side—not a great photo (on the right), but the symmetry somehow soothes me.
Starkly in better focus is this duck that, frankly, I know nothing about, but isn’t it xtraordinary? What lovely feathers, despite it being an odd combination of colours and patterns, like a deliberately clashing outfit from the 80s. Mostly it makes me think of handing a duck colouring book to a little girl who then, rather than boringly filling in the lines with typical mallard colours or just brown as many children might, instead applies all her favourite colour crayons and patterns and produces this gloriously different duck. As though this duck standing on that bit of 
wood has been coloured in beautifully by Mother Nature’s little girl.

Another beautiful exotic duck that I believe permanently lives at the Centre is this one illustrating the expression “like water off a duck’s back.” This next mystery resident duck on the left always seems to have a silly but intensively innocent look on its face, which I know is a weird thing to say about something that cannot smile. But maybe acting teachers should show this to their students when they’re trying to achieve an innocent look.

Speaking of exotic ducks, this is a bad picture of a Mandarin duck, which must officially be one of the most incredibly beautiful specimens of water fowl. I mean, just look at it; it looks as though it were designed by Ferrari….or Gucci. The picture’s poor because I didn’t catch his reflection, but at the time I was more interested in capturing the funky way his neck feathers looked as he repeatedly plunged his beak into the water (left), but failed to get a good one at the right angle. Still, just admire that beauty. Gorgeous, isn’t he? Amazing what nature creates.

Still with ducks, I must say that as an American, I never understood the fashion for hanging three ornamental flying ducks on your wall, as one of the old Coronation Street characters did, but seeing the real thing against a blue sky can almost explain its charm.  

Moving to geese, I feel oddly like there’s something sassy about how Egyptian Geese walk away, like a petulant girl storming off. Note that I said sassy, not sexy. I have no duck fetish. I worry that, if I add that I love their colouring, particularly their beautiful tail feathers, this whole paragraph looks a bit disturbing. I promise you I have no sick Owen-from-Vicar-of-Dibley-style love of ducks; I just think they’re lovely as I think trees are lovely.
Less pretty and even hard to make out is this ominous Poe crow, looking as though it morphed magically into a demon on a stark branch above. Okay, so it’s just a bad picture, but it looks better when I see it as part of my bleak Edgar Allen Poe world on a desolate winter’s day.

I had been hoping that such a day, might bring one of the bitterns out into view, as it might need to step out onto the ice to reach some food, but they were content to stay tucked away in the reeds. On my previous visit, however, I managed finally to see a bittern—two, actually—thanks entirely to others. I always pictured birdwatchers as being secretive and not wanting to share if they’d caught sight of something special, other than bragging about it later perhaps. The reality I’ve found at the Centre is that people are kind and welcoming and will gladly offer to show you something wonderful in their scope.

On that day, I’d been walking towards the Wildside area of the Centre, I believe in hopes of seeing a Water Vole at last, when a lovely volunteer stopped me on the path and asked if I’d seen the Bittern from the Observatory. Had she not done so, I would never have gone there. Indeed, it took me several visits before I was even aware of it, and it made me feel a bit like an airport departure lounge, with its giant glass wall overlooking the main lake, but feeling far from the best action. And when I did pop in on my way back and still saw nothing, a kind woman upstairs suggested that I look through her scope, which was fixed on the elusive bittern.

Although it was so far away I could barely make out with the naked eye its shape against the reeds, I aimed my camera at it rather pointlessly but took a few shots just in case, and of course can barely make out the blurry result [see right], but I’m happy to have the memento.

The friendly sharing continued when another chap who’d joined us called to a couple downstairs to invite them to come watch the bittern, which led to a member of staff directing the gentleman, who was in a wheelchair, to a hidden lift (most of the Centre is wonderfully accessible) as we shunted things about to help him view the bird. He and his wife then showed me on their camera photographs they’d just taken a Water Vole near the Dulverton Hide, and although the sun was setting, I decided to rush there to try my best to finally see Ratty.

I had no luck, of course, and decided on my way back to the Visitor’s Centre and exit to pop into the Dulverton Hide even though it was surely too dark to see anything, thinking I’d just glance out the window at the emptiness and leave. However, two silhouetted gentlemen were in their helping each other find something they were straining to see—a second Bittern. They decided to include me but said things like, “Do you see that sand bank with the Egyptian Geese on it?” which made me panic and think, “Oh no—they assume I know what we’re talking about!” But then I realised I do know what Egyptian Geese look like now, thanks to my visits to the Centre. (Yes, they’re the sassy ones).
I watched it until it got quite dark, and then walked back with the remaining kind bittern-spotting soul, the only disadvantage being that we chatted as we passed through the gift shop, where I’d intended to use my coupon for a free book that I’d been given when I renewed my membership, so I thought I’d leave it ‘til next time, unaware there was an expiry date, 16 days before my next visit. So humph. But it was worth it. Not just for watching a bittern until late, but because the warm, chummy, can-we-help-you nature of the volunteers and fellow visitors shines over that disappointment. I was a bit intimidated when I first went to the Centre, seeing people who clearly know what they’re doing wandering around with telescopes on tripods and cameras that cost more than a car. But I’ve found that most knowledgeable people there really welcome the chance to share and don’t mind at all if you’re a novice.

Finally, this golden blur shows no cute birds nor any of the ice on my recent visit, but it always makes me think of cereal adverts for some reason, and its inclusion here is solely because I’m a bit peckish. Mind you, it also reminds me of the variety of mini-terrains in the wetlands centre, this reedbed area being one of the most peaceful, I find, because of the breeze in the wheat (or wheat-like grasses). Even on busier days, I seem to pass few people here, and I adore its tranquillity. Its charm never disappears, regardless of the season. There is always something fantastic to see at the London Wetlands Centre, be it migrant birds, resident birds (eg innocent ducks or sassy geese), insects like damselflies, as well as frogs, water voles (if you’re lucky) and glorious flora. It’s a marvellous place, even on a freezing day as this one was. I already feel eager for my next visit. There’s still a water vole to be seen…somewhere! 
Incidentally, the London Wetlands Centre occasionally holds wildlife photography workshops by photographers such as the above mentioned Iain Glenn and the outstanding Mark Carwardine, so keep an eye on their events page, sign up for alerts or follow them on Twitter.

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