Sunday, 21 June 2020

Can you ever have too many Avocet pictures?

Avocets, Frampton Marsh
Avocets, Frampton Marsh

I enjoyed taking this image, the marsh was full of Avocets and I was having fun trying to get pictures of them in flight. I started to try and make sense of the activity around me by focusing on single birds, but as I became more attuned to the action going on around me, I noticed that often pairs of birds would take flight together or that two or three birds would converge in the air as they chased each other away from their patch of ground.

There is something very elegant about Avocets. Their plumage the crisp lines between the black and white feathers, the long blue grey legs on which they daintily wade through muddy shallows, and that distinctive long black scimitar bill for sifting small shrimps out of the marsh.

Avocets have a suitably tragic and well known back story as a species, a history inextricably linked in with that of the RSPB who have adopted the species as their emblem in acknowledgement of the hope that their work on these birds in helping them to recover from extinction as a breeding bird in the UK. Work that gives hope to their work on other threatened birds.

By dint of where they live and also perhaps where they don't, Avocets will be associated in many birders minds with great days out in amazing places on the coast: Minsmere, Titchwell, Frampton a roll call of our best nature reserves, where today you are almost guaranteed to see these special birds. Hope made real in flesh and feathers, a Lazarus bird brought back from UK extinction and whose spread has been facilitated by the creation of new nature reserves with suitable habitat for Avocets and a range of other wetland birds.

In response to some frustrating behaviour by some photographers, I once heard an exasperated warden exclaim something along the lines of "Aren't there enough pictures of Kingfishers in the world!" Indeed sometimes when leafing through portfolios of award winning images of UK wildlife I have felt the same. But I think on reflection that misses at least part of the point. Taking pictures of Kingfishers, Avocets and a whole range of other species gives people pleasure, it gives them a sense of connection and it can give friends and family pleasure too. All of which I hope leads to a sense that these species and the places that they live are worth looking after.

Taking this picture gave me pleasure, I have taken pleasure from the reaction of others to it over on my Instagram page and I have taken pleasure from the fact that there is more to it than may be apparent on first viewing.

Looking at it I feel that the image has a balletic feel to it, the upper bird appears to be releasing the lower bird to let it swoop elegantly away, as if they were performing some avian version of Swan Lake.  And yet that isn't what was happening, this 1600th of a second moment frozen in time is not of two birds in a loving aerial dance, but of a dog fight above a east coast marsh on a mid-summer morning. The Avocets here were in a constant state of agitation, as soon as I opened my car door I was hit by a soundscape full of their kloot, kloot calls as pairs of Avocets chased away their neighbours and any other birds who had the temerity to enter their air space.

In essence they were behaving less like ballerina's and more like badly behaved super models. In doing so they were living up to their reputation as notoriously anti social birds. Thinking back I can vividly remember watching an Avocet colony on a Dutch marsh where one adult bird grabbed a neighbours chick in its delicate bill and throttled it under the water until the young birds parents flew in screaming to rescue it. In Norfolk I have watched pairs of Avocets rising to the sky to harry and chase away birds many times their size including potential predators like Grey Herons.

I witnessed these behaviours and had the chance to grab on film fractions of seconds for posterity, because sitting overlooking a marsh watching the birds, anticipating their behaviour and thinking about technically how I can grab a shot worth sharing, all that gives me pleasure. It also means for me at least that I am even more inclined to want to protect and share the places where these elegant if slightly anti-social birds thrive.

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