Snettisham and the record Storm Surge

14th December 2013
For various (frankly inadequate !) reasons I haven't been able to do much photography during the autumn with both my visit to the Midlands planned to do the Red Deer rut and visits across to Norfolk cancelled as my jury service (2nd time!), which I thought should fly by, ballooned into a 3-week+ long trial which has now resulted in me knowing everything I ever need to know about importing white powder from Central America and police undercover ops that foil it !! Anyway I stopped checking under my car every night after the first week and pondered on if and when I'd ever be able to get freezing cold somewhere waiting for some wildlife to turn up. But by November I'd planned to do a trip I've been meaning to do for ages and go and see the wader and geese "spectacular" on the shores of the Wash in Norfolk at the RSPB reserve at Snettisham. The best tide was deemed to be Friday 6th December so I organised accordingly hoping that I'd see a decent amount of water to help push the birds up the beach towards my vantage points. As now well documented, a lack of water wasn't really a problem ! I'd also hoped to combine it with trying to locate some Barn Owls given Norfolk's justified reputation as possibly the best location in the UK for my favourite bird. For that I knew I wanted ideally calm windless conditions. As it turned out the 50-60 mph winds on Thursday/Friday weren't that helpful :-)

Having left home from Kent at 0400am I headed north and it was so early I didn't have to pay at the Dartford tunnel so it seemed a good start. Obviously I had been watching the forecast but I was rather hoping the storm forecast may actually make the wader spectacle even more spectacular with the waders pushed right up the beach so I was mildly optimistic. Arriving earlier than expected in Norfolk I decided to head straight to Snettisham as never having been before I thought I could assess where I'd want to be the next day for the "big" tide. With several cars parked I loaded up with all my gear and headed the 1.5km towards the hides with my head torch showing the way and no sounds other than the calling of the Pink Footed Geese flying in fantastic skeins across a stunning pink sky about 40 minutes before sunrise. Ironically most had flown over by the time I reached the beach and managed to get my camera out (must take a decent compact with me !!) and here a small group head inland to their daytime feeding grounds.

As the morning progressed it became clear that the supposed fairly big tide of this Thursday morning wasn't going to occur and I suspect the already huge winds had in fact pushed the water at a more easterly direction keeping much of it out of the Wash and negating the tide. Somewhat disappointed I watched the distant flocks of waders remain on their mudflats several hundreds of yards out to sea. Once I had them on my computer I felt they worked better in black and white simply to emphasise the movement and size of the swirling birds, mainly Knot. Whilst they'll win no prizes I always feel you can get something out of any day to make it worthwhile. It was also at this point that I got chatting to virtually the only other soul daft enough to sit on the beach in the cold and wind that morning, and I'd like to thank Andrew Mason (a pro photographer with some great images) for his company and welcome conversation on the day. Ironically the previous evening I had been looking at "wildlife photographers blogs on Snettisham" on Google and his had been 3rd up which I'd read ! A small world !

Eventually the cold and the lack of birds led me back to the car and I thought I'd head along the north Norfolk coast to Cley, a reserve I have only been to once before and then only to the Visitor Centre whilst on a (non photographic)family holiday during a rainstorm !!
But as I scoffed my lunch the clouds started to part and by 3pm a lovely golden light arrived to cover the marshes as seen in the image below.. Admittedly the still gusting wind, strong enough to blow you over, was keeping people inside but I thought I would at least venture out to the 3 hides positioned in the very centre of the reserve.

A 20 minute walk led me to the middle of the reserve but despite the nice light, it seemed the wind gusting so strongly had persuaded every self respecting bird to head for cover save a few hardy Black Headed Gulls, Teal and Mallards. As my first visit out on to the reserve at Cley I was impressed by the quality of the location and hides and planned to come back over the next 48 hours to explore further. Little did I know how my plans would have to change !!

So having headed back to my base for the night in a pub in Thornham and recovered from the beating up I received from the wind all day I headed for dinner but, after 30 minutes, we had a total power cut as the storm started to take it's toll outside. So a dinner of beer, crisps and a prawn cocktail (didn't need cooking!) had to suffice.

Next morning I was up and out by 0545 and found the side road to Snettisham closed by a police sign but given I was in a 4x4 I thought at least I can venture down it and always turn around if necessary. I was well aware that the high tide was due at c.0820 so still 2 hours away so needed to be careful. As I reached the car park at the reserve it was obvious it hadn't flooded there on the previous huge tide about 6 hours previously which was reassuring but I still parked on the highest bit of ground I could find and headed off towards the beach. Also checking the fairly low level path on the way hadn't flooded so I kept going but even so with the noise of the wind, it was still quite surreal and spooky getting on to the beach and seawall in pitch darkness. I headed towards the Rotary Hide and was amazed at the seaweed and debris as well as sand and rocks that had been swept up to the top of the seawall and I quickly realised the previous tide had in many places come right over the top of the ridge and into the two large lagoons behind the beach. It would have been a very scary place indeed to have been at high tide a few hours before. I was well aware that the next tide could do the same but of course it would be in daylight making the situation much more manageable.
Fortunately, as the light grew it became fairly quickly that this tide would stay much lower and not swamp the areas between the lagoons and sea again which was just as well as about 30 people had wandered out to the wader viewpoint most of whom seemed to be totally unaware of the real dangers of where they were standing given the high tide was an hour away and they had no high point of land to head to !!
As the light came up I could also see what had happened to the two large hides on the far side of the lower lagoon.
This is the Roost Hide which was picked up, moved about 200 yards north and sunk.

And here the Sanctuary Hide has been lifted, turned through 180 degrees and dumped unceremoniously on the bank behind.

Despite all the debris around me I watched as the sun started to rise on a gorgeous morning but I was aware my original plans were scuppered. No birds were on the mudflats being pushed into the beach for me to capture as the tide had never gone out undoubtedly due to huge amount of water present in the Wash from the storm. Similarly my idea of going around to the east side of the lagoon to watch the birds lift off the lake edges wasn't on either as the floods prevented access to that side of the lakes. Frustrating after all the effort but with a stunning sunrise I did what I could to get some useable images if only as a record of the day.

Amazingly everyone else but myself and one other photographer had left the reserve by c0900am as they seemed disappointed by the lack of huge flocks of geese and waders but I knew there were still thousands of birds on the lagoons that I assumed had not been able to feed the previous low tide due to the storm surge and would be hungry. Sure enough the birds starting to get restless as the two of us stood alone and increasing numbers starting to swirl above the lagoons which were about 6-7 feet above normal levels.

The light as it reflected off the birds was stunning but with the sun rising behind them and in my face it made the photography rather limited.
Huge flocks rose on mass and initially flew low and fast just above the lagoons but as the sun rose higher so they started to gain height and spread over the surrounding marshes.

..and finally they started to stream over the beach and out to see.

At first they discovered no mudflats were exposed but as the water slowly receded they kept moving back and forth in curling golden flashing masses and each time went further out to sea and eventually began to drop in small flocks on to their feeding grounds. This went on for about an hour giving myself and the other photographer a stunning display and I couldn't help thinking how many of the twitchers and walkers had got home thinking how disappointing Snettisham was and probably blamed it on the storm.
It was difficult to get images that did it justice but here you can see how the light reflected off the flocks.

Having survived the storm I wondered how the Barn Owls I had also hoped to photograph had coped so before dawn the next morning I headed to the best area I knew of with few realistic hopes of seeing one as the slowing but still significant wind was now joined by lots of grey cloud hardly ideal conditions. But about 40 minutes before sunrise I watched in the gloom as initially two then a single Barn Owl hunted over 3 or 4 fields within view. I knew the chances of any pictures were minimal especially in the rubbish conditions but I managed to get a few distant frames like the one below.
This was taken at 10,000 ISO and heavily cropped so it was only due to the amazing ability of my Nikon D4 that I managed to get even this.

So I left Norfolk in two minds. Fine the original plans had been well and truly blown away but it was still a stunning experience and just seeing the impact of the sea surge was something I'll remember for a long time. In places it was higher than the massive surge of 1953 so we can be grateful it's human cost was so low compared with that.

Technical Info: Nikon D4, 24-70mm f2.8, 70-200mm f2.8 VR II, 500mm f4 VR II, Gitzo tripod, wimberley head, everything necessary to survive the weather from thermals to a flask of tea !

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