I suspect many of you have been watching the excellent series of Springwatch that has just come to a conclusion, based from the excellent reserve at Minsmere. I first went there some 30 or so years ago and all my children visited as part of their early education in the wonders of reed beds and wetlands as a habitat to enjoy: it’s certainly one that is special and increasingly challenged in the UK and across Europe too.
One of the continents greatest areas wetlands is along the eastern end of the river Danube as it gradually makes its way into the Black Sea, and it was to the magnet of these expanses of water, natural flooding and reed beds that I was drawn to join my good friend Emil Enchev in northern Bulgaria last month along with 3 guests (Nigel, Roger and Ian) who were joining us.
As you can see it is a wonderfully rich environment and full of life; both flora and fauna.
These Marsh Frogs (of which there were hundreds, competing with Fire-Bellied Toads to see who could make the most noise) took on a whole new appearance when they filled their air sacs to make themselves heard.
A half hour spell standing at the spot in the first image one afternoon led to 8 different grass snakes being seen just swimming through – a really rich environment, and one that we had permission to explore using floating hides: simple individual constructions of polystyrene, and a small dome hide which are manoeuvred by either slowly walking or (mostly) swimming slowly through the habitat until finding a quiet place to stop and settle and wait to see what swims by. Hopefully that didn’t too often include leeches of which there were plenty and we all had a bite or two for our pains! All worth it for the wonderful low perspective and very individual images that working this way can allow though.
Being at the beginning of the breeding season as we were many summer visitors to the area were busy pairing up and establishing both nests and relationships, including the very vocal Whiskered Terns, one of the freshwater birds of this family as opposed to the more often seen coastal species.
Those of you who might have followed my work over the years though will know that one of the families of birds I have always had a huge affinity for and enjoyed some incredibly engaging experiences with in the past though are Grebes, and this was an equally excellent time to be there for them in terms of numbers and activity too.
Black-necked Grebes have to be one of the prettiest birds there is when in their summer plumage and at this point in the breeding season large numbers of them will gather in breeding areas to sort out partnerships and nesting locations.
Being in such a wonderful habitat and at the same time able to work at a perfect photographic level with them was completely absorbing, even when trying to paddle quietly to keep still as I was often out of my depth in the water!
And when a passing bird gives you the odd quizzical look too it feels like that effort is worth it as you have indeed become part of the scenery.
There were actually 4 of the 5 European species of Grebes to be found here, and one that I was especially keen to try and spend some time with was the Red-necked Grebe: quite a bit bigger than these and with a different conformation altogether.
They seemed to be more elusive but this bird, photographed late one evening, gave me something to work on locationally the next day and which proved to be rewarding as an uninterrupted 2 hour encounter that morning was completely absorbing.
You know that you have really become accepted when birds start to relax and preen, and in this birds case also call for an errant mate!
One of the facets that I particularly enjoyed about working in these wetlands was just how the light would completely change both the look of the birds but also the habitat, reflections and therefore image opportunities as well – the colours of both these Grebe species were multi-faceted in warm late and early light respectively.
It meant that keeping a watchful eye as birds moved into different pastels and shades of water created fresh image opportunities aplenty, even when they were just swimming through.
But one morning that will long remain with me alongside some of the other great Grebe experiences I have been fortunate to witness, saw the final sorting out of the pairs of Black-necked Grebes and very real establishment of where they wanted to nest in the coming weeks – fighting it seems gets the testosterone flowing too!
They may not have featured on Springwatch (mind you those Bitterns were pretty special too) but these beautiful little water birds are certainly one of the many wonders to be found in the wetlands across Europe, and reason enough to ensure it’s a habitat we hang on to.