The RSPB’s reserve at Arne in Dorset recently requested the use of my wetland wildlife photos for their new seasonal interpretation panels. They also commissioned a stitched panoramic landscape image to highlight landmarks visible from their stunning observation point overlooking Poole Harbour.
Featured above are the Southern Hawker dragonfly, Osprey, Wasp Spider, Raft Spider and Marsh Harrier, all of which can be found on the Arne reserve at different times of the year. Well worth a visit!
Post-industrial landscape reclaimed for wetland wildlife at RSPB Arne
The Arne peninsula in Dorset juts out into Poole Harbour, separating the Wareham channel from the main body of water. Right out at the tip, concealed by the remains of ancient oak woodland, lies a former ball clay pit.
The extraction company, Imerys, finished mining the deposit in 2008. Since 2010 they have been restoring the area as part of their mitigation agreement, before transferring ownership of the site to the RSPB, who manage the surrounding nature reserve at Arne.
I was asked to document this reclamation process on behalf of the RSPB, in particular the flooding of the claypit basin with water from the harbour to create a saline lagoon habitat for wading birds and other species.
With mining activities ended the pit was re-profiled with heavy earth-moving equipment, and a layer of topsoil deposited above the expected final water level in the summer of 2011.
Next, a channel was cut through the embankment to join the claypit with the harbour at the south end of the site. On especially high tides the water from the harbour would flood this channel to gradually fill the lagoon.
This process was expected to take many months and it was decided to document the process with a timelapse camera.
View to a spill
We surveyed the best location for the camera – somewhere with a wide view of the pit, a glimpse of the harbour in the background, a small island in the middle ground and some vegetation in the foreground to provide varied visual interest.
Unfortunately this necessitated pointing the camera due south, so we also calculated the position and angle of the sun in future months to try to minimise its dazzling effect on the camera’s lens and sensor.
The pit itself is off-limits, but there is public access to the surrounding area and it is too remote to monitor. Exposure to the elements over such a long period was also a consideration, so an expensive DSLR setup was not a practical option, and a relatively cheap-and-cheerful alternative was sourced.
The pit filled much more rapidly than the engineers had predicted and in April of the following year, after only 7 months, the rising water had achieved its final level.
The following video sequence shows events over that period, compressed to just 1 minute, using stills taken at 3 hour intervals:
The island habitat is already frequented by shelducks and sika deer regularly visit its shores. It will take longer for the waters to settle and for other species to establish themselves.
It’s hoped that the regular interchange of water with the harbour will prevent the process of eutrophication, which would otherwise make the lagoon inhospitable. The suspension of clay particles in the water can be a serious problem in this respect.
Whether this industrially exploited area becomes the wildlife oasis hoped for only time will tell.
With thanks to Mark, Rob, Damon, James and Em at RSPB Arne.
Symbol of the RSPB in the UK, the avocet was extinct as a breeding species by the mid 19th century, only returning to these shores during the second world war after the flooding of East Anglian marshes for coastal defence restored ideal wetland territory for the birds. Since then the reintroduction and careful managment of this scarce habitat elsewhere in the UK has proved to be a major conservation success story.
Hundreds of avocets overwinter on the south coast of England in Poole Harbour – the second-largest natural harbour in the world. In autumn they can often be found huddled together in the lagoon on Brownsea Island close to the busy shipping lanes at the harbour entrance. As winter draws on the birds seem to disperse, favouring the more sheltered harbour channels. The Middlebere channel to the south of the Arne peninsula is a particularly popular location.
Avocets gather in Poole Harbour
My main goal on this day was to film and photograph some winter finches along the crop trail managed by the RSPB’s wardens on the Arne Reserve. However it quickly became overcast and I wandered off in the direction of Coombe Heath to see what wading birds were on the Middlebere channel instead. By the time I reached the viewing screens the clouds had cleared and a ‘raft’ of several hundred avocets was beautifully lit in the low winter sun:
Raft of avocets on the Middlebere channel from Arne
Unfortunately the birds moved off before I could set up my tripod for video but one of the RSPB’s wardens kindly pointed out a sheltered spot near the shore where I could get a closer view of their new location.
As I sat and watched the light on the harbour just got better and better with each passing minute. The calls of the waders could be clearly heard in the still air and, as the tide turned, the raft of birds gradually dispersed in my direction, scouring the mud for tasty morsels:
We’re lucky to have at least two male hen harriers overwintering on the shores of Poole Harbour this year. They’re visually quite distinct from the female hen harrier and other local raptors like the buzzard and marsh harrier. From a distance they might be mistaken for a gull as they patrol above the reed beds.
On this particular afternoon I’d been sat in a freezing hide at Middlebere overlooking a channel off the harbour with several other people. The male hen harrier passed the hide on 2 occasions as it hunted, and we were well pleased.
As the light began to fade and the temperature dropped so my companions began to leave. As dusk approached it was just me and my camera when this fella chose to alight on the neighbouring fenceline:
I couldn’t quite believe my luck. It was clearly aware of my presence but seemed entirely unbothered. The bird continued to survey the reeds from its vantage point for some minutes. I hurriedly assembled my tripod and mounted the camera to switch to video mode. At which point this happened:
The harrier clearly spotted something edible in the reeds and swooped in to grab it. Either it missed, or the prey got away at the first attempt, but the harrier did not give up and flapped around after it in the reeds.
Seeing this grounded raptor the local fox recognised a golden opportunity and rushed in while its back was turned. Foxy must have come within a couple of feet of success. In the slow motion sequence you can see the harrier attempt to lift off, with the prey in its grasp, but gets snagged on the reeds with almost fatal delay. What appears to be a small mammal, probably a vole, then falls from its clutches as it finally gets airborne.
The slightly dejected, but still rather smug looking fox, then sauntered off right past the hide:
Ospreys are regular visitors to Poole Harbour in the autumn, on route to Africa where they flee for the winter. These birds are especially well adapted for catching fish and extraordinary to watch.
We’re very lucky to have such magnificent neighbours but I’m not sure that many inhabitants of nearby Poole and Bournemouth realise they exist, let alone where to find them.
The National Trust have a wildlife hide at Middlebere on the edge of a channel running into the harbour. It’s tucked away in the woods opposite the RSPB’s reserve at Arne. In season the ospreys can regularly be seen commuting up and down the channel on fishing expeditions. Great to watch through binoculars and scopes, but for photographic purposes they remain a long way off.
Having watched them from the hide on a few occasions I became familiar with a regular perch nearby. It looked accessible and there was decent cover nearby, so I determined to get closer.
On more than one occasion I observed ospreys perched in the branches of a dead tree after arriving on site. However ospreys are quite happy to spend hours sat in the same location and are difficult to approach. This was the closest I managed to get with a long lens without spooking the bird:
Perched osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
To get any closer I was going to have to get into position early one morning, before the birds became active, and wait for them to come to me. Several times I hid my gear nearby, tripod-mounted camera at the ready, and waited fruitlessly for a bird to appear.
On this particular occasion I was late to arrive and could see an osprey already in position.
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) in dead tree
Having snapped a few long distance shots I might have turned back at this point but they’re beautiful birds to watch, even at a distance.
By the time I’d crept to the next viewing position the osprey had flown, but I seized the chance to scurry into position deep in the reeds, close to the dead tree perch, and hurriedly assembled tripod, camera and improvised camouflage. Pulling the reeds back over my head I settled in for what I thought might be another long, uneventful afternoon.
But within 20 minutes I saw a large bird flying in low over the reedbed. Through the binoculars I could make out a large wriggling shape in its grasp. It could only be a returning osprey!
I ducked down out of sight and watched the perch on the camera’s LCD monitor. Nothing. Wrong branch! Swivelling the lens to the left brought this majestic osprey into focus, a freshly caught bass pinioned in its enormous talons:
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) with freshly caught bass
Over the next hour I was privileged to watch this mighty bird devouring its meal at close quarters, and captured some memorable stills and video footage in the process:
Canon 550D | Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L | Adobe Premiere Pro
The reedbed was enveloped in low cloud or mist and – together with the hissing sound of the reeds in the gathering wind – the conditions heightened an already surreal, unearthly atmosphere. Something I will never forget.