Several snowy willow trees submerged in lake water

Lake of Ice triumphs the WPY: People's Choice Award 2022. Lake Santa Croce in Italy was created by a landslide and then expanded artificially in the 1930s. © Cristiano Vendramin.

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: A lake for all seasons

This year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year People's Choice Award is claimed by Italian photographer Cristiano Vendramin. His icy capture of snow-dusted willow trees growing along Lake Santa Croce in northern Italy stole the hearts of the public.

Lake Santa Croce is the second largest lake in the Veneto region. Expanding over 7 kilometres squared with a depth of 33 metres, the natural lake, which was enlarged in the 1930s, changes with the four seasons and is home to an array of wildlife.

During winter, Lake Santa Croce can freeze over but during spring and autumn, it becomes a hotspot for water sports. This is mainly due to the thermal wind that blows regularly up to a speed of 20-40 kilometres an hour from midday onwards, providing an ideal environment for windsurfing, paragliding, sailing and more.

The story behind the Lake of Ice

Born and raised in Vittorio Veneto - a historical town half an hour away from Lake Santa Croce - Cristiano frequented the lake with family and friends.

Cristiano says, 'The lake has everything. You can play in the water, sunbathe, fly in the wind, hike. You can be surrounded by people or enjoy time alone. It's a dream.'

It was only about seven years ago that Cristiano started practicing photography, which was initially a hobby but quickly bloomed into a passion.

Cristiano took photography workshop in the Dolomites where he met Bruno De Lorenzo, another budding photographer. The two artists spent a lot of time together, practicing photography and becoming good friends. Bruno was a little more skilled than Cristiano and offered a lot of encouragement and support.

Sadly, Bruno passed away in 2018, leaving Cristiano with both grief and fond memories.

'Bruno was a great friend who always cared about my abilities,' says Cristiano. 'He was also a great photographer and passionate about wildlife. Lake Santa Croce was one of his favourite places to go and practice photography.'

A willow tree stands in water against green foliage

The white foliage of the willow tree is often prominent in sunlight © Cristiano Vendramin

When visiting Lake Santa Croce in winter, Cristiano noticed the water was unusually high. This was the first time he had seen it at this height. The ice had melted away, exposing the glassy water reflecting the partially submerged willow trees.

Standing on the other side of the muddy bank, Cristiano set up his tripod and spent a long time finding the right composition. Finally, he felt like he had framed the trees just right and snapped the winning image.

'Lake of Ice is dedicated to Bruno,' says Cristiano. 'Not just because he is no longer with us but because this location was one of his favourite places to practice photography. He had always pointed out the photographic potential of this area.'

Some common species around Lake Santa Croce

The trees shown in Cristiano's photo are white willows - medium-sized deciduous trees common throughout Italy. They get their name from the fine, silky white hair that grows mostly on the underside of the leaves, giving the foliage a white tone.

White willows prefer wet grounds and thrive at the edge of rivers and lakes. They grow fast but live short lives as they are susceptible to a variety of diseases.

White willow trees are used for a number of things including making wicker baskets, tanning leather, making parts of musical instruments, stabilising riverbanks and producing medicine.

Translucent eels swim around rocks underwater

Although European eels may be a common sight in lakes and rivers, they are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. Populations have fallen to less than 1% in the North Sea and less than 5% elsewhere compared to 50 years ago. © Alessandro Cresci.

Lake Santa Croce is also home to 14 native and two non-native fish.

One interesting fish that is common throughout the lake is the European eel. The species is catadromous which means it is born in the sea but migrates to freshwater where it can live for up to 20 years.

The European eel goes through several visible changes throughout its life. Once the egg hatches, the leaf-shaped larvae floats in the ocean for around a year and then makes its way inland.

As it reaches coastal water, it changes into a 'glass eel' where it grows thinner, longer and transparent. When the fish enters the freshwater system, it gains a yellowish hue on its underbelly.

Finally, as the creature matures, it develops a metallic sheen and is known as a silver eel. European eels can grow up to 150 centimetres and weigh a maximum of 6.3 kilogrammes. At this stage, the fish is ready to migrate back to the ocean to spawn and die.

These omnivores are nocturnal and secretive, preferring to hide or burrow in mud during the day and emerge at night to search for food. They also have excellent mobility and can swim over dams and other obstacles, as well as move over land during rainy periods.

European eels are a popular dish in many regions around the world. Their blood produces unpleasant effects in humans but is safe to eat once cooked properly.

Two slender birds meet in the middle with weed in their beaks

A male and female great crested grebe present each other with some seaweed as part of the mating dance. Image by Hwbund /wiki (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The shores of Lake Santa Croce lead to the Oasis of Sbarai, a wetland rich in biodiversity. It is a popular birdwatching location and some common sightings include lapwing, reed warbler and great crested grebe.

At first glance, the most striking thing about the great crested grebe is perhaps the sleek copper plumage around its head.

But during mating season, the aquatic bird performs an intricate dance with its partner which is equally remarkable. This involves both birds raising and shaking their head plumage and approaching each other with weed in their bills.

Lake Santa Croce is not only a haven for water sports but it is also rich in biodiversity. White willow trees, European eels and great crested grebes are only a tiny fraction of the intriguing wildlife that create an intricate web of life in this Mediterranean haven.