The shipyard refuge: a guest blog from Roberto Gonzalez Garcia

26 June 2018 posted by: Zoe - WPY Comms Officer

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year’s Urban category explores nature in human-dominated environments, surprising us with the unexpected or normally unseen. The awarded imagery often reminds us that wildlife is all around us, and nature can adapt and thrive in the most industrial of settings.

For this guest blog, #WPY53 finalist Roberto González Garcia takes us to a surprising habitat; the urban scene of a Spanish shipyard.

Indifferent to the industrial activity of the shipyard, a large group of cattle egrets takes flight at dawn, painting the skies with movement. I was thrilled to hear my image capturing this special moment was selected for WPY’s Urban category.

The moment of the shot was something that I had been hoping for many, many dawns over a period of two years. What made this shot particularly challenging was the fact that various elements of the scene weren’t under my control, and I needed these elements to work simultaneously in order for me to capture the composition I wanted – for example the docking of the ship, the positioning of the tide and the manmade lighting, which really provides the human aspect of the photo.

Bay of egrets by Roberto González García. Finalist 2017, Urban Wildlife

Few people are aware that hundreds of egrets (sometimes thousands) flock to the Bay of Santander each evening to use the area as a roosting site. The birds seek the seclusion and tranquillity of the reeds and port. This means every morning thousands of egrets take flight amidst the industrial activity of the shipyard. Workers don’t always notice this natural phenomenon, even though it takes place only a few metres from their workplace. I have been photographing this species for the last two years and the sight of these birds taking flight from the port is nothing short of spectacular.

The previous dawn had brought together all these factors, but cattle egrets insisted on taking off little by little, in small groups, which meant the photography was less impactful. Thankfully, the next day the time came. When I saw them taking flight in the fog, I immediately realised that I had the photo.

Returning to the roost: Hundreds of egrets descend from the skies forming small groups to congregate next to the shipyards, away from predators.

Image by Roberto González García

Despite the alarming population decline seen in numerous bird species throughout Europe, and particularly in birds living in humanised environments, the cattle egret has managed to find comfort in our urban and much transformed continent. Since the eighties the species has been appearing in the north of Spain.

Although not as abundant as in the south of the Iberian Peninsula, this species has been found its ideal refuge in Cantabria. Cantabria is now home to flocks of about 4,000 birds. This means the cattle egret is the most abundant species of heron in Cantabria. The cattle egret’s history is, therefore, a success story.  From the tropical and subtropical areas of Africa, it has colonised every continent except Antarctica in the last century.

A cattle egret chick: Thanks to its breeding success, the species has increased its population in Cantabria.

Image by Roberto González García

Although there seems to be evidence of its presence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the cattle egret was seemingly absent in the Iberian Peninsula until the mid-twentieth century, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that it arrived in northern Spain.

Its presence in Cantabria is partly related to the existence of semi-free specimens from a private animal collection. In 1990, Pardo de Santayana successfully introduced a cattle egret colony at the Santillana Zoo (located in Santillana del Mar where a colony with more than three hundred pairs exists). Part of the population of the Cantabrian coast was reinforced with birds from the south and east of Spain arriving through the Ebro valley, using river basins as dispersion routes.

An unlikely home for egrets: The night falls under the lights of the supermoon and the shipyards at the Bay of Santander.

Image by Roberto González García

Its presence in Europe began to be more or less frequent and stable from the second half of the last century. In the case of Spain, Cantabria gives shelter to more than 90% of the population of the north of the Iberian Peninsula.

In this region, thanks to a climate softened by the Atlantic’s sea breeze, semi-natural meadows where beef cattle plays the role of the great African herbivore; and small rivers that have pierced the coast moulding small estuaries where they form roosts in the tranquil reed beds, particularly in winter, and locate their breeding colonies, cattle egrets have found the perfect refuge despite of being a humanised landscape.

The cattle egret: During the breeding season, adults display an orange-buff plumes on their back, breast and crown.

Image by Roberto González García

My awarded WPY photograph belongs to my project 'WildLight Cantabria'. This project of wildlife photography and photo storytelling intends to showcase the beauty of Cantabrian wildlife and raise awareness for environmental conservation actions in my natal region. Supporting the visual narration of stories with information on their ecology, 'WildLight Cantabria' was born to promote reflection on the importance of conserving a wilder nature.

When people see my photograph in the WPY exhibition, I hope it reminds them that wildlife is part of our everyday life. Wildlife is a part of us, and we of it. To conserve our environment is the only way out for a more just and equitable society.

See Roberto’s image on display in the WPY53 exhibition at the Natural History Museum until 1 July. Can’t make it to London? See the exhibition on tour.

About Roberto González García


Roberto works as an environmentalist for BirdLife International's partnership in Spain. He has spent the last 10 years photographing and studying wildlife in Cantabria, northern Spain, where he lives. He is currently focusing on building awareness of the beauty of the wilderness of the Cantabrian territory.

To find out more about Roberto visit his website or follow his WildLight Cantabria project on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.








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