The Green Flash and another starling story.

Starlings at Aberystwyth yet again)

Starlings at Aberystwyth yet again)

Several more visits to Aberystwyth seafront at sunset have elapsed since my last post. You can’t believe how frustrating it is to witness another damp squib, then go home, turn on the TV to watch Countryfile and see video of amazing displays from somewhere in the Midlands and then somewhere in Cumbria! Last Wednesday was a bit of an exception, in a way. I arrived in good time and got chatting with a photographer who had driven over from the West Midlands to see the famous Aberystwyth starling murmation.  He must have thought I was a gloomy old so-and-so when I told him it hardly ever happens!

Once any possibility of a display seems to have evaporated I swap lenses from the standard zoom to the long zoom. I set it up on the tripod and head down the wooden jetty as far as sea level will allow, and focus on the starlings as they perch on the metal framework under the pier. This area seems to serve as a ‘waiting room’,  as later – or perhaps younger / less dominant birds – await their turn to squeeze in under cover. There is constant movement as they re-arrange themselves.

On Wednesday, the sun was setting dramatically, the tide was high and there was quite a swell. The crests of big waves fizzed with orange light as they broke against the shore. I took a long series of images in really exciting conditions, although I knew I would be deleting most of them later! As it happens I did manage a few that I am pleased with such as the one above (click on it to enlarge it.)  In the nick of time I then remembered the Green Flash. The very last sliver of the sun’s disc can turn green as it disappears below the horizon, especially if the atmosphere is clear and crisp. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon; I’ve seen it a number of times while down at the starling roost,  but never managed to photograph it. I alerted my new pal from Brummidgem, who had joined me on the jetty, pointed the camera at the setting sun and quickly pressed the shutter.

Reviewing the images on the screen I could see I’d captured the Green Flash successfully behind the framework of the pier. Exposure is always a problem at sunset and I’m not sure why this image works when previous ones haven’t. It was very much a grab shot and a reflex reaction to the situation. But it so happened that the exposure was good (ie – it was underexposed) and the light levels elsewhere in the image were compatible with that of the sun’s disc; and of course, digital processing helps.

The Green Flash, Aberystwyth, 11/02/17.

The Green Flash, Aberystwyth, 08/02/17.

After sunset a gaggle of photographers tends to gather on the prom to have a moan (er….discuss the afternoon’s events…..). Our Brummie pal joined us as we muttered. He was elated! “That was amazing!”  he enthused; “absolutely mind-blowing!” He loved watching the starlings and had never seen the Green Flash before….never even heard of it, in fact.  It was lovely to encounter someone being SO excited about something which many of us now take for granted.

 

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Some thoughts on winter.

Starlings at Aberystwyth

Starlings at Aberystwyth

 

In a previous post I talked about a little about winter. To elaborate a little I feel that the urge to travel, achieve and generally ‘get out there’ takes a back seat during the winter months. Undertaking activities of a more outward nature is perhaps best left for the longer days of spring and summer. In years gone by I took seasonal contracts with conservation organisations every year and their starting date was usually in April. So I tended to undertake an annual journey of my own to pastures new at the same time as migratory wildlife was also travelling north. I liked that parallel.

For someone without a nine-to-five routine to regulate their life, and whose activities are so completely seasonal, the urge to sit back, light the stove, watch TV or read a book becomes particularly attractive during the winter months.  But this has its own challenges; one tends to become more inward-looking, and in my case anyway, less confident in my achievements. It is a time for re-assessment and reflection. According to the five-element theory of Chinese philosophy winter is the ‘water’ season, and my Chi Gung teacher recently threw light on this in a very perceptive comment: “water always settles” she said, and winter is the time of year for us to ‘settle’ too.  This pause gives me the chance to recharge my creative batteries, too, I feel.

Some landscape photographers claim that “the light is always better in winter” but I have never found this to be the case. It sometimes is, but it usually isn’t. This winter so far has been much drier and calmer here than usual but I’ve still not felt the urge to get out into the field. Apart from the occasional day-trip, for example to photograph a bittern (see here), and another to photograph waxwings,  I’ve been sitting at my desk for days on end.  That doesn’t mean I’ve been inactive though. At the end of last year I spent some time writing up a grant application to the Arts Council of Wales, and I’m pleased to say it was successful. The plan is to attend a workshop in March with respected landscape photographer Paul Wakefield and designer/printer/publisher Eddie Ephraums. Paul Wakefield was one of the biggest inspirations in my very early days as a photographer. I did some casual work at Aberystwyth Arts Centre in the early 1980’s and it so happened that I was asked to hang his exhibition “Wales – The First Place”, based on the book of the same name. I thought that if he could do it , so could I! (I’m not sure if I ever have, mind…………) The workshop will be a chance to immerse myself in a new project for a week alongside these highly experienced practitioners. Hopefully it will also be possible to get out into the amazing landscapes of north-west Scotland as well.

I’ve also been planning my 2017 postcards and last week I drove down to Llandyssul, where Gomer Press have their base, to do some final tweaks to the order. Llandyssul is little more than a village in rural Ceredigion, but Gomer are printing some amazing work at the moment. I was shown the new ‘Garden Photographer of the Year’ book, which they have printed and bound, and the quality is excellent. So although I feel that the postcards are in good hands,  I’m expecting a delivery of 56,000 of them later today, and I must admit I’m still keeping my fingers crossed.

Most recently I’ve been sorting through my 2016 bird photographs and I’ve put the best of them in a gallery on my website. I’ve been giving quite a lot of thought to image format in recent times, and rather than using standard 3:2 proportions, I’ve split them into two sections – panoramic and square.  They will probably not please traditional bird photographers as the subject is usually relatively small within the image but view the galleries here and see if you like them.   My only regular photographic expedition over the winter has been pottering down to the sea-front at Aberystwyth at sunset to photograph the starlings  as they come in to roost under the pier. These days I go down more in hope than expectation because the birds very rarely “perform” as one would like them to; no-one seems to know why. I do find it extraordinary that no research on the starling roost has ever been undertaken by Aberystwyth University, which has a thriving School of Biological Sciences. There’s a Ph.D. thesis waiting to be written there, surely, and probably several. But I digress –  some very graphic compositions are possible once the birds have landed on the metal framework of the pier and the picture above is a recent example.

Postscript: Many thanks to those who supported my Arts Council application, notably Steffan Jones-Hughes (Aberystwyth Arts Centre) and Geoff Young (Penrallt Bookshop and Gallery, Machynlleth)

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A bit of a rant about the BBC

I have become more and more aware over the last few years how low a priority the environment is on BBC television and radio news and current affairs.

Unfortunately I don’t sleep too well and I tend to hear rather too much of the World Service during the night. I began to notice how environmental stories would be heard on the World Service but not on Radio 4 during the Today programme the following morning. An example would be the massive protest against the construction of the Dakota XL oil pipeline which ex-President Obama eventually halted. I was disappointed (and more) that environmental issues were given such low priority during the last General Election and the run-up to the EU referendum. Caroline Lucas M.P. was occasionally given a slot on one programme or another, and without fail she performed brilliantly. With that exception it seemed that the politicians didn’t want to discuss the environment and no-one at the BBC was willing to take them to task for this. It seemed there must have been an unspoken agreement between them.

Last week on the eve of the crowning of “President Trump” a 30-minute Panorama programme looked into his links with Putin of Russia. It was largely intrigue and speculation. In contrast, half-an-hour earlier, a Channel 4 programme had looked into Trump’s links with “Big Coal” and “Big Oil”. As well as interviews with some of the main players such as lobbyists for the coal and oil industries, C4 had found actual evidence of the massive donations they had made to the Republican Party and Trump’s campaign. This was proper investigational journalism on a crucial issue.

Most recently there have been the executive orders that Trump has already signed. “Obamacare” got coverage on R4 news but not another which was made at the same time to begin to roll back Obama’s Climate Change-related legislation. Last night when the Dakota XL pipeline was given the go-ahead by Trump it was mentioned on every news bulletin on the World Service that I heard – every half-hour, I believe, together with interviews with an oil industry lobbyist and an environmentalist. Questions about the donations to Trump were asked. On Radio 4 – zilch. The Today programme did cover the Executive Order Trump had signed regarding the construction of the Mexican Wall, but rather than then mention the pipeline issue, they went on to speculate at great length about the Wall.

I can’t pretend that I hear every single minute of the Today programme or every single news broadcast. This is not a scientific survey. I’m sure someone at the BBC would be only too happy to prove me wrong but I listen to enough radio to get an impression of the pattern that has emerged. I have been a supporter of the BBC for its unbiased coverage of current affairs for many years but now I really wonder where I can go to hear politicians being challenged about their environmental policies. There is so much speculation in BBC current affairs about what such-and-such a politician will announce later and what will happen then. The BBC should remember that there are far more members of conservation organisations than of political parties. The environment is not a minority interest. It is time that their journalists got out of the Westminster bubble and began doing their job.

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Twice bittern.

Kingfisher in the rain, Teifi Marshes

Kingfisher in the rain, Teifi Marshes

A few days before Christmas I headed down to the Teifi Marshes near Cardigan with high hopes of seeing a bittern. It is a regular winter haunt for this extraordinary but elusive species and I had photographed one there in January 2015 (see this post). Furthermore there had recently been reports in the local bird blog of one by the Kingfisher Pool. It all seemed very promising. But after six hours in a very cold hide without a single sighting I felt somewhat deflated……and I’m sure the bad cold I suffered over Christmas was not a coincidence.

But they do say that every cloud has a silver lining, though, and in this case it was the kingfisher which made a circular tour of its perches around the pool at lunch time. Various sticks and branches have been provided here for kingfishers by the Wildlife Trust, but they result in rather conventional “bird on a stick” type images. I think the perch shown above shows the bird in a more natural setting and the falling rain gives the photograph a rather painterly feel.

Bittern at Teifi Marshees, Cardigan

Bittern at Teifi Marshes, Cardigan

The bittern was reported (and photographed) again on Tuesday so it seemed like another attempt might produce results. Another photographer was already in the hide when I arrived about 9.30 a.m. yesterday and we were soon joined by several others. One told us that the bird had spent two full days wedged between branches in a nearby willow tree. Local birders and conservationists became concerned for its welfare so reserve staff had climbed up towards it and poked it with a stick, whereupon it flew back down to the reeds!

The bittern was first seen not long afterwards. It was crouched low to the ground, fluffed up like a big round feather duster, and appeared quite immobile. It did not look like a healthy or a happy creature. But after a while it began to walk slowly towards the hide, its weight breaking the ice at one point. It came closer and closer and motor drives began to rattle away in earnest. Over the next hour it was hardly hidden at all. It walked slowly, and then more quickly, around, pausing to take the sun from time to time. The light was lovely, either bright sunshine or light cloud. Either was excellent for this large, cryptically patterned bird. It can’t eventually have been further than 20 yards from the hide. Then there was a crouch, a pause, another crouch, and it launched itself into the air, flying away quite powerfully low above the reeds and blackthorn crub.

Bittern in flight

Bittern in flight

It had been a truly exhilarating hour for everyone in the hide. One always opens oneself to disappointment by a making a tightly focussed photography expedition like this. Without the bittern it would have been a rather dismal morning – cold and dismal. So we were all happy, although we all knew we would have many hours of file processing to look forward to. Let’s just hope that the bird itself stays well and finds enough food to get through the winter.

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Seasons greetings to all (both) my readers.

Crib Goch and Llyn Cwmffynnon, January 2016

Crib Goch and Llyn Cwmffynnon, January 2016

Welsh winters are so often just mild, wet and windy. It is rarely cold enough for snow to fall, and if it does it will probably melt away within a few days. Just occasionally, though, the photographer is treated to something special. Last January there was a short break in the succession of big depressions tracking north eastwards across the north Atlantic. I drove up to north Wales one evening and spent the night in the layby by Llyn Mymbyr (near Capel Curig) as I often do. The following morning dawned bright, clear and calm, with the snow on the higher slopes of Yr Wyddfa reflecting the pre-sunrise colours. Unfortunately there was a thin layer of ice covering much of Llyn Mymbyr, so the reflection I was hoping for was rather limited. I was at a loss as to where to go next.

Then I remembered another lake – Llyn Cwmffynnon – in a hollow on the slopes of Glyder Fawr, above Pen-y-pass youth hostel. I knew it reflected the mass of Crib Goch if the waters were still. It might be worth a try! It was trudge up to the lake across boggy uneven ground in heavy winter boots and clothing and carrying my full SLR kit. Eventually arriving at the shoreline I found that this lake was also covered in a thin layer of ice which was hardly a great surprise! But with a water trickling through it, the stream down towards Pen-y-gwyryd had remained free of ice and was reflecting Crib Goch in its surface. This was the location I had been hoping for.

At first I decided to forego my polarising filter, which I probably over-use. But after a while a tiny cap-shaped cloud began forming, dispersing and re-forming over the summit of Yr Wyddfa, itself invisible but situated behind and to the right of Crib Goch. Out came the polariser! It was invaluable in bringing out the whiteness of the cloud against the blue of the sky. In fact in these conditions of perfect clarity and using my standard zoom at 24mm, uneven polarisation was a problem, and I had to do some work in Lightroom to remove it.  But the result looks good to me, and I’ve used it on my Christmas card this year.

So for those of you not on my Christmas card list, I’d like to take this opportunity of wishing you the Seasons Greetings and a successful year in 2017.

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A visit to woodpecker HQ.

Green woodpeckers at the nest, near Abergavenny.

Green woodpeckers at the nest, near Abergavenny.

Beech woodland is normally associated with the south-east of England; Burnham Beeches and Epping Forest are fine and well-known examples. But here in Wales native beech woodland extends into the south-east corner of the country, around Abergavenny, for example. It can be found as far west as Castell Coch, just to the north of Cardiff. It is what the writer and naturalist William Condry called “the district’s most distinguished calcicole” referring to its association with a narrow band of limestone rock which runs along the northern rim of the south Wales coalfield.

It is for oak woodland that most of Wales is renowned but in a forthcoming book I want to open people’s eyes to the presence and stunning beauty of beech woodland. This spring I visited Cwm Clydach, where the Heads of the Valleys main road squeezes through a narrow defile alongside the river between steep valley sides. I had first photographed here in the mid-1990’s and an  image of the polluted watercourse complete with dumped debris was used in my first book “Wales  – The Lie of The Land” (published in 1996). The gorge’s steep and rugged southern flank is clothed with native beech, but it is a far cry from the expansive woodland of southeast England. Here it is largely inaccessible but a public right of way descends to the valley bottom from the A465 and then climbs steeply through the trees to reach scattered houses, narrow lanes and an abandoned railway track.

Walking back to my van on this year’s first visit I heard the familiar laughing call of a green woodpecker, which I tracked down to the branches of an venerable but dead beech tree right by the side of the road. What’s more the tree’s branches were riddled with woodpecker holes large and small. One bird visited one particular hole which I took to be a potential nest-site. This looked like a photo-opportunity!

Anyone at home?

Anyone at home?

I spent many hours on three visits sitting in my van watching the woodpeckers going to and from the hole. The off-duty bird would call from a distance and its mate would appear in the entrance to the hole. They would then swap over. I was surprised at how late their breeding season was – there was no sign of food being brought to the nest even as late as June 11th. On one occasion a great spotted woodpecker peered in, and I believe I may have seen a lesser spotted on the same tree as well.  This really was Woodpecker HQ! Green woodpeckers seem to be quite wary birds at the nest and they are apparently very difficult to photograph there. So I was really thrilled when I managed to get what seems to me the perfect image of a pair at the nest.

 

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Sunset suite.

Sometimes I come back from a field trip and my partner asks me “Well, how did it go?” Getting me to talk about my experiences can be a bit like getting blood out of a stone. I may be hopeful about the results of a trip but until I’ve processed them I can never be sure. Sometimes the images that looked really great on the screen can be disappointing when seen full size but sometimes the opposite is true. I may not have spoken to anyone for a couple of days and I may have been confined to the van for hours on end, particularly at this time of year. While the process of making landscape images – the minuteae of the weather and the tides, the seasons, f-stops and shutter speeds, the near misses and the successes – can still occasionally be pretty exciting, I imagine this can be difficult to convey to the unitiated.  So in recognition of this, I’m just going to show you a few sunsets that I’ve photographed this autumn. Hope you enjoy them!

 

Traeth Llyfn, near Fishguard

Traeth Llyfn, near Fishguard

 

Mouth of the Tywi/Taf, near Kidwelly

Mouth of the Tywi/Taf, near Kidwelly

 

Mawddach estuary

Mawddach estuary

 

Llyn Pendam, near Aberystwyth

Llyn Pendam, near Aberystwyth

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The Great Wall of Aberdyfi (part 2)

Valley fog, Dyfi estuary

Valley fog, Dyfi estuary

Click here for the first part of this post

It was a few minutes’ drive inland to my next location, a hilltop overlooking the Dyfi valley near Derwenlas. I knew from numerous previous visits (see this post) that it would be mid-morning before the sun would be where I wanted it. A heavy shower moved inland on my arrival, creating another fine rainbow. Light was still good half an hour later despite the sun’s relentless rising, and I got the shot I had come for; would it be suitable for a new postcard, I wondered? See the upper picture of the pair below.

A couple of days later I decided to have another go at both the Glandyfi and Derwenlas viewpoints. Still conditions were forecast overnight and hence the formation of valley fog was possible. It was a very different morning to my previous visit. At Derwenlas all was gloomy low cloud but at Glandyfi a river of fog flowed continuously down towards the sea. Over about ninety minutes I took a number of images, but it was when the “river” began thinning and receding inland that I felt the best results were obtained (see above). It was an interesting contrast to the scene two days earlier (see previous post).

Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth

Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth (first visit)

Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth

Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth (second visit)

Then it was back to the Derwenlas viewpoint. It was still like being inside a bundle of cotton wool when I arrived, but after a few minutes the cloud cleared entirely,  revealing the gorgeously-lit Dyfi valley complete with a necklace of cloud draped around the hillside above Machynlleth. If this doesn’t work as a postcard, I’ll eat my hat!

As a postscript I have just sent a cheque for £70 to the charity Rewilding Britain (click for more info). This is a donation per work sold at the Aberystwyth showing of my Bird/land exhibition.

 

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The Great Wall of Glandyfi (part 1)

Rainbow over the Dyfi estuary

Rainbow over the Dyfi estuary

En route to Machynlleth the trunk road from Aberystwyth to north Wales, along with the railway line, is squeezed between the Dyfi estuary and its wooded slopes. Until a few years ago the road was narrow and winding with the occasional gridlock occuring if two large vehicles met there. There’s no doubt that the “Glandyfi Bends” needed improvement to improve journey times. Costs were orginally estimated at £10 million, but there must have been a bottomless purse for this project; a total of £18m was apparently spent altogether. The result is a smoothly curving, two-lane carriageway with excellent visibility. So what did the Highways Authority do? Slap a 40 mph speed limit on the new section of road and extend it all the way back to the village of Eglwysfach. Improve journey times my ****!

Like all trunk road improvements in Wales it is over-designed and over-engineered. There is a one-way lay-by for motorists driving northwards; access from the north or exit to the south is forbidden. On the lay-by there is a lay-by. Would you believe it! Oh yes, there’s a picnic table on a mound. The wall alongside the main road is too high over most of its distance for car drivers or passengers to enjoy the stunning views across the estuary. But the most prominent of all is the retaining wall to hold the hillside back. This massive construction is known locally as the Great Wall of Glandyfi. It can be viewed most conveniently from the north side of the river – in fact it is very hard to miss it for miles around.

There is a silver lining for the photographer, however. There is a narrow walk-way, fenced off for safety, along the top of the wall, which gives fabulous panoramic views across the estuary to the southern hills of the Snowdonia National Park. An access gate is half-heartedly padlocked at the eastern end.  On the last day of September I headed up to Glandyfi on a morning when torrential downpours alternated with strong sunny intervals; ideal conditions for the photographer with good waterproof clothing! On arrival I prepared my gear in the van while it absolutely hammered down outside.  The downpour moved over quickly and a brilliant rainbow appeared over the estuary. I quickly accessed the walk-way, set up the tripod and began taking pictures.

Rainbows are never easy. They are almost always unpredictable and may only last a couple of minutes. It is almost always raining and this plays havoc with one’s equipment. Filters are particularly vulnerable to wetting. As I wiped raindrops from one side of my 2 stop ND grad, a fresh crop appeared on the other side. This was just silly!  Landscape photographers are sometimes advised that a polariser should be used to intensify the colours of a rainbow but I have never found this to be the case. You can easily completely remove a rainbow with a polariser but who would want to? Over a period of five minutes and despite rather feverish picture-taking, I had some rather excellent rainbow images in the can, such as the one above.

Bridge over the River Dyfi

Bridge over the River Dyfi

When planning my landscape photography destinations I always take into account the time of day of the visit and hence where the sun will be. A polariser is always most effective at right-angles to the sun, while that rare thing, a rainbow, always appears opposite the sun.  I can think of one location on the Mawddach estuary where you can use a polariser to your heart’s content but still be open to the possibility of a good rainbow image. The Great Wall of Glandyfi is another. Following the disappearance of  the rainbow I swung around by ninety degrees and captured some images of saltmarsh, the railway bridge over the Dyfi and its accompanying solitary white cottage, in brilliant sunshine. The hills of southern Snowdonia were still in deep darkness and low cloud swept their summits. I used the polariser and the 2 stop ND grad to add to the drama of the scene. I felt that the resulting image worked well in a panoramic format.

It might seem that I was lucky that morning but I had already made several frustrating visits to the area with no worthwhile results. What I was quickly able to do on September 30th was get to the best spot quickly and take advantage of great conditions when they finally did appear. I’d been up there for about two hours – how time flies sometimes – when I heard the sound of chain-saws. Down on the main road maintenance men were removing branches from the vicinity of some electric cables. It soon became apparent, though, that a man with a chainsaw was also clearing branches from the walk-way upon which I was standing, and approaching quite fast. It was time to beat a hasty retreat!

 

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Wales at Waters Edge : a review

The mouth of the Mawddach with the hills of Penllyn in the background. Taken in 2012

The mouth of the Mawddach at high tide,with the hills of Penllyn in the background. Taken in 2012 and now in the Meirionnydd gallery of my website.

My most recent book, Wales at Waters Edge, with text by Jon Gower, was published in May 2012. I’ve only just become aware of this review of it, which appeared four years ago in the Wales Arts Review.

Meirionnydd (the old county of Merionethshire) is one of the most delectable areas of Wales, with its heart perhaps being the sublime estuary of the river Mawddach. I’ve just added a Meirionnydd gallery to my website; you can have a look by clicking here. Enjoy!

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