The raptor nut (Part 1)

Juvenile peregrine. I got the impression this was a male.

There’s always been something special for me about birds of prey. In my “youth” (OK, I was about 30) I did several summer contracts for the RSPB which usually involved raptors and I seemed to identify with them. The peregrine was “my” species and I still seem to have a particular affinity with them. But I spent many weeks with white-tailed and golden eagles on Mull, and with various species in Wales, Scotland and England. Not to mention gyr falcons and peregrines in Greenland! So you could say that since then I’ve been a bit of a raptor nut. I’d rather spend four hours watching a peregrine eyrie – even if virtually nothing happens – than four hours counting waders on an estuary.

Over the last two springs and summers I’ve been keeping my eye on several raptor eyries – from a distance, of course. It started in early 2021, during lockdown, when I discovered a pair of peregrines on a cliff within cycling distance of my home. This was exciting for me because until then I was under the impression that inland peregrine eyries had long been abandoned in Ceredigion. I followed them through to mid-summer and saw at least one juvenile in the vicinity of the cliff. On an early visit this year I saw both adults visiting the same ledge together, which bade well for the current breeding season.

This year, following a tip-off, I found another pair nesting in an old raven nest on another cliff even closer to home. By that time the three youngsters were already well-developed and on my second visit it looked like two of them might jump and flap off the nest at any moment. One can only imagine the sense of excitement and trepidation that these young birds experience as they prepare to take their first flight. I had found a comfortable perch for myself on the opposite side of the gorge where my presence didn’t seem to worry their parents. On my third visit, a few days ago, as I approached the gorge on foot , I saw that two of the now fledged youngsters were actually using the my own perch for themselves! So I hung back and let events take their natural course. There was plenty of activity as the juveniles raced around after each other and their parents, screaming raucously. There’s nothing more stimulating to the senses than peregrines at full throttle!

I began to make plans to return to the site with my picnic chair and pop-up hide, but the truth is that I am getting very poor results from my current photographic equipment, and I don’t know why. (The image above is very much the exception.) I’ve ruled out my long lens (a Panasonic 100-400 zoom), so it looks like the problem lies with the body – an Olympus EM1 mk 2, which is now almost three years old. I’m wondering if the “in-body image stabilisation” (IBIS) is faulty or whether my settings have become corrupted in some way. Unfortunately I am a bit of a technophobe so all this is rather a challenge. But needless to say, and incredibly frustratingly, any attempt at long range bird photography is having to take a back seat for now.

In summer 2020 – again following a tip-off from a friend – I heard that merlins were nesting in a dramatic, cliff-enclosed cwm a little further away. I was not familiar with this species, so I visited the site, and was excited to see a female merlin flash by on the walk in. It all seemed very promising. Reaching the cwm I noticed several small raptors perched on erratic rocks on the grassy hillsides around the lake. I decided they were merlins but then noticed that, in the air, one of them seemed to be hovering like a kestrel. And then…….. oh….. that one’s hovering like a kestrel as well……….. Eventually the penny dropped. They were kestrels. It was all a bit puzzling. I read “The Merlins of the Welsh Marches” , by David Orton, and that whetted my appetite even more for merlin experiences.

Cliff-nesting merlins are unusual; merlins nesting anywhere in Ceredigion are unusual. In fact, merlins in Ceredigion are unusual, full stop! But last summer I managed to locate this pair’s nest on a heathery ledge part way up a low cliff above the lake. I visited the cwm several times with a few trusted friends and we all enjoyed some exciting raptor action. They are such lively, feisty little birds, especially the tiny, blue-grey male, that in a sense they almost put peregrines to shame. I visited the cwm again this spring and noticed that the merlin pair were present and showing an interest in a section of cliff high, high above the lake. Would they be nesting there this year?

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Birding in Mallorca -and coots in particular ……

Red-knobbed coot : just look at the size of those feet………

Mallorca has been a destination of choice for British birders for many decades. It has a wide range of raptors, notably the massive and very rare black vulture (once close to extinction) and the exhilarating Eleonora’s falcon, plus S’Albufera – one of the Mediterranean’s best wetlands. The latter is a great place to see a wide variety of resident and migratory waders, herons, and other wetland birds. I’ve already described this year’s first visit to S’Albufera in a previous post : it didn’t go too well! But a second visit was more successful. I was surprised to discover that stone curlews breed there. One pair was nesting directly in front of a hide, and I was able to photograph a changeover – one bird replacing its incubating mate on the eggs.

Stone curlews changing over at the nest

In some ways the Mallorca is an outdoor laboratory for rare bird conservation. The black vulture survived in the mountains whereas it had died out almost everywhere else in Europe. Thanks to various conservation measures it is apparently now doing reasonably well. Several species have been re-introduced there, with varying degrees of success : Bonelli’s eagle, griffon vulture, white-headed duck, marbled duck, red-crested pochard and purple gallinule to name but a few. A couple of days after arriving I added red-knobbed coot to that list. This species – also known as the crested coot – is VERY similar to the familiar bird of UK wetlands. It is found mainly in Africa and is described as “critically endangered” or “rare” in Europe (Collins Bird Guide); “occurring locally and very rarely as relict populations” in Andalucia (Birds of Europe); and “one of Europe’s rarest breeding birds” (Bird Guides). I would have start looking at coots!

I’ll be quite upfront about it : the coot is one of my least favourite British birds. They are found just about everywhere, are easy to identify, and are always fighting (or so it seems). I barely give coots a second glance. The crested (red-knobbed) coot is distinguished from it – in the breeding season anyway – by what look like two redcurrants perched on top of its head. At S’Albufera I noticed a coot in a nearby ditch and quickly noticed its red knobs. Time to get the camera out!

Hand-out time

It turned out to be the easiest bird I have ever photographed; I could have done it with a wide-angle lens. Not far away a birding couple sat down to have their picnic and the coot clambered out of the water for a handout. Didn’t it realise it was critically endangered? I just wish I had managed to include the “Do not feed the birds” sign nearby!

Other birds seen and photographed were Kentish and little ringed plovers (both diminutive but both feisty), glossy ibis, avocet and black-winged stilt. I know I missed seeing several species at S’Albufera and elsewhere on the island, but this trip was not about making a tick-list. I know this sounds corny but we did want to experience the “real” Mallorca as far as that’s possible, not rush around seeing the sights and the species. In this respect it helped that we didn’t have a hire car; instead we had four bases and relied on the island’s excellent train and bus services to get around. This did have its limitations, of course. I would love to have explored the spectacular Formentor Peninsula, which has no bus service, to see Eleonora’s falcons at their nesting cliffs. But as a consolation I was able to watch a flock of these elegant and sociable raptors playing around some coastal peaks near Puerto Pollensa towards the end of our stay.

I’d love to go back to Mallorca. There’s so much more to see there. But would I hire a car next time? That’s a difficult one………

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A promised land.

The Albarca Valley, north of Lluc monastery (click to enlarge)

You’ll probably be relieved to know that I’m not going to write in great detail about every aspect of the Mallorca trip. Instead I’ll just write a short piece about individual aspects or locations which particularly struck me. For this post I’d like to talk about Lluc, a small settlement based on a monastery, centrally positioned along the north-west facing side of the island.

This part of Mallorca – the Tramuntana – is uncompromisingly mountainous with vertiginous cliff faces in many places. Roads wind through the mountains with hairpin bend after hairpin bend, sometimes clinging precariously to mountain sides. Driving them is sometimes not for the faint hearted. I particularly admired the bus drivers who had to deal with scores, if not hundreds, of cyclists every day, often riding two or three abreast on narrow, winding, carriageways. Ancient trackways, suitable only for walkers and donkeys, traverse the same terrain rather more steeply and directly.

The conventional story of Lluc goes like this. In the middle of the 13th century an Arab shepherd named Luke, newly converted to Christianity, discovered a dark wooden statue of the Virgin in a cleft in the rock there. The image was placed in the local church but three times it miraculously returned to its original location, whereupon villagers recognised a message from God and built a shrine to house it. It thus became a place of pilgrimage.

But according to the Rough Guide to Mallorca, its religious significance goes back much further than that: it already was a pilgrimage site. The area’s prehistoric residents were animists, who deified the holm-oak woodlands surrounding it. The Romans later renamed the site “Lucus” or sacred forest. With the arrival of monks, it was decided to overlay a Christian explanation for the significance of the locality. History is not my strongpoint, but isn’t that a sequence of events often put forward to account for sacred sites in our own islands?

I’m not sure if there are still any monks living in the monastery at Lluc. There is a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a museum, and – outside – a slightly eccentric but interesting botanical garden showing plants of the mountains. But more than anything else, Lluc is dedicated to tourism. It has over a hundred rooms of various types, and there is a restaurant, bar, grocery store and gift shop. Not that I’m complaining about the accommodation – it has some of the only reasonably priced rooms in the Tramuntana . It was there that we stayed for four nights.

Behind the monastery buildings, a few minutes walk uphill on a cobbled track will take you to a cross set on a rocky prominence. From that point you have a panoramic view of the Albarca valley, set amongst rugged wooded cliffs and mountain tops. It is without a shadow of a doubt the most fertile area for miles around, as you can see from the main picture above, and so different from the unforgiving limestone mountains and ravines that surround it. For me it had the feeling of shangri-la, a promised land which would have delighted anyone coming across it. Did those early animists stand on this very same spot, entranced by the valley below them? It wouldn’t surprise me.

It is apparently now owned by the March family, once the 7th richest in the world, it is said, whose riches came from a variety of sources, ranging from tobacco smuggling to banking. You could say that the family has a somewhat “controversial” background, with wheeling and dealing and political chicanery to the fore.

I had discovered the Albarca valley on my first visit to Mallorca, probably thirty years ago, when it was full of the display flights and mating calls of booted eagles. Not so this year, unfortunately: if present they would probably have been sitting on eggs. On my earlier visit it was possible to explore the valley on foot. It is now only open to the public one day a week, so we had to admire this wonderful landscape from above and afar. But as I looked across the valley and watched a mixed flock of griffon and black vultures soaring around the summit of Puig Roig in the background I felt that whatever conservation initiatives are in place here, the land is in safe hands. I do hope I am right.

This post is for Jane, who accompanied me on this Mallorca trip, and whose birthday it is today!

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An inauspicious start.

I spent a two week holiday in Mallorca earlier this month with Jane, my partner. It was my fourth visit to this fantastic island and one that I had long-wanted to make. But it had seemed impossible without taking the plane (or going via Barcelona), so my decision to stop flying for environmental reasons seemed to have put paid to any further visits. Then I discovered you could take a ferry from Toulon, in the south of France. We were booked to go in April 2020.

Needless to say, the pandemic put paid to this, although the cash we had spent on tickets remained on credit with Eurostar and Corsican Ferries. With the melting away of most travel restrictions this spring it looked like we could have a second attempt at the trip.

Paris is a major rail interchange for many parts of western Europe these days and I’ve used it a number of times. It’s very straightforward transferring from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon for all stations to the south of France using the Metro, although on a previous trip I had my phone stolen. This time there were no such problems and we safely arrived in Toulon about 11 that night. There was then almost a whole day to kick our heels in the city before the ferry left, and after an overnight crossing we arrived at Puerto Alcudia at six o’clock in the morning.

It was an inauspicious start to a very dismal day. It was dark, cold and windy and nothing was open. We didn’t know how to get to our first pre-booked apartment although we did know it was several miles away. After some time I found an open cafe and we had the first of many Mallorcan coffees. We then began walking but a careful study of a map told me we were going in the wrong direction. Returning to the town I eventually found a bus stop and we jumped aboard. There was still time to kill before we could get our keys, and it was at the next cafe that we discovered we had left the Spanish phrasebook at the previous one…….. At eight o’clock we were able to collect our keys, only to discover that we had actually paid and been booked in for the previous night when we were still on the ferry. Groan…….

After several hours settling in and recovery time we decided to visit S’Albufera, Mallorca’s main wetland. It’s a few miles away from Alcudia by bus and should have taken about twenty minutes. But the roads were heavily congested, vast numbers of passengers were getting on and off and the bus’s ticket machine was faulty, causing constant delays. The sprawl of Puerto Alcudia along the coast road seemed endless. I decided it was time to get off without knowing where we were. It turned out to be another hour’s walk past countless hotels, gift shops, bike outlets and other tourist tat before we reached the reserve entrance. We arrived at five only to be told by a uniformed member of staff sitting in a pick-up that the reserve closed at six. I couldn’t believe my ears. On a previous visit with my mother we quite openly arrived post-evening meal to watch night herons leaving their roosting trees and heading for their feeding pools. So there was just about time to walk up the entrance track to the visitor centre (which was closed) and back before we had to leave. I don’t think Jane was very impressed.

Fortunately things DID improve……….

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Peregrinations (part two).

Part of the remains of the Cwm Coke Works, near Beddau

A couple of weeks ago I drove down to Cardiff with my mate Jonathan to see Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets at St David’s Hall. Nick was one of the founder members of Pink Floyd. A few years ago he put together a band to play music from “the Floyd’s” earlier and arguably most creative years, prior to Dark Side of the Moon. No Roger Waters dirges here, thank you very much! The gig, originally scheduled for spring 2020, was postponed, postponed again, and then again. You had to hope that Nick would still be fit enough to eventually play. That Wednesday, it finally happened, and he was. I don’t think he could be described as the most original or inventive drummer in the world, but he sets a rock-solid foundation for the other musicians around him. At the age of 78, it is astonishing that he is still able to undertake gruelling sequences of one – night stands, and to keep alive some of the most compelling rock music of all time.

I won’t say much more about the music, other than this : both Jonathan and I are of the opinion that the 22-minute long track “Echoes” (on the album Meddle) is one of the most sublime pieces of rock music ever created. I personally believe it should, and eventually probably will, be considered alongside the great classical music of its era. I had been worried that I wouldn’t be able to cope with experiencing it live. But as we left the venue we agreed that the version of Echoes which ended the second set was a bit of a let-down. It was as if the band were wary of reproducing the space and tranquility which so permeates the studio version. Or perhaps they were unable to do so?

But I digress. My next encounter with peregrines, on the way back from Cardiff, was in a very different setting to the previous one; from the sublime to the ridiculous, you could say. I have briefly visited the Cwm Coke Works site twice in recent years. It only finally closed down in 2002, so I must also have seen it in all its working glory on earlier visits to the Valleys. I just wish I had given it the time it deserved as photographic subject matter, because this extensive site is now derelict and rapidly being demolished. Last summer I heard the unmistakeable calls of peregrines there so vowed to re-visit the site during the breeding season if at all possible.

The Coke Works bar and coffee shop, Beddau. (Mural hand-painted by Jenny Ross)

At first it was very quiet. A raven was calling and song birds singing from the woodland which is rapidly regenerating around the site. Then came the sounds of two peregrines in conversation. I spotted one bird circling low around the building in the main picture and shortly later J. picked out the female hunched down in the dirt on an inaccessible part of the site. Later the male brought her some food, and when she stood up you could see two tiny white downy bundles beside her. It is worth mentioning here that at the time Derek Ratcliffe wrote his masterwork The Peregrine Falcon (publ. 1980) it was virtually unknown for the species to nest on man-made structures in the UK : now it is commonplace. I suppose this site gives the birds all the security they need, but it was strange to see such dignified creatures in such delapidated surroundings.

A group of naturalists appeared on the coal tip behind us and I discovered that one member of the party was Carys Romney, who I had also met by chance on a previous visit. She is an ecologist and the leading light behind the Cwm Tips Appreciation Society. She told me about her new venture – a peregrine- and cwm tips-themed bar/coffee shop in the ex-mining village of Beddau a couple of miles away. As you can see from the picture above, there are some fabulous murals there by the artist Jenny Ross, and I can certainly vouch for the quality of the coffee! So why not give the Cokeworks Bar a visit if you find yourself in the area?

NB : I hesitated before posting details of the peregrines, but it should be noted how well-known and valued the birds are locally; and how they are protected by some very keen site security staff.

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Peregrinations (part one).

Female dipper at Aberaeron

Over the last few weeks I’ve been exploring parts of the Ceredigion coast with the aid of an excellent bus service. I leave my van in the out-of-town-supermarket car park in Aberystwyth and hop on the bus. It’s a relaxing way to arrive at your destination, and stepping out of the bus in New Quay or Aberaeron on a sunny morning can feel like being on holiday!

I’ve never had much success photographing dippers, but there is a pair on the river at Aberaeron which is semi-accustomed to the presence of walkers passing by. I spent one morning there recently where I was able to photograph both birds at close range. The male has an unpleasant growth on his right ankle but that doesn’t seem to have affected his ability to supply his mate (and possibly youngsters) with larvae from the river bed. The female is a very fine specimen indeed.

I wouldn’t like anyone to think that I come back from a visit like this with memory cards full of perfectly composed, focussed and exposed images of birds like this. Quite the contrary. I’m often frustrated at the results I manage to achieve and I really don’t understand why some appear so mushy – especially those taken with my long zoom lens. Is it equipment failure or user error? I’d love to know. But I usually manage something to be proud of.

Checking me out …… peregrine near Aberaeron

After one visit I walked along one stretch of coast to the north of Aberaeron before catching the bus back home. It was delightful on a warm spring afternoon to be out in the fresh air with birds singing and the first wild flowers in bloom. Walking above some sheer cliffs I suddenly saw what I had been hoping for – a dark shape appearing above the waves and very obviously checking me out as it flew past. A peregrine! It repeated the maneouvre several times before disappearing back out of sight. Photographing fast-moving birds birds in flight has never been my forte but I was as prepared as I could be for this eventuality. Following the bird as it flew back-and-forth a few times, I attempted to keep it in focus, and I largely succeeded. I think the main reason for my success on this occasion was that the birds stands out so clearly against the background. There is very little chance that the autofocus will be confused. But it was still an anxious time until I opened the files up on the PC!

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Conflagration on Mynydd Mawr, with the village of Y Fron in the foreground.

Apparently this time of year is widely known as the burning season. This year, in particular, after ten days of continuous sunshine and desiccating southeasterly winds our natural vegetation is now tinder dry.

Last Wednesday morning I set off into north Wales on the last of this winter’s postcard delivery trips. I didn’t have a very full timetable of calls so by lunchtime I was in Porthmadog. I decided to have a leisurely sandwich and birdwatch by the artificial tidal lagoon on the edge of the town. As the water was high few birds were to be seen there but there was a nice selection of waders on Traeth Mawr nearby. Turning back towards the van I noticed a pall of smoke drifting over from the north. I phoned a good friend who lives in Nantlle, about ten miles in that direction as the crow flies. He was very concerned about a fire in the hills nearby that he believed had been set by a farmer the previous evening. It had been burning out of control ever since. I wondered if the smoke I had seen was the product of that fire.

After a final call in Beddgelert I continued northwards. A huge mass of smoke was rising vertically in the still air from the summit of Mynydd Mawr, and then drifting northwards. The mountain looked like an active volcano. But it didn’t really fit the description of the fire I had heard about. Turning westwards at Rhyd Ddu towards Nantlle, the fire was to my right whereas the fire he had described would have been on my left. Entering the village I could see a few wisps of smoke rising from the crags and moorland south of Llyn Nantlle while the main fire was now raging behind me. There were two separate fires.

Mynydd Mawr from Nantlle

My friend – an ecologist by training and with many years of professional experience – was outraged to see the second fire. He had just returned from Argentina where he had had a bout of Covid, and probably wasn’t in the best frame of mind to see both sides of his beloved Nantlle valley being consumed in a conflagration! We walked a short distance to get a better view of it. It was his opinion that both fires had been set by the respective landowners/farmers. Upland vegetation is burnt like this to kill the older, more woody stems of heather, producing more younger shoots, and more grass; in other words better grazing for sheep. But over long periods of time repeated burning and grazing prevents heather from regenerating and results in upland vegetation being restricted to coarse grasses that can resist fire but have little wildlife value. It is one of the reasons why there is now so little heather moorland in Wales.

Mynydd Mawr again……

I was anxious to get more photographs of the fire so headed off in the van towards the village of Y Fron, at a higher altitude than Nantlle. Cresting the brow of a hill the fire in all its destructive reality was visible – see the main photograph above. Four fire engines were present and I had a quick chat with one of the firemen. It was while they were attempting to tackle the original fire to the south of Nantlle that they noticed this second fire take hold. “Whatever can you do about it?” I asked. He spread both arms in front of him, fingers on both hands conspicuously crossed. He said it could have been started by bored teenagers or careless walkers, but I think we both knew who the culprit was. He said that farmers are allowed to perform controlled burns but that they “sometimes got out of hand”. I spent a few more minutes taking photographs before leaving the area.

Near Pant Glas……

I spent the night in the van on the open shoreline of Foryd Bay ; it is one of my favourite places in Wales. But around breakfast time another pall of smoke began rising into the sky to the south. I had enough time to investigate the source of the smoke and fairly quickly located it near the hamlet of Pant Glas. I parked up and walked towards the fire; a figure was visible, moving around near the base of the flames. Through my binoculars I could see him carrying some kind of fire-lighting implement that every so often he would dip into a plastic container of brown liquid. This was a job for my long telephoto lens! I ran back to the van to fetch it, cursing that I hadn’t brought it with me in the first place. On my return I could see he was slowly, methodically and calmly lighting fires in the dry vegetation, without a care in the world. He was completely oblivious to my presence and I took a whole series of photographs. I don’t know how far this fire spread but the BBC Wales News website referred to a wildfire “at Pant Glas” on that day.


Normally farmers can ignore the guidelines for “controlled” burning because they know no-one will ever see them. The most unprincipled can light destructive fires in the expectation that they WILL rapidly get out of control and be all but impossible to extinguish. But the expenses involved in the Fire Service attending these wildfires, including the cost of helicopter hire, are, unfairly, borne by the public purse. I have sent a batch of photos like the one above to North Wales police, and I believe that the identity of the man lighting this fire would be identifiable from them. How seriously the authorities will take them is another matter, because all too often unscrupulous farmers are given the benefit of the doubt.

Update : A petition asking the Welsh Government to ban so-called “controlled” burning has been started; please click on the link below to sign it.

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Letters to the Editor (1)

The first in an occasional series of pieces originally written for the Letters page of our local newspaper, the Cambrian News. Most were never published ……… although this one was, with the second paragraph omitted..

Dear Sir,

Many people in north Ceredigion will recently have received a note stuffed through their letterbox telling them that the Rali Bae Ceredigion will be held again in September 2022. In their usual self-congratulatory style, the organizers tell us what a success the first rally was in 2019. What they will not have been told are some inconvenient truths about that event.

For example several so-called “sponsors” have since denied any involvement in the rally.  Natural Resources Wales were said to have been “partner sponsors” but have denied that this was the case. The same goes for Visit Wales; the then relevant Government minister denied any involvement with the rally. A third “Partner Sponsor” – Statkraft, who operate the Rheidol Hydro-electric Scheme, and are heavily involved in renewable energy – were oblivious of this “fact” until it was pointed out to them, and have pulled out completely from any future rallies.

One hundred and twenty cars took part in the 2019 rally, over four stages totaling about 90 miles. Distance between stages was a further 90 miles.  On the day prior to the rally itself, drivers’ recces totaled another 180 miles. The total mileage involved in the 2019 rally was thus approximately 43,200 miles. A rough and conservative estimate of the carbon emissions created by the rally in 2019 was 16 tonnes. This did not include incidental journeys connected with the event or journeys by competitors, spectators, etc to north Ceredigion.

Furthermore 45 miles of public roads were closed to enable the rally, restrictions were placed on many others, and 58 public footpaths were closed.

We don’t know at this point what the mileage of the 2022 rally will be or the number of cars. But we do know that rally organizers intend to expand the rally in future years to cover more stages, have more competitors, and also include night stages. The question which must be asked is this – “which alternative planet do these people live on?”

It has become even more obvious since 2019 that global warming is seriously affecting ALL life on earth, and there is no doubt at all that human activities are the root cause. We are all being urged to use public transport (pandemic apart) to reduce carbon emissions. In mid-Wales private car use is a daily necessity for many but this rally is an entirely frivolous source of climate-wrecking emissions.

We are ALL going to need to make sacrifices in our daily lives to prevent climate catastrophe. When are these overgrown boy racers going to realize this and cut down on their driving activities? Perhaps it is unrealistic to ask them to do so voluntarily  but those in positions of power and responsibility should urgently remind them that our futures, our children’s futures, and the planet’s future are all at stake here.

The Chief Executive of Ceredigion Council has that power and responsibility. He should put aside his love of car rallying and nip the 2022 rally in the bud before its organization becomes too far advanced. He can do that by not permitting the road and footpath closures. His council announced a climate emergency in 2019; let us see him translate these fine words into actions.

Yours sincerely………….

(October 2021)

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Something of value.

During a thirty year career photographing the landscape and more than a decade ago adding wildlife to my repertoire, I’ve also been maintaining a bit of a sideline.

Dead seabirds (mostly common scoter), Freshwater East, Pembrokeshire. February 1996. I spent a couple of days in Pembrokeshire after the Sea Empress oil tanker ran aground. Some of the photographs appeared on TV at the time.

While out in the landscape I’ve sometimes come across quirky, incongruous or downright ugly scenes which tell us more about our relationship with the landscape than most of my (or anybody’s) actual “traditional” landscapes do. As an early example, in the early days of Fuji Velvia (the late 1980’s) , I remember taking a picture of a pile of bright blue plastic pipes close to a reservoir in the wilds of the Ceredigion uplands; it’s probably still in a filing cabinet somewhere. At first I called these images “human landscapes” although I don’t feel that that description now does them all justice. Many are informed by my environmental concerns in a broad sense and some actually say more about us than the landscape. Some ask more questions than give answers.

Near Bangor, Gwynedd. July 2019. An exception to the rule: having seen this phone mast from the driver’s seat of my van, I revisited it some months later and searched out the best spot to photograph it from.

Throughout my life in photography I’ve been a big fan of the brilliant Joe Cornish and his contemporaries as well as the almost unique world-view of the late Fay Godwin; both have their place in the world of outdoor photography. Fay Godwin, it seems to me, began her photographic career specialising in traditional black-and-white landscapes. But as her consciousness developed about the damage we are inflicting on nature, so her images became more closely aligned to her environmental concerns. She disliked the description of “landscape photographer” that people gave her, despite the fact that she worked mainly in the landscape; she preferred the term “documentary”. I understand exactly what she meant; it’s unfortunate that in the photographic world the term landscape means only one sort of landscape.

Near Trefenter, Ceredigion. March 2021

Going back to my own human landscapes, I’ve often been able to sneak them into my books and exhibitions while no-one was looking! I can imagine that many viewers’ reactions would be along the lines of “But Wales is such a beautiful country, why photograph that?” It has long been an ambition of mine to put them all together and exhibit them. Over the years it’s been known variously as my ” Black and White Project”, my “Retrospective of Sorts” and my “Homage to Fay Godwin”. As a prelude to this (I hope), at the end of last year, I put together a one-off photobook of more than fifty of them.

Pembroke castle and Oil Refinery, December 2009

How this eventually came about is worth a mention. I’d been putting it off for years. I had had some very dispiriting criticism of the project from a photographer in the Joe Cornish tradition who I had previously admired tremendously. I whittled the selection down to about a hundred, including plenty of new work but some already published in colour. I converted them all to black-and-white, and had some cheap test prints made, but still couldn’t put them together. Then while browsing on the internet one day I saw a promotion from an online company offering £100 off one of their top-of -the-range photobooks. I responded immediately and was sent a coupon valid for 30 days. This was the impetus I needed, and within a couple of weeks I had the finished product on my desk. Compiling it was the most fun in photography I had had for years! The quality of the book was excellent except for one thing; it had been designed online and the mid-grey front cover with white and black lettering looked fine on-screen. But in reality my name in black was almost invisible against the grey unless you saw it at a certain angle to the light. I pointed this out to the printers and they offered me a full credit for the cost, amounting to £118.23p, most of which I hadn’t paid in the first place!

Tywyn, Gwynedd. (June 2010). Taken while researching locations for Wales at Waters Edge

The content of the book, when I saw it, was really quite an eye-opener. I realised most of images had been seen almost out of the corner of my eye, while I was actually intent on taking other photographs. Mostly other landscapes, sometimes wildlife and surprisingly often while I was driving from A to B and just saw something. Many of them are at places where I stopped, took a picture and moved on. I know I will never be back there again. I’m sure I’m not the only photographer who sees a fantastic landscape from the driver’s seat of a car, stops, walks back and the finds the potentially world-beating image has completely disappeared. My snapshots are quite different to traditional landscapes, however, where the quality of the light is critical and a significant amount of pre-planning is usually required. In many cases individual images have limited value on their own but in the company of a few dozen others, the photographer’s vision becomes more clear.

Near LLanwchllyn, Gwynedd. September 2008. This could be described in terms of the media, or the message, or both. Not everyone gets both………

The good luck didn’t stop at the refund for the cost of printing the book, either. The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth has quite a large collection of my colour work already. Just after Christmas I was strolling along the sea-front in Aberystwyth when I met its curator of photography, Will Troughton. After a bit of a general chat he asked me if I was working on anything at the moment. My usual response these days to that question is “well, er, no …….. not really…….” but fortunately I remembered to mention the retrospective/Godwin/b&w project. He expressed an interest and I arranged to meet him, book in hand. A couple of days after seeing it he phoned to say that he had “found some money” and would like to buy a selection of prints. The importance of the sale is not so much in the cash, but rather the recognition that I still produce photographic work of some value.

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Long past sunset.

Long past sunset……. peat and boulders in the submerged forest. (5 seconds at f13)

The weekend before Christmas there was a break in the relentlessly cloudy and wet conditions that continue to plague us here in west Wales. While this allowed me to do some garden chores – getting a new load of logs under cover, for example – I was also able to visit the submerged forest between Borth and Ynyslas, about eight miles from here. My first visit was “on spec” after a birding walk on the Dyfi estuary. It was immediately apparent that a very large expanse of peat, together with hundreds, if not thousands, of tree stumps had been exposed after recent storms.

It was about half an hour before sunset and the tide was coming in, washing over the peat and through the stumps as it did so. From previous experience – see this post – I quickly worked out that timing would be better the following day as the advancing tide would be about fourty minutes later. Nevertheless I hung out there for a while and took a few pictures before the sun set.

Sunset over the submerged forest

I was back again the following afternoon. Although it had been a warm still day further inland, here near the mouth of the Dyfi estuary a cold easterly breeze was blowing. The light was extraordinary. The intensely clear sky was cloudless, bathing my surroundings in blue light, which I found quite unpleasant. The dark brown peat seemed to soak up whatever light hit it and become almost black. The breeze created countless ripples running at right-angles to the sun which put paid to any hope of any reflections. It was only when the sun neared the horizon that any relief came, in the shape of incoming waves breaking and being backlit with sunset colours.

Blessed relief from blue light!

Although my Olympus kit has remarkable image stabilisation, when one is considering exposures in the order of several seconds a tripod is indispensable. So this time I had my tripod with me and as the sun disappeared I set it up on a solid section of peat. I took a few long exposures but the tide advances very quickly here and before long the submerged forest was once more submerged! I determined to return the following evening.

The day of my third visit skies had been cloudless again but there was little wind; water levels were that much lower and there were still walkers on the beach. I explored a little but discovered that pleasing compositions were difficult to find. This figure seemed to add a sense of scale and I knew that I could easily clone him out if I felt he intruded on the timeless nature of this landscape.

A two image stitch in Lightroom

The sun had sunk below the horizon before waves began to encroach upon the forest. When they did I took a series of images at shutter speeds of up to eight seconds. On an incoming tide one needs to work quite fast to avoid getting wet feet (or worse) and I had time for just a few exposures. It was actually the last one (main photo) that I found most satisfying, and the tree stumps are only a minor element within it. I happened to notice that a few rounded boulders lay within the peat and that they were “rimlit” by the extremely bright post-sunset sky. I quickly moved the tripod over to place them in the foreground and pressed the shutter.

After processing them I posted the above image online. There followed a discussion on whether it was more effective with or without the figure – it was probably about 50/50. Further, and more interestingly …….. is a landscape with a human figure actually still a landscape at all?

For more technical information on the Submerged Forest, see this article by John Mason, a local geologist.

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