Flying the flag for Britain.

Flying the flag for Britain (from Private Eye)

I’ve just returned from a holiday in the south of France. My holidays usually involve a fair amount of photography, but on this occasion it just didn’t seem to happen, despite my having a fair amount of kit with me. On the way down I picked up a copy of Private Eye and couldn’t help noticing the cartoon reproduced above (with apologies to Private Eye and Russell). Now I happen to be a big believer in the “socks with sandals” look as it is very practical (I won’t go on……….). But for some reason it seems to be regarded in some quarters ….well, most quarters….. as being in the worst possible taste.

One lovely day in France we did a long cycle ride amongst lagoons and wetlands by the Med and it just seemed –  well, so right, really – to go the whole hog  in the footwear department. I can see this look really taking off next season on the catwalks. Hold the fashion pages…..!

Hold the fashion pages….. (thanks to Jane)

 

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Swings and roundabouts

Fish farm, Penmon: Purchased by National Library of Wales

Over a period of many years the National Library of Wales bought complete sets of prints from each of my books as it was published, or as they were exhibited. They currently have a total of 371 Cibachromes purchased in this way. This came to a sudden end about ten years ago when they took on a new member of staff whose task it was to raise income from items in its Collection. I’m not sure what her background was but this bright spark decided it would be a good idea to sell copies of photographs bought from photographers or donated by them. She obviously had no idea about copyright. I was asked to sign a statement approving this and I refused. I found it astonishing that an institution whose readers had to sign a “personal use only” statement every time they photocopied a page of one of its books should believe it could appropriate photographers work in this way.  It may have been a coincidence but no more of my work was purchased for the following decade. It was just one of the ways in which my income declined over that time.

I’m glad to say the situation seems to have changed. That particular member of staff has apparently retired and I’m now in the process of selling a set of prints from “Wales at Waters Edge” to the Library. Not the whole lot (there are over a hundred) but a selection of twenty made by their Curator of Photography Will Troughton. He has described me as “Wales’ leading environmental photographer” and goes on to say that “his meticulous work has received extensive praise from many quarters”. For months on end it feels as if one is working in a vacuum, so this came as a very pleasant surprise. Environmental photography might sound a bit of a niche but it does suit my work quite well. I’ll quite happily use a building – a castle, lighthouse or cottage – as an aid to composition in my more commercial landscapes (the postcards, for example). But in my personal work I’m usually careful to use human elements within the landscape only when I’m tring to say something about that landscape.  I’m not always sure what exactly I’m trying to say but photographs do not always provide answers; sometimes they can pose questions. In my case the question is often “What exactly is our place within the landscape?” That is also why I have always been so keen on Fay Godwin’s work. It was very pleasing to see from his choice of prints that Will understands what I am trying to do.

Life is full of ups and downs and I have also suffered a major setback recently – although hopefully only a temporary one. Most of my books have been published by Gomer Press, arguably Wales’ premier publisher. However they are clearly now downgrading their publications department and in an attempt at “restructuring” are replacing the number of posts by 50%. All eight current members of staff were asked to re-apply for the four posts now envisaged. All refused and took redundancy payments. Gomer currently thus has no publications department, and any books “in development” but not contracted have been shelved.  However I am still hoping that either Gomer Press or another publisher will take my new book up before too long. Both Jon Gower (the author) and I are well-known and respected in Wales in our respective fields so they should be leaping at the chance!

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Tripod head talk….and our cutest mammal (surely!)

Red squirrel, Anglesey

For many years I used a Magicball tripod head which I thought was a brilliant and very versatile piece of kit. I had two, in fact, with a Mini-Magicball on my lightweight “walking” tripod. The secret of the design was that it was “upside down” and screwed directly into the base of the camera or lens plate. It wasn’t until I started using long, heavy lenses to photograph wildlife that I began to see the weakness in the Magicball design. It was VERY stable when the lens (even a heavy one) was aligned along the main axis of the head. When it was at 90 degrees for a portrait format image it tended to slip out position very easily. So it was time for a rethink…..

Then  I discovered the Uniqball, as its name suggested another unique design this time with one ball inside another. The outer ball was first locked to fix the horizontal axis; the inner ball then behaving like a pan-and-tilt head for an exact composition. About a year ago I got hold of one of the very first UBH35P models in the UK, and I really, really wanted to like it. Over a period of a few weeks I got to know it reasonably well and concluded that it was a qualified success as a piece of equipment. It had two weaknesses, but I thought I would get to grips with them over a period of time (to read the full review click here). The problem was, I just couldn’t. While using the head in  “landscape” mode I found it incredibly frustrating to have to re-set the outer ball every time I moved the tripod. This was particularly annoying on uneven and/or sloping ground, and I found myself cursing over and over again in such situations. The photographer should never have this kind of relationship with their equipment so I retired it and dug out a rather cruddy old ball-and-socket head while I decided what to do next.

Poseur? Moi?

After many hours of browsing the internet I came across an American brand called Acratech. Their ball-and-socket heads are distinctive in several ways, including their very light weight, and their astronomical price in the UK, but what really grabbed my attention was the claim that they could also be used as a gimbal head. I’ve never used one myself but actual gimbals are very specialised and bulky heads used by bird photographers. With a well-balanced camera/lens combination, all the locks can be slackened off to allow movement in all directions using only fingertip pressure.  I was sceptical that a lightweight ball-and-socket head could also include this functionality.  I worried particularly that with a heavy camera/lens combo tipped over to one side,  the tripod would become unbalanced and tip over. Manufacturers continually claim that their new gadget will solve all your photographic problems, and it may solve some. But at the same time it may have disadvantages which only become apparent when you get one in the field……. however, I digress: my b&s head was getting stickier and stickier and I was cursing it more and more. Things were looking desperate. I saw one final positive Acratech review and my mind was made up. It was time to click “buy”.

Last weekend saw the first outing of the new head (model code GPss) when I headed off up to Anglesey to have a go at photographing red squirrels. This lovely mammal was close to extinction on Anglesey in the late 1990’s when the Red Squirrel Trust Wales was set up. Its aim was through education and conservation measures – including the release of captive bred animals – to re-create a thriving population of red squirrels on the island. Grey squirrels had already arrived by using the bridges across the Menai Strait (or by swimming) but it was thought to be relatively easy to keep Anglesey free of them. The project has been a real success and it is thought there is now a population of about 700 on the island. They are beginning to re-colonise the area around Bangor on the mainland from this stronghold, and extermination of greys there will help to encourage this process. I had been told that the Newborough Forest – where there are some feeders – was the place to see them, although I failed to do so on my first visit last November.  This time, however, I was more successful and I spent several happy hours in their company over a couple of days.

Another red squirrel……

What lovely creatures they are! On a cuteness scale of one to ten, they must be at least eleven! They proved pretty elusive during the day but around breakfast time and before dusk up to five visited the area around the feeders. They are also kept well-fed with treats there by nature lovers and wildlife photographers.  They are partial to all sorts of nuts and seeds and at quieter times of the day will sit calmly feeding (and looking really, really, cute) just a few yards away from people sitting at nearby picnic tables. When more nervous they might scamper up a nearby tree-trunk and then stop, posing for all their worth for the photographer. Problems included trying to keep up with their erratic movements within the trees and occasionally high levels of contrast when stray sunbeams found their way through the tree trunks into the feeding area. It was sometimes difficult to expose correctly when an individual moved from a dark background to a light one, or vice versa.

And how did the new tripod head cope? I have to say very well. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to use the head as a gimbal; there was no real threat that the tripod was about to overbalance although one would always need to keep an eye on this. And even with shutter speeds down to 1/125th second due to the low light levels within the woodland I managed a high percentage of sharp images. This suggests the tripod and head combo was keeping the lens pretty stable, even at 600mm.

There was a steady stream of other photographers and wildlife lovers visiting the site over the couple of days I was there, and I enjoyed some interesting conversations. On Sunday morning I shared a long session of red squirrel fun with Martin and Jayne from Rhos-on-Sea.  We were entranced by the animals’ antics and, as our shutters clicked away busily,  it felt quite special to share the experience with other like-minded people. But the thought remains that if it wasn’t for those dedicated people, often volunteers, who worked on this conservation project we would have had no red squirrels to photograph and enjoy. So my thanks go to all of them.

 

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Fay Godwin revisited

The Dee Bridge, Flintshire (from Wales at Waters Edge)

The Dee Bridge, Flintshire (from Wales at Waters Edge)

Saturday the 18th saw the opening of a new exhibition at MOMA Machynlleth of the late Fay Godwin’s black-and-white landscape photographs. It includes a selection of original prints from the National Library of Wales’s collection linked to “The Drover’s Roads of Wales”. This was a bit of a classic from the 1980’s and one of Fay’s first forays into the world of books, and one which helped to make her name. There can be little argument that she was at that time a landscape photographer but she later came to deny this, and claim instead that she was a documentary photographer. But in my opinion this was a moot point. She worked for most of her career in the landscape and that’s good enough for me. What set her apart from most others in the same field was her knowledge of the issues around the landscape and the way she incorporated them into her photographs. While many landscape images, then and now, are stunningly beautiful they actually say very little about their subject matter. It could be said that Fay Godwin’s images, on the contrary, were landscapes with content.

Alongside these prints was another group chosen by invited photographers (including such names as Paul Hill, John Davies and John Blakemore), and others, who were inspired by Fay’s work or who had other connections with her. These were printed by Peter Cattrell, Fay’s own printer and they look absolutely sparkling. Each was asked to select one of Fay’s images and write an extended caption for it and I’m glad to say that I was one of those invited. My choice, and the caption I wrote for it is below. The image appeared on the rear cover of the third of Fay’s “landscape trilogy” – The Edge of the Land (published in 1995). With its rather enigmatic composition I assumed it was from relatively late in her career, but I have recently learned that it dated from the early 1970’s and was included in her retrospective Landmarks as a “snapshot”.

Ramsgate, Kent by Fay Godwin. Fay Godwin’s work has been a visual soundtrack for most of my photographic life. I roamed wild landscapes with my camera from the 1980’s onwards and sometimes came across quirky, incongruous or downright ugly scenes. The photographs I took of them became my “human landscapes”. It was certainly reassuring to know that Fay Godwin had already ploughed the same furrow that I was following. Whether mine work as well in colour as hers did in black-and-white, I don’t know: perhaps not. Fay Godwin’s photographic journey in the landscape began by making images to illustrate guidebooks (e.g. “The Drovers Roads of Wales”) and ended with very personal statements about her own place within it. “Ramsgate, Kent” appeared in the “Edge of the Land”, the last of her landscape book trilogy. Its meaning was probably clearer to her than it is to the viewer. But I like the way that each individual element in the picture has absolutely its own place in the image; rather like chess pieces on a board. And I have an interest in verbal messages displayed in the countryside. They tell us a lot about what we are like as a species.

Ramsgate, Kent by Fay Godwin.

Fay Godwin’s work has been a visual soundtrack for most of my photographic life. I roamed wild landscapes with my camera from the 1980’s onwards and sometimes came across quirky, incongruous or downright ugly scenes. The photographs I took of them became my “human landscapes”.  It was certainly reassuring to know that Fay Godwin had already ploughed the same furrow that I was following. Whether mine work as well in colour as hers did in black-and-white, I don’t know: perhaps not.
Fay Godwin’s photographic journey in the landscape began by making images to illustrate guidebooks (e.g. “The Drovers Roads of Wales”) and ended with very personal statements about her own place within it. “Ramsgate, Kent” appeared in the “Edge of the Land”, the last of her landscape book trilogy. Its meaning was probably clearer to her than it is to the viewer. But I like the way that each individual element in the picture has absolutely its own place in the image; rather like chess pieces on a board. And I have an interest in verbal messages displayed in the countryside. They tell us a lot about what we are like as a species.

Alongside these two strands is a separate exhibition at The Penrallt Gallery and Bookshop, a few doors up the road from MOMA. Invited photographers were asked to choose one image of their own which they felt was particularly inspired by Fay Godwin’s work. My own choice is at the top of this post and I wonder if anyone can see the parallels between it and “Ramsgate, Kent” reproduced above? While in many ways there is no similarity at all for me it is the chess board analogy I mentioned in the extended caption that applies in both examples.

The Penrallt Gallery/Bookshop was opened a few years ago by Geoff Young and Diane Bailey, both of whom, in previous lives, taught photography. They have an excellent selection of books, particularly on the arts, photography and the environment – just my sort of place, as you can imagine! It is just one of those places which is very difficult to leave without having bought something. They also show the work of  upcoming photographers and hold a regular series of talks and readings with photographers and authors, plus various writing workshops. The Fay Godwin exhibition at MOMA and the spinoff at Penrallt were organised and curated by Geoff and Diane and a brilliant job they have done of it. It deserves a far wider audience than it is likely to get in a small town in mid-Wales.

On March 11th and linked to the exhibitions is a conference on Fay Godwin’s photography (with guest speakers) and including a preview of a new film about her life : “Don’t Fence Me In”. I’m really looking forward to it. For details click on the link below ;

http://moma.machynlleth.org.uk/?page_id=810

Both exhibitions run until April 1st. For details on how to visit MOMA Machynlleth, click on the link below.

http://moma.machynlleth.org.uk/?page_id=75

For more information about the Penrallt Gallery/Bookshop, click on the link below.

http://www.penralltgallerybookshop.co.uk/

 

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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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