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.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click on the Follow button

With Seasons Greetings

This is one of the very few photographs I took last winter. If I drop down into the valley below my hilltop home and, dodging irate farmers, walk upstream for about half a mile, I reach a waterfall which virtually no-one knows about. If it wasn’t for the trees that have toppled into the mini ravine below it, it would be the perfect waterfall, and I would photograph it in all weathers. Last February after a couple of frosty days and nights I thought I would go and investigate. Water droplets thrown up by the falls had collected on the mossy sides of the ravine and frozen. Risking life and limb (well, maybe), I took a series of extreme close-ups, and this was the best of the bunch.

It’s a shame to have to mention Covid after nearly two years have passed but it doesn’t look like we’re out of the mire yet. Who knows what the future holds?

So I hope you are all well, still sane, and that your plans for 2022 actually come to fruition. With best wishes for Christmas, the Solstice and the New Year!

jerry

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click the Follow button.

Carpets of knot (part three).

After the drama and intensity of my session in the hide with waders arriving in countless thousands (see this post), it was a relief to find myself outside in calm and sunny conditions, with the waters of the Wash gently lapping at the shoreline. Other birders and photographers were moving towards the main hide, however, and I thought it was about time I headed in the same direction.

To my surprise the photographers’ screen was more sparsely populated than it had been the previous day. Rather than squeezing onto the bench I stood at the back and set up my tripod, which enabled me look through the viewing slot without the discomfort of bending down. And there, just a few score yards away, was a veritable carpet of knots. Within this huge throng of life, large groups of birds surged from right to left, forwards and back, The predominant colour at any one time varied between the white of their breasts and the mid-brown of their backs. The occasional brick-red remnant of their summer plumage could also be seen on a few individuals (see below). It was an entirely charming spectacle, and I couldn’t help smiling. The light was perfect, bright without being harsh, illuminating the birds to perfection.

I recognised a couple of well-known bird photographers in the screen – Chris Gomersall and David Tipling – and there may have been others. There was clearly a workshop session going on, although I’m not sure who the leader was. An authoritative voice announced that “this is as good as it gets”. I took burst upon burst of images.

Having now examined all the results, I do question some of the photographic choices I made during the session. Among other things I was trying to show how groups of birds moved within the flock while others stayed still. I hoped to do this by reducing the ISO rating below Olympus’s base level of 200, and using shutter speeds as long as 1/25th second, but the moving birds just looked blurred. Using long focal lengths such as 300 mm (equivalent to 600 mm on full frame) resulted in too narrow a depth of field in many cases. But looking on the bright side, when I got it right, the images showed what excellent results my kit is capable of in good, contrasty, light.

I mentioned taking ” burst after burst” of images. During this one session alone, lasting about two hours, I took more than seven hundred images. Only a limited number of compositions were possible from the hide, so many bursts differed from the next only by minute differences in focus, exposure or depth of field. At something like 10 frames a second moving birds moved only a few millimeters between frames, if that. Ploughing through such a huge number of files while processing is a real chore. To be frank, it does my head in! But I fear that is the lot of the bird photographer. On a recent session photographing bramblings in a rowan tree I took 638 images over a period of four hours, and only about 1% of them are really worth keeping. I’m beginning to wondering if taking jpg’s rather than raw files might be the answer.

Most photographers waited till most of the knot had returned to the mudflats. I think we were waiting for all of the massive flock to burst into flight together, but it wasn’t to be. They flew off in dribs and drabs. All in all, though, it had been a fabulous morning, and I walked back to the car park a very contented man.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click Follow button.

Carpets of knot (part two)

The following morning dawned clear. It was still dark when I set off but stars were visible overhead and there was no wind. This was promising. As the day began to dawn I began to see what a lovely morning it was – slightly misty and with low-lying fog in places. Birders and photographers were already gathering by the time I arrived at the wader watchpoint on the banks of the Wash. A golden glow was just beginning to appear to the east. I noticed another hide which faced eastwards across the lagoon.

What if?

The sun had not yet risen. I don’t want to sound too heroic about that – sunrise is quite late in October. But there was potential for exciting images if flocks of waders flew around above the still waters of the lagoon before settling at the southern end as they tend to do. I wouldn’t be able to see westwards as the birds gathered offshore but I had nothing to lose, really. The hide was almost empty but some strategically situated vapour trails made some wonderful geometric shapes in the sky. I sat and waited for some action.

At 7.30 the sun appeared as a crimson ball in the mist and the first small wader flocks arrived. I was able to reduce the camera’s ISO rating from a pre-sunrise 1000 to the Olympus-recommended 200, which helped no end in terms of image quality and processing. It was a slow start but as the sun rose higher more birds flew in. There was no-one else in the hide.

Fifteen minutes later the first big flocks had appeared and so began one of the most intense photographic sessions I have ever experienced. There was still no one else in the hide and I had free rein to capture different perspectives on the action from different angles.

By this time I was feeling very emotional. Partly by chance and partly through intuition I found myself able to experience and photograph an astonishing spectacle. The wide range of focal lengths on my 12 – 100 mm lens (effectively 24 – 200 mm) allowed me to continue shooting whether the action was close to the hide or a little further away. I was also able to include a little foreground in some images,

At some point there was a sudden influx of other birders and it became almost impossible to move. By that point I had managed to stick my arms and head out of one of the windows; I had a lump in my throat and tears were streaming down my face. I stayed where I was and kept my finger on the shutter. Thank goodness for automation………..

By about eight o’clock the intensity of the action had begun to wane and I regained my sense of composure. Over a period of half an hour an atmosphere of gentle tranquility quickly turned into one of frantic hyperactivity and back as the knot flocks flew in and gradually settled down to roost. And that was just how I felt!

I emerged from the hide and walked the short distance back to the shore. It was lined with birders, photographers, and other sightseers. What a gorgeous morning it was, and what a sight!

Part three will follow.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click the Follow button

Carpets of knot (part one).

A carpet of knot at Snettisham

It was still well before dawn. I had left my van and was searching for the footpath to the shoreline without a torch. Around me dark figures were emerging from vehicles, dimly lit car boots were open and people were hurriedly donning extra layers, rucksacks and waterproofs. The sensible ones had headtorches. I had a very dim memory of the carpark layout from my last visit, and realised I had walked past the exit. I turned round, pretended to know what I was doing and fell in behind a couple with a powerful torch.

I was on the west coast of Norfolk, at Snettisham, and had come to see one of the great wildlife spectacles in the UK. I visited twice in autumn 2013 whilst working on my Bird/land exhibition (see this link), and was last here in March 2016. Snettisham is on the eastern bank of The Wash, which is the winter home to many, many thousands of waders. At the highest of tides waders are pushed onshore and most gather at an old gravel pit, where the RSPB has constructed some hides. The rhythm of the tides is such that the highest waters are between 6am and 9am, or 6pm and 9pm, and in winter are without fail before dawn or after dusk. Therefore there’s a very limited number of “spectaculars” (as they are known) during daylight hours. It is well worth the effort to get there.

After half an hour’s walk a little grey light had begun to seep through the heavy cloud cover. Wader flocks were gathering offshore and beginning to fly into the gravel pits. It was a dazzling display as thousands of tiny birds flickered overhead in the gloom. I saw several photographers hurrying towards the hides at the southern end of the lagoon and decided I ought to follow them. The small wooden viewing “screen” has room on a bench for about eight people and it was standing room only by the time I squeezed in. At one point photographers were three deep!

It has to be said that conditions were not ideal. Thanks to their small sensor m43 cameras struggle at medium/high ISO’s and I don’t trust my Olympus kit at ISO’s higher than 1600. Even though many images at that ISO rating can be rescued by software such as Topaz Denoise, some just can’t. It was still very gloomy and shutter speeds were far longer than I had hoped for. In the case of the example above exposure was 1/60th at f8 – which, at an effective focal length of 500 mm, is really pushing it. However when this particular flock flew I kept my finger on the shutter button and made a series of images which – when fully processed – will be impressionistic and “interesting”; traditional bird photographers won’t like them at all.

Once the action was over I took a quick look at the new “observatory” – the word hide really doesn’t do it justice. It’s a huge, glass-fronted structure with stepped seating inside, rather like a theatre auditorium. And what a show! Low down to one side an area of the front wall has been reserved for photographers. Holes have been provided through which they can poke their lenses but they are very close to ground level; although mats have been provided it’s an uncomfortable position to work from. Has this been over-thought, I wonder? But full credit to the RSPB for providing such a facility which, to be honest, absolutely anyone can use, member or not.

Following high tide the birds return to the higher mud flats and roost until their feeding grounds become available. As I walked back to the car park I vowed to return the following day when better light was forecast.

NB : A timetable for next year’s “Whirling Wader Spectaculars” can be found here.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click the Follow button.

Job done!

Sorted! (Click to enlarge)

It’s very rarely that the landscape photographer can pack the camera away in the knowledge that their objective was entirely satisfied. But I was able to do just that yesterday.

For a number of years I had occasionally been visiting a viewpoint overlooking the village of Betws-y-coed in north Wales with the main peaks of Eryri in the background. I’d never come away with any images I was happy with. For one thing it is a west facing viewpoint and I prefer the light to be at ninety degrees to my angle of vision – in other words at this location “lunch-time light.” Not good.

Yesterday the forecast was for early showers blowing in from the west followed by an improvement to sunny intervals: with the sun rising in the east these were ideal conditions for a rainbow. I added that to my wish-list for the morning.

It didn’t start too well. It had been the coldest night for months and I needed to wear all my layers (plus waterproofs). I piddled around for far too long and when I arrived at the tiny car park it was full. I had to drive a further couple of hundred yards to find a parking space, and walk back to the gate. The first rainbow was already forming before I reached it. Had I left it too late? It was still ten minutes walk to the viewpoint.

When I arrived I hardly recognised it. Tree growth over the last few years has been so vigorous that Betws-y-coed, in the valley below, was almost invisible; I had to pick my spot very carefully to see it. But the eastern mountains of Snowdonia were lain out across the horizon. A second rainbow formed and dissipated.

It was one of the bright, breezy and totally invigorating mornings that the photographer in me enjoys so much. The sun came and went, and shadows passed quickly over the landscape. From such a prominent position it was possible to see the beginnings of showers as they blew in across the hills. The faintest hint of another rainbow appeared and moved steadily towards me, slowly intensifying. For a couple of minutes its “end” dipped down into the valley below me. I was able to make some images as it did so. The shower passed over and I had a quick look at the images before snapping the camera screen shut. A broad smile appeared on my face. It was definitely “job done”.

NB : In the picture, Moel Siabod is the prominent peak to the left, with, going right, the Glyderau, Tryfan and the Carneddau; the latter two with their summits in cloud.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click the Follow button.

Them’re chuffs, them are.

I’ve lived in Ceredigion for over fourty years, and worked on the Ceredigion coastal path in the 1980’s, but have never really spent much time at Mwnt. And yet, with its tiny, ancient church, sheltered beach and National Trust car park, it must be one of the most popular and attractive destinations in the county. I had heard that a large flock of chough gathered there early in the morning, and that it was also a great place to photograph bottlenose dolphins. So I decided to visit.

The first morning – having parked up overnight a couple of miles inland – I arrived early. Choughs were gathering on the short grass in front of the church, so I manouevred my van into a position where I could use it as a hide. The choughs were busily feeding on leatherjackets , which they were digging out of the turf with their strong red beaks. I counted a total of twenty-nine altogether. They were barely troubled by the occasional passer-by, flying a short distance away before quickly returning. One thing I noticed was that they both hop and walk, the latter giving them quite a pronounced waddle!

Them’re chuffs, them are…….

I overheard the following conversation between one couple as they walked through the flock –

Him : “Them’re chuffs, them are”

Her : “Warrar?”

Him : “Them, they’re chuffs”

Her : (louder) “Warrar???”

Examining the pictures on the camera’s screen, it looked like very few of them were perfectly sharp. I blamed myself. I thought I was out of practice. But then I had an idea: was the viewfinder’s dioptre adjustment wrongly set? I re-adjusted it and found that most of the pictures were in fact quite acceptable. I must have rotated the adjustment dial getting the camera in or out of my bag. This is an ongoing problem with digital cameras . They have so many buttons and dials it is virtually impossible NOT to change settings in normal day-to-day use. Typically the focus point moves from centre to somewhere near the edge and you wonder why it won’t focus properly. There should be a lock button somewhere which would prevent these accidental changes.

As more and more people arrived, so the choughs began to filter away. I returned the next morning for another session. Parking in the same spot I waited for the birds to arrive. And so they did. It was mostly good-natured, co-operative feeding, but not always. Twice there were short but vicious tussles between individuals, who very rapidly resumed feeding alongside each other shortly later. I’m told by Adrienne Stratford, an expert on chough behaviour, that these spats are mostly between two juveniles – possibly even nest-mates. Far more often, however, two birds could be seen nestled close to each other, gently preening each other’s plumage.

Having pretty much exhausted the possibilities of individuals and groups of chough digging into what looked like a lawn, I turned my attention elsewhere. Occasionally choughs would rest on the church tower or a gravestone, and I thought that could make a nice picture, even though the birds themselves would be small in the frame. It turned out be quite an easy task with such co-operative creatures, and the pictures work well for me.

O

When I first started bird photography (for the book Wales – at Waters’ Edge) it was beyond my wildest dreams that I would be able to photograph chough. They seemed so rare and elusive. But as I have got to know them better I’ve realised they’re actually one of the most approachable species in Wales. At the same time they have lost some of their mystique; but is still so nice to spend some time in the presence of one of my favourite birds.

As for the dolphins I spent some time scanning the sea , and one afternoon picked out a small group heading quickly westwards some distance offshore; the more I looked the more I found. They were scattered over a wide expanse of water covering perhaps 1/2 mile by 1/2 mile. There were probably dozens altogether, possibly as many as fifty. Presumably they were bottlenose but a large group of commons was seen off the Teifi estuary not far away at about the same time, so who knows? When conditions are right (and when the mood takes them) bottlenose dolphins come very close inshore at Mwnt, and some great photographs have been taken of them. So I shall keep my eyes and ears open and make another visit before too long.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click the Follow button.

One good tern deserves another.

Arctic tern

One of my favourite places in Wales is Cemlyn Bay, on the north coast of Anglesey. It is a brackish lagoon separated from the sea by a curving shingle spit. Within the lagoon are a couple of islands on which very large numbers of terns raise their young every year. Commonest is the sandwich tern, with large numbers of common and arctic terns as well; it has held roseate terns in the past and occasional birds are seen every year, although they do not now breed.

Several roseates were reported earlier this summer, which encouraged me to plan a visit for later in the year; I had never knowingly seen one before. Then in July an elegant tern took up residence within the colony; this is a very rare visitor to the UK and is normally found on the western coast of northern and central America. I decided to bring forward my visit to try to catch both species together.

Tern identification has never been my strongpoint. Sandwich terns are pretty unmistakeable but I tend to lump most arctic and commons (let alone roseates) – unless seen very well – as “comics”. However, Cemlyn Bay is one place in the UK where with a little bit of time and patience one can get to grips with this tricky ID problem. From the safety of the shingle ridge it is possible to get excellent views of the terns on the islands even without a telescope.

A sandwich tern on steroids……..

It wasn’t difficult to locate the elegant tern. It has a massive bill the colour of a banana and over a period of a couple of weeks it had established a “territory” centred on one of the unoccupied roseate tern nesting shelters. It would perch there and display to any passing sandwich tern. It is basically a sandwich tern on steroids and in my opinion has been badly mis-named. It is large and chunky, with a backward-pointing crest, but ‘elegant’? Sorry but no!

The roseate terns were another matter altogether. One of the Wildlife Trust wardens pointed one out and yes…… I could see it. But would I be able to pick one out in a crowd (of other terns)? Probably not. Every so often a “dread” would take place : the whole colony took flight and swirled around overhead for a couple of minutes before returning. On a couple of occasions the dread occurred when a hunting peregrine flew through the colony but often there was no apparent reason for it. On my first evening there it happened over and over again. I’m not sure if anybody knows why they do it but they do, and after one of them the roseate tern disappeared.

A dread…….

I was under no time constraints and particularly enjoyed the delightful approachability of the arctic terns. They would alight just a few yards away on the shingle without batting an eyelid, or fly from the colony past the observer to the sea at a similar distance. Fledglings lay prone on the ridge waiting to be fed and their parents would bring them sandeels no matter how close you were. It must be one of the best birding (and bird photography) experiences in the British Isles. Everybody should visit Cemlyn at least once!

Roseate tern (or is it…..?)
Spot the difference…….

During the afternoon, as the tide receded, more and more terns rested on the beach, sometimes no more than ten yards away. It gave me the chance to examine them in detail. I picked out one individual with a black bill, one of the most noticeable features of a roseate tern. The more I looked, the more black bills I found, perhaps half a dozen of them altogether. Were they ALL roseates? Another birder examined them with a telescope and confidently told me that they were; I wasn’t convinced. Another said they were, in fact, first-summer arctics – despite the fact that they normally spend their entire first year in the Antarctic and are scarce in the UK. The secret is in the colour of their legs – roseates have (relatively) long bright red legs while those of the arctics are very dark red or black and very short.

Examining the images at home I picked out one which looked good for a roseate, and sent it for confirmation to the tern wardens. They agreed. But there’s a snag; the tail streamers on a roseate are exceptionally long and this bird’s just aren’t. So there’s one final possibility. On the Skerries, an offshore tern colony just a few miles away, very occasionally a roseate tern has mated with a common and reared young. So could this be a hybrid? We will probably never know.

N.B. Apologies for the terrible pun in the post title, and to many of you whose interest in the minuteae of tern identification is………err………limited…..! But I’m sure you’ll agree, they’re stunning little birds.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click the Follow button.

It’s not all bad news.

Hobby at Shapwick

In recent posts I’ve written about some of the exciting and fascinating wildlife encounters I had during my May travels. These included great bustard, lady’s slipper orchid, snakeshead fritillary, even the humble Duke of Burgundy butterfly; all four were either re-introductions and/or found specifically on National Nature Reserves. Without interventions from conservationists none of these four species would be found in the UK, or would be struggling to survive. The last post of this series involves a bird species which has, on the quiet, become very much more common over the last fifty years. At the time of the first Breeding Bird Atlas (published in 1976) there was an estimated 100 pairs of hobbies in the UK. By the time of the 2013 edition, it was far more widespread, with a population of about 2,200 pairs.

The hobby is a small falcon related to the peregrine. It is fully migratory, arriving in the UK in April and leaving for Africa in September. It feeds on small birds and large insects caught on the wing. As a very fast, fluid and agile hunter it can catch even swallows and swifts in flight. On their arrival in the UK hobbies congregate at certain wetlands (where there is normally an abundance of dragonflies to feed on), before dispersing to their breeding areas. I had read of flocks or even “swarms” of hobbies at certain locations in early May and longed to see such a spectacle.

I have visited one of these locations – the Avalon Marshes, near Glastonbury – several times in recent years (see here), and it is one of my favourite UK birding destinations. Up to eight species of heron have bred there, which is extraordinary – given that just a few decades ago only the grey heron and the rare and elusive bittern were found in Britain. It was here that I headed after leaving Stonehenge.

My first evening and the following morning there were unspectacular. I was disappointed that the hides at the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve were still closed following the Coronavirus lockdown, and birds seemed a little thin on the ground. After lunch I headed in the opposite direction along the disused railway line into Shapwick Heath NNR. Just a few minutes later I had seen my first hobbies, a dozen or more, hunting independently in a loose flock. Prey must have been small insects because there was also a very large dispersed flock of hirundines (swallows and martins) doing the same thing. Occasionally I caught sight of a bird transferring prey from its feet to beak in flight, a sure sign that these were hobbies. A few minutes later I heard loud bugling calls coming invisibly from Meare Heath to the north – surely they must have been cranes? *

Checking me out………

I hurried on towards a northward facing hide. From there it looked like the hobbies had disappeared. I then began to pick them out in the heat haze, perched singly or in small groups on stunted dead trees amongst the reeds. Gradually they resumed their hunting and I managed a reasonable count of thirty-three birds altogether. It occurred to me that these were truly African birds spending just a few months of every year in the UK. Although they were very active, the hobbies were really too far away to photograph, so I returned to the railway line. And guess what? Hobbies, lower and much closer. Part of the same flock, no doubt, but this was more like it! I returned to the van to eat and recharge my mental batteries.

Late that evening I returned to the same area. Still hobbies! They were hunting insects low over one of the lagoons until well after sunset. Close to darkness in the far distance I could see about twenty of them perched on the stark boughs of a dead tree, one-by-one disappearing to roost somewhere nearby. They had gone by the next morning; but great white egrets – ethereal and otherworldly – floated by just outside the hide window. There must have been a nest nearby.

These spectacular birds are a very welcome addition to the British avifauna; as are the little egrets that are now a familiar sight in many parts of the UK. The flocks of hobbies that are now seen in the UK every spring are another example of the continually changing nature of our bird populations. It is a mistake to believe that wildlife distributions and numbers are normally static. For the wildlife lover there is a relentless diet of bad news in the media, and there’s no doubt that we are still losing some species rapidly. The difficulty is in distinguishing between natural fluctuations of bird populations and those changes, like the loss of farmland birds (and other wildlife), that are entirely down to human destruction of wildlife habitats.

* Sightings at nearby RSPB Ham Wall that day included a flock of eight cranes flying over, and two returning.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click Follow

I’m not a botanist but…… (part two)

Lady’s slipper orchid

In Part One I described the background to my hunt for the lady’s slipper orchid, but some detailed research was required for its actual location. A “re-introduced” plant at Gait Barrows would be fine but when would they be flowering? One local naturalist told me via email that, despite the cold spring, they were already flowering by mid-May, and this was confirmed a few days later by someone at Natural England ; not on the limestone pavement itself but “at the bottom of the field with the bird’s-eye primroses”. This sounded promising!

It was a five-hour drive to the camp site at Silverdale where we had booked a three-night stay. We spent the first morning at the nearby Leighton Moss RSPB reserve, and then headed off to Gait Barrows. We were a fair way into the NNR on a public footpath when we came across some birds-eye primroses on the other side of a fence. Entering the enclosure I followed a path as far it went without finding anything. I began to search a little harder and found four rosettes of orchid leaves bursting through the leaf litter but which species they were I had no idea.

Birds eye primroses

The primroses are a delight in themselves and I began to photograph them. Then I heard voices. Jane had been resting nearby and was now talking to another visitor. They came over and found me lying on the ground lining up the primroses. Had we come to see the orchids? You bet! I retraced my steps with him and there they were ……….. one clump withered and brown and another with two flowers in perfect condition. I think you will agree they are extraordinary; I don’t know how I could have missed them! On closer examination you could see that each plant and each stem was surrounded by copper rings, presumably to deter slugs. It was a straightforward task to photograph them and I then returned to the bird’s eye primroses.

The orchid enthusiast also mentioned fly orchids and I was keen to see that species as well. Following his instructions the next day I found myself on a grass verge beside a main road a few miles away. There could not be more of a contrast between two related species than between the fly and the lady’s slipper. One is showy and exotic and the other subtle and understated – but no less exquisite for that.

Fly orchid

Photographing the fly orchids proved much more difficult than I expected. In his book “The Orchid Hunter” Leif Bersweden says of them –

“[Fly orchids are] ……. true masters of stealth and camouflage. They appear slowly and softly, shifting in and out of focus. …….. You’ll see one three meters away yet remain unaware that one has crept right up to your knee. Over the years I’ve realised that looking for fly orchids is a futile activity; their ability to vanish right in front of your eyes is unprecedented.”

Several plants were already marked by sticks but I found an unmarked one, and mentally noted its location before I went to fetch my camera bag. On my return it was impossible to re-locate it. When I tried to photograph one of the marked plants, my lens refused to auto-focus, I worried about cars going past, about my van parked across the road in the quarry entrance next to the “No Parking” sign, and if I was crushing unseen plants in my attempt to get down to fly orchid level in the vegetation. All very frustrating but it was eventually “job done”.

Later I returned to Gait Barrows to see if I could find the lady’s slipper on the limestone pavement where they were originally planted. Most naturalists are happy to help and I asked several for directions, but with no joy. Either they weren’t interested in orchids or I was told variously that “they had all died or been picked”, “they have all been re-located”, “they are still in leaf”, and “the new warden isn’t watering them, so they’re late flowering” . But with photographs of the lady’s slipper already in the can I could relax; and it was a bonus to see a stunning little butterfly called the Duke of Burgundy in a clearing on the reserve specially created for them.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click the Follow button