Taking your chances….

I recently heard about a very approachable otter not far from here. I assumed it was a one-off but later discovered it had already been attracting wildlife watchers and photographers for several weeks. Better late than never, of course, but my first visit offered two brief, unsatisfactory views and a few unusable photographs. I was more lucky on my second visit. I first noticed the otter mid-river; it then proceeded to hunt downstream towards me in the seaweed along the edge of the channel. It very quickly came up with an eel, brought it onshore and proceeded to crunch it down. It then resumed its hunt, moving back upstream in a similar manner. I quickly realised that if I could position myself beyond it, and my luck held, it would gradually get closer. And so it did! I was particularly fortunate in that there was no-one else around, so no there was jockeying for position or complaints that I might be too close.

I lay flat on my belly on the riverbank, the otter oblivious to my presence. I repeatedly reduced the focal length of my zoom lens as it got closer. At a certain point it stared directly at me at close range without really registering what I might be. After twenty minutes with this lovely animal I realised it was finally heading downstream. Meanwhile quite a crowd had built up on the bridge: the otter and I had had quite an audience! Back on dry land I felt like I was floating on air: one photographer friend said she thought I was in shock!

I hasten to add that I had already put plenty of hours in but when an opportunity like this presents itself you just have to grasp it with both hands and take it………..

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A visit to the Rheidol gorge and some thoughts on the quality of light.

The Rheidol Gorge, between Devils Bridge and Ponterwyd.

One day last week dawned clear, mild and still and after a slow-ish start I set out on my electric bike for Devil’s Bridge – about ten miles on mountain roads from my home. I was glad to have the compact, lightweight micro four-thirds Olympus kit with me rather than the full Canon system which I sold late last year; and of course it was impossible to carry a tripod.

I had a location in mind overlooking the Rheidol Gorge which would be at its best at about mid-morning; at this time of day the sun would be at right-angles to my line of sight and my polarising filter would be most effective. I wouldn’t shoot landscapes at this time of day in the spring/summer because the sun would be too high in the sky. But by October the sun is already much lower and will still produce modelling and contours on the land.

It is surprising how much distance you can cover on an electric bike and it only took me about 40 minutes to cover the first 8/9 miles. There may have been low-lying fog around earlier in the day but by the time I arrived it had all burned off. (Yes, I know, I should have got up earlier……!) The light was still excellent and the autumn vegetation was spectacularly colourful. I climbed up a steep hillside to the east of the gorge and took in the view…… .

Rheidol panorama

Cloud was steadily developing but clear sun still illuminated most of the landscape; the only exception being the steep north-west facing walls of the gorge, which remained in deep, velvety shadow. I took a series of three images from left to right with the intention of creating a panorama in post-processing (see above). However as time passed and the cloud continued to develop I realised the quality of the light was changing. The cloud layer was creating more and more diffused light which had the effect of opening up the deep shadows in the gorge. I think the difference can be seen by comparing the panorama and the main image; the latter taken about 30 minutes after the former. I had always known in an intellectual sense that a mix of diffuse and direct sunlight really was the landscape photographer’s best friend. But I had never before noticed the change occurring in real time. So this was quite a revelation for me.

Well, more time passed and cloud cover became one hundred per cent. Diffused lighting like this are ideal for woodland and waterfall photography. And where better to try this than lower down the gorge below Devils Bridge (Pontarfynach), just a couple of miles away. Here a tributary (the Mynach) drops almost vertically for 100 metres into the Rheidol. Any direct sunlight here would create completely unacceptable extremes of contrast.

Bridge over the Mynach ( 1/4 sec @ f5.6; 20mm)

The path down to the attractive little bridge below the falls is steep and includes a long, narrow, and almost vertical descent down concrete steps. An equally challenging climb up the other side follows. There is barely room to swing a kitten, let alone carry and set up a tripod. Here my Olympus kit really came into its own. I have had some issues with the Olympus system but where it really excels is in its image stabilisation abilities. Given the right technique it is possible to take perfectly sharp two second long exposures handheld.

A section of the Devil’s Bridge waterfall. (1/3 sec @f11; 100mm)

I didn’t need exposures this long but took a series of handheld images at up to 1/3 second and focal lengths as long as 100 mm (200 mm full frame equivalent). My EM1 Mk2 / 12 – 100 f4 zoom combination coped perfectly. It felt at times as if I were walking through a Chinese landscape painting but I’m not sure if any of my photographs really expressed that quality successfully. So I may try again before too long and hope that I can catch the autumn colours before it is too late.

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Steel yourself for this…………

For a while I have been itching to get down and dirty with some industrial landscapes. I toyed with the idea of a trip down to the south-west of England to photograph the “Cornish Alps” – the china-clay tips and quarries around St Austell, and I still may do that before too long. But then the memory gradually came back to me that there was still an area of heavy industry right here in Wales which may well now be unmatched for visual impact in the whole of the UK. Most evidence of heavy industry in Wales has been tidied way, all of the collieries and most of the steel works closed and demolished. But despite periodic threats of closure,  what might be called the Port Talbot sacrifice zone is still in operation. 

Strangely I still have a warm feeling about the years when coal extraction and steel making were staple industries in many parts of the UK. It probably dates back to my very earliest era of picture taking which came to an end in 1968, with the demise of steam power on British railways. I still regret I never tried to photograph heavy industry in the 1980’s and 90’s in the Welsh valleys, for example, when it was still cheek-by-jowl with otherwise unspoilt countryside. I did visit Port Talbot to photograph the steel works in the mid-1990’s and well remember a very unpleasant encounter with a security guard on the beach – which I hadn’t realised was actually owned by British Steel.  On another visit about ten years ago I had a frightening encounter on a car park, which turned out to be a dogging venue, at night, in my camper van,  So that was two reasons why, photographically speaking, I have never really done the place justice!

My first location was actually the promenade at nearby Aberafan, which has some bizarre life-size concrete wildlife models on it – emperor penguins and a whale. Then I made my way to the south end of the steel works site where a public footpath runs down a track through fields to the beach – all now owned by Tata Steel. Having arrived at the foreshore I stood very prominently there for ten minutes and pointed my camera at things to make sure I could be seen by security if present.  There didn’t seem to be anyone around. I began the walk back along the public footpath but strangely there is no barrier between it and the site itself, so no disincentive at all to keep out…..  I soon found myself amongst coal conveyor belts and huge piles of coal. From somewhere came the evocative (for me) smell of burning coal. 

I pottered around with the camera for almost an hour without interruption. After a while some stubborn cloud moved away and allowed some beautiful late afternoon sunlight to illuminate some of the structures. These were just the type of images I never thought I’d have the opportunity to take, but I didn’t push my luck by intruding too far into the site. Suddenly I got a very strong feeling that my time was up and hurried back to the track. Almost immediately there was a rumble and a clatter as one of the conveyor belts started up; and a small yellow pick-up truck appeared. I had timed my exit perfectly!

The next day I climbed steeply up a hillside overlooking Port Talbot which gave me an overall view of the site beyond it. I took my tripod and full photographic kit this time which gave me a complete range of focal lengths from 24 to 800 mm (full frame equivalent).  The longer focal lengths were the most useful as I was more than a mile from the nearest edge of the extensive steel works site. The top (main) image was taken with my Olympus EM1 mk 2 and the Panasonic 100- 400 zoom set at 350 mm. In full frame terms that’s 700 mm or 14x magnification. These figures are way beyond what could have been obtained with reasonably priced equipment even ten years ago. I have examined the file closely and the quality is really pretty good even at 100%.

One thing that really puzzled me about these images was the white balance. I normally use “auto” and it’s usually fine, but as you can see the main image has a dirty pink / salmon colour cast. At first I corrected this in post-processing but that didn’t look right either. I then noticed a shorter focal length image showing some foreground foliage which looked perfectly normal. I have concluded that the centre of the site in the main picture is suffused with coloured fumes emitted by one of the processes there. You can see this contrast in the third image (@132mm equivalent). Who would live near Port Talbot? The air quality must be dreadful.

But I do think these photographs have a message for all of us. I don’t know what type of steel this plant produces but no matter how environmentally friendly a lifestyle we live, if we use a car, or a saucepan, or a fridge, or a filing cabinet, somewhere in the world a steel works like this was involved in its production.

 

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Support the Climate and Ecological Emergencies Bill (2020)!

XR action at Aberystwyth

Extinction Rebellion groups in Ceredigion, Powys and nationwide have held actions and events over the Bank Holiday weekend to revitalise the fight for action on the Climate and Ecological emergencies.

It is hardly surprising that members of public are now less willing to engage with the Climate and Ecological Emergencies than they were six months ago. They have been acutely aware of an imminent danger to their own health and that of their families, and doing whatever was necessary to prevent that happening.

At the same time the focus of government activity and the media has also shifted from the Climate and Ecological Emergencies. But that does not mean that those problems have gone away. Far from it.

Following catastrophic wildfires in Australia late last winter (with massive loss of wildlife), extreme heat and drought in the western United States has resulted in serious wildfires which are ongoing. Heatwaves have again occurred in north-west Europe, while in Siberia, temperatures were an astonishing 10 degrees centigrade above average this June. It has been estimated that as a result, an additional 59,000,000 tonnes of CO2 were emitted to the atmosphere.

You could say that governments around the world are fiddling while the planet burns.

So far in 2020, the months of February, March, April, May and July have all globally been the second-hottest on record.

On measure after measure, the results of climate change are happening sooner and more severely than has been predicted.

Carbon emissions have reduced slightly in the developed world as a result of lockdown measures, but the temptation now is for governments and industry to return to “Business as Usual”.

However the economic recession resulting from the Coronavirus lockdown is an ideal opportunity to rethink the direction that development is taking us.

Air travel, for example, has dramatically declined during lockdown and its return to its previous level should be discouraged. We need to fly less; the planet just cannot afford it. Now is the time to “Build back Better”

The Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill (2020) will shortly put before Parliament. This will :

Require the Prime Minister to ensure that the UK achieves specified objectives regarding
climate change, ecosystems and biodiversity; to give the Secretary of State a duty to draw
up and implement a strategy to achieve those objectives; to establish a Citizens’ Assembly
to work with the Secretary of State in drawing up that strategy; to give duties to the
Committee on Climate Change regarding the objectives and the strategy; and for connected purposes.

The CEE Bill, written with contributions by respected climate, energy and ecology academics, aims to bring urgent action on the climate and ecological crisis into law.

Green Party M.P. Caroline Lucas said :

The Climate Change Act was ground-breaking when it became law over 10 years ago, but it’s nowhere near ambitious enough for the scale of the crisis we face today.”

Caroline Lucas is the lead sponsor of the CEE Bill. Members of all political parties but one have put their support behind this Private Members Bill, including Ceredigion M.P. Ben Lake (Plaid Cymru). I think we can all guess which party is missing from the list of supporters: unfortunately it does hold power in Parliament at the moment.

Extinction Rebellion Aberystwyth fully supports the introduction into Parliament of the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill. We warmly and sincerely thank Ben Lake M.P. for his commitment to a greener future.

If you think your M.P. might be amenable to persuasion to support the CEE Bill, please contact him/her.

Link to for more information on the CEE Bill –

https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-crisis-extinction-rebellion-emergency-bill-parliament-law-greenpeace-a9665561.html


(This is a slightly amended version of a press release recently sent to the Cambrian News, my local newspaper.)

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In the middle of the Irish Sea (Part two)

Choughs near Aberdaron

After the excitement of the brocken spectre and then a quick breakfast I met up with Ben Porter for a birding and photography walk. Ben is a rising star in Welsh conservation circles. He was brought up from the age of 10 on Bardsey Island where his parents were the island farmers for a number of years. As such he was home educated and at a very early age became an excellent naturalist and wildlife photographer. He graduated with a Conservation Biology degree at Exeter University in 2018 and was immediately head-hunted by Alastair Driver (of Rewilding Britain), and came to work as an intern on the Summit to Sea project in Machynlleth, where we met. Following a winter spent researching rare seabirds in the Azores he is now back at the family’s permanent home on the Welsh mainland near Aberdaron, just a few miles from Bardsey Island. It is fair to say that Ben is a young man mature way beyond his years.

We decided to walk around the mainland coast opposite Bardsey Island. I had heard chough calling there from the fog the previous day; it sounded like there was a fair few birds but I had no idea how many. I well remember spending a summer night on the top of Mynydd Mawr many years ago and waking to find a flock of about thirty birds, adults with dependent young, just a few yards from the van. I had already decided that if I were to be reborn as a bird it would have to be a chough: they seem to have so much fun. But seeing the ever-open beaks of chough fledglings and hearing their incessant begging calls I decided I perhaps shouldn’t rush into this decision! After the breeding season choughs stay in family parties and come together with neighbouring families to form these quite large groups – 25 is not uncommon. But the flock of 64 birds we found that morning was exceptional and may have been the entire breeding population of the Llyn Peninsula! We eventually found a quiet spot where we could watch the birds without causing any disturbance.  Adult choughs have bright crimson beak and legs while those of recently fledged young are paler, orangey-red. One of the first things we noticed was that it was already difficult to distinguish adults from offspring in this way.



Ben was on the lookout for colour rings. In an extraordinary long-term project, over the last twenty-nine years Adrienne Stratford and Tony Cross have fitted young Welsh choughs (and some adults) with plastic leg rings in different colour combinations. A total of almost 6000 birds have been ringed so far so many individual birds can now be identified. In the main image above the top left and left front birds are carrying leg rings. The project is revealing some fascinating life histories about Welsh choughs;  for example, one female hatched from a North Anglesey nest in 2016 and was next photographed near Porthcawl in Glamorgan – over 200 km away – that November. She returned to Anglesey the following spring.  A few birds have left Wales, including about a dozen to the Isle of Man, mostly in one flock in 2004.  One stayed on there as a nesting bird, while two returned to nest on Anglesey.   Another Anglesey bird was recorded on the Lancashire coast near Heysham in 2007 and two others travelled to the Yorkshire Moors in 2019 (150 km away). The oldest known Welsh chough is a 23-year old from Ceredigion which reared three young in 2019.

When I first started photographing birds (for the book Wales at Waters Edge), I assumed it would be virtually impossible to photograph this classic bird of the Welsh coastline. But in fact the chough is one of the easier and more approachable species. After some time searching for leg rings from a distance with binoculars we decided to try to get closer for a better look. It’s called fieldcraft, I suppose, gradually approaching the birds without apparently doing so.  I’m sure they weren’t fooled, though, and the flock gradually diminished in size as we got closer – possibly family parties leaving together. But eventually we found ourselves in the close proximity of a dozen or more individuals which appeared to be totally relaxed in our presence. It was a tremendous few minutes as they went about their business in the hot sun and we photographed them as they did so. My one reservation about these images is that the sun was high in the sky resulting in the birds being top-lit, rather than my preference, side-lit. But hey-ho …..it was a magical encounter.

And all before lunch-time!

For the first part of this piece, click here.

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Many thanks to Adrienne Stratford for her help with this post.

In the middle of the Irish Sea (Part one)

Brocken spectre, Mynydd Rhiw

Well, we’ve had some interesting weather recently, haven’t we? Much as I love blue skies, white clouds and clear air, the photographer can find those conditions a bit predictable. That all changed last week when hot and humid conditions moved up from the Continent, even here in Wales.

It so happened that Jane and I had planned our first few days away together for many months, eventually plumping for Aberdaron, at the tip of the Lleyn peninsula (Penllyn) in north Wales. From the house here on a clear day we can see a line of hill-tops  – “the oylands” as a brummie once described them – extending out across Cardigan Bay and culminating in Bardsey Island ( Enlli ), the only actual island of the lot.  But by the time you reach Aberdaron, there is such a different feel to the landscape that it could almost be an island. It is so far down the ever-narrowing peninsula that it is – in effect – in the middle of the Irish Sea. And it has the weather to prove it. 

A break in the cloud from Mynydd Mawr

The journey was hot with intermittent low cloud and fog. We arrived at Mynydd Mawr, at the end of Penllyn beyond Aberdaron, just in time to see Enlli, draped in fog, through a gap in the cloud. It looked amazing.  But within thirty seconds sea fog engulfed the landscape and this wonderful vision disappeared, remaining that way for the next few hours. The fog layer had no great depth, but at 160m altitude we weren’t quite high enough to escape it. It began to get rather frustrating. I phoned Ben Porter, a friend who lives nearby, and he said he was on Mynydd Rhiw, a few miles inland and it was amazing! I should get up there asap! I drove slowly along single-track, hedge-rimmed lanes towards Rhiw in poor visibility; it felt like we were fighting a losing battle against the onset of dusk. 

However we arrived on Mynydd Rhiw just before the sun set over the Irish Sea. We were just above the cloud and a brocken spectre was just visible at the anti-solar point. Other hilltops further inland stood out, from Carn Fadryn and Yr Eifl on the peninsula, round to the great peaks of Eryri.  But they were all fading fast as the cloud layer rose steadily at every point of the compass. It seemed like  a case of “you should have been here earlier” for the second time in one day. 

Mynydd Rhiw turned out to spend a superb spot to spend the night in the camper van. I woke next morning to find the van still enveloped in cloud but a patch of blue sky soon appeared above us. This looked interesting! Grabbing a quick mug of tea, tripod and camera bag, I found a prominent position nearby where the sun – if it appeared again – would project my shadow on to cloud below. These looked perfect conditions for seeing another brocken spectre. This unusual atmospheric phenomenon has appeared in my blog before (see this post) but it is seen so rarely that one feels that one learns a little more about it every time it appears. 

An audience on Mynydd rhiw

A complete brocken spectre consists of a three-dimensional shadow extending literally from one’s feet to the anti-solar point in the cloud where one’s head appears. Around the head a tiny circular “glory” is centred, formed by reflection and refraction of light within cloud droplets. The formation of a rainbow is similar; the difference being in the size difference between raindrops and cloud droplets. To the naked eye it appears that the glory consists of the full spectrum of colours – like a rainbow – with red on the outside and violet on the inside. However, post-processing the image above has revealed that outside the “primary” ring of colours is a secondary ring – each colour band broader than the inner equivalent and the whole thing more diffuse.  I must emphasise here that this is not the result of adding anything to the image “in photoshop” or manipulating it artificially. It must be the equivalent of seeing more colour on a digital image of the aurora borealis than is possible to see with the naked eye (see this post).

Conditions favourable for a brocken spectre also favour the formation of a “fogbow” which has similar dimensions to a rainbow but which consists only of an arc of white light projected onto cloud.  In my experience a fogbow is more often seen because its radius is much greater than that of a brocken spectre but you can be sure that if the former is visible, the latter may not be far away. During the several hours we spent on Mynydd Mawr last Friday a fogbow was almost permanently visible. It is also worth noting that if you are with a companion both your shadows can be seen by both of you but only the one glory centred on one’s own head! The possibilities for philosphical speculation seem endless here!

And finally I have recently seen photographs of rainbows taken close to sunset, where the area within the arc is suffused with red / orange light. The evening brocken spectre (which I didn’t attempt to photograph) appeared to be like this too.

So it was an exciting morning on Mynydd Rhiw and alI before breakfast! 

Nine things I learned about kingfishers last week.

Kingfishers : juvenile on left, adult with worn plumage on right.

Last week I decided to throw off the lockdown shackles and broaden my recent horizons. The first part of the plan was to try to capture the Neowise Comet, which I managed to do with some success; I planned to head off immediately afterwards down to Cardigan (about 40 miles away) ready for a visit to the Teifi marshes, the following morning. So in the early hours I hit the very empty A487 and soon arrived in Cardigan. After a few hours sleep I woke and lit the stove to put a brew on.  I soon realised there was a gas leak: so no more cups of tea (or coffee….or toast…..or any hot food……) for me on this trip! 

The previous night, as I stood with my tripod in the castle grounds at Aberystwyth, a photographer friend had loomed out of the darkness. She wasn’t up for photographing the comet but was thrilled about the kingfisher photographs she’d recently taken at the Teifi Marshes. A brood of recently fledged juveniles had been brought to one of the pools by their parents to learn how to catch fish; my friend had managed to capture the three youngsters lined up on a branch just as one of the parents joined them! It looked like a very promising time to visit the Marshes. 

In flight…….

So by eight o’clock I was settling in to the mallard hide to see if anything would turn up; sure enough, within minutes a kingfisher had appeared. It perched on one of the strategically located branches directly in front of the hide. Between bursts of kingfisher activity I got chatting to another woman there, armed with a camera and long lens. She seemed to know what she was talking about, and I learned the following:

  1. A few days previously a brood of fledged juveniles kingfishers had been brought to the reserve by their parents to learn how to fish. 
  2. At least eight juvenile kingfishers had already been ringed on the reserve by the local ringing team. That would make about 17 birds in the area by now, assuming that all were still alive.
  3. Kingfishers have two broods a year.
  4. It doesn’t take long before the youngsters have their own hunting perches, which they defend against allcomers.
  5. Adult kingfishers have bright reddish orange feet; juveniles have muddy orange feet.
  6. Adult females have an orange lower mandible (the underside of the beak); males’ are dark, like the upper mandible.
  7. When kingfishers fly or drop down to catch a fish, they move very quickly! It’s virtually impossible to keep up with them at close range.
  8. The kingfisher hide on the reserve had been burnt down by vandals earlier this year. 
  9. Despite this, the kingfishers keep on coming. They don’t seem to notice the line of admirers on the path nearby……….
The remains of the Kingfisher Hide.

After a rather lengthy lull in activity I took the opportunity to stretch my legs. It was a short walk down to the site of the kingfisher hide, which was pitiful to behold. The local youth presumably find these hides handy for all sorts of activities, not many of which are related to ornithology, I suspect.  I can understand that, but why do these scumbags then find it so gratifying to burn them down? This is the second hide to have suffered the same fate, and another has been systematically vandalised to such an extent that it has had to be closed…… but I digress. By mid-morning the sun was so high and harsh that getting a decent photograph was impossible, so I took a long siesta. Having a coffee in the main street of Cardigan was a novelty after all these months!

Got one! (click to enlarge)

I was back at the kingfisher pool by late afternoon, by which time the light was perfect. Kingfishers were active from the word go and I found a spot where I could point my lens through a gap in the vegetation for a different angle on a perch used by the birds for hunting. One individual looked like one of this year’s young, and there were interesting interactions between it and other birds. One such, which I was lucky to photograph (see main pic.), appeared to be with an adult, judging by the latter’s worn plumage and partial moult. As afternoon merged into evening I enjoyed the company of other people. We agreed on how lucky we were to watch these exotic little birds at such close quarters  – living their lives in such a relaxed and unselfconscious way. They were totally unconcerned by our presence.  

By this time I had taken almost eight hundred photographs in less than twenty-four hours, got through two full batteries, and there was no prospect of any breakfast the next morning.  It was time to go home.

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X marks the spot.

X marks the spot.

A recent comment from one of my followers (Lotelta) made me realise that I haven’t taken many photographs of the immediate surroundings of my home. I have always found that – sadly – I tend not to notice my surroundings once they become familiar. So spending so much time within walking distance this year gave me the opportunity to put that right. The main image shows the house (arrowed) from the north. However, viewing it from here gives a misleading impression of its location because it is actually on a narrow ridge – one of a series running east/west, each with steep drops into valleys to both south and north. What appears to be a grassy backdrop is in fact the next ridge to the south. The house is at about 200 metres (660ft) altitude. 

We had been looking for a new house in the Aberystwyth area for some time which gave us both private space to work in as well as communal rooms, but we were fairly flexible about the location. I think we first visited Brynonnen on the only still and sunny day that January, because the feeling of spaciousness and calm which we both (I think) experienced was lovely. I can only liken it to the feeling of reaching a hill-top after a stiff climb – without the climb! There is a massive downside to the location, of course, because we get wind from almost every direction, which can be particularly tiresome. As I frequently tell people – “we get a lot of weather up here”.

The Stewi valley north of Brynonnen

The house is situated in the ‘green desert’ of mid-Wales. This does not imply a lack of rain – far from it – but rather the barren nature of the grass monoculture surrounding us. Agriculture is devoted to one product – sheep meat – and with a few exceptions it is largely a manmade landscape. Most hedgerows – if they ever existed – have been replaced by wire fencing, there are large areas of forestry at slightly higher altitudes, and there is very little wildlife in or over the fields. The one saving grace of this particular valley is its oak woodland.  It is more wooded than most in north Ceredigion,  having escaped the fate of others locally, where historically woodland was felled to provide fuel for the many lead mines in the area and/or for pit props in the first world war.

The second picture is more or less a reverse of the first. It shows the most extensive area of woodland in the vicinity, although a visit in person shows how even-aged and spindly the individual trees are – a clear sign of clear-felling and then re-growth without thinning. This reduces its wildlife value somewhat but nevertheless the wood is a fabulous landscape feature.  

Dark green fritillary

There are some areas of rough grazing nearby and this provides more interest for the wildlife watcher. One such is a gorse-covered, south-facing slope just below the house. It was here that I was able to photograph a dark green fritillary in early June, having first seen one in the garden – a most unusual sighting!

Four pairs of red kites nested this year on the north-facing valley side below the house; the site of each nest can be seen in the top picture. I have written about them in a previous post, and if there is one thing I will remember the area for when I leave it will be the red kites. Barely a day passes without being able to hear their lovely whistling calls.

The spring of 2020 was warm and sunny. In most years by early June the Welsh landscape is more or less one shade of green. and the landscape photographer can more or less put their camera away. The second photograph (above), taken on June 5th, shows that the bracken and oak trees have reached that stage whereas the grassland, with its shorter roots, is suffering from a lack of moisture. There was talk of a drought.  At this point the weather changed and the remainder of June has been largely cool and changeable, with plenty of cloud and copious amounts of rainfall.  The landscape can now be summed up in one word – green. 

I’ve been lucky to be present during two exceptions to the monotony of the last few weeks. During the weather breakdown there were brilliant blue skies one afternoon and slow-moving thundery showers; ideal conditions for a rainbow, and I was able to photograph one from the field behind the house. 

The other occurred early one morning. I happened to glance out of the bathroom window while visiting the toilet and saw some wisps of low-level fog floating up the valley from the sea before dispersing. Hurriedly dressing and grabbing my gear, I spent half an hour on the ridge top before returning to bed. This picture is looking inland, down and across the valley to the south of the house. 

The Silo valley, south of Brynonnen

We get tremdous sunsets throughout the year but again, speaking as a photographer, there is no substitute for a good foreground at sunset. The following was one of the best sunsets I have ever seen, and the tiny tree on the skyline is a crucial part of the image, giving a sense of scale to its surroundings.

Winter sunset from the ridge.

So despite the fabulous location of the house, photographically speaking there is no substitute for good light, colourful vegetation, and/or interesting skies. And they don’t happen too often. 

 

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Another lockdown bonus.

Broad-bodied chaser, libellula depressa, showing the exuvia from which it emerged. (ISO 200, 1/50th second, f16, 280 mm (560mm equivalent))

As well as exploring locally on foot and by bicycle I’ve been spending a lot more time in the garden this spring. Boy, did it need some attention! It’s not looked so good for years as it does now. The one part of the garden I hesitated to tackle was the pond. It had been looking sadder and more unkempt with every week that passed, and the water level was dropping steadily in the warm sun, No toad or frog had left its spawn there for several years, and I began to doubt that any life could survive in it at all. Then last Friday I took the plunge (not literally) and with a stick began to remove the thick green algal slime that was proliferating over the water surface.

I carefully examined any vegetation that I removed for signs of life. Mmmm…. what was that?…… a small newt, which I left to return to the water. Then a black, vaguely beetle-like creature which had its own crop of short green wisps attached to its body like a teenager’s first attempt at facial hair; then some more. I collected a few up in a jam jar and easily identified them as dragonfly nymphs. They couldn’t be described as attractive in any way but did seem to have the instinct to survive. This was much better! I returned them to the pond and realised they were actually quite numerous, and all in the surface layer of slime.

Next morning we were sitting by the pond in the sun drinking coffee when I noticed one of these miniature monsters attempting to climb up the pond liner on the opposite bank. It struggled to get a grip and fell back several times. I collected up some sticks and poked them into the slime to help it out. Slowly it dawned on me that there were actually quite a few of them and some were already in the process of emerging. By mid-afternoon some sparkling and immaculate adult insects were sunning themselves around the pond. I grabbed my kit and experimented with both lenses, the 12 – 100 and 100 – 400 zooms. I got some decent results with the long zoom but really they were just snaps.

The following morning was sunny again and it was clear that a full scale emergence was in progress. I took the whole process more seriously this time, using tripod and polarising filter,and taking plenty of time over it. I used a chunk of dry moss to cover the pond liner where it formed the background, and experimented with various ISO’s, shutter speeds, focal lengths and apertures.   The main image above shows what excellent results the EM1.2 / Panasonic 100 – 400 zoom is capable of achieving. So this is the showcase image, but having watched and photographed several of these wonderful creatures in the process of emerging I realised I also had an rough and ready sequence of some of the stages they go though. While they may not be up to the mark technically  I’m including these as well. (The upper insect is also in the main pic : 11.54 hrs).

10.24 hrs
10.27hrs
10.41 hrs
10.57 hrs
11.20 hrs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can remember seeing the beautiful blue adult male broad-bodied chasers around the pond but it was two or three years ago. There must have been a female as well, and the eggs that she laid hatched into the larvae which emerged last weekend. Sunday, of course, was the last warm sunny day so it must be hoped that at least a few of “our” dragonflies will survive long enough to reproduce. 

I can honestly say that this was the most exciting and satisying wildlife experience I have had for years. Of course it’s great to travel abroad and see brilliant wildlife in new settings but the knowledge that you have helped to increase biodiversity in your own back yard is something else altogether. 

 

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Postscript: the emergence is still in progress. I have just counted eight fresh insects around the pond but several do not appear to have expanded their wings fully. It doesn’t look like they will survive. Maybe they need the warmth of full sunlight to emerge successfully?

Homing in.

First of all let me say that I am a very lucky man. I live out in the Welsh countryside, with long views in every direction from the house. The valley to the north is stunningly beautiful, with several stretches of remnant oak woodland, just coming into leaf right now, on its sides. I can take any one of a wide variety of walks direct from my front door, on public footpaths, bridleways or minor roads.  I can use my electric bike to get me a bit further afield and to help iron out the many steep hills in the vicinity.  I have no money worries: my pension payment comes in, regular as clockwork, every four weeks.

This is, of course, a far cry from the experience of those people now confined to rooms and apartments in towns and cities throughout the world. Or delivering food to our shops and supermarkets, driving buses or trains, collecting rubbish and re-cycling, delivering mail, or risking their own lives daily in care homes and hospitals. My heart particularly goes out to those brave and committed men and women saving other people’s lives on the front line, in some cases to the extent of losing their own.

Red kites : attempted talon grappling

When it became clear that I was going to be confined to base for a considerable length of time, I made it my aim to get to know my immediate surroundings as best I could. After a relentless diet of rain and wind over the winter the start of the lockdown coincided with a change to much sunnier conditions. I started to walk some of the local footpaths, and listened out for bird song in the nearby woodlands. Late March is also good time of year to search out woodpeckers while they are still drumming to advertise their territories.   At one time many years ago I thought I could distinguish the drumming of lesser spotted woodpecker from its much more common relative, the greater spotted; but with the former being so uncommon now my memory had become rather rusty. I managed to almost convince myself that I had found a lesser spotted just a few minutes walk from the house. So I spent some time quietly visiting a couple of local woodlands listening for its call – which would conclusively identify it – without success. But what I did find, without really trying, were two red kite nests. In fact it was partly as a result of the kites that I felt I had to give up searching for woodpeckers. By April 7th both pairs were obviously incubating and I just couldn’t continue without disturbing them.

Of course red kites are nowhere near as rare as they used to be. I well remember seeing my first red kite soon after moving to mid-Wales in 1977. I had cycled up a remote valley not far from here and took a photograph (yes, even then) of a bird I assumed was a buzzard. It wasn’t until I got the prints back from Boots (or was it Max Spielmann?) that I saw the forked tail. In fact the valley below this house seems to be a bit of a hotspot for red kites. There is a communal roost in one of the woodlands – I’ve seen fifty birds there at dusk in winter. For much of the year there are birds floating around enjoying the breeze. One of my neighbours – a lady in her eighties – sometimes puts scraps of meat our for them in the field the other side of her garden fence. We are only about five miles from one of the well-known kite feeding stations (Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian) so I suspect some individual birds associate the appearance of people with the arrival of food. At least one  perches on an electric pole at the back of her house and calls in the hope that she will feed it.

On bright days in late winter and early spring the larger birds of prey (kites and buzzards) are very prominent in the air, displaying and socialising with each other.  One recent evening I looked out of the bathroom window to see two kites grab each other’s talons and freefall together, whirling round and round, before releasing and flying away. But then, round about the second week in April, clutches are completed, incubation starts and it normally goes very quiet. You wonder where all the raptors have suddenly gone. But a loose grouping of kites (up to eight together) soared, chased and displayed over the field at the back of the house throughout last week, sometimes joined by buzzards. They seem to like each other’s company.

Probably because they are such a familiar feature of our landscape here in mid-Wales, I have hardly ever tried to photograph red kites. During work on my “Bird/land” exhibition I visited Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian several times but ended up focussing my attention on carrion crows (see this post)! But in my current enforced state of immobility it seemed like a good time to put right this failing; that and a realisation that they are, actually, incredibly beautiful creatures……

So I took my new(ish) Olympus/Panasonic m4/3 kit out “into the field”  – the field at the bottom of our garden, that is. It was actually quite frustrating to have to exit the house via the front door, walk fifteen yards along the road, then open a gate and go through it……how lazy we can get! I began to explore the camera’s various settings and autofocus modes. It has SO many…….far too many for a technophobe like me, to be honest, but by chance or otherwise I have managed some good results.  One particular afternoon the harsh sun was tempered by a veil of high cloud; bright diffused light is perfect for bird photography, and it so happened that my next-door neighbour had just put some scraps of meat out for them! It was an ideal opportunity.

For a red kite I’d guess that grasping another bird’s talons and cartwheeling towards the ground together is just about the ultimate in sociability and the mastery of flight. For me capturing the act would be the pinnacle in red kite photography; but now the peak in pre-breeding season activity has passed, I wonder if it will now have to wait until next year?

 

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