A small country does very well indeed.

What a brilliant game on Saturday! Wales needed an 8 point win but hammered England by 30 points to 3. Even a non-expert like me could see that England were completely outplayed, especially in the second half. It was truly awe-inspiring, even on a tiny TV, to watch these great man-mountains knocking the hell out of each other for eighty minutes. I think I heard somewhere that the game of rugby union was designed so that no matter what the players’ physical attributes,  there was a role for them.  That may not be the case so much these days where you need to be both fast and huge to be successful! Needless to say there would never have been a place for me on a rugby pitch, though, unless it was to bring on the refreshments. Playing frisbee on the beach has been the pinnacle of my achievement in the world of sport.

IMG_0107I moved to Wales in 1978 and gradually became interested in rugby union during the 1990’s. Football seemed to have become a cross-fertilisation of religion and big business, played by overpaid prima donnas, and watched by idiots. The beautiful game? Surely they must have meant cricket? As my interest in rugby grew I felt Welsh in my heart but in my head I could still find some support for England. Now I can fully and justifiably count myself as Welsh; the sound of the Welsh National Anthem being sung by a crowd of 70,00 supporters brings tears to my eyes. It had always been one of my greatest desires to see a game at the Millennium Stadium before I died, and I was able to do so last summer when Wales played the Barbarians. Not being a full international it was a bit of a damp squib, though; more of a family affair with many hardcore Welsh supporters probably not even there, and the ground only half full. And most of the action seemed to be about a quarter of a mile away in the far corner of the pitch! So I resolved to stick to the TV.

Not that I fully understand the game, mind you. For long periods it seems to involve endless brawling, punctuated – if you are lucky – by brief moments of intense excitement as a player breaks away towards the try line. At other times it seems like Mornington Crescent, one round in the radio panel game “I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue”, where the players actually DO make up the rules as they go along. But what impresses me over and over again is that those men on that pitch are not like you and me.

I mentioned earlier that football supporters were idiots. That is, of course, a gross generalisation, and what I should have said was that some of them were idiots.  Drunken behaviour, violence and the potential for violence at football matches was a real turn off for me, as was the link between football and right-wing politics.  I began to realise how different the atmosphere at a rugby union match was, even though in my youth I had been pretty dismissive of the “rugger buggers” at university. Crowds seem good-humoured (even if still drunk), and the players largely respectful of the referee’s decisions. I loved it that the referees in some big competitions were sponsored by Specsavers. And the ball is not even round….nowhere near! It seemed perfectly safe for children and women to attend big rugby matches and the two teams’ supporters were not kept in separate cages. The atmosphere in Cardiff city centre on a big match day is, in my experience, one of drunkenness and fun  – not nationalism and hatred. An opportunity for both teams supporters to let their hair down, and a great opportunity for the photographer!

Wales is a small country, and it doesn’t really excel at many things. So it means a lot to the Welsh when their rugby team does well. You can be sure that last Saturday evening, at the final whistle, three million Welsh men, women and children felt part of that team.

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What………..me, guv? (Part 2)

Kingfisher, south Wales
Kingfisher, south Wales

On Saturday morning I dragged myself away from the computer and drove down to south Wales. Arriving at the car park about lunch time I found three minibuses and a couple of dozen cars. This was not a good start. Groups of men dressed in wetsuits and flotation gear were milling around.
 
On enquiring if it was an organised event or activity, I was told that a number of individuals and groups were going gorge walking or canyoneering. My heart really sank! Plans for an afternoon of quiet enjoyment and photography by the river seemed to have hit a brick wall. In the event it appeared that they had  finished their activities for the day, as no-one seemed to be using the river during the afternoon. Birds were noticeable by their absence, however.
 
After a very cold night in the camper (ice inside on the windows…..) I made an early start on Sunday morning and walked across the footbridge to the falls. At least two pairs of dippers were present, making territorial flights along the river. I believe both they and grey wagtails nest alongside the falls, judging by their behaviour on this visit and previous ones.  Very soon I had my back against a tree by the river to wait for dippers. Almost immediately a commotion of calling came from the opposite bank; a kingfisher darted out, flying away fast and low up and over the falls. Then a second bird appeared, perching on a low twig just opposite me, about twenty yards away, if that. Sitting quietly, waiting and observing, is often recommended for watching wildlife, but I had only just arrived! This was pure magic. The bird dropped down into the shallows to grab a tiny fish, which it ate after returning to its twig. I was able to quietly pull out my 7D/long lens combination and set it up on the tripod without causing any disturbance at all.

At this time of year the presence of a pair suggests that a breeding attempt is imminent. But what surprised me more was that kingfishers were there at all. I had always thought they and dippers would be mutually exclusive on account of their different habitat requirements. The bird returned to its perch a short while later and caught another fish, bigger this time, which it took downstream.

I had hoped to be able to photograph dippers here because on previous visits the birds had been quite approachable. I even have a picture of the falls taken with a wide angle lens on which there is also a tiny dipper. It appears on one of my postcards! As it turned out they were rather flighty on this occasion and I felt it would be better to come back later in the year to have another go.

As for the kingfishers, what a bonus!  I have been studying Michael Warren’s bird paintings recently. The landscapes which the birds inhabit are given equal prominence in his work in a very surreal style which is almost psychedelic. They are “in focus” from the nearest foreground detail to the most distant horizon, despite high levels of magnification. The photographer will never be able to reproduce his vision succesfully. The optical limitations inherent in our gear are just too great. But when I photograph birds I  try to include their surroundings as part of the image: it’s part of my background as a landscape photographer. So while my picture of the kingfisher won’t win any prizes it is better than I can ever have hoped for.

Canyoneering
Canyoneering

By late morning the first group of four gorge walkers appeared. They jumped down the falls, swam in the pool below, took photographs of each other, and crawled along the ledge behind the torrent – a typical dipper nesting site. They must have spent about 15 minutes doing this, then carried on downstream, crawling, swimming and jumping.  I spoke to them before they left  and found they were polite and reasonable people, expressing concerns about the environment. Not the type to deliberately put wildlife at risk at all. But when I mentioned kingfishers being a schedule 1 species they looked blank. They also said that in summer the valley was “mad” with canyoneers. 

I cannot help but believe this kind of activity is likely to have deleterious effects on the nesting birds of the river. I do not believe that river birds will be able to tolerate such a level of disturbance in THEIR habitat. Small numbers of people might be acceptable but if the numbers present on Saturday lunchtime are any indication of the levels of activity in spring and summer , I fear it is only a matter of time before desertions take place. 
Canyoneering is “fun” for the more adventurous amongst us, I’m sure, but it has become rapidly more popular in the last few years, and it seems to have done so beneath the radar of the authorities responsible for wildlife protection. I understand that the National Park is working on a code of conduct for gorge walking in this valley. In my opinion this cannot come soon enough, and that there should be a closed season while birds are nesting. The dipper can have a very early breeding season so March 1st might be a suitable cut off point. In the meantime if kingfishers are found to be nesting on the river then a complete ban should be placed on gorge walking there this year.
 
I have brought this matter to the attention of the National Park authorities; and as it is sure to be an problem elsewhere in Wales (and the UK) have also informed the RSPB.

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What…………me, guv? (Part 1)

Recently I’ve been struck by the selfish attitudes of some members of the public when it comes to the disturbance of wildlife. Birders and bird photographers are constantly reminded that the welfare of their subject matter always comes first, and, I think, in general, they take heed. But an idiot with a camera – that is a different matter altogether

One evening last week I was down at Aberystwyth, hoping to photograph the starling displays. It became more and more apparent that they were not going in to roost as normal. Or if they did, they didn’t stay very long. Large groups of birds were flying around offshore, very low over the water. I had noticed someone creeping along the beach and I wondered if s/he was still there. In the gloom I could see a dark figure under the pier, with camera to eye. I eventually realised that I was going to have to go down and ask him to leave.

It was not the young tearaway I was expecting, but a rather elderly man armed with what looked like a Pentax bridge camera. Not a specialist then. I told him that the first rule in bird photography was not to disturb one’s subject matter, and the second was that it was far too dark anyway!. His reply was classic – “But my camera can see in the dark.” No matter what argument I used, he was not going to budge. He just didn’t give a damn. I made my way back up to the Promenade. A small group of what I would describe as “heavy duty birders” had been watching, so I asked if they would like to assist me in removing the man from the premises. They declined..

Ironically, had the sun not already disappeared behind a bank of thick cloud, it would have been an excellent opportunity to photograph these very mobile flocks – from a respectable distance – against a fiery evening sky. Us regulars often bemoan the fact that once the birds have gone in under the pier, that’s it for the evening. We long for a peregrine to come along and create a little panic. But we would never be the cause of the disturbance ourselves.

Eventually, the little nuisance decided enough was enough, and climbed back up to the prom; the starlings began to return to their roost. I met him at the top of the steps, and began a short conversation, with the birds’ welfare at the heart of it. “But I’m not a bird-watcher, I’m a PHOTOGRAPHER…..” he told me, as if that justified his stance. Then….“I wasn’t photographing the birds, I was photographing the chaos.” Some interesting logic, I think you’ll agree, in the latter statement.

In recent years it has usually been at the beginning of March, just prior to leaving for their breeding grounds, when the starlings have put on their most stunning displays. This year? Virtually nothing – the birds tumbling like falling leaves, as one onlooker described it, down into the metal framework under the pier, almost as soon as they arrive.

Still, there’s always tonight. We live in hope.

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