Hawfinches in a Welsh churchyard

Hawfinch on yew.
Hawfinch on yew.

On a Friday afternoon recently I was on my way to a 5 p.m. appointment with a customer when I encountered a traffic hold-up in a mid-Wales town.  I soon realised there was no chance of making the appointment so I phoned up to re-arrange it. It took 55 minutes altogether to get through the bottleneck (a set of three-way traffic lights at some roadworks already abandoned for the weekend!) so I had plenty of opportunity to reassess the rest of my day. Would the evening be an opportunity for some landscape photography as I had originally planned? And, if so, where …….. ?

Another interesting possibility suddenly entered my consciousness. Some ten years ago I had been told that hawfinches could be seen at a particular churchyard during June. It wasn’t that far away! It might be worth a shot. Half an hour later I was there.

At first the churchyard was ominously quiet. Then a stocky bird flew behind a yew tree and disappeared. Hmmmm…..what was that? Before long a series of these apparently random bird movements began to build into a picture. And then a hawfinch perched for a few seconds on top of one of the yews. The churchyard was heaving with them! Well, I’m exaggerating, but these birds are so rarely seen, let alone photographed, and I felt that with patience I might have a chance to do the latter. Long after the sun had vanished behind cloud a hawfinch perched right out in the open on a gravestone.

The next morning one was present when I arrived about 7.30 a.m.; it flew immediately, landing briefly in a cherry tree (where I photographed it) before joining a group of others a few hundred yards away. It was to be my last opportunity for several hours. I searched for a position where I could observe as many of the yew trees as possible, eventually settling (literally) on a tomb by the main door of the church. Single hawfinches came and went, disappearing low into the yews, or dropping in from the top. A bird would fly behind a yew and not reappear from the other side. Birds flew behind the church. They flew into a sparsely-leaved holly tree and disappeared. It was as if they were wearing an invisibility cloak. On the odd occasion when a bird did perch out in the open it was silhouetted against an excessively bright sky. The sun was still behind the dark foliage of the yew trees so metering was difficult and a correct exposure virtually impossible. I tried to estimate an optimum exposure and use manual metering but that didn’t help. It wasn’t going too well.

More of the same followed during the afternoon. At one point a party of four (presumably a family) appeared from nowhere, flew a few yards above my head and went who knows where. I did manage to identify their redwing- or robin- like song/call but these were so high-pitched as to be almost “not there”. Enigmatic really is the best adjective to describe the hawfinch. To pass the time between their visits I photographed other species – house sparrow and jackdaw – images which, apart from their lack of rarity value, I prefer to those of the hawfinches that I did eventually manage.

Meanwhile passers by came and went. I felt rather self-conscious with my paparazzi-style lens. One young woman asked me what I was doing and I told her I was trying to photograph some unusual birds. What birds were they? “Hawfinches” I said. “Are they like magpies?” she asked….. Later she walked through without speaking and I got the feeling she had decided that the strange man lurking around the churchyard was up to no good. If you had a suspicious mind, read the wrong sort of newspaper, and knew nothing about birds, it would be easy to believe I was taking the ****. Hawfinches indeed……..

As the hours passed the sun gradually swung around to the west and sank lower in the sky. The light was getting better! There was a flurry of hawfinch activity during the evening and I managed the most successful images of the day. Phew! It had been worth the wait!

Welcome to Pembrokeshire

Tenby from St. Catherine's Island
Tenby from St. Catherine’s Island

This recent fine spell of weather has seen me rushing from one corner of Wales to another. The south-east for peregrines (see previous post), the north west for more peregrines , and earlier this week the south west. I ended up feeling like a headless chicken with the law of diminishing returns becoming more and more operative!

My last trip was to Tenby. I am about to put in my summer order for postcards and was hoping to include one new design of the town, surely one of the loveliest in Britain. After many years of inaccessibility the island of St. Catherines (just off Tenby)  is now open to visitors, and I guessed that it would provide a novel viewpoint. Looking at the OS map and consulting the local tide tables suggested that late afternoon on Tuesday would be the ideal time to visit. It would be low tide, ensuring that the widest expanse of sandy beach would be uncovered. My angle of vision across to Tenby would be exactly at right-angles to the sun’s rays, such that a polarising filter would be at its most effective. And the weather! Perfect!

I handed over my £3.50 and climbed the steps up to the island. A “tour guide” said it would be absolutely fine to do some photography while I waited for him to return with his next group. I scrambled up a low rocky slope to get a better viewpoint and set up my tripod. I had taken just one image when I heard a voice bellowing at me. “Oi….what are you doing up there?…this is absolutely ridiculous….get down from there immediately….what if you fell down the cliff?….. what if someone followed you and fell down the cliff?…..what if a child fell down the cliff?….. what if someone on the mainland sees you and reports it to the Council? It went on and on. He slowly calmed down and told me that he was the new owner and I could be putting at risk his £2 million investment. I apologised for not noticing the “keep to the path” signs and inadvertently finding myself beyond the railings (I suppose you don’t see what you don’t want to see…..), and returned to the beach. As far as the owner is concerned, I last saw him up to his knees in seawater, apparently berating an angler who had clambered across the rocks at the base of “his island”. I fear a heart attack awaits him…….

The following day, after some early morning photography around Tenby in sparkling conditions yet again, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. The sun quickly rises too high for landscape photography in mid-summer, and you don’t get much closer to mid-summer than this. But cloud was developing and spreading and I decide to head for the Elegug Stacks (Stack Rocks) on the Castlemartin peninsula, about 15 miles away. These conditions (cloudy but bright) would be ideal for photographing the seabird colony there. About a mile short of my destination, however, signs told me that the road was closed. Live firing was taking place on the Castlemartin tank ranges. The Stacks would be inaccessible until 5pm, and possibly later. Curses……

As I turned back I remembered that the Bosherston Lily Ponds, owned by the National Trust, were only a few miles away. Perhaps they would be worth a visit? While I am a supporter in various ways of several conservation organisations, I’m afraid to say that the National Trust is not among them. Suffice to say that I believe their car park charges for non-members are extortionate. The National Trust car-parks around Bosherston all charge £5 per vehicle, but I knew an unofficial one, probably mainly used by local people, which was free of charge, so I headed for it. It was too late. It now cost £5 to park there as well, even on the unmade approach road. I wonder how locals feel when suddenly they are required to fork out a significant sum of money when they bring the dog down for a walk, for example? The National Trust owns SO many of our treasured landscapes, especially around the coast. Many are inaccessible except by car and unless you are a member you have to pay through the nose to visit them. So much for holding land “on behalf of the nation……..”

Anyway, I digress. I parked nearby on the grass verge of a public road and walked a short distance down to the nearest pool. Here I discovered that, inadvertently or otherwise, the original owners of the estate had created a “mirror pool” similar to those built by bird photographers to take images of birds and their reflections. By dropping down a few feet below the dam I could get the water surface very close to eye level. I set up my long lens on the tripod and began photographing the dancing clouds of blue damselflies which were egg-laying into submerged vegetation in the pool. It was a gorgeous sight, albeit set to a soundtrack of explosions and machine gun fire from the Range a couple of miles away.

Postscript: The one image I did manage on St Catherine’s (see above)  is fine for a postcard. While things did not turn out as I hoped, the planning I did for this shot was enough to ensure success. Even with more time I doubt I could have done better.

First flight


Peregrines at the eyrie - south Wales
Peregrines at the eyrie – south Wales


Earlier this week I whizzed down to south Wales in the hope of photographing peregrines at their nest site on a limestone cliff-face. It did not take me long to find another photographer with long lens and tripod and I knew I had come to the right place. He told me that the peregrine “chick” was about to leave the nest. It had been jumping around on the ledge and flapping its wings powerfully. Had I arrived just in time?

Over the next few hours a real drama unfolded. This was Springwatch in real time! The “chick” did indeed appear to be ready to go. Its parents were using various tactics to entice it off the ledge. An adult brought food in but instead of taking it to the youngster circled in front of the cliff-face with it. Food was brought to a ledge a few yards from the youngster and the parent stood there with it. The whole cliff-face was raucous with the sounds of peregrines calling.

After a while the latter tactic succeeded. The youngster scrambled and flapped its way to its parent where it was given a few scraps of meat. The adult flew off. The chick was then left with the dilemma of what to do next. “I’ll scream and flap” it must have thought – because that is what it did. There was some concern among the assembled throng – now numbering four birders with long lenses – that it would fly before it was ready and tumble into the river below. One had been rescued from the mud a few years ago. But the cliff was perhaps not quite as sheer as it seemed because the youngster flapped and tumbled a few more ledges downwards until it was perhaps twelve feet below its nest.

It eventually found what appeared to be a pinnacle almost surrounded by sheer drops. There was surely no going back now…… It flapped and lurched. Almost! This was the biggest moment in its short life but one could almost imagine what it was going through. More flapping and another lurch or two.

Then it was away. It swept confidently down over the river then up and back to an oak tree on the cliff-top. It landed tidily – no crash-landing for me, thank you very much! – and stayed there. Meanwhile the parents had taken separate stances on the cliff and appeared very relaxed. Doing what peregrines do so well most of the time – nothing. There will still be plenty for them to do, of course; the youngster will be unable to catch its own prey for weeks and will need further lessons from mum and dad on how to go about it. But by the time I left about 9pm that was still the state of play.

It was a case of excellent timing (for once!) on my part and a thrilling chance to watch what can normally only be seen on television. The photograph – showing both adults, with the stunningly handsome male on the left – illustrates what excellent results the new Tamron 150-600 “superzoom” is capable of. I may have bought one of the early batch of this lens which needs a return to the importers for a “fix” before it can operate to its fullest potential. Nevertheless I consider myself very lucky to have got one when they were (and still are) in such short supply. It has brought my bird photography up to a new level.

What a little hero!

Arctic tern - the Skerries
Arctic tern – the Skerries

There’s no doubt about it – terns are among my favourite birds. In Wales, the place to be for the tern-watcher is the Isle of Anglesey, and it was here that I headed late last week. There are a number of colonies on the island, and – with the exception of the little tern – all the British species can, with good fortune, be found there.  Common terns are present near Menai Bridge, and they are a delightful sight above the sheltered waters of the Straits between the two bridges. There a number of mixed colonies elsewhere. Perhaps the most well-known is at Cemlyn, on the north coast, where sandwich tern is in the majority together with common and arctics. This is also an ancestral breeding site of the very rare roseate tern, and very occasional birds may still be seen there, including – to my delight – last Friday, when I visited.   Not that I would have picked it out amongst the throng of other terns without the assistance of the Wildlife Trust wardens!

The tern island par excellence is/are the  Skerries, with its lighthouse and colony of several thousand arctic and common terns. For the last few years a roseate tern has paired with a common tern on the island as well and produced hybrid young. During spring and summer the colony is wardened by the RSPB, and it was thanks to them that I was able to visit the island on Friday evening on their regular supply vessel. Visiting a tern colony really is an experience. Arctic terns are stunningly beautiful little birds and can be exceptionally approachable. With their bright red beaks and legs a bird can recall a woman decked out in red lipstick and boots. But move one inch too close and that bird can become a tiny raging little monster, metaphorically spitting blood. They have no hesitation in striking a human intruder on the head so wearing a hat is a necessity.

On a previous visit in June 2010 I found that a telephoto lens was unnecessary as the birds were so close. I stuck to my standard zoom, and told myself at first to be selective when pressing the shutter; still thinking ‘film’ I suppose. After a while I remembered that I had just one hour on the island and how desperate it would be to get back to the mainland with nothing, so I relaxed a little. I got some great images of angry terns in flight at the wide-angle end of the zoom; and one of these featured in the book and exhibition Wales at Waters Edge.

On last week’s visit conditions were slightly different. Weather conditions were excellent but much of the closest section of the colony was in the shadow of the lighthouse. It was about two weeks earlier than my previous visit and the birds seemed slightly less territorial than I remembered. Every few minutes, it seemed, the whole colony rose up together and swept across the island before quickly returning.  I stuck the Tamron long zoom on my 5d3 and concentrated on close-ups of individual birds, and – despite  the incredible experience of being there – my photographic efforts felt strangely uninspired. The warden asked us all if we could be ready to leave in five minutes, so I swapped lenses and packed my gear away. Turning around,  I saw a perfectly-lit bird perched on a rock with a sand-eel in its beak – a cracking image if only I had seen it earlier! Unless…………..

To my surprise it continued to pose for me as I re-fitted the long zoom and took a few images. What a little hero!