The robin says……

Christmas greetings to all my readers!

A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days in the Morecambe Bay / Leighton Moss area of Lancashire. Waking early on the first morning I had arrived at Leighton Moss’s Lower Hide by daybreak – well, it’s not that early this time of year! The windows were smothered in frost so I opened one and peered out. Little egrets were leaving their roost in some scrubby woodland opposite and I counted fifty-seven altogether. How quickly times change in nature…….. Then, all of a sudden, a robin appeared on the window frame about nine inches from my face! It turned out to be the tamest robin I have ever come across. It was obviously a regular visitor because there was a scattering of bird seed on the window  ledge, but I got the impression that it genuinely wanted some human company. Apart from the couple of hours when I went for brunch I was in the hide all day. The robin was never more than a few yards away and usually actually inside it, despite an often full compliment of human visitors being present as well.

Sunbathing water rail
Sunbathing water rail

The robin seemed to be paying particular attention to something lying on an empty bench at the back of the hide, so I went over to investigate. It was a laminated photograph of a robin, which had originally been attached to the hide wall.   Every time I held it up the real robin pecked the eye of the robin in the photograph.  Over and over again, absolutely consistently. I held the photograph up and slowly turned it round. The real robin would go round the back to investigate. It was absolutely fascinating. And yet I didn’t feel that the real robin was genuinely angry. It seemed to be playing a game in the same way that a dog will repeatedly bring back a thrown stick.

Well, small things please small minds, you might be thinking. What else took my attention? Leighton Moss seemed to be bursting with two elusive reedbed species, water rails and bitterns, and I had excellent views of both. The former were pecking around the edges of the reeds in several places, but they are extremely nimble and you need lightning fast reflexes to be able to photograph one. One spent quite some time sun-bathing not far from the hide. It must have been asleep because the white nictating membrane in the eye was visible. Another spent a long while in and out of vegetation directly below the hide window, but by that time it was almost dark; I’m still searching for the perfect water rail image, or even something useable. I do get the impression that water rails are common than they were ten or twenty years ago, though.

Bittern at Leighton Moss
Bittern at Leighton Moss

It is nearly always exciting to see a bittern although at a big reedbed like Leighton Moss one does get a little blasé about distant half-views of them creeping in and out of the reeds. Reserve staff reckoned there were between nine and eleven birds present last winter, and on my visit several flew towards a particular area of the reedbed from late afternoon onwards. I guessed they were roosting communally.The above was captured on one of these late afternoon flights, but I’m still searching for the classic bittern shot too!

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A light bulb moment

Bird / land no. 15 - crows
Bird / land no. 15 – crows

Earlier on this year I may have mentioned that I had been awarded an Arts Council of Wales grant to create new work for an exhibition in summer 2015.  Receiving the grant was exciting but the hard part was yet to come – yes, actually doing the work – but bit by bit, piece by piece, it is coming together.

For many years I photographed landscapes while at same time only watching birds. It partly went back to an earlier stage in my life when I spent a period of time working on and off for bird conservation bodies. During these years I spent months at a time in exotic parts of the UK, either surveying upland birds or protecting rare species at the nest site. In neither situation was I able to photograph the object of my interest. It just wasn’t possible, and I kept the camera to one side for the landscapes. But a few years ago I began to put my two interests together. There are many fabulous bird photographers around and I knew that it would take me many years to build up my skills to their leveI, if I were ever able to do it at all. But what I did have, I felt, was an awareness of the landscapes the birds inhabit which some of the photographers seemed to miss. That was the direction I decided to take.

The arts establishment is not known for its interest in wildlife. Many individual painters, photographers and sculptors (for example) are passionate about nature but there seems to be an unspoken agreement that it is not a subject worthy of the serious artist. So in theory it was probably an uphill battle for me to convince the Arts Council that my project was worthy of support. One needs to dress one’s ideas up a little to convince them of their value, so an exhibition of single images would probably not be sufficient. I came up with an idea which was not cutting edge but seemed genuinely innovative. This was to present the images in groups of three or more – triptychs if you like – linked by species, location or aesthetic qualities. Each individual image would be panoramic format. It also might have helped that I already had a good exhibiting track record achieved with minimal Arts Council support. Whatever, they went for it.

So an exhibition of 35 “pieces” would need something like 100 separate images; each one, ideally, worthy in its own right of being exhibited, and able to be linked to two others in some way or another. Ambitious or what! To be honest the amount of funding I received was in no way adequate for the time and expenses I have already spent on the project, not to mention the next six months, but it keeps the wolf from the door. By now I’m well on the way towards completing the work, and I have hundreds of images potentially suitable for use. Sometimes it’s possible to visit one location and come away with a set of images that are subtly different but similar enough to be shown together, and this can work very well. But in most cases the biggest problem is grouping individual images which may have been taken in widely different locations.

Not being specifically relevant to Wales, this project has allowed me to travel to some fabulous locations elsewhere in the UK and on the continent. But – rather appropriate for the time of year, I think – my most recent attempts have been very close to home. I’m only about five miles as the red kite flies from the Bwlch Nant-yr-arian feeding station. Here, at two o’clock every day, 10 kilograms of waste meat chunks are deposited by the side of a lake for the accumulated gathering of kites and crows. It is rather an overwhelming spectacle for the photographer, with well over a hundred kites present every day. Most people would eventually come up with some stunning close-ups of individual birds sweeping down to grab some food, or carrying a piece away to eat elsewhere. But that didn’t fit my brief, so I walked some distance away from the lake and gained some altitude. I’m still not quite sure how I’m going to tackle the kites but on one visit I noticed a dead conifer trunk nearby which served as a regular perching place for crows to observe the proceedings. It was just one of those light bulb moments! It was not what I originally had in mind but by visiting the same spot several times I came away with several suitable images and earlier this afternoon I put five of them together. While this may not be the finished article it was a real buzz to see how well they worked as a set!

What do you think?

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