Starling monster over Aberystwyth. Or….The Gift (part two)

Starlings over Aberystwyth
Starlings over Aberystwyth

On bright winter evenings (see also this post, this post, and this post) I often go down to the sea-front at Aberystwyth with the aim of photographing the starlings which roost under the pier . It’s been almost three years since I’ve come back with any worthwhile results, though. For that long, as far as I know,  the starlings had done nothing remotely like the spectacular pre-roost displays which they are renowned for. At first there was a fairly acceptable theory circulating amongst the photographers and birders.  The birds would be too busy simply surviving during mid-winter to spend valuable time and energy tearing around over the town at dusk. The fact that their most spectacular displays in recent years had been during the longer days of early March tended to support this idea. It was thought that the displays might be part of a process culminating in their exodus later in the month towards their breeding grounds further north. The presence of a predator (like a peregrine) was believed to precipitate avoidance behaviour which looked sensational to us but was actually self-preservation for the starlings. But last winter – nothing. And until last Saturday – nothing this winter either. All very frustrating and it wasn’t just me that was disillusioned either.

It wasn’t the greatest of evenings last Saturday and I almost stayed at home. On arrival at the wooden jetty I found the usual gaggle of photographers and sightseers. I met a fellow photographer and began to gossip about this and that and bemoan the lack of starling activity. The birds seemed to be following their usual routine. The earliest arrivals flew around silently together for a while before diving down amongst the framework of the pier and starting to chatter. Subsequent arrivals presumably heard them chattering and followed them in in a fairly disorganised fashion. I was on the point of leaving when the birds deserted the roost and began circling around over the town. There followed a spectacular exhibition of flight lasting more than ten minutes, flocks rapidly splitting and re-grouping, forming three-dimensional ribbons, ovals and swirls which constantly morphed into each other. It was exhilarating to see it after so long; I expect the word “wow” might have been heard and a broad grin seen.

More starlings
More starlings

About eight minutes past five the display was over.  I shook hands with Si and we went our separate ways. I had loaded my gear back into the nearby van when I noticed that some of the birds had left the pier and were again swirling around. By this time it was far too dark to think about using the camera but I wandered back over to enjoy a short encore.  Back on the prom I met another friend who had watched the display from a distance. We agreed how lucky we were to live at Aberystwyth and be able to see such an awe-inspiring exhibition. “It’s a gift.” she said, “I don’t usually believe in that hippy bollox but this is an exception”.

Speaking as the photographer who is never quite satisfied, though, I’ll add that it was a shame they were displaying over the town rather than the pier itself. The birds’ backdrop was a darker section of the post-sunset sky than it would otherwise have been. This necessitated a step-by-step increase in the ISO rating and opening up of the aperture. 3200 ISO and f4 seemed a bit dodgy to me………. Back home, though, I found that the images are noisy at 100% but I have  some usable results even at those settings. In the days of film such images would have been virtually unobtainable.

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The patient birdwatcher.

Bittern, Teifi Marshes
Bittern, Teifi Marshes


Last Thursday saw me heading south to the Teifi Marshes, a Wildlife Trust reserve near Cardigan. After days on end cooped up in my  home-office cum prison cell thanks to rain and/or wind and/or cloud, the forecast for Thursday was promising. I decided to make an early start. So on a lovely morning I arrived on the banks of the Teifi just a few minutes after sunrise. The tide was high and it was flat calm. What a picture!

I spent a minute or two in each of the hides as I walked down the old railway track into the reserve. At the top of my day’s wish-list, I told another photographer, was a bittern. It may not have been very realistic objective but what the hell………aim high! I quickly moved on until I reached the Kingfisher hide, because a bittern is occasionally seen from there in winter. I’ve always liked this hide because it overlooks a small pool, more or less surrounded by reeds;  it is quite an intimate space. I opened a wooden flap and looked out.

At first I didn’t believe it was even actually a bird. It was too still – a fence-post perhaps? Too tall, too thin and too dark to be a bittern, anyway. I dropped my camera bag on to the wooden floor, the sound – I’m sure – carrying far on such a still morning. Trying to keep calm, I retrieved my Canon 5d3 / Tamron 150-600 zoom combo and took another look. It was a bittern, sunning itself! The sound of the shutter would travel equally clearly in these conditions; by the time I had taken the first few shots, there was no doubt that it was aware of my presence. It turned around, then began to walk along the edge of the reeds. Within three minutes of my arrival it had disappeared. I silently cursed my clumsiness.

The other photographer arrived. We waited another ten minutes or so. Then there was movement in the reeds and I located the bird half way up some reed stems. From this launch pad it flew across the pool and disappeared. Would it ever be seen again? In fact, it flew again quite soon and landed opposite the hide. This small reed-bed is somewhat degraded at the moment, the result, apparently, of being used as a starling roost.  Over most of the area the reeds are bent over (or broken) to barely half their normal height. (I believe the technical term is “trashed”…..) A crouching bittern was still completely hidden but at full height it was easily visible. Over the course of the day the bittern could be seen with varying degrees of success as it visited various parts of the reedbed. Having said that, though, its position was most often given away by the black cap to its head. It is a wonderfully camouflaged creature. The starling hypothesis gained credence after a couple of crows brought a small dark bird corpse out of the reeds and ate it. There would be plenty of food there for a bittern, too, as they are not that choosy about their diet.

Discussing the finer points of eating a dead starling......
Discussing the finer points of eating a dead starling……

I was still hoping for the ultimate bittern picture so I stayed put, despite the temperature, which must have been pretty close to freezing in the shade. The six layers of clothing I had donned early that morning weren’t really enough.  A succession of other visitors joined me in the hide, and I helped them locate the bird. They donated sandwiches, biscuits and chocolate in return. I hadn’t expected to be there so long! One christened me “the patient birdwatcher”. Towards mid-afternoon the bittern moved quite close to the railway track and I was able to photograph it reasonably successfully through the overgrown hedge (see above). Eventually a combination of thorough cold and fatigue meant it was time to call it a day. But what a day!

I’m still not sure I have the perfect bittern picture. In one otherwise excellent series of images, the bird’s surroundings are untidy. In the picture above the inverted v-shape, out-of-focus reed stem is irritating. I wonder if the content-aware cloning abilities of Photoshop would remove it successfully. Does anyone know?


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More on Wales at Waters Edge…..

Beach detail, Anglesey, from Wales at Waters Edge
Beach detail, Anglesey, from Wales at Waters Edge

Last autumn I was contacted by a writer and photographer called Charles Hawes who was in the process of walking the Wales Coastal Path, and blogging about his experiences. He had seen my most recent book – Wales at Waters Edge – and was planning to review it. Would I allow him to use some of the photographs? Under copyright legislation the use of photographs for review purposes is permissible without the copyright holder’s agreement. However, as the book had been published two and a half years earlier, I did have doubts in my mind about the validity of a review. Did the reviewer really just want some nice photographs free of charge to pad out his blog? I took a look at the blog. He had also reviewed Peter Watson’s photographic book  on the Welsh Coast (published about  a year before my own), and, quite frankly, it is unlikely that Hawes would be on Watson’s Christmas card list!

I had an interesting exchange of emails with Charles Hawes. While I largely shared his opinion of Watson’s book, I felt that it was unusual, to say the least, to put such a critical review into the public domain. I suspected that my own book might come in for similar treatment, and if that might be the case, why should I allow him the benefit of using the photographs? In the end, he suggested a compromise; he would allow me the right to a reply, which he would then publish verbatim on his blog. Having by that time seen a copy of the review, I felt that – on balance – this was a solution I could live with.

I think it would be fair to say that the review was mixed. Walking the entire coastal path, Charles Hawes has probably seen more of the Welsh coastline than I did. But quantity is not necessarily more valid than quality. He has only only visited one Welsh island, Anglesey, which one could argue is hardly an island at all.  As a result, he’s missed out on some of our most special places, many of which I have had the pleasure of visiting.  On some occasions he enjoys the wildlife that he encounters, but in general his attention is far more frequently drawn to the towns, villages and man-made structures he comes across. So there was a very clear disconnect between the two of us in this respect and it is not surprising that we see the coastline so differently. What I don’t accept is his opinion that the photographs almost completely avoided its built-up aspect.

Charles has kindly allowed me to add a link to his blog (below) for those of you who would like to further explore the content of the book, and the interesting difference of opinion that it has spawned. Following on from the review you will find my response, and some further comments from his readers. In particular, close to the end is a post from “John” (December 18th) with a further link to his own review of Wales at Waters Edge, which is rather more favourable than the original!

NB. Both reviewers are critical of the text by Jon Gower, and I would like to make it clear that I don’t agree with them………

Click here for Charles Hawes blog 

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This is what we’re here for!

Starlings entering roost site, near Gretna Green.
Starlings entering roost site, near Gretna Green.

After a quiet Christmas at home, Jane and I started out on a journey that would eventually take us as far as Stranraer for a New Year reunion with some old friends. I had planned some bird-photography-related visits en route; it would be difficult to pass through Gretna Green in late afternoon – on a sunny day – without trying to locate probably the most well-known starling roost in the UK!

Research on the internet had told me that it was now no longer at Gretna itself but a couple of miles west near the village of Rigg. Some photographs had showed the site to be close to two parallel lines of electricity pylons so it wasn’t too difficult to find. One bird photographer was already in attendance and she said she believed she was in the best place to photograph the great gathering of birds. As sunset passed it became apparent that they were rather further away than she expected, and it was necessary to use my longest lens, the Tamron 150-600 zoom. By this time perhaps ten other photographers were present.

Birds certainly congregated and swirled around in very large numbers, but it was well past sunset before they began to form the amoeba-like formations which I had hoped for. I had increased my ISO to 3200 by this time, and shutter speeds were rather too long for comfort. At 4.25 p.m. there was a crescendo of shutter clicking as the starlings formed a funnel shape and tumbled down into a small forestry plantation. This was what we were all there for! Within 60 seconds the birds had gone and the whole event was over.

I decided that, as far as possible, I would use one of the electricity pylons to anchor the composition within the landscape. I felt that the large bird of prey (probably a buzzard) perched on top of it added an extra layer of interest to the image. As it turned out it was a good decision and it was not difficult to find the best couple of images from the sequence. Following some judicious cropping to create a square-format image, this is the one that immediately registered in my mind and stayed there. Fortunately the 1/320th second exposure was short enough to prevent bird movement being recorded on the sensor.