What a difference an hour makes…..

Mawddach estuary at 7 am.
Mawddach estuary at 7 am.

After doing deliveries around north Wales on Friday I had the day free on Saturday for photography. Friday had been damp and drizzly with plenty of low cloud but no wind. A continuation of the calm conditions overnight coupled with the passage of a cold front suggested that better times would soon come. I guessed that there would be plenty of “interesting clouds” to photograph the next morning. I sat out Friday evening and then drove down to the Mawddach estuary to arrive just before dark. I could see that the low cloud had aligned itself in distinct layers along the steep sides of the estuary although it was too dark to photograph it. I set my alarm for 5 a.m. I didn’t want to miss a thing!

I had parked up by the side of a minor road near Barmouth with a view right down the estuary and across to Cadair Idris. Groggily I crept out of the van to find that the cloud had coalesced into a huge amorphous blob with no photographic potential whatsoever. Although it was cloud-free to the west it would take the sun quite some time to rise above the blob. Time to enjoy the birdsong and make a leisurely cup of tea. I decided to head for the Panorama Walk above the head of the estuary. At least I’d get some exercise!

The cloud was very slowly drifting downstream above the estuary and lifting. Would the sun ever break through to light up the landscape? I felt sure that all over Snowdonia photographers were making amazing images but that here it was no-go time. At last, at 7 a.m., a few gaps appeared and a dramatic scene was revealed (see top picture). Although the clearance lasted only a couple of minutes it had been worth getting up so early.

I turned my attention south- and west- wards. The tide was out, revealing beautifully patterned sandbanks; river channels reflected the blue sky as they coiled through the sand. I floundered through deep heather and young gorse to a lower viewpoint closer to the river. The brilliant young greens of oak woodland appeared. Even a gorse bush in full flower. This landscape had everything other than sunlight to illuminate it. I was close to prayer. And then, exactly an hour after the first short clearance, the cloud receded inland to allow the sun to appear. I took a series of images and stepped back to admire the view for its own sake.

Mawddach estuary 8 am.
Mawddach estuary 8 am.

I used a polarising filter to saturate the colours and a one-stop graduated ND filter to hold back the sky a little. It is sometimes  said that a one-stop grad is virtually useless but I find that in conjunction with a polariser it gives perfect, natural-looking skies. This may be a conventional image in many ways but for me it sums up the beauty of the Welsh landscape at the most stunning time of year. And I need new images of the Mawddach estuary for postcards. Job done!

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Dotterel Days

Dotterel, Pumlumon
Dotterel, Pumlumon

The rounded mountain-top of Pumlumon in mid-Wales (more of a large hill, really, but still 2468 ft above sea level) is a recognised stopping off point for dotterel in the spring. In late April a single dotterel was reported on its summit so a couple of days later I decided to go for it. Leaving the house at lunch-time, I had reached the summit two hours later. I scoured and scanned for the bird but found nothing. Then there was a sudden movement on the ground three yards in front of me. There it was! What a gorgeous creature!

I spent a happy hour photographing it in light winds and warm sunshine. It was nice to “share the moment” with Janet Baxter, who I had overtaken on the way up. And whose dog, fortunately, was more well-behaved than it sometimes is! I was back down in time to take my van to the garage by 5.30 pm, as planned. Sorted! It’s very unusual for an expedition like this to work out so successfully. I was happy, too, that I was able to reach the summit and return so quickly, Carrying just the one lens and camera body, a snack and bottle of water helped.

Bearing in mind the image was taken in mid-afternoon on a cloudless day in late April, the sun was quite elevated. Contrast was therefore high and the shadows in the bird’s belly and chest were darker than I would have liked. Selecting this area with Lightroom’s radial filter and judicious use of the highlight and shadows sliders was quite successful in bringing this problem under control.

Other dotterel days……

1. A single bird was seen and photographed on a Lake District hilltop while I was an RSPB warden in 1981. This was during my first era of bird photography. I gave one transparency to a local ornithologist with whom I was working. It later appeared under his own name in the Cumbrian Bird Report for that year. The same image later appeared in my book “Heart of the Country” (published in 2003) to accompany one of the late Bill Condry’s Guardian Country Diaries – in which he laments never having seen one!

2. While working for the Nature Conservancy Council in Scotland in 1986 I spent a day – under licence – surveying a Grampian hilltop for breeding dotterel, with a group of friends and colleagues. During the survey I lifted a male dotterel off its nest with my finger.

3. A trip of dotterel seen on Foel Grach in the Carneddau (north Wales) in May 1987.

4. A trip seen on Pumlumon with a friend in May 1995. One bird was wearing coloured leg rings. From the combination of colours it was identified by the BTO: it had been ringed as a chick in Scotland 8 years previously and not seen since.

5. Three birds seen on a coastal field near Ynyslas in early May 2013. As I approached the field I met the farmer who was just leaving in his Land Rover. I asked him about the dotterel and he invited me to jump in: he would take me to see them. As we approached the birds they took off and flew strongly northwards, never to be seen again.

So almost every dotterel sighting in my life has a story attached to it. Their lifestyle is extraordinary. The female is the more brightly coloured bird. She takes the male’s role and vice-versa. She lays a clutch of eggs for her mate to incubate, then travels further north to do the same for another male. I particularly like the thought that they migrate from hill top to hill top, stitching Europe’s mountains together as they go.

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