The “Little Camargue”

White storks on migration, part of a flock of about 150
White storks on migration, part of a flock of about 150

Earlier in April I spent a week in southern France, where I had rented an apartment in Gruissan, a small town near Narbonne. The area is sometimes known as the “Little Camargue” as it is blessed with a similar range of habitats – sandy beaches, saltpans, reedbeds, and lagoons of varying salinities, for example. It has a similar range of wildlife.

It is also plagued by two other things, which are more or less mutually exclusive. Wind and mosquitoes. The Camargue has the Mistral – a strong northerly which sweeps down the Rhone valley between the Massif Central and the western Alps.  Narbonne has the “Tramontane” – a north-westerly which roars across country between the Pyrenees and the Massif Central. Both have mosquitoes but either wind renders them rather less of a problem than they otherwise would be.

During migration periods birds travelling north (or south) tend to hug the coast quite closely if the Tramontane is blowing, and they also move at very low altitudes. During my first couple of days, it was  so strong that virtually nothing was moving at all. In Gruissan there is a small rocky knoll capped with the remains of a castle; it was almost impossible to stand upright on the summit one morning. But on the third day the Tramontane very gradually decreased allowing migration to recommence. I was blissfully unaware of this, having gone a short distance inland to search out some lesser kestrels. But in the evening I took a short coastal walk and was really excited to see a large flock of very large birds heading along the coast towards me. “Cranes”, I thought, but as they got closer and then passed overhead I could see they were white storks. It was a fabulous sight. I barely needed my long lens to photograph them, which was a shame, because that was all I had…..

White storks near Gruissan (600mm)
White storks near Gruissan (600mm)

The next morning dawned calm and sunny.  I set out in the hire-car to visit a nearby marsh. A couple of miles out of town I passed between some lagoons; to my left, in addition to groups of flamingoes, I could see other large, long-legged wading birds. White Storks! Presumably the flock that passed over me the previous evening had dropped down into the lagoon for the night, and were now busy feeding up for the next stage of their journey. The storks were pretty distant so I pulled the focal length out to 600mm for the first series of images. When photographing birds it is difficult not to use the longest focal length possible. But after a while I began to notice the pine woodland on the far hillside and how much it could add to an image of the birds and the wetland. The lower image is taken at 400 mm, and to get as much depth of field as possible, f16. The storks were not moving too quickly, so 1/320th second was acceptable.

White storks near Gruissan (at 400 mm)
White storks near Gruissan (at 400 mm)

So would I go back to Narbonne for another birding and photography trip? Definitely. In early/mid April there was surprisingly little bird-song in the reedbeds, scrub, woodland or nearby farmland. But I feel sure that by now all those habitats would be heaving with warblers and other desirable species.  The area is more scenic by a long way than the Camargue, with many areas having a hilly or even mountainous backdrop. The biggest advantage, though, was the accessibility of so many of the habitats; there are far fewer access restrictions than in the Camargue. And it is a relatively compact area, so driving distances are shorter.

If anyone would like more information about the area, drop me a line. I’d be happy to advise.

 

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In crane country

Common cranes, Lakenheath Fen
Common cranes, Lakenheath Fen

Just before Easter I managed to fit in a trip to East Anglia. I had timed my visit to catch a series of spring tides, and planned to spend some time at Snettisham on the eastern coast of The Wash. At the very highest tides many thousands of waders, particularly knot, are forced off mud-flats on to some old gravel pits at Snettisham, now an RSPB reserve (see also this post). I planned to visit the roost site on the first morning for a 6.20 am high tide, and then again in the evening. It was a great plan, and everything went really well, except that the weather was uniformly dark and dismal. Trying to photograph moving subjects at dawn and dusk one is always pushing the capabilities of one’s equipment and heavy cloud cover makes it even more difficult: fifty shades of grey indeed.

So I decided to cut my losses after two visits and head south towards Lakenheath Fen on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. This is another RSPB reserve, a huge reedbed and wetland area largely created out of intensively cultivated agricultural land. I had read that bitterns and marsh harriers were frequently sighted there and that cranes had bred for several years consecutively. I was not to be disappointed. On my arrival I saw two pairs in flight within half an hour. However conditions were as dull and dismal as on the previous day, and  steady afternoon rain put a halt to proceedings.  But I had managed a decent recce of the area for the following day.

So I was on site at dawn. After a two mile walk I found myself on an elevated river bank with excellent views over wide expanses of reedbed. Pretty soon two pairs of cranes became visible simultaneously, one pair dropping down into reeds while the other flew across a railway line and disappeared. Then the reedbed pair re-appeared on a grassy bank and I picked up a single bird on the same bank perhaps a hundred yards away from them. The single bird walked slowly towards the pair. It reached a certain point and stopped, very deliberately turned around and walked away again. This manouever was repeated several times at a glacial pace, each time bringing the single bird a few yards closer to the pair. Eventually they were within a few feet of each other and the pair seemed to back down. Then a few minutes later the pair was in flight together, closely followed by the single bird, and all seemed to leave the vicinity of the reserve. I interpreted this behaviour as being a single bird intruding into the territory of a resident pair.

Back at the Joist Fen viewpoint on the reserve I encountered some RSPB staff, evidently also on the lookout for cranes. I recounted my sightings and but they seemed rather unimpressed. It was as if they didn’t really believe me. All they would say was that “it looks like there’s an extra pair on the reserve”. It didn’t really fit my version of events, and rightly or wrongly I nursed a grievance for most of the day.

Coot, Lakenheath fen.
Coot, Lakenheath fen.

There were further sightings of cranes, numerous marsh harriers soaring, diving and displaying over the reedbed, and two good views of bittern in flight. During the afternoon a small crowd gathered to watch a bittern which spent a good half-hour right out in the open,  going through its full range of postures, but unfortunately too far away to photograph well. Another bittern boomed from the reedbed, and bearded tits could occasionally be heard, and briefly seen, amongst the reeds. It was a truly magical day in an amazing place. One might view with some distaste the highly corporate nature of the RSPB.  But when you see what their massive membership, influence and buying power is capable of in the shape of this vast new wetland one has to admit that the end sometimes justifies the means.

Before dusk I spent a couple more hours at the Joist Fen viewpoint. Also present was an old chap who seemed to know the place, and was chatting with other visitors. I decided to approach him with my earlier crane experience and see if it elicited a more satisfactory response. It turned out that the man was Norman Sills, ex-warden of the reserve but now retired. It was he whose vision it had been to create the reserve in the first place, and who had seen it through to maturity, allowing a younger man to then take over. He was more than forthcoming over the crane activity I had seen that morning.

I had made a simple misinterpretation. One pair of cranes was already – on March 25th – sitting on eggs; I had seen the “off-duty” bird approach and then see off a pair of intruders. The second pair I saw virtually never trespassed on the first pair’s territory and frequently fed on the other side of the railway line. It immediately made complete sense. Other than the Lakenheath birds there are several other pairs floating around other wetlands in the Fens, and I had seen one of them. He could recognise individual birds by the size and colour of their “bustle” – the shaggy tail formed by the birds’ folded wing feathers, and he showed me sketches of each one. He showed me detailed plans of the reserve and where each pair’s territory was. It is a pity that a perceived need for secrecy had prevented the reserve staff from being more open with me earlier in the day.   The generosity with which Norman Sills divulged his hard-gained knowledge restored my faith in human nature. And what a legacy for him to be able to look back on in old age!

Seeing several rare and specialised reedbed dwellers had been the highlight of an excellent day, but my best photographs were of a far more humble species – the coot. All were set within reeds and backlit by the powerful spring sunshine. I may well use a selection of them in the expanded version of Bird/land when it shows at Aberystwyth Arts Centre over the summer.

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A tale of three images.

Ramsey Island (on left) and the Bishops and Clerks, from Whitesands.
Ramsey Island (on left) and the Bishops and Clerks, from Whitesands.

It has been a while since I last posted but things have been moving apace. Most of February and March was spent getting postcards out into shops in various parts of Wales. It is always difficult to drag oneself out of the semi-hibernation of mid-winter and this year was particularly fraught because Easter was so early.

It has to be admitted that sales of postcards are steadily declining. This is partly because people are using phones and Facebook to contact their friends while they are away but also because the number of potential outlets is declining rapidly. The perils of running a bookshop in the Amazon era are well recognised, but independent retailers of all kinds have been closing and are not being replaced in similar numbers. What is particularly sad is the number of Tourist Information Centres that have closed, will soon close or are under threat of closure. It is happening all over Wales as a result of cuts to local authority funding. It may be our local councils (and National Park authorities) that are having to make the difficult decision to close them but the root cause is central Government.

A selling trip that would until recently have taken two and a half days now takes two or less. But that does mean I have a little more time available for photography on these trips and I was lucky with the weather on some of them. After one particularly busy day in Pembrokeshire I was able to nip down to Whitesands, arriving just after sunset. I started a short high-tide walk along the beach but quickly ran back for the camera. The conditions were just stunning! I only had a few minutes to run off a few exposures and I wasn’t entirely happy with the composition in any of them. But I’ll settle for the above…….

On a trip up to north Wales I spent one night at Pen-y-pass YHA. I normally avoid youth hostels these days but Pen-y-pass is so well situated for an early morning walk in the foothills of Snowdon that in winter I occasionally make an exception. Unfortunately my dorm also contained a snorer so I had a disturbed night’s sleep and was not able to get up at the crack of dawn as I had hoped. But a little later on this was the view of the Snowdon horseshoe from “The Horns”, situated between the PyG and Miners’ paths.

Snowdon summit and Y Lliwedd
Y Lliwedd, Yr Wyddfa and Crib Goch from “The Horns”

I was able to devote the whole of this superb day to photography so then headed off eastwards to photograph the packed masses of waders at their high-tide roost at the Point of Air, near Prestatyn. The only trouble was – there weren’t any. Just a handful of the commonest species. I then spent a couple of hours searching for, and failing to find, my current birding obsession – hawfinches. I won’t broadcast the location because villagers get pretty cheesed off with the behaviour of some birders, but there is a well-known site for this rare and elusive bird in the Conwy valley. So for the second time in one day I assumed I must be driving around in a van with a huge sign, facing upwards, on its roof saying “Bird photographer approaching destination – make a run for it”.

But I had more joy at my final location, the RSPB Conwy reserve at Llandudno Junction. There has been a starling roost there all winter and on my arrival I was pleased to discover they were still around. There was no wind and it looked like there would be a good sunset, so I found a location where I hoped the birds would be silhouetted against a stunning sky. There was even the possibility of a reflection for good measure!  Towards sunset small groups of starlings began to arrive, some time later than they do at Aberystwyth. And they just kept on coming!  Several sparrowhawks made appearances and made hunting dashes into the flock. The starlings created tightly-packed balls and ribbons of birds to try to evade them. It was fabulous to watch but set against part of the sky which was too dark to allow successfully photography.

It really was a very large flock by the time they eventually disappeared together into the reedbed. It was almost dark by that time and they had been displaying for some forty minutes since the first birds arrived.  It was interesting to compare this with their behaviour at  Aberystwyth, where they were going to roost some forty-five minutes earlier. I managed this image as the flock swirled over one the reserve’s shallow lagoons.

Starlings in pre-roost display, RSPB Conwy reserve.
Starlings in pre-roost display, RSPB Conwy reserve.

I don’t know if it be useable anywhere else but on the web.  It was taken at 6.31 pm on March 10th, using pretty extreme settings for this type of subject – 4000 ASA, 1/160th second and f4.

Finally, just before Easter, I installed part of my Bird/land exhibition in the Visitor Centre at RSPB Ynyshir. It will be showing there until May 30th; but for the full Bird/land experience wait until June 25th, when an updated and expanded version will be opening in the Photography Gallery at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Watch this space for more information.

 

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