The Green Flash and another starling story.

Starlings at Aberystwyth yet again)
Starlings at Aberystwyth (yet again)

Several more visits to Aberystwyth seafront at sunset have elapsed since my last post. You can’t believe how frustrating it is to witness another damp squib, then go home, turn on the TV to watch Countryfile and see video of amazing displays from somewhere in the Midlands and then somewhere in Cumbria! Last Wednesday was a bit of an exception, in a way. I arrived in good time and got chatting with a photographer who had driven over from the West Midlands to see the famous Aberystwyth starling murmation.  He must have thought I was a gloomy old so-and-so when I told him it hardly ever happens!

Once any possibility of a display seems to have evaporated I swap lenses from the standard zoom to the long zoom. I set it up on the tripod and head down the wooden jetty as far as sea level will allow, and focus on the starlings as they perch on the metal framework under the pier. This area seems to serve as a ‘waiting room’,  as later – or perhaps younger / less dominant birds – await their turn to squeeze in under cover. There is constant movement as they re-arrange themselves.

On Wednesday, the sun was setting dramatically, the tide was high and there was quite a swell. The crests of big waves fizzed with orange light as they broke against the shore. I took a long series of images in really exciting conditions, although I knew I would be deleting most of them later! As it happens I did manage a few that I am pleased with such as the one above (click on it to enlarge it.)  In the nick of time I then remembered the Green Flash. The very last sliver of the sun’s disc can turn green as it disappears below the horizon, especially if the atmosphere is clear and crisp. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon; I’ve seen it a number of times while down at the starling roost,  but never managed to photograph it. I alerted my new pal from Brummidgem, who had joined me on the jetty, pointed the camera at the setting sun and quickly pressed the shutter.

Reviewing the images on the screen I could see I’d captured the Green Flash successfully behind the framework of the pier. Exposure is always a problem at sunset and I’m not sure why this image works when previous ones haven’t. It was very much a grab shot and a reflex reaction to the situation. But it so happened that the exposure was good (ie – it was underexposed) and the light levels elsewhere in the image were compatible with that of the sun’s disc; and of course, digital processing helps.

The Green Flash, Aberystwyth, 11/02/17.
The Green Flash, Aberystwyth, 08/02/17.

After sunset a gaggle of photographers tends to gather on the prom to have a moan (er….discuss the afternoon’s events…..). Our Brummie pal joined us as we muttered. He was elated! “That was amoizeen!”  he enthused; “absoluteloy moind-blaween!” He loved watching the starlings and had never seen the Green Flash before….never even heard of it, in fact.  It was lovely to encounter someone being SO excited about something which many of us locals now take for granted.

 

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Some thoughts on winter.

Starlings at Aberystwyth
Starlings at Aberystwyth

 

In a previous post I talked about a little about winter. To elaborate a little I feel that the urge to travel, achieve and generally ‘get out there’ takes a back seat during the winter months. Undertaking activities of a more outward nature is perhaps best left for the longer days of spring and summer. In years gone by I took seasonal contracts with conservation organisations every year and their starting date was usually in April. So I tended to undertake an annual journey of my own to pastures new at the same time as migratory wildlife was also travelling north. I liked that parallel.

For someone without a nine-to-five routine to regulate their life, and whose activities are so completely seasonal, the urge to sit back, light the stove, watch TV or read a book becomes particularly attractive during the winter months.  But this has its own challenges; one tends to become more inward-looking, and in my case anyway, less confident in my achievements. It is a time for re-assessment and reflection. According to the five-element theory of Chinese philosophy winter is the ‘water’ season, and my Chi Gung teacher recently threw light on this in a very perceptive comment: “water always settles” she said, and winter is the time of year for us to ‘settle’ too.  This pause gives me the chance to recharge my creative batteries, too, I feel.

Some landscape photographers claim that “the light is always better in winter” but I have never found this to be the case. It sometimes is, but it usually isn’t. This winter so far has been much drier and calmer here than usual but I’ve still not felt the urge to get out into the field. Apart from the occasional day-trip, for example to photograph a bittern (see here), and another to photograph waxwings,  I’ve been sitting at my desk for days on end.  That doesn’t mean I’ve been inactive though. At the end of last year I spent some time writing up a grant application to the Arts Council of Wales, and I’m pleased to say it was successful. The plan is to attend a workshop in March with respected landscape photographer Paul Wakefield and designer/printer/publisher Eddie Ephraums. Paul Wakefield was one of the biggest inspirations in my very early days as a photographer. I did some casual work at Aberystwyth Arts Centre in the early 1980’s and it so happened that I was asked to hang his exhibition “Wales – The First Place”, based on the book of the same name. I thought that if he could do it , so could I! (I’m not sure if I ever have, mind…………) The workshop will be a chance to immerse myself in a new project for a week alongside these highly experienced practitioners. Hopefully it will also be possible to get out into the amazing landscapes of north-west Scotland as well.

I’ve also been planning my 2017 postcards and last week I drove down to Llandyssul, where Gomer Press have their base, to do some final tweaks to the order. Llandyssul is little more than a village in rural Ceredigion, but Gomer are printing some amazing work at the moment. I was shown the new ‘Garden Photographer of the Year’ book, which they have printed and bound, and the quality is excellent. So although I feel that the postcards are in good hands,  I’m expecting a delivery of 56,000 of them later today, and I must admit I’m still keeping my fingers crossed.

Most recently I’ve been sorting through my 2016 bird photographs and I’ve put the best of them in a gallery on my website. I’ve been giving quite a lot of thought to image format in recent times, and rather than using standard 3:2 proportions, I’ve split them into two sections – panoramic and square.  They will probably not please traditional bird photographers as the subject is usually relatively small within the image but view the galleries here and see if you like them.   My only regular photographic expedition over the winter has been pottering down to the sea-front at Aberystwyth at sunset to photograph the starlings  as they come in to roost under the pier. These days I go down more in hope than expectation because the birds very rarely “perform” as one would like them to; no-one seems to know why. I do find it extraordinary that no research on the starling roost has ever been undertaken by Aberystwyth University, which has a thriving School of Biological Sciences. There’s a Ph.D. thesis waiting to be written there, surely, and probably several. But I digress –  some very graphic compositions are possible once the birds have landed on the metal framework of the pier and the picture above is a recent example.

Postscript: Many thanks to those who supported my Arts Council application, notably Steffan Jones-Hughes (Aberystwyth Arts Centre) and Geoff Young (Penrallt Bookshop and Gallery, Machynlleth)