In the middle of the Irish Sea (Part two)

Choughs near Aberdaron

After the excitement of the brocken spectre and then a quick breakfast I met up with Ben Porter for a birding and photography walk. Ben is a rising star in Welsh conservation circles. He was brought up from the age of 10 on Bardsey Island where his parents were the island farmers for a number of years. As such he was home educated and at a very early age became an excellent naturalist and wildlife photographer. He graduated with a Conservation Biology degree at Exeter University in 2018 and was immediately head-hunted by Alastair Driver (of Rewilding Britain), and came to work as an intern on the Summit to Sea project in Machynlleth, where we met. Following a winter spent researching rare seabirds in the Azores he is now back at the family’s permanent home on the Welsh mainland near Aberdaron, just a few miles from Bardsey Island. It is fair to say that Ben is a young man mature way beyond his years.

We decided to walk around the mainland coast opposite Bardsey Island. I had heard chough calling there from the fog the previous day; it sounded like there was a fair few birds but I had no idea how many. I well remember spending a summer night on the top of Mynydd Mawr many years ago and waking to find a flock of about thirty birds, adults with dependent young, just a few yards from the van. I had already decided that if I were to be reborn as a bird it would have to be a chough: they seem to have so much fun. But seeing the ever-open beaks of chough fledglings and hearing their incessant begging calls I decided I perhaps shouldn’t rush into this decision! After the breeding season choughs stay in family parties and come together with neighbouring families to form these quite large groups – 25 is not uncommon. But the flock of 64 birds we found that morning was exceptional and may have been the entire breeding population of the Llyn Peninsula! We eventually found a quiet spot where we could watch the birds without causing any disturbance.  Adult choughs have bright crimson beak and legs while those of recently fledged young are paler, orangey-red. One of the first things we noticed was that it was already difficult to distinguish adults from offspring in this way.



Ben was on the lookout for colour rings. In an extraordinary long-term project, over the last twenty-nine years Adrienne Stratford and Tony Cross have fitted young Welsh choughs (and some adults) with plastic leg rings in different colour combinations. A total of almost 6000 birds have been ringed so far so many individual birds can now be identified. In the main image above the top left and left front birds are carrying leg rings. The project is revealing some fascinating life histories about Welsh choughs;  for example, one female hatched from a North Anglesey nest in 2016 and was next photographed near Porthcawl in Glamorgan – over 200 km away – that November. She returned to Anglesey the following spring.  A few birds have left Wales, including about a dozen to the Isle of Man, mostly in one flock in 2004.  One stayed on there as a nesting bird, while two returned to nest on Anglesey.   Another Anglesey bird was recorded on the Lancashire coast near Heysham in 2007 and two others travelled to the Yorkshire Moors in 2019 (150 km away). The oldest known Welsh chough is a 23-year old from Ceredigion which reared three young in 2019.

When I first started photographing birds (for the book Wales at Waters Edge), I assumed it would be virtually impossible to photograph this classic bird of the Welsh coastline. But in fact the chough is one of the easier and more approachable species. After some time searching for leg rings from a distance with binoculars we decided to try to get closer for a better look. It’s called fieldcraft, I suppose, gradually approaching the birds without apparently doing so.  I’m sure they weren’t fooled, though, and the flock gradually diminished in size as we got closer – possibly family parties leaving together. But eventually we found ourselves in the close proximity of a dozen or more individuals which appeared to be totally relaxed in our presence. It was a tremendous few minutes as they went about their business in the hot sun and we photographed them as they did so. My one reservation about these images is that the sun was high in the sky resulting in the birds being top-lit, rather than my preference, side-lit. But hey-ho …..it was a magical encounter.

And all before lunch-time!

For the first part of this piece, click here.

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Many thanks to Adrienne Stratford for her help with this post.

In the middle of the Irish Sea (Part one)

Brocken spectre, Mynydd Rhiw

Well, we’ve had some interesting weather recently, haven’t we? Much as I love blue skies, white clouds and clear air, the photographer can find those conditions a bit predictable. That all changed last week when hot and humid conditions moved up from the Continent, even here in Wales.

It so happened that Jane and I had planned our first few days away together for many months, eventually plumping for Aberdaron, at the tip of the Lleyn peninsula (Penllyn) in north Wales. From the house here on a clear day we can see a line of hill-tops  – “the oylands” as a brummie once described them – extending out across Cardigan Bay and culminating in Bardsey Island ( Enlli ), the only actual island of the lot.  But by the time you reach Aberdaron, there is such a different feel to the landscape that it could almost be an island. It is so far down the ever-narrowing peninsula that it is – in effect – in the middle of the Irish Sea. And it has the weather to prove it. 

A break in the cloud from Mynydd Mawr

The journey was hot with intermittent low cloud and fog. We arrived at Mynydd Mawr, at the end of Penllyn beyond Aberdaron, just in time to see Enlli, draped in fog, through a gap in the cloud. It looked amazing.  But within thirty seconds sea fog engulfed the landscape and this wonderful vision disappeared, remaining that way for the next few hours. The fog layer had no great depth, but at 160m altitude we weren’t quite high enough to escape it. It began to get rather frustrating. I phoned Ben Porter, a friend who lives nearby, and he said he was on Mynydd Rhiw, a few miles inland and it was amazing! I should get up there asap! I drove slowly along single-track, hedge-rimmed lanes towards Rhiw in poor visibility; it felt like we were fighting a losing battle against the onset of dusk. 

However we arrived on Mynydd Rhiw just before the sun set over the Irish Sea. We were just above the cloud and a brocken spectre was just visible at the anti-solar point. Other hilltops further inland stood out, from Carn Fadryn and Yr Eifl on the peninsula, round to the great peaks of Eryri.  But they were all fading fast as the cloud layer rose steadily at every point of the compass. It seemed like  a case of “you should have been here earlier” for the second time in one day. 

Mynydd Rhiw turned out to spend a superb spot to spend the night in the camper van. I woke next morning to find the van still enveloped in cloud but a patch of blue sky soon appeared above us. This looked interesting! Grabbing a quick mug of tea, tripod and camera bag, I found a prominent position nearby where the sun – if it appeared again – would project my shadow on to cloud below. These looked perfect conditions for seeing another brocken spectre. This unusual atmospheric phenomenon has appeared in my blog before (see this post) but it is seen so rarely that one feels that one learns a little more about it every time it appears. 

An audience on Mynydd rhiw

A complete brocken spectre consists of a three-dimensional shadow extending literally from one’s feet to the anti-solar point in the cloud where one’s head appears. Around the head a tiny circular “glory” is centred, formed by reflection and refraction of light within cloud droplets. The formation of a rainbow is similar; the difference being in the size difference between raindrops and cloud droplets. To the naked eye it appears that the glory consists of the full spectrum of colours – like a rainbow – with red on the outside and violet on the inside. However, post-processing the image above has revealed that outside the “primary” ring of colours is a secondary ring – each colour band broader than the inner equivalent and the whole thing more diffuse.  I must emphasise here that this is not the result of adding anything to the image “in photoshop” or manipulating it artificially. It must be the equivalent of seeing more colour on a digital image of the aurora borealis than is possible to see with the naked eye (see this post).

Conditions favourable for a brocken spectre also favour the formation of a “fogbow” which has similar dimensions to a rainbow but which consists only of an arc of white light projected onto cloud.  In my experience a fogbow is more often seen because its radius is much greater than that of a brocken spectre but you can be sure that if the former is visible, the latter may not be far away. During the several hours we spent on Mynydd Mawr last Friday a fogbow was almost permanently visible. It is also worth noting that if you are with a companion both your shadows can be seen by both of you but only the one glory centred on one’s own head! The possibilities for philosphical speculation seem endless here!

And finally I have recently seen photographs of rainbows taken close to sunset, where the area within the arc is suffused with red / orange light. The evening brocken spectre (which I didn’t attempt to photograph) appeared to be like this too.

So it was an exciting morning on Mynydd Rhiw and alI before breakfast!