X marks the spot.

X marks the spot.

A recent comment from one of my followers (Lotelta) made me realise that I haven’t taken many photographs of the immediate surroundings of my home. I have always found that – sadly – I tend not to notice my surroundings once they become familiar. So spending so much time within walking distance this year gave me the opportunity to put that right. The main image shows the house (arrowed) from the north. However, viewing it from here gives a misleading impression of its location because it is actually on a narrow ridge – one of a series running east/west, each with steep drops into valleys to both south and north. What appears to be a grassy backdrop is in fact the next ridge to the south. The house is at about 200 metres (660ft) altitude. 

We had been looking for a new house in the Aberystwyth area for some time which gave us both private space to work in as well as communal rooms, but we were fairly flexible about the location. I think we first visited Brynonnen on the only still and sunny day that January, because the feeling of spaciousness and calm which we both (I think) experienced was lovely. I can only liken it to the feeling of reaching a hill-top after a stiff climb – without the climb! There is a massive downside to the location, of course, because we get wind from almost every direction, which can be particularly tiresome. As I frequently tell people – “we get a lot of weather up here”.

The Stewi valley north of Brynonnen

The house is situated in the ‘green desert’ of mid-Wales. This does not imply a lack of rain – far from it – but rather the barren nature of the grass monoculture surrounding us. Agriculture is devoted to one product – sheep meat – and with a few exceptions it is largely a manmade landscape. Most hedgerows – if they ever existed – have been replaced by wire fencing, there are large areas of forestry at slightly higher altitudes, and there is very little wildlife in or over the fields. The one saving grace of this particular valley is its oak woodland.  It is more wooded than most in north Ceredigion,  having escaped the fate of others locally, where historically woodland was felled to provide fuel for the many lead mines in the area and/or for pit props in the first world war.

The second picture is more or less a reverse of the first. It shows the most extensive area of woodland in the vicinity, although a visit in person shows how even-aged and spindly the individual trees are – a clear sign of clear-felling and then re-growth without thinning. This reduces its wildlife value somewhat but nevertheless the wood is a fabulous landscape feature.  

Dark green fritillary

There are some areas of rough grazing nearby and this provides more interest for the wildlife watcher. One such is a gorse-covered, south-facing slope just below the house. It was here that I was able to photograph a dark green fritillary in early June, having first seen one in the garden – a most unusual sighting!

Four pairs of red kites nested this year on the north-facing valley side below the house; the site of each nest can be seen in the top picture. I have written about them in a previous post, and if there is one thing I will remember the area for when I leave it will be the red kites. Barely a day passes without being able to hear their lovely whistling calls.

The spring of 2020 was warm and sunny. In most years by early June the Welsh landscape is more or less one shade of green. and the landscape photographer can more or less put their camera away. The second photograph (above), taken on June 5th, shows that the bracken and oak trees have reached that stage whereas the grassland, with its shorter roots, is suffering from a lack of moisture. There was talk of a drought.  At this point the weather changed and the remainder of June has been largely cool and changeable, with plenty of cloud and copious amounts of rainfall.  The landscape can now be summed up in one word – green. 

I’ve been lucky to be present during two exceptions to the monotony of the last few weeks. During the weather breakdown there were brilliant blue skies one afternoon and slow-moving thundery showers; ideal conditions for a rainbow, and I was able to photograph one from the field behind the house. 

The other occurred early one morning. I happened to glance out of the bathroom window while visiting the toilet and saw some wisps of low-level fog floating up the valley from the sea before dispersing. Hurriedly dressing and grabbing my gear, I spent half an hour on the ridge top before returning to bed. This picture is looking inland, down and across the valley to the south of the house. 

The Silo valley, south of Brynonnen

We get tremdous sunsets throughout the year but again, speaking as a photographer, there is no substitute for a good foreground at sunset. The following was one of the best sunsets I have ever seen, and the tiny tree on the skyline is a crucial part of the image, giving a sense of scale to its surroundings.

Winter sunset from the ridge.

So despite the fabulous location of the house, photographically speaking there is no substitute for good light, colourful vegetation, and/or interesting skies. And they don’t happen too often. 

 

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Another lockdown bonus.

Broad-bodied chaser, libellula depressa, showing the exuvia from which it emerged. (ISO 200, 1/50th second, f16, 280 mm (560mm equivalent))

As well as exploring locally on foot and by bicycle I’ve been spending a lot more time in the garden this spring. Boy, did it need some attention! It’s not looked so good for years as it does now. The one part of the garden I hesitated to tackle was the pond. It had been looking sadder and more unkempt with every week that passed, and the water level was dropping steadily in the warm sun, No toad or frog had left its spawn there for several years, and I began to doubt that any life could survive in it at all. Then last Friday I took the plunge (not literally) and with a stick began to remove the thick green algal slime that was proliferating over the water surface.

I carefully examined any vegetation that I removed for signs of life. Mmmm…. what was that?…… a small newt, which I left to return to the water. Then a black, vaguely beetle-like creature which had its own crop of short green wisps attached to its body like a teenager’s first attempt at facial hair; then some more. I collected a few up in a jam jar and easily identified them as dragonfly nymphs. They couldn’t be described as attractive in any way but did seem to have the instinct to survive. This was much better! I returned them to the pond and realised they were actually quite numerous, and all in the surface layer of slime.

Next morning we were sitting by the pond in the sun drinking coffee when I noticed one of these miniature monsters attempting to climb up the pond liner on the opposite bank. It struggled to get a grip and fell back several times. I collected up some sticks and poked them into the slime to help it out. Slowly it dawned on me that there were actually quite a few of them and some were already in the process of emerging. By mid-afternoon some sparkling and immaculate adult insects were sunning themselves around the pond. I grabbed my kit and experimented with both lenses, the 12 – 100 and 100 – 400 zooms. I got some decent results with the long zoom but really they were just snaps.

The following morning was sunny again and it was clear that a full scale emergence was in progress. I took the whole process more seriously this time, using tripod and polarising filter,and taking plenty of time over it. I used a chunk of dry moss to cover the pond liner where it formed the background, and experimented with various ISO’s, shutter speeds, focal lengths and apertures.   The main image above shows what excellent results the EM1.2 / Panasonic 100 – 400 zoom is capable of achieving. So this is the showcase image, but having watched and photographed several of these wonderful creatures in the process of emerging I realised I also had an rough and ready sequence of some of the stages they go though. While they may not be up to the mark technically  I’m including these as well. (The upper insect is also in the main pic : 11.54 hrs).

10.24 hrs
10.27hrs
10.41 hrs
10.57 hrs
11.20 hrs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can remember seeing the beautiful blue adult male broad-bodied chasers around the pond but it was two or three years ago. There must have been a female as well, and the eggs that she laid hatched into the larvae which emerged last weekend. Sunday, of course, was the last warm sunny day so it must be hoped that at least a few of “our” dragonflies will survive long enough to reproduce. 

I can honestly say that this was the most exciting and satisying wildlife experience I have had for years. Of course it’s great to travel abroad and see brilliant wildlife in new settings but the knowledge that you have helped to increase biodiversity in your own back yard is something else altogether. 

 

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Postscript: the emergence is still in progress. I have just counted eight fresh insects around the pond but several do not appear to have expanded their wings fully. It doesn’t look like they will survive. Maybe they need the warmth of full sunlight to emerge successfully?

Homing in.

First of all let me say that I am a very lucky man. I live out in the Welsh countryside, with long views in every direction from the house. The valley to the north is stunningly beautiful, with several stretches of remnant oak woodland, just coming into leaf right now, on its sides. I can take any one of a wide variety of walks direct from my front door, on public footpaths, bridleways or minor roads.  I can use my electric bike to get me a bit further afield and to help iron out the many steep hills in the vicinity.  I have no money worries: my pension payment comes in, regular as clockwork, every four weeks.

This is, of course, a far cry from the experience of those people now confined to rooms and apartments in towns and cities throughout the world. Or delivering food to our shops and supermarkets, driving buses or trains, collecting rubbish and re-cycling, delivering mail, or risking their own lives daily in care homes and hospitals. My heart particularly goes out to those brave and committed men and women saving other people’s lives on the front line, in some cases to the extent of losing their own.

Red kites : attempted talon grappling

When it became clear that I was going to be confined to base for a considerable length of time, I made it my aim to get to know my immediate surroundings as best I could. After a relentless diet of rain and wind over the winter the start of the lockdown coincided with a change to much sunnier conditions. I started to walk some of the local footpaths, and listened out for bird song in the nearby woodlands. Late March is also good time of year to search out woodpeckers while they are still drumming to advertise their territories.   At one time many years ago I thought I could distinguish the drumming of lesser spotted woodpecker from its much more common relative, the greater spotted; but with the former being so uncommon now my memory had become rather rusty. I managed to almost convince myself that I had found a lesser spotted just a few minutes walk from the house. So I spent some time quietly visiting a couple of local woodlands listening for its call – which would conclusively identify it – without success. But what I did find, without really trying, were two red kite nests. In fact it was partly as a result of the kites that I felt I had to give up searching for woodpeckers. By April 7th both pairs were obviously incubating and I just couldn’t continue without disturbing them.

Of course red kites are nowhere near as rare as they used to be. I well remember seeing my first red kite soon after moving to mid-Wales in 1977. I had cycled up a remote valley not far from here and took a photograph (yes, even then) of a bird I assumed was a buzzard. It wasn’t until I got the prints back from Boots (or was it Max Spielmann?) that I saw the forked tail. In fact the valley below this house seems to be a bit of a hotspot for red kites. There is a communal roost in one of the woodlands – I’ve seen fifty birds there at dusk in winter. For much of the year there are birds floating around enjoying the breeze. One of my neighbours – a lady in her eighties – sometimes puts scraps of meat our for them in the field the other side of her garden fence. We are only about five miles from one of the well-known kite feeding stations (Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian) so I suspect some individual birds associate the appearance of people with the arrival of food. At least one  perches on an electric pole at the back of her house and calls in the hope that she will feed it.

On bright days in late winter and early spring the larger birds of prey (kites and buzzards) are very prominent in the air, displaying and socialising with each other.  One recent evening I looked out of the bathroom window to see two kites grab each other’s talons and freefall together, whirling round and round, before releasing and flying away. But then, round about the second week in April, clutches are completed, incubation starts and it normally goes very quiet. You wonder where all the raptors have suddenly gone. But a loose grouping of kites (up to eight together) soared, chased and displayed over the field at the back of the house throughout last week, sometimes joined by buzzards. They seem to like each other’s company.

Probably because they are such a familiar feature of our landscape here in mid-Wales, I have hardly ever tried to photograph red kites. During work on my “Bird/land” exhibition I visited Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian several times but ended up focussing my attention on carrion crows (see this post)! But in my current enforced state of immobility it seemed like a good time to put right this failing; that and a realisation that they are, actually, incredibly beautiful creatures……

So I took my new(ish) Olympus/Panasonic m4/3 kit out “into the field”  – the field at the bottom of our garden, that is. It was actually quite frustrating to have to exit the house via the front door, walk fifteen yards along the road, then open a gate and go through it……how lazy we can get! I began to explore the camera’s various settings and autofocus modes. It has SO many…….far too many for a technophobe like me, to be honest, but by chance or otherwise I have managed some good results.  One particular afternoon the harsh sun was tempered by a veil of high cloud; bright diffused light is perfect for bird photography, and it so happened that my next-door neighbour had just put some scraps of meat out for them! It was an ideal opportunity.

For a red kite I’d guess that grasping another bird’s talons and cartwheeling towards the ground together is just about the ultimate in sociability and the mastery of flight. For me capturing the act would be the pinnacle in red kite photography; but now the peak in pre-breeding season activity has passed, I wonder if it will now have to wait until next year?

 

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A Serial Rogue?

This time last year I posted about re-introducing eagles into Wales, ( which you’ll need to read if you want some background……).  To cut a long story very short, last February, completely out of the blue, and within a couple of days of each other, two such projects were announced. One was being set up by a character named Paul O’Donoghue, at one time a “senior lecturer” at Chester University. More recently he is the figure behind the Wildcat Haven project in Scotland, and the Lynx UK Trust, which made an unsuccessful attempt to re-introduce wild lynx into the Kielder Forest on the English/Scottish border. I concluded by saying that Paul O’Donoghue was a controversial character whose

sudden arrival is bad news for rewilding in Wales in general and for the ERW project in particular. It must be hoped that Dr O’Donoghue will soon return from whence he came.”

More news about Paul O’Donoghue has emerged  in the last few days. Wildcat Haven (basically O’Donoghue and his wife) had set up a business partnership with the company Highland Titles Ltd, selling tiny souvenir plots of land which “entitled” the buyer to style themselves as “Laird, Lord or Lady of Glencoe”.  In a number of blog posts and tweets the Scottish Green MP and land rights campaigner Andy Wightman criticised this relationship. As a result Wildcat Haven sued Wightman for defamation, a claim involving the astonishing sum of £750,000 damages (plus interest).  In a welcome judgement, the case was very recently dismissed.

Meanwhile, the website “Wilder Britain”, set up by O’Donoghue to promote one of his companies (previously known as “Rewilding UK”) and its golden eagle re-introduction project, has mysteriously become unavailable.

Further digging has shown that in 2011/12 Scottish Natural Heritage gave grant funding totalling £5778.00 to the University of Chester’s Biological Science Dept, for research into the (genetic) purity of wildcats in the Cairngorms National Park; no results had been received by SNH more than five years later.

It has been suggested that O’Donoghue uses his websites and social media accounts (LynxUK, Wildcat Haven, Wilder Britain etc) to raise money for projects which never actually see the light of day. If that is the case, I wonder if any of the donors ever get their money back?

In an article about O’Donoghue in its 6th March edition (not the first, by any means), Private Eye tells us that he has recently set up yet another Community Interest Company called “We Rescue Animals” and suggests that we may soon be hearing more from him. It adds that Highland Titles has pulled out of its partnership with Wildcat Haven. Unfortunately the article also confuses “Rewilding UK” (O’Donoghue’s company), with the charity “Rewilding Britain” which launched the Summit to Sea rewilding project based in Machynlleth, mid-Wales. It’s not surprising that such a simple mistake could have been made, but I have written to Lord Gnome to clarify matters.

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At the beginning of the learning curve : first impressions of the Olympus OM1D EM1 Mk2.

Above Penrhyncoch, Ceredigion. (1/60th @f11; ISO 200)

In November I wrote that I had taken the plunge and bought into the Olympus micro four-thirds system (see this post). I knew I was at the very beginning of a steep learning curve and I’m probably only a couple of steps further forward four months later! For one thing, while some photographers probably never get past the “testing” phase with their new kit, I seem to be allergic to doing so. I just want to get out and actually use my equipment for real. And secondly, the weather this winter has been almost unrelentingly dull, wet and windy; I just haven’t felt like getting out into the field in those conditions. My em1mk2 / 12 – 100 f4 zoom have been sitting in their bag, together with the Panasonic 100-400 mm zoom lens which I bought during the Black Friday sales for wildlife photography.

However I’ve taken advantage of a couple of short spells of better weather and come back with some decent results. So I feel like I’m making some progress. The top picture was a bit of a grab shot taken from the side of the mountain road a few miles above my house on a morning which just seemed tailor made for landscape photography: bright blue skies and patchy cloud above and below that valley fog drifting inland from the sea.  In fact, although I spent most of the day out with the camera this was the best shot of all, although  I had to crop and clone out the tops of some spindly conifers in the foreground. Later that day I went down to Aberystwyth and managed a few shots of kayakers at sunset. This was a real test for the ISO capabilities of the camera; don’t look too closely, though, because it wasn’t entirely successful…!

 

Aberystwyth sunset (1/60th @ f11; ISO 1600)

In November I had spent a couple of days with friend in north Wales. I spent a few hours among the derelict slate quarries near Nantlle. The following day – a rare sunny one – we headed over to Anglesey and spent a couple of hours around sunset on the west coast near Aberffraw where I was able to take advantage of the em1ii’s amazing image stabilisation capabilities. The picture below was hand-held at 0.6 seconds – and perfectly sharp. Another was equally sharp at 1.6 seconds!

Eglwys-yn-y-mor Sant Cwyfan – 0.6 secs @ f8. (ISO 100)(handheld)

Last week I had my first real opportunity to use the long zoom in earnest. I met up with some birding friends in Pembrokeshire and we headed off to Carew, in the south of the county, where two or three firecrests had been regularly seen over a period of a couple of months. Sure enough one was visible on and off for an hour or so, and what a little beauty it was! Firecrests have been described as ‘little jewels’ and I would certainly go along with that description. I watched it with binoculars at first and saw it raise and spread its stunning little orange crest at close range. Eventually I got the camera out of my bag, attached the Panasonic and managed to catch it as it rested briefly between spells of frantic activity.

Firecrest, Carew Cheriton. (1/1250@ f8 ISO 1250.)

What a stunning little creature! And I was very happy with the technical quality of the picture. While the em1ii / Panasonic 100-400 zoom combo is still pretty chunky it is about half the weight and size of my previous Canon 5d4 / Tamron 150- 600 set-up.  And despite the massive difference in sensor size, on the evidence of this picture, image quality is very similar. Bearing in mind the crop factor of the micro four-thirds format I can cover the entire range of focal lengths from 24 to 800mm with just the two lenses. The handful of outings I’ve had with my new kit this winter have persuaded me that it is worth persevering with the em1ii’s rather frightening manual and the online guide (442 pages long) by Tony Phillips which a fellow user directed me towards.

So watch this space for more pictures and roll on springtime!

 

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Red Rebellion

 

In November I spent a day with Extinction Rebellion activists, leaving Aberystwyth in a minibus at some ungodly hour in the morning to arrive in Cardiff by 9.30 am. The objective was to take part in an action outside the Welsh Government building in Cardiff Bay. The surprising thing about it was this – it wasn’t a protest about something, or to demand something; rather to support the Welsh Government in its attempts to prevent further oil and gas exploration off the Welsh coast. The problem for the Welsh Government is that they have no powers over fossil fuel exploration because it is what is known as a “retained function” of the UK Government. And UK policy is still to maximise fossil fuel extraction within UK waters…….

So a hundred people or more from all over Wales gathered outside the Assembly Building on a blustery morning, with assorted banners and placards to await the arrival of the Red Rebels, who have become an integral part of Extinction Rebellion’s actions. Dressed from head to toe in crimson, with and wearing thick white make-up, they move through a crowd in single file, in what might be described as an atmosphere of extreme silence. Stereotypical movements and highly focussed eye contact are all part of the act, which has the feeling of mime or street theatre. While I know several of them personally, it’s actually very difficult to recognise them in the full garb. Sometimes just the shoes give them away! I did my fair share of holding banners, listening to speeches and just being part of the event, but also spent time alongside the Red Rebels. It felt extraordinary to be in their space. Here are some of the pictures, all taken with my little Canon M5 ……..

For more see my website :  https://www.wild-wales.com/v/photos/75568xmh/28358875804/red-rebels-12

 

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Extinction Rebellion, the BBC, and the War against Nature

George Orwell statue and quotation with XR flag, BBC Broadcasting House

Ok, it’s time to fess up….. I’ve been active in Extinction Rebellion for the last six months. The evidence that we’re heading for climate breakdown becomes clearer every week. It is true to say that we always see what we look for, and there have always been extreme weather events. But the frequency and variety of their occurence these days is unmistakeable. And let us not forget that XR (Extinction Rebellion) has called for a climate AND ecological emergency to be declared – it is not just about the climate. It is about what was recently described by United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres as the war against nature – a war that we have been waging for hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of years; but particularly in my own lifetime, and increasingly so.

I was pretty active in the environmental movement locally in 1980’s and 1990’s. I was part of a very active Friends of the Earth group in Aberystwyth and then moved on to become a founding member of Friends of Cardigan Bay in 1989 – an involvement that lasted for ten years. But these activities gradually faded away as I became more successful as a photographer. I felt that I had to put all my time into my photographic career. As regular readers will  know I have had to accept that those days are pretty much over now; so the coming of XR gave me a new outlet for my energy. To be quite honest this new direction feels far more relevant and important than “being a photographer”. So I gradually dipped my toes into the water with XR.

There are a couple of very controversial characters within XR’s leadership and I don’t agree with everything that XR says or does. For example, it is totally unrealistic to believe that this country could become carbon-neutral by the year 2025. As things stand we will be struggling to achieve that aim by 2050. I had my doubts about the London Uprising in October. Was it necessary for it to last for two whole weeks? The media has a very short attention span. But what XR has successfully done, in its rather imperfect way, is to bring the climate and ecological crises close to the top of the public agenda. It is far more acceptable now for scientists and politicians to voice their concerns when there is more fertile ground for that message to be heard. Would the Secretary General of the U.N.  have been able to talk about a war against nature – AND be taken seriously – if it hadn’t been for Extinction Rebellion?

I was in London for a couple of days during the October Uprising. The Welsh encampment outside the Home Office had been cleared away before I even arrived. I spent most of my first day in Trafalgar Square, mainly leafletting. I wandered down Whitehall – the middle of the street, that is, not the pavement. It was very surreal. I arrived at St. James’s Park just in time to find the Welsh contingent being moved on again. I heard that an action was being planned at BBC Broadcasting House for my second day, and I arrived there just in time to see a couple of dozen activists – many of them Welsh – heading for the front doors of the building and sitting down, preventing access. I spent the next two hours leafletting at the back door as BBC staff arrived to begin their days work. Meanwhile the crowd at the front swelled until there were several hundred people there by lunchtime, complete with banners and a sound system, and eventually speakers, musicians and a samba band. It was a wonderful experience.

But why was XR was targetting the BBC? In the recent past I have been very frustrated by the BBC;  environmental concerns just didn’t seem to feature in their current affairs output (see this post). It was my perception that things changed in a positive direction after the 2017 UK election when Michael Gove became Environment Secretary. Here was a self-declared “closet environmentalist” in a position of great influence;  a big hitter (in a political sense) whom the media listened to when he spoke. That all changed after the Conservative leadership contest:  can you name the current environment secretary? No, I thought not. Either my perception of a change in the BBC’s attitude was mistaken or the BBC lost interest in the environment as soon as A.N. Other took over from Michael Gove.

Anyway, we seem to be back to square one as far as the BBC Current Affairs Department is concerned. One listens in vain for environmental stories to be covered in any depth on the Today programme, for example. One short exchange broadcast a couple of weeks ago sums up their approach. It was a ‘meet the people’ event from Sheffield where a panel of students were being asked for their opinions, and went like this (I paraphrase) :

Journalist : So what are your concerns for the future?

First 18 year old : I’m very worried about the climate and how little the Government is doing about it.

Journalist (sounds slightly incredulous) : You mean the economic climate?

18 year old : No, I mean THE climate.

All three young people agreed that the changing climate was their major concern for the future.

The BBC produces terrific, world-class wildlife documentaries, often with environmental messages tacked on or even woven into the narrative. But its Current Affairs output treats the same subjects as trivia. To hear a decent discussion about the environment you need to tune into specialist programmes like “Costing the Earth” or even “Farming Today”  – the latter broadcast at 5.45 in the morning! These issues really need to be aired at peak time on mainstream programmes. At election time particularly this is a shocking dereliction of duty by our national broadcaster. All the political parties (with the exception of Brexit/UKIP) are making bold statements about the environment – for the first time – but the BBC just isn’t listening.

The photograph shows the statue of George Orwell, located rather ironically just outside the main entrance to BBC Broadcasting House, together with a quote by the writer. It sums up Extinction Rebellion’s ethos perfectly.

 

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Downsizing (including……the trouble with Canon.)

Left : Canon 6d (with L-plate and 24 – 105 mm zoom); Right : Olympus EM1 Mk 2 with 12 – 100 zoom lens.

 

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m not big on the technical aspects of photography. I’ve always felt that cameras were tools like any other and you learned to work with what you have. The number of equipment posts I’ve written could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand with several fingers missing. So this is an exception. 

You might be surprised to hear that I’ve been receiving my state pension for over a year now, and furthermore I’ve come to the realisation that my days as a  professional photographer are drawing to an end. Despite this I bought a Canon 5dmk4 last October and shortly afterwards sold my mk3. I’ve been a Canon user since going digital in 2006 and have dutifully upgraded my main body every few years. In recent years however it has become apparent how conservative new Canon models have become. That’s not to say that Canon make bad cameras; but there have been rumblings that Canon deliberately “cripple” new models to make sure the latest features only appear on their most expensive bodies. Even the 5d4 seemed to suffer this fate. Reviews suggested that even on introduction it lacked some features that its competitors already had. This was the complete opposite to Nikon, for example, who threw just about every piece of technical wizardry they could find into the d850, and I lusted after one of these for quite a while.

But back to the 5d4. It sat in my camera bag most of the time for the first six months of its life. When I did pick it up the battery was invariable completely flat, which I thought was a bit strange. Come the spring it became clear that the battery drained very rapidly, even when the camera was switched off. It went back for repairs under guarantee, but when it came back it was just as bad. At this point I contacted the technical people at Canon.

For the nth time I was told to make sure the Wifi was switched off. Of course it was. I confirmed that the battery charge drained from 100% to zero in ten days or less. This was getting frustrating. A Canon technician told me that the problem was definitely my batteries so I bought a new one. No change. Then the same guy told me that if I read the manual I would see that the battery should be removed from the camera if it was not likely to be used for an extended period.

Ten days! This was (originally) a £3000+ camera body and he was treating me like an idiot. I was furious. I decided to pull rank (not before time……) and contacted Canon Professional Services, of which I was a Gold member. They agreed to examine the camera for me, but could not repair it themselves because I had bought it from a grey importer ………. so the saga continued. Canon agreed that it was faulty so it came back to me and then back to the original engineers for repairs. It came back a few days later with the same fault. The retailer agreed at this point to send me a replacement.

And this is where down-sizing starts.

I had of course read about the new breed of mirrorless cameras, In fact I had owned a series of them – a Canon g10, Panasonic gx1 and gx7, and still have a Canon m5. Most were little used and I still find the DSLR experience far superior. But I couldn’t help reading the reviews – rave reviews at that – that some models were getting. An award-winning wildlife photographer – Petr Bambousek – is an Olympus em1 mk2 user, and I noted the stunning quality of his images. Another well-known bird photographer – David Tipling – uses Olympus om-d equipment. While on the Isle of Eigg in 2017 I met Dimitri Vasileiou, editor of the online “Landscape Photography” magazine who told me he was using an Olympus em5; in fact he had three of them in his bag, each with a different lens attached!

The Olympus “om-d” range of mirrorless cameras uses a micro 4/3rds sensor, approximately one quarter the size of the full-frame sensors I’m used to. The big advantage is that the cameras themselves and the lenses are much smaller. The disadvantage is that the pixels on the sensor are also much smaller and low light performance is limited. Battery life will be a problem, in comparison to my Canons (most of them, anyway). But bearing in mind that I am no longer fully dependent on my equipment for a living, I became very tempted to downsize. And I suddenly had a brand new, unused, and very saleable Canon 5d mk4 on my hands. So off it went, together with a couple of lenses, and in came an em1 mk2 and the Olympus Pro 12 -100 mm f4 zoom lens. In full frame terms that lens is the equivalent of two of my Canon lenses, the 24 – 105 mm and 70 – 200 mm zoom. If I get back into bird photography, the Panasonic 100 – 400 zoom will on my shopping list.

The photograph above gives some impression of the size difference between my remaining Canon kit (a 6D with 24-105 zoom), and the new Olympus combo. But bear in mind two things –

(a) the size difference is also apparent in the vertical dimension and

(b) for an accurate comparison I would have to include an 8 inch long 70-200 zoom lens (weighing about 800 grams) on the Canon side of the equation.

So there we have it. I took the em1.2 out for a trial on Sunday for the first time. Olympus is renowned for the complexity of its menu system and I spent about half an hour trying to work out how to switch the camera to auto-focus, without success. As a I scrolled and pressed and scrolled again a smiley face frequently appeared, apparently taunting me for my stupidity (but actually denoting a face recognition feature). On returning home and consulting the internet I discovered the autofocus control was a ring around the lens barrel. So I have a steep learning curve ahead of me. Wish me luck……..

 

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A good morning at Llyn Dinas and a new website……

Llyn Dinas

If I’m away for two days on a photographic expedition and come back with one good image I’m very happy. Usually at any one location at any one time there are variations on a theme to be had so one good image usually means two or three others I’m reasonably happy with as well. The above was taken at Llyn Dinas near Beddgelert on a stunning morning early last week. There were a few other photographers thereabouts but at the time conditions here were perfect I was on my own. A couple of other chaps were at the other end of the lake in the murk so I was pleased that I had sat it out for half an hour or so while it cleared and the sun came out. Llyn Dinas must be one of my very favourite locations in the whole of Wales.

And now for something completely different. I have a new website! My old site got hacked and infected with malicious code earlier this year and I was persuaded that I really needed a new one. I compared most of the photographers sites (Smugmug, Squarespace, Zenfolio, etc) but one – The Image File – stood out for me in various ways. It was reasonably priced for up to 500 images and had a high degree of customisation. They offer a site building service which I paid out for. It gave me a start but I am far too choosy to accept any one else’s idea of what my website should look like! So very soon I was on my own. I must say that with a couple of exceptions (were they at trade shows….?) during the six months or more I was putting the site together I found their customer support to be excellent. James or Reuben were often at the end of a telephone or on the email when required. Just what a technophobe like me needs! One further advantage of The Image File was the ability to choose a lab and let the customer order prints directly via the website. I haven’t quite got this down to a tee yet but in time I will. So do log in and have a look; any suggestions on how I could improve it will be gratefully considered.

http://www.wild-wales.com

The R-word (part 2) ……. or Caught Knepping……….

The deerpark at Knepp

I spent most of last week in West Sussex. As mentioned in the last post I am very interested in the idea and practice of re-wilding, but there was one thing I couldn’t quite grasp. It is accepted that the climax vegetation over most of the British Isles (most of the planet, I imagine) would be woodland, and it would be to woodland that re-wilded land would eventually revert.. If that were the case I couldn’t understand how there could be a niche – in a world before agriculture – for grassland plants and animals. Then I read an excellent book called Wilding by Isabella Tree, in which she describes the process by which she and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their farm  – Knepp – in West Sussex into wildlife habitat where natural processes hold sway.

The secret was to introduce grazing and browsing animals into the equation. In its primeval state woodland would have been kept in check by herds of wild cattle, horses, boar and deer. With the exception of the latter these large mammals have all become extinct, so the answer at Knepp was to introduce the nearest domesticated equivalents and let them roam freely : longhorn cattle, exmoor ponies, tamworth pigs and a selection of wild deer. The result is a continuously evolving mix of habitats which has attracted an exciting range of wildlife. Thickets of naturally occuring sallows are perfect for purple emperor butterflies, such that Knepp now holds the largest numbers of this stunning insect in Britain. Gorse and blackthorn scrub has attracted large numbers of nightingales, so much so that strictly speaking the re-wilding process should be stopped in its tracks and the land declared an S.S.S.I. for this species alone. The fast declining and now very rare turtle dove is at its highest British concentration at Knepp. It’s unlikely anyone would have expected these particular wildlife gains but that is the beauty of re-wilding. It is unpredictable. So I was very keen to see it with my own eyes.

Lets get a few things clear first about Knepp. It never was just any old farm. Knepp Castle is the ancestral home of the Burrell family, “Charlie” is in fact Sir Charles, and Isabella Tree is Lady Burrell. It is said in Wilding that the estate was close to becoming bankrupt thanks to its poor clay soils and other factors before the decision to re-wild it was taken. This may well have been the case, but Knepp also benefits from the properties it leases to small businesses and individuals. So it does have considerable financial advantages which would not be available to many farms.. The estate now runs exceptionally expensive jeep safaris, and has yurts, treehouses and the like for visitors to rent (at a premium), all of which seem to be booked up many months in advance.  Knepp has managed to maintain an exclusivity which might be difficult for other similar projects to acquire – even if they wanted to.

“Wild” piglets at Knepp

Nevertheless Knepp is a truly pioneering experiment in land-use which could be an example for others to follow.

The estate is criss-crossed by numerous public rights of way, so access was easy. Some bridleways were as wide as Welsh B-roads! The land is very flat and one was continually immersed in the landscape. Sturdy pedunculate oaks – such a contrast to the sessile oaks so familiar in Wales – line field boundaries and footpaths, and hedgerows were being allowed to expand outwards and upwards.  What must once have been fields of cereals or improved grassland were reverting to scrub en route to woodland. But it was frustrating that there were no viewpoints from which one could get an overall perspective of the rewilded area.  To be quite honest Knepp didn’t have the visually exciting qualities that I was expecting, although I’m sure a visit in spring would have been far more rewarding in a wildlife sense.  It is also the location of a white stork re-introduction project and although I heard bill-clattering and saw this year’s nest, I didn’t catch sight of an actual stork.

Around Knepp Castle itself is a traditional deer park dotted with ancient oaks and this proved the most photogenic area, especially at dawn on my last morning. A little low-lying fog and mist drifted around amonst the trees and I took my most successful picture there. I’m sure the message is quite clear; but note also the jet trail which I could easily have removed in post-processing. It must be there for a reason!

Otherwise photographic possibilities were few and far between. Skies were almost completely cloud-free for the three full days that we were there, and those really are difficult conditions for the landscape photographer. So I took the time to relax and enjoy the warm sunshine in the knowledge that before too long the rains of autumn and winter would soon be with us.

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