Wales at Waters Edge : a review

The mouth of the Mawddach with the hills of Penllyn in the background. Taken in 2012

The mouth of the Mawddach at high tide,with the hills of Penllyn in the background. Taken in 2012 and now in the Meirionnydd gallery of my website.

My most recent book, Wales at Waters Edge, with text by Jon Gower, was published in May 2012. I’ve only just become aware of this review of it, which appeared four years ago in the Wales Arts Review.

Meirionnydd (the old county of Merionethshire) is one of the most delectable areas of Wales, with its heart perhaps being the sublime estuary of the river Mawddach. I’ve just added a Meirionnydd gallery to my website; you can have a look by clicking here. Enjoy!

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You wait around and then you wait around some more.

St David's Head (in the far distance) from Garn Fawr.

St David’s Head (in the far distance) from Garn Fawr.

One evening about ten days ago I headed down to Pembrokeshire. Postcards are still selling well down there and I need to renew a couple of cards for next season. One card in particular had sold out, a view of Strumble Head lighthouse from the mainland. I hoped that the heather would still be in flower so that it could appear in the foreground of the picture. Conditions for my journey down were poor but a clearance to sunshine was forecast for the following morning. I spent the night in my camper van on the car park just below Garn Fawr. This is a rocky 200 metre hilltop, complete with hill fort, on Pen Caer, the peninsula upon which Strumble Head is the northern-most point.

By 8.30 a.m the following day it was indeed clear and sunny. I walked the short distance up to the summit of Garn Fawr. It is a stunning viewpoint with 360 degree views across north Pembrokeshire, notably down the coast to St. David’s Head. It should have been perfect for photography, but it wasn’t. There was a murkiness in the air, possibly a legacy of the previous night’s rain, and the sky was cloudless – blue but uninteresting. After a few minutes I returned to the van. There was no point in even pressing the shutter when I knew that the results would not equal those I had achieved on previous visits. I brewed up some coffee and compared notes  with another campervan driver who had recently arrived. I decided on a different walk nearby, and rather lazily drove the couple of miles to its starting point.

By this time it was about 10.30 am. I normally have a cut-off point of about 10 a.m. in summer, after which I feel that the sun is too high for successful landscapes. It’s all part of a process, of course, but shadows become insignificant and the light tends to become too harsh. But by this time some attractive clouds had begun forming and the air did appear to be sharper. So I decided to head back up to the summit of Garn Fawr instead. I could still walk from my new parking place although it would be a longer and steeper climb.  One might prefer the sun to have been lower but I think you’ll agree from the picture above that it was worth it, though.  And so one single, ten-minute picture-taking session made over a period of five hours was all that was needed for a successful morning’s photography.

Later that day a bank of thick cirrus cloud edged in from the north-west, gradually obscuring the sun. I walked along the coast path to the location for the lighthouse image I had in mind, but it was too late – the sun had gone.  And the heather on the cliff-top was over – no longer the luscious pinky-purple that I love but brown. It was all a bit dispiriting. I returned to the van and buried myself in a book. I would have another go the following day.

Strumble Head lighthouse, Pembrokeshire.

Strumble Head lighthouse, Pembrokeshire.

The next morning I awoke before dawn and turned the radio on, just in time for the 5.30 a.m. weather forecast.  Ever heard it?  I thought not! The forecaster described the same band of cloud and, very unusually, added that there could be a good sunrise.  I hadn’t thought of that! The Pen Caer section of the Pembrokeshire coast runs roughly west > east so the lighthouse might be set against a pink sunrise from my viewpoint. I gulped down a mug of tea and drove down to Strumble Head ; then there was the fifteen-minute walk! The sky was brightening and wispy cirrus pinking up quickly. But I made it. I took a series of images in the hope that one would include the lighthouse beam. A glance at the camera’s monitor was enough to tell me that I’d been successful. What a bonus! There was a real spring in my step as I walked back to the van.

The cirrus that had provided the focus of my sunrise picture proved to be a bit of a downer for the rest of the morning, however. More often than not the sun was behind it, which had the effect of casting a veil over the light on the landscape. It was the end of picture-taking for the day and I was back home by mid-morning. I had been away for 40 hours and during that time had actually had the camera in hand for 20 minutes. And yet I felt it had been a successful trip. Such is the life of the landscape photographer: you wait around and then you wait around some more. And if you’re lucky…….

 

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A Day at the Seaside – New Quay (Part Two)

Manx shearwaters, Cardigan Bay

Manx shearwaters, Cardigan Bay

Back in summer 1989 the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior (IIRC) made a surprise visit to Aberystwyth. Their intention was to publicise the presence of a resident group of bottlenose dolphins in Cardigan Bay – one of only two in British waters. I had seen dolphins at Tresaith whilst working on the footpath project but didn’t realise their significance. At a packed meeting in the town Greenpeace explained that its constitution prevented them from setting up local activist groups but they wanted local people – i.e. us – to take on that role for them. At the time I was a member of a fairly active Friends of the Earth group in Aberystwyth; many of us were at the meeting and we made an almost immediate decision to jump ship from FoE and Friends of Cardigan Bay was quickly formed. Over the next few years  FoCB activities had a really positive effect on the marine environment, with perhaps our biggest victory being persuading Welsh Water to install a state-of-the-art sewage works at Aberystwyth, rather than building an extra-long pipe. As well as the campaigning aspect we did dolphin photo-id work and winter sea-duck and diver surveys, and produced a membership magazine, tee-shirts and other nick-nicks among other things. Exciting times! I left Friends of Cardigan Bay after about ten years and although it now still exists on paper, with a completely different membership, it is more or less moribund.

Bottlenose dolphins off Mwnt

Bottlenose dolphins off Mwnt

So me and bottlenose dolphins go back a long way and my day-trip from New Quay with the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife people was another trip down memory lane. It is fair to say, however, that the marine wildlife didn’t really play ball. We chugged out north-westwards  until we were several miles off Aberystwyth but for long periods of time virtually nothing was visible. We came across a few rafts of manx shearwaters out in the Bay and I was able to get a couple of decent shots of them as they flew (see above). There was the occasional gannet, a few auks with young, and one storm petrel was seen. It wasn’t until we turned back south and returned closer to the shore, several hours later, that we began to come across dolphins. According to Steve Hartley, the skipper, there were currently a number of family groups regularly seen off the southern Ceredigion coast, and we came across several of them. But it was a rather restrained performance from the dolphins. They did on occasion bowride with the boat and they half-heartedly leaped a couple a couple of times and that was it. The researchers on board were able to do some photo-id and several young animals were identified, but for those hoping for the spectacular – ie everybody – it was just a little bit disappointing.

This was a far cry from the day a group of us us went out from Aberystwyth with the Greenpeace researchers on their first visit, to learn the rudiments of photo-id. Now that was a real dolphin extravaganza. My memories are rather hazy now but countless animals were attracted to the boat and went through the whole repertoire of dolphin behaviour. It was extraordinary. But hey…you win some and you lose some.

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A Day at the Seaside – New Quay (Part One)

A couple of weekends ago last my partner Jane and I decided to have “a day at the seaside”.  Although we live only a few miles from Aberystwyth, going there is such a routine that it is sometimes difficult to drag one’s feet away from the well trodden paths we have each made in the town. So we decided to head down to New Quay, about 25 miles to the south, and what is more, go (most of the way) on the bus. Arriving on the outskirts of the village we made a connection on to the “Cardi Bach” – a local bus that twice daily links the villages between there and Cardigan. It seemed more like a fairground ride than a bus service as it rattled down the steep, narrow and overgrown lane running down to the coast at Cwmtydi.  Having fortified ourselves with coffee there, we began the coastal walk to New Quay about five miles distant.

Many years ago I had what could almost be described as “a proper job”. It was in 1983 and I was employed on a Manpower Services Scheme to supervise the clearance and re-opening of various stretches of footpath along the Ceredigion coast. So it was  a trip down memory lane for me, although it is shameful to admit that I’ve not walked several lengths of the coast since the early 1980’s! One particular stretch of the coastal slope/hillside I remembered as being impossible to traverse despite there being a public footpath across it. In those early days it was necessary to descend right down to a narrow and remote pebbly beach and then after 100 yards or so climb back up on to the cliff top. Since those early days additional sums of money have been spent on these paths and some relatively major engineering projects completed, and they now form part of the All-Wales Coastal footpath. What really brought my mind back to those days was the sight of two footpath signs which I had designed and possibly even built myself back in early 1984 – much the worse for wear after more than thirty years out in the elements but still doing their job and now almost part of the landscape.

On the walk we met Arfon Williams, one of the RSPB’s top people in Wales. We stopped to have a chat and he told me that he was planning to return to Cwmtydi via Cwm Soden, a wooded valley which Jane and I had crossed via a footbridge. During my footpath survey and clearance days I had identified Cwm Soden as having a particularly diverse range of butterflies and Arfon mentioned that it was now managed for them by the National Trust in conjunction with the charity Butterfly Conservation. I wondered if my observations in summer 1983 had contributed to the knowledge about Cwm Soden and the conservation effort now made there. I’d like to think so.

It was a good walk- if rather bird-free – and after a couple of hours (well, three….) we arrived at the bustling holiday village of New Quay. On this sunny Saturday afternoon it was absolutely heaving with visitors. The beach was thronged with families and the high-pitched voices of happy children were everywhere to be heard.  There were queues for ice-creams and chips and it really was the archetypal British summer seaside holiday experience. There is still a resident population of bottlenose dolphins in Cardigan Bay and New Quay is also the centre for dolphin watching in Wales. Several operators run boat trips out of the harbour to see them. There is also a conservation presence there – I should damn well hope so! In particular I popped in to the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre. It so happened they were running a 8 hour dolphin survey boat trip the following day and they had one space left! So it was back home on the bus then an early start the following day and a drive back down to New Quay. It was hardly good planning but that spare place definitely had my name on it!

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Bird/land opens at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

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These are exciting times as my exhibition Bird/land opens at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. It’s in the Photography Gallery (Gallery 2) on the top floor and is showing until August 27th. Opening hours are as follows:

Monday – Saturday 8 am > 11 pm; Sunday 12 noon > 8 pm; Free entry.

It’s an expanded version of the original exhibition, with eight new small single images and nine new triptychs. I must say it looks very tasteful in there. So if you’re in mid-Wales in the next couple months do drop in and have a look around!

I’ll be giving a talk in the Arts Centre’s cinema at 5.30 pm on Thursday July 14th. Entry is free of charge.

For a sneak preview of the work, go to my website and click on the Bird/land gallery, or click on this link.

 

For background to the exhibition click here to link to my Blog.

 

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Edward Llwyd would be turning in his grave.

Snowdon Lily, lloydia (gagea) serotina.

Snowdon Lily, lloydia (gagea) serotina.

About ten days ago I headed off for north Wales to search for one our rarest and most iconic wild flowers, the Snowdon Lily. More widely known as lloydia serotina (or just lloydia) after its Welsh discoverer Edward Llwyd, it can be found in early June high up on a few north-east facing crags on Snowdon and surrounding mountains. Llwyd describes his discovery as follows –

A certain rush-leaved bulbous plant having a one-seeded vessel on top of an erect stalk about nine inches high on the high rocks of Snowdon viz: Trigvylchau y Clogwyn du ymhen y Gluder Clogwyn Yr Ardhu Crib y Distilh

although he hadn’t seen it in flower. Bill Condry had taken a party of us to see it many years ago, and according to the National Nature Reserve warden for Snowdon it could still be seen in the same location.

It was a bit of a slog up to the Snowdon’s great north-facing cliffs. Years ago this would have been a stroll but not so now. Nevertheless I had prepared myself mentally for it and I arrived in good condition. A scattering of small white flowers on a steep grassy slope beneath some cliffs deserved investigation but I eventually put two and two together: despite the altitude those small white cups and those wood sorrel leaves were in some way connected! Arriving at the cliffs I found another plant seeker already there. He quickly showed me two flowering plants of lloydia, one at chest level and another with two flowers at about eight feet up. This was very promising. I spent a couple of hours hereabouts, taking a whole series of images. Access to the twin-flowered specimen was a bit tricky, but I felt that a picture of it would be a bit of a prize. Using my standard zoom at 105 mm, and pre-focussing at the closest distance, I ended up with both feet on the cliff, clinging to it with my right hand, and operating the camera with my left at arms length. Heroic stuff, but it was worth the time I spent contemplating the situation first;  the resulting images proved to be the best of the lot.

The hanging gardens in Cwm Idwal

The hanging gardens in Cwm Idwal

Last week I headed north again to Cwm Idwal, where the well-known (to botanists) “Hanging Gardens” can be found on some broken cliffs high above the lake. Here a bizarre collection of woodland and water plant species jostle with arctic-alpines on lushly vegetated and well-watered ledges. It would not be my first visit but I thought I would have a word with the warden first. We had an interesting conversation about arctic alpines and mountain birds, among other things (see also this post) and then he added “In view of the conditions, I’d advise you not to go up there”.

I hung around for an hour or so. There was no sign that the promised heavy downpours were materialising and in fact conditions were slowly improving. I decided to go for it after all. It was a real slog steeply up through the boulder fields to the cliffs, and the hanging gardens proved to be a bit of a disappointment, and not as floriferous as I had remembered them. Early purple orchid could be seen, together with globeflower, water avens and others. Arctic alpines included moss campion and roseroot, but the latter was past its best. I wedged myself against the rock and took some general shots of the cliff face and its waterfall.

I’m no botanist but during my conversation with the warden I thought I’d throw in the word “lloydia” – no more of this Snowdon Lily nonsense! I was disappointed to hear his response – that the species has recently been renamed “gagea serotina”. Apparently the genus “lloydia” is now thought to be identical to the genus “gagea” so all those species currently placed in the former (26 altogether) have been moved to the latter. The name just doesn’t have the same ring to it and if he knew I’m sure Edward Llwyd would be turning in his grave.

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A case of mistaken identity (part 2).

Pink magpie, St Davids.

Pink magpie, St Davids.

A couple of weeks ago there was a report on the Pembrokeshire bird blog of a rose-breasted starling near St Davids, and as I was in the area delivering postcards I thought I would have a look for it. I’ve never seen a rosy starling, but as I am probably the world’s worst twitcher I didn’t hold out much hope. What I did find won’t add to my bird list – not that I have one – but it was even more interesting.

The bird had been reported from a rural garden about a mile from the centre of St. Davids. Rather than just turning up on the doorstep I walked, and as I approached the property along its drive (also a public right of way), I briefly saw something flying into bright sunlight which left me gobsmacked. It appeared to be a magpie but it was glowing red all over. I wondered if I was hallucinating!

Finding a slightly elevated viewpoint, I sat and waited for it to re-appear. And it did! In better viewing conditions this time, a magpie appeared whose white feathers were all bright pink. It was an astonishingly beautiful creature. Its tail feathers were short suggesting a juvenile bird. A few minutes later another birder arrived, and the lady of the house ran out to meet him. I joined them.

“Are you talking starlings?” I asked, “because it isn’t one. I’m almost certain it’s a magpie with all its while feathers coloured pink.”

By this time the woman’s husband arrived, protesting that it was definitely a rosy-breasted starling. I pointed out that it was about four times the size of a starling. We agreed that the only solution was to try to photograph it; did I have my camera with me? You’ve guessed it. No.

Once that conversation was over the woman and I realised we knew each other; she was Gail Lloyd who publishes a range of greetings cards. We had met on several occasion, and also had a treasured mutual friend in Penny Condry, the widow of Bill, the naturalist, writer, and one-time warden of the Ynyshir RSPB reserve. She confided in me that she had thought it was a magpie all along! Keen to get a proper identification she agreed to let me bring my van down the drive to the house and use it as a hide.

The resulting photograph is not quite what I had hoped for , and doesn’t really do the bird justice. But it does confirm its identity. You can see that the iridescence on the bird’s secondary feathers is blue (as it is on a normal magpie) but I believe that an overall  red iridescence can also be seen, which would account for my first sighting. Magpies like this have occasionally been reported elsewhere, and have been attributed to deliberate or unintentional human interference, but I cannot believe this would be the case in oh-so-respectable St Davids. Otherwise it appears that erythrism – defined as  “a congenital condition of abnormal redness in an animal’s fur, plumage, or skin” – may be the explanation. So there we have it. A pink and black magpie.

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The Uniqball UB35P tripod head…….niche but nice ………

The UB35P - beautifully colour co-ordinated (if you're a Canon user)

The UB35P – beautifully colour co-ordinated (if you’re a Canon user)

Many photographers, it seems to me, are more interested in equipment than in photography. I don’t feel I have enough knowledge about photo gear, or a distinct enough voice, to make myself heard above the mass of reviews available elsewhere on the internet. But in the case of the Uniqball tripod head I recently purchased, I’m going to make an exception. So those of you interested in the images themselves and the subject matter, rather than what gear they were made with, might want to skip this post!

The Uniqball range of tripod heads were developed in Hungary by bird photographers and are still made there. They have received good reviews in the UK, notably from the wildlife photographer Andy Rouse. However, as he is one of the company’s very few agents here, it might be wise to take his recommendations with a pinch of salt. Late last year, though,  the Uniqball was recognised in the “accessory” category of 2015  TIPA Product of the Year Awards  – “…. the most influential photo and imaging product awards around the world”. So the Uniqball  must do something well! I thought it wise to investigate the Uniqball again more thoroughly.

The Uniqball’s most distinctive feature is that it consists of one ball head within another. The red outer ball is designed to be set at any one location using the spirit level to give a fixed correct horizon. The black, inner, ball is then adjusted to give the required composition. At first I was discouraged by one feature of the head. It only works correctly if the inner ball control knob (coloured red in the above image) is aligned with the lens axis. This might seem perfectly acceptable but consider this :

If you’re a bird photographer your long lens almost certainly has a loosely-fitting lens collar (within which the lens can rotate) and a foot running parallel with the lens axis. If you’re a landscape photographer your lens is fixed to the camera body and the body is attached to the tripod head either directly or using a L-plate (see above), running at right-angles to the lens axis.

Users of the original Uniqball got round this problem by either –

a) unscrewing the clamp using the supplied allen key, rotating it 90 degrees, and re-tightening it, or

b) inserting a right-angle adaptor (supplied with the head) into the clamp.

Neither solution appealed to me. Do small gizmos, tools and gadgets get lost? Yes, they do. Would I ever want to change from long lens use to standard lens in a hurry? Yes, sometimes.

Any thought of purchasing a Uniqball was therefore put on hold. But this spring I discovered that a new model was shortly due to be launched which also featured an “ultra-light panoramic clamp”. In other words the clamp could be rotated 90 degrees in a jiffy (or the full 360 degrees if required). I didn’t waste a moment in ordering one and must have had one of the first in the UK.

In a general sense this is one very attractive looking piece of equipment. It is very lightweight, noticeably less heavy in the field than the mid-range ball head I had previously been using. It is finished to a very high standard, although how well this finish will last after a couple of years use and misuse only time will tell. Some complaints were made of the earlier models that tightening up the inner ball caused the image to shift upwards by a degree or two. This has not been fixed in the UB35P.  Once the outer ball has been set using the spirit level, a Uniqball acts as a pan-and-tilt head, which is actually less flexible than a ball-head. One is restricted to horizontal and vertical movements. This would seem to be a disadvantage in most situations, to my eyes anyway. Apart from this, then, what is my experience of using one in the field? I’ll answer this from two points of view – the long-lens user and the L-plate user.

The bird photographer can ‘work around’  the apparent disadvantage noted in the previous paragraph by slackening off the lens collar and rotating the lens as required. If a correct horizon is needed this won’t help but in real life how often do we actually need a correct horizon when photographing wildlife? Panning, tilting and rotating the lens gives almost as much flexibility as a gimbal head with lens collar released – although I can’t be sure of this from personal experience. Using the UB35P  in this way is an absolute delight, and has one big advantage over a ball head: it will not collapse over to one side, potentially causing damage to equipment and fingers, if the ball is not fully tightened. The upward shift in composition  IS particularly noticeable, of course, using a long lens, and the bird photographer will just have to deal with it. But, on balance, it’s a thumbs-up for the UB35P for use in wildlife photography.

The landscape photographer using the UB35P has a different issue to deal with. It is impossible to rotate the lens, because it is fixed to the camera body. One is thus restricted to pan and tilt movements once the horizon has been set. So one either accepts this limitation or, as the manufacturer suggests, uses the outer ball to compose the image. The problem with doing the latter is that the outer ball does not really have variable friction control. It’s basically on or off. So once again it’s a bit of a ‘work-around’. However I feel sure that with time and experience using the Uniqball will become second nature. “Image-shift” (mentioned above) is much less of a problem with a wide-angle/standard  lenses and I would suggest well within the realms of acceptability.

Straight out of the camera many of my landscape images suffer from sloping horizons. They always have, I don’t know what causes it, and until the Uniqball I didn’t know how to fix it. But again I propose the following question: when photographing the landscape, how important is a correct horizon? And further, does the horizon even appear in the image? Speaking personally, it’s not that I look for it particularly, but the horizon is the first thing I notice in a landscape image. In other situations, in woodland, for example, technically speaking the horizon may not need to be correct; as long as the image “looks right” I’m happy . It is up to the individual to decide how important this feature is to them.

The manufacturer claims that the Uniqball is at the same time a gimbal head, a ball head, and a tilt/shift head.  I suppose so, but not really a shining example of any of them. Where it comes into its own is that it combines aspects of all three into one unit. It performs well enough as a gimbal head that many bird photographers will be happy. Landscape photographers will adapt to using it, even if its functionality is a bit limited.  For many years as a landscape photographer I used a Novoflex Magicball which really was my flexible friend. One control did everything. I would still be using it today if it could cope with the weight of a long zoom lens without slipping.  I rue the day when I had to retire it. My ball head did most things reasonably well.

For those who do both landscapes and wildlife, like I now do, the Uniqball UB35P is a very lightweight and versatile piece of kit. While it may always be a niche product,  it does have that little bit extra for the discerning user. The UB35P is available direct from the manufacturer and costs roughly £300 including delivery.

It is worth noting that in my “copy” there was an unreasonable amount of friction between the screw-in control of the clamp (long and black in the picture above) and the spring-loaded “jaw” which it pushes in. This was sorted with a little lubrication but I suspect adding a tiny washer at that point during manufacture would solve that problem more permanently. Uniqball have offered me a replacement when they have new supplies in stock.

UPDATE: I have just (August 16th) received the replacement part from Uniqball as promised. It is from a second batch of Ultralight Panoramic Clamps and as I suggested above features a tiny washer at the base the screw-in control. Definitely a case of “Great minds think alike……” and it was very generous of Uniqball to send me one.

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In hawfinch nirvana.

Hawfinch in cherry tree, Dolgellau

Hawfinch in cherry tree, Dolgellau

A couple of years ago I posted about photographing hawfinches in a Welsh churchyard. (See this post). While it was exciting to come back with something usable it was not really the image of my dreams. So I kept my ear to the ground about other possible locations.

The hawfinch has always been an uncommon bird in the UK and has become increasingly scarce in recent years. In 2013 the maximum number of breeding pairs remaining in the UK was estimated to be one thousand. The 2013 BTO Bird Atlas noted that the Welsh population was becoming increasingly significant in a UK context. And – unlikely as it may seem – it has become more and more apparent over the last few years that Dolgellau is the British hawfinch hot-spot. The first hint of this came in 2004, when research published  in “Welsh Birds” suggested a breeding population of about fifty pairs in the area, and a wintering population of more than a hundred birds. The increasing scarcity of the species and its growing presence in the Dolgellau area has resulted in further ringing and other studies being undertaken there. Both the BTO and the RSPB have become involved. The results have shown how numerous the species actually is in southern Merionydd and how little we knew about the hawfinch!

Ornithologist Dave Smith and bird-ringer extraordinaire Tony Cross  have set up a feeding station in woodland near Dolgellau which is kept well-stocked with sunflower seeds. Hawfinches can rely on this food source all year round and there they can be netted,  ringed and released. The yellow plastic leg-rings, each with an individual letter and number combination, can be read relatively easily in the field. Perhaps the most astonishing information has come from just one garden in the leafy outskirts of Dolgellau. Shortly after moving into the house, inexperienced bird-watchers Trevor and Chris ******** began to notice some unusual-looking birds on their feeders. Delving into their field guide they realised they were hawfinches. Their garden has since developed into a hub of hawfinch-related activity. Trevor and Chris themselves have become, by their own admission, obsessed with the species. They sit in their kitchen and read ring numbers with a telescope. To date they have identified 185 different birds, with probably an equal number of un-ringed individuals. It really is hawfinch nirvana.

Thanks to my contacts in BTO Cymru Trevor and Chris very kindly agreed to let me visit their garden to do some photography. Trevor has himself taken many excellent photographs of the hawfinches through their kitchen window and posted them on FlickR. But there is no mistaking the fact that they are all taken at bird feeders. Not really the type of setting I felt they deserved. Tony Cross generously took me to his feeding site but the setting there is, if anything, less attractive. It is an extensive carpet of sunflower seed shells surrounded by ringing paraphernalia. We tried scattering seeds on the woodland floor around the “feeding table” but the birds just weren’t interested. Perhaps I should have been more patient……..

But there is a cherry tree in the ********s’ garden and the hawfinches sometimes perch in it before heading for the feeders. That sounded more promising! There followed a wait of several weeks for it to come into bloom and leaf. The strong northerlies of late April and early May held back flowering even longer than usual. Last Sunday the tree finally began to show some colour and it was amazing how much change there was in the following 24 hours. I chose a position in the garden where I could look across to the cherry tree against a dark background. For the first time in my life I  set up the tripod, brought out the camping chair,  sat down and draped a bag hide over myself and all my gear.

It took a bit of getting used to. Apart from the issue of physical comfort, tunnel vision was a problem. I could hear birds all around but often not see them. The lower branches of the cherry tree were visible but the lawn and bird-tables were out of sight. But when a hawfinch lands it has the tendency to sit tight for a few seconds and survey its surroundings. There is sometimes an air of deliberation about their activities. They seem to take their time and think things through. So on the few occasions when one did perch in the cherry tree I had the chance to catch it in a variety of postures and compositions before it dropped down onto the feeders. Light cloud was preferable to bright sunshine as it tended to illuminate tree, flowers and bird in a gentle, even light, and cast no shadows. I’m absolutely thrilled by this image.

NB I have removed Trevor and Chris’s surname to maintain their privacy.

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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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