A bit of a rant about the BBC

I have become more and more aware over the last few years how low a priority the environment is on BBC television and radio news and current affairs.

Unfortunately I don’t sleep too well and I tend to hear rather too much of the World Service during the night. I began to notice how environmental stories would be heard on the World Service but not on Radio 4 during the Today programme the following morning. An example would be the massive protest against the construction of the Dakota XL oil pipeline which ex-President Obama eventually halted. I was disappointed (and more) that environmental issues were given such low priority during the last General Election and the run-up to the EU referendum. Caroline Lucas M.P. was occasionally given a slot on one programme or another, and without fail she performed brilliantly. With that exception it seemed that the politicians didn’t want to discuss the environment and no-one at the BBC was willing to take them to task for this. It seemed there must have been an unspoken agreement between them.

Last week on the eve of the crowning of “President Trump” a 30-minute Panorama programme looked into his links with Putin of Russia. It was largely intrigue and speculation. In contrast, half-an-hour earlier, a Channel 4 programme had looked into Trump’s links with “Big Coal” and “Big Oil”. As well as interviews with some of the main players such as lobbyists for the coal and oil industries, C4 had found actual evidence of the massive donations they had made to the Republican Party and Trump’s campaign. This was proper investigational journalism on a crucial issue.

Most recently there have been the executive orders that Trump has already signed. “Obamacare” got coverage on R4 news but not another which was made at the same time to begin to roll back Obama’s Climate Change-related legislation. Last night when the Dakota XL pipeline was given the go-ahead by Trump it was mentioned on every news bulletin on the World Service that I heard – every half-hour, I believe, together with interviews with an oil industry lobbyist and an environmentalist. Questions about the donations to Trump were asked. On Radio 4 – zilch. The Today programme did cover the Executive Order Trump had signed regarding the construction of the Mexican Wall, but rather than then mention the pipeline issue, they went on to speculate at great length about the Wall.

I can’t pretend that I hear every single minute of the Today programme or every single news broadcast. This is not a scientific survey. I’m sure someone at the BBC would be only too happy to prove me wrong but I listen to enough radio to get an impression of the pattern that has emerged. I have been a supporter of the BBC for its unbiased coverage of current affairs for many years but now I really wonder where I can go to hear politicians being challenged about their environmental policies. There is so much speculation in BBC current affairs about what such-and-such a politician will announce later and what will happen then. The BBC should remember that there are far more members of conservation organisations than of political parties. The environment is not a minority interest. It is time that their journalists got out of the Westminster bubble and began doing their job.

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Twice bittern.

Kingfisher in the rain, Teifi Marshes

Kingfisher in the rain, Teifi Marshes

A few days before Christmas I headed down to the Teifi Marshes near Cardigan with high hopes of seeing a bittern. It is a regular winter haunt for this extraordinary but elusive species and I had photographed one there in January 2015 (see this post). Furthermore there had recently been reports in the local bird blog of one by the Kingfisher Pool. It all seemed very promising. But after six hours in a very cold hide without a single sighting I felt somewhat deflated……and I’m sure the bad cold I suffered over Christmas was not a coincidence.

But they do say that every cloud has a silver lining, though, and in this case it was the kingfisher which made a circular tour of its perches around the pool at lunch time. Various sticks and branches have been provided here for kingfishers by the Wildlife Trust, but they result in rather conventional “bird on a stick” type images. I think the perch shown above shows the bird in a more natural setting and the falling rain gives the photograph a rather painterly feel.

Bittern at Teifi Marshees, Cardigan

Bittern at Teifi Marshes, Cardigan

The bittern was reported (and photographed) again on Tuesday so it seemed like another attempt might produce results. Another photographer was already in the hide when I arrived about 9.30 a.m. yesterday and we were soon joined by several others. One told us that the bird had spent two full days wedged between branches in a nearby willow tree. Local birders and conservationists became concerned for its welfare so reserve staff had climbed up towards it and poked it with a stick, whereupon it flew back down to the reeds!

The bittern was first seen not long afterwards. It was crouched low to the ground, fluffed up like a big round feather duster, and appeared quite immobile. It did not look like a healthy or a happy creature. But after a while it began to walk slowly towards the hide, its weight breaking the ice at one point. It came closer and closer and motor drives began to rattle away in earnest. Over the next hour it was hardly hidden at all. It walked slowly, and then more quickly, around, pausing to take the sun from time to time. The light was lovely, either bright sunshine or light cloud. Either was excellent for this large, cryptically patterned bird. It can’t eventually have been further than 20 yards from the hide. Then there was a crouch, a pause, another crouch, and it launched itself into the air, flying away quite powerfully low above the reeds and blackthorn crub.

Bittern in flight

Bittern in flight

It had been a truly exhilarating hour for everyone in the hide. One always opens oneself to disappointment by a making a tightly focussed photography expedition like this. Without the bittern it would have been a rather dismal morning – cold and dismal. So we were all happy, although we all knew we would have many hours of file processing to look forward to. Let’s just hope that the bird itself stays well and finds enough food to get through the winter.

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Seasons greetings to all (both) my readers.

Crib Goch and Llyn Cwmffynnon, January 2016

Crib Goch and Llyn Cwmffynnon, January 2016

Welsh winters are so often just mild, wet and windy. It is rarely cold enough for snow to fall, and if it does it will probably melt away within a few days. Just occasionally, though, the photographer is treated to something special. Last January there was a short break in the succession of big depressions tracking north eastwards across the north Atlantic. I drove up to north Wales one evening and spent the night in the layby by Llyn Mymbyr (near Capel Curig) as I often do. The following morning dawned bright, clear and calm, with the snow on the higher slopes of Yr Wyddfa reflecting the pre-sunrise colours. Unfortunately there was a thin layer of ice covering much of Llyn Mymbyr, so the reflection I was hoping for was rather limited. I was at a loss as to where to go next.

Then I remembered another lake – Llyn Cwmffynnon – in a hollow on the slopes of Glyder Fawr, above Pen-y-pass youth hostel. I knew it reflected the mass of Crib Goch if the waters were still. It might be worth a try! It was trudge up to the lake across boggy uneven ground in heavy winter boots and clothing and carrying my full SLR kit. Eventually arriving at the shoreline I found that this lake was also covered in a thin layer of ice which was hardly a great surprise! But with a water trickling through it, the stream down towards Pen-y-gwyryd had remained free of ice and was reflecting Crib Goch in its surface. This was the location I had been hoping for.

At first I decided to forego my polarising filter, which I probably over-use. But after a while a tiny cap-shaped cloud began forming, dispersing and re-forming over the summit of Yr Wyddfa, itself invisible but situated behind and to the right of Crib Goch. Out came the polariser! It was invaluable in bringing out the whiteness of the cloud against the blue of the sky. In fact in these conditions of perfect clarity and using my standard zoom at 24mm, uneven polarisation was a problem, and I had to do some work in Lightroom to remove it.  But the result looks good to me, and I’ve used it on my Christmas card this year.

So for those of you not on my Christmas card list, I’d like to take this opportunity of wishing you the Seasons Greetings and a successful year in 2017.

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A visit to woodpecker HQ.

Green woodpeckers at the nest, near Abergavenny.

Green woodpeckers at the nest, near Abergavenny.

Beech woodland is normally associated with the south-east of England; Burnham Beeches and Epping Forest are fine and well-known examples. But here in Wales native beech woodland extends into the south-east corner of the country, around Abergavenny, for example. It can be found as far west as Castell Coch, just to the north of Cardiff. It is what the writer and naturalist William Condry called “the district’s most distinguished calcicole” referring to its association with a narrow band of limestone rock which runs along the northern rim of the south Wales coalfield.

It is for oak woodland that most of Wales is renowned but in a forthcoming book I want to open people’s eyes to the presence and stunning beauty of beech woodland. This spring I visited Cwm Clydach, where the Heads of the Valleys main road squeezes through a narrow defile alongside the river between steep valley sides. I had first photographed here in the mid-1990’s and an  image of the polluted watercourse complete with dumped debris was used in my first book “Wales  – The Lie of The Land” (published in 1996). The gorge’s steep and rugged southern flank is clothed with native beech, but it is a far cry from the expansive woodland of southeast England. Here it is largely inaccessible but a public right of way descends to the valley bottom from the A465 and then climbs steeply through the trees to reach scattered houses, narrow lanes and an abandoned railway track.

Walking back to my van on this year’s first visit I heard the familiar laughing call of a green woodpecker, which I tracked down to the branches of an venerable but dead beech tree right by the side of the road. What’s more the tree’s branches were riddled with woodpecker holes large and small. One bird visited one particular hole which I took to be a potential nest-site. This looked like a photo-opportunity!

Anyone at home?

Anyone at home?

I spent many hours on three visits sitting in my van watching the woodpeckers going to and from the hole. The off-duty bird would call from a distance and its mate would appear in the entrance to the hole. They would then swap over. I was surprised at how late their breeding season was – there was no sign of food being brought to the nest even as late as June 11th. On one occasion a great spotted woodpecker peered in, and I believe I may have seen a lesser spotted on the same tree as well.  This really was Woodpecker HQ! Green woodpeckers seem to be quite wary birds at the nest and they are apparently very difficult to photograph there. So I was really thrilled when I managed to get what seems to me the perfect image of a pair at the nest.

 

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Sunset suite.

Sometimes I come back from a field trip and my partner asks me “Well, how did it go?” Getting me to talk about my experiences can be a bit like getting blood out of a stone. I may be hopeful about the results of a trip but until I’ve processed them I can never be sure. Sometimes the images that looked really great on the screen can be disappointing when seen full size but sometimes the opposite is true. I may not have spoken to anyone for a couple of days and I may have been confined to the van for hours on end, particularly at this time of year. While the process of making landscape images – the minuteae of the weather and the tides, the seasons, f-stops and shutter speeds, the near misses and the successes – can still occasionally be pretty exciting, I imagine this can be difficult to convey to the unitiated.  So in recognition of this, I’m just going to show you a few sunsets that I’ve photographed this autumn. Hope you enjoy them!

 

Traeth Llyfn, near Fishguard

Traeth Llyfn, near Fishguard

 

Mouth of the Tywi/Taf, near Kidwelly

Mouth of the Tywi/Taf, near Kidwelly

 

Mawddach estuary

Mawddach estuary

 

Llyn Pendam, near Aberystwyth

Llyn Pendam, near Aberystwyth

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The Great Wall of Aberdyfi (part 2)

Valley fog, Dyfi estuary

Valley fog, Dyfi estuary

Click here for the first part of this post

It was a few minutes’ drive inland to my next location, a hilltop overlooking the Dyfi valley near Derwenlas. I knew from numerous previous visits (see this post) that it would be mid-morning before the sun would be where I wanted it. A heavy shower moved inland on my arrival, creating another fine rainbow. Light was still good half an hour later despite the sun’s relentless rising, and I got the shot I had come for; would it be suitable for a new postcard, I wondered? See the upper picture of the pair below.

A couple of days later I decided to have another go at both the Glandyfi and Derwenlas viewpoints. Still conditions were forecast overnight and hence the formation of valley fog was possible. It was a very different morning to my previous visit. At Derwenlas all was gloomy low cloud but at Glandyfi a river of fog flowed continuously down towards the sea. Over about ninety minutes I took a number of images, but it was when the “river” began thinning and receding inland that I felt the best results were obtained (see above). It was an interesting contrast to the scene two days earlier (see previous post).

Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth

Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth (first visit)

Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth

Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth (second visit)

Then it was back to the Derwenlas viewpoint. It was still like being inside a bundle of cotton wool when I arrived, but after a few minutes the cloud cleared entirely,  revealing the gorgeously-lit Dyfi valley complete with a necklace of cloud draped around the hillside above Machynlleth. If this doesn’t work as a postcard, I’ll eat my hat!

As a postscript I have just sent a cheque for £70 to the charity Rewilding Britain (click for more info). This is a donation per work sold at the Aberystwyth showing of my Bird/land exhibition.

 

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The Great Wall of Glandyfi (part 1)

Rainbow over the Dyfi estuary

Rainbow over the Dyfi estuary

En route to Machynlleth the trunk road from Aberystwyth to north Wales, along with the railway line, is squeezed between the Dyfi estuary and its wooded slopes. Until a few years ago the road was narrow and winding with the occasional gridlock occuring if two large vehicles met there. There’s no doubt that the “Glandyfi Bends” needed improvement to improve journey times. Costs were orginally estimated at £10 million, but there must have been a bottomless purse for this project; a total of £18m was apparently spent altogether. The result is a smoothly curving, two-lane carriageway with excellent visibility. So what did the Highways Authority do? Slap a 40 mph speed limit on the new section of road and extend it all the way back to the village of Eglwysfach. Improve journey times my ****!

Like all trunk road improvements in Wales it is over-designed and over-engineered. There is a one-way lay-by for motorists driving northwards; access from the north or exit to the south is forbidden. On the lay-by there is a lay-by. Would you believe it! Oh yes, there’s a picnic table on a mound. The wall alongside the main road is too high over most of its distance for car drivers or passengers to enjoy the stunning views across the estuary. But the most prominent of all is the retaining wall to hold the hillside back. This massive construction is known locally as the Great Wall of Glandyfi. It can be viewed most conveniently from the north side of the river – in fact it is very hard to miss it for miles around.

There is a silver lining for the photographer, however. There is a narrow walk-way, fenced off for safety, along the top of the wall, which gives fabulous panoramic views across the estuary to the southern hills of the Snowdonia National Park. An access gate is half-heartedly padlocked at the eastern end.  On the last day of September I headed up to Glandyfi on a morning when torrential downpours alternated with strong sunny intervals; ideal conditions for the photographer with good waterproof clothing! On arrival I prepared my gear in the van while it absolutely hammered down outside.  The downpour moved over quickly and a brilliant rainbow appeared over the estuary. I quickly accessed the walk-way, set up the tripod and began taking pictures.

Rainbows are never easy. They are almost always unpredictable and may only last a couple of minutes. It is almost always raining and this plays havoc with one’s equipment. Filters are particularly vulnerable to wetting. As I wiped raindrops from one side of my 2 stop ND grad, a fresh crop appeared on the other side. This was just silly!  Landscape photographers are sometimes advised that a polariser should be used to intensify the colours of a rainbow but I have never found this to be the case. You can easily completely remove a rainbow with a polariser but who would want to? Over a period of five minutes and despite rather feverish picture-taking, I had some rather excellent rainbow images in the can, such as the one above.

Bridge over the River Dyfi

Bridge over the River Dyfi

When planning my landscape photography destinations I always take into account the time of day of the visit and hence where the sun will be. A polariser is always most effective at right-angles to the sun, while that rare thing, a rainbow, always appears opposite the sun.  I can think of one location on the Mawddach estuary where you can use a polariser to your heart’s content but still be open to the possibility of a good rainbow image. The Great Wall of Glandyfi is another. Following the disappearance of  the rainbow I swung around by ninety degrees and captured some images of saltmarsh, the railway bridge over the Dyfi and its accompanying solitary white cottage, in brilliant sunshine. The hills of southern Snowdonia were still in deep darkness and low cloud swept their summits. I used the polariser and the 2 stop ND grad to add to the drama of the scene. I felt that the resulting image worked well in a panoramic format.

It might seem that I was lucky that morning but I had already made several frustrating visits to the area with no worthwhile results. What I was quickly able to do on September 30th was get to the best spot quickly and take advantage of great conditions when they finally did appear. I’d been up there for about two hours – how time flies sometimes – when I heard the sound of chain-saws. Down on the main road maintenance men were removing branches from the vicinity of some electric cables. It soon became apparent, though, that a man with a chainsaw was also clearing branches from the walk-way upon which I was standing, and approaching quite fast. It was time to beat a hasty retreat!

 

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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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