Role reversal

Grey phalarope, Aberystwyth

I had some reading to do this week, so rather than stay at home to do it – with all the consequent risks of coffee, biscuit and chocolate consumption, I decided to take myself off into Aberystwyth, sit in the van, and do it there. It was one of the many recent showery days and I thought there might be a chance – just a teeny chance – that sun and shower might conspire to produce a rainbow, and that I might be in the right place at the right time. As an additional incentive, there was the possibility of finding migratory seabirds blown onshore by recent winds. In particular, I was keen to see a grey phalarope – one of which species had been seen in a ditch behind Tan-y-bwlch beach a few days earlier.  During the breeding season male phalaropes incubate eggs and care for the young, while females then seek another male with whom to have more offspring. Any phalarope seen here, however, will be on migration; but even then they are a rare visitor.

Parking by the harbour I took a walk along said beach, had a look at the ditch and saw nothing. No surprise there then……. I decided to wait in the van and scan the harbour for new bird arrivals every so often while I read. If the sun emerged I could walk out along the concrete jetty for a more open vista. The afternoon passed uneventfully; several times it looked there might be a rainbow but my optimism was misplaced. By about 5 pm I had had enough and scanned the birds in the harbour again before I headed off. Some black-headed gulls had flown in and…..oh….what was that tiny white and grey bird on the edge of the flock? A little gull? No, it was a grey phalarope! For once, I felt, my luck was in. I must have had a huge grin on my face.

I grabbed my long lens and rushed round to photograph this scarce visitor. As I crossed a narrow gravel beach towards it I looked up and to my surprise ALL the birds had gone!  At that moment a yell of “You did that!” came from a woman on the road with binoculars. She was right. Phalaropes are well-known for their approachability but the gulls must have been spooked and the phalarope went with them. I was crest-fallen and climbed back up to apologise for my clumsiness.

Fortunately the phalarope did not go far and was soon back on exactly the same stretch of water. I had another go at a closer approach but it was very skittish. In between flights I got a few reasonable photographs of the bird before it got too dark. During the evening I posted the sighting (with picture) on the Ceredigion Bird Blog.

The next evening I had a phone call from one of the most experienced local birders – a chap called Chris Bird (really…) . He wanted to know more about the phalarope sighting. Not that he doubted my word : the photograph was conclusive. No, he had been on the other side of the harbour at exactly the same time and hadn’t seen the phalarope. He had spent some time that afternoon carefully searching amongst all the boats in the inner harbour for a phalarope. During the mini-drama of my attempt to get a photograph of the phalarope he was talking to another wildlife photographer about phalaropes. I couldn’t help smiling to myself. It cannot be denied that there is an element of competitiveness involved in birding, and it would normally be me who was looking the other way when the rare bird flew past.

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The Green Flash and another starling story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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In search of starlings at Glastonbury and Aberystwyth

Starlings, Avalon marshes, Somerset
Starlings, Avalon marshes, Somerset

Last weekend Jane and I headed off to Glastonbury for a few days. It’s an unreal place. If ever you needed to visit a personal transformation coach, an angelic reiki practitioner or a shamanic hairdresser, make for Glastonbury. It would be easy to sneer at the apparent pretentiousness of it all, but that would be unfair. While there may be some charlatans involved, I’m sure many of these people are quite genuine in their thinking; and I sometimes think how comfortable it must be to live according to a ready-made belief system. It was curious to note the vigorous campaign for the retention of the last remaining bank (Barclays, if I remember correctly….) in the town, though.

An extensive area of former peat workings near Glastonbury has been reclaimed to create a cluster of wetlands and reedbeds, now known as the Avalon Marshes. These are home to several rare bird species, notably bittern and great white egret. The latter was fairly prominent at the Ham Wall RSPB reserve, and I photographed one on a beautiful, still, winter’s morning with warm light and a hint of frost on the ground. The former lived up to its reputation for skulking. But arguably the biggest  draw on the Avalon Marshes in winter is its huge starling roost, which I spent three evenings trying to capture. For roosting, the birds have a very large area to choose from, and they can move from one site to another on a daily basis. Even the local birders and photographers admit to being unable to predict what they are likely to do next. On my first visit I found a likely looking foreground at sunset and hoped a flock would fill the sky with interesting shapes. Needless to say it didn’t work out how I had hoped, but there was the above; I’m not sure yet if the image works or not.

On the second night, from a different location,  I watched as huge flocks gathered over farmland and in trees to the east against a dull background; and later, with mounting disbelief, as a continuous stream of starlings moved from one section of reedbed to another. The process lasted some 15 – 20 minutes; there must have been millions of birds altogether. But it was a frustrating encounter;  they flew too low over the ground to photograph successfully. On the third night I sought out the trees where they had gathered the previous evening but again the results were disappointing.

Starlings at Aberystwyth
Starlings at Aberystwyth

Back in Aberystwyth,  decent sunsets have encouraged me to visit the starling roost three times this week. Tuesday was just the most gorgeous winter evening; cloud had largely cleared during the afternoon and there was no wind. The starlings must have felt it too. For a few brief moments a flock briefly indulged in one of their spectacular ribbon/bracelet formations before dropping in under the pier. At last! Something to write home about……

For the last couple of months my camera bag might have been a door stop for all the use it has had, so it was good to pick up the camera again….. even if I could barely remember what some of its buttons were for! But the experience did remind me how important it is to be familiar with the controls of your equipment. A few seconds delay and confusion can mean the difference between getting the shot and missing it. And which shutter speed would blur the movement of birds in flight most successfully? I just couldn’t remember. But there is one thing about trying to photograph wildlife – it teaches you patience.

 

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Bah, humbug……or buy now while stocks last!

Fridge magnets - a new venture.......
Fridge magnets – a new venture…….

I  try not to think about Christmas until the middle of December if at all possible. I’m normally the one wearing the Homer Simpson “Bah Humbug” Christmas hat in a dashing shade of black……..

But this year I have a stand at the Winter Fair at Aberystwyth Arts Centre and it opened last Friday, so I’ve been obliged to think ahead. I’m selling the following  –

1. A3 prints in 20×16 inch mounts @ £39.50.
2. 7×5 inch prints in 10×8 inch mounts @ £12.50.
3. Photo-mugs @ £9.50.
4. A small range of photo-magnets @£2.50 or 5 for £10.00.

The latter is a bit of a departure for me. I’ve spoken to a couple of other photographers who recommended that I should try them. There’s a decent profit margin on them (if you buy sensibly) and they take up very little space. They’re popular with retailers too. So I’ve taken the plunge with my first batch and we will see how they go.

The Winter Fair started brilliantly for me, in fact. I spent a couple of hours setting up on Thursday afternoon and during that time sold four prints!

The Winter Fair is at Aberystwyth Arts Centre until Christmas and opens Monday-Saturday 10 am > 8 pm and Sunday 12 noon > 5.30 pm. Buy now while stocks last!

A snapshot from the weather war zone.

It has been an interesting few days down on the sea-front at Aberystwyth recently, as unusually high spring tides and gale force winds coincided to create some extreme conditions. Last Friday morning a huge swell rolling in from the Atlantic, coupled with a gale from the south-west, produced the first spectacular but damaging high tide.

Mountainous seas at Aberystwyth
Mountainous seas at Aberystwyth

Saturday morning was quite surreal – still a massive swell but the wind had dropped out to virtually nothing. During the afternoon people strolled along the prom amongst the debris as if it were a summer’s day. But by Monday, despite a slightly lower tide, the wind was back to gale or severe gale, and boy – did it rain. Aberystwyth has never looked so grim. The local police were out in force by then and access to the promenade was severely restricted. I was told I would be arrested if I walked one stretch of South Parade – on a falling tide – despite the fact that I had already walked it in the opposite direction, quite safely, about half an hour earlier! I eventually realised that the best overall view of the prom would be from an elevated position on Constitution Hill at the northern end, and I was lucky that a brief sunny interval coincided with a rain stoppage while I was there. It’s amazing what a little back-lighting can do!

Aberystwyth Promenade
Aberystwyth Promenade

Of course what is spectacular in a visual sense can mean misery for those directly affected. As far as I’m aware no-one suffered serious damage at Aberystwyth but the prom itself looked like a war zone. Railings, benches, paving slabs and the like uprooted and flung around, and the “beach” moved about ten yards inland as far as the front of the hotels…..! The most obvious casualty was a seaside shelter which slowly subsided after the brick and concrete structure supporting it was washed away over a period of four days and nights.

A Saturday afternoon stroll at Aberystwyth
A Saturday afternoon stroll at Aberystwyth

On a broader scale the gravel pits and RSPB visitor facilities at Snettisham (Norfolk) which I enthused about in earlier posts were very seriously “re-arranged” in the North Sea storm surge earlier in December, and other coastal reserves have, unfortunately, also been badly damaged. Inevitably there’s now much talk about “rebuilding coastal defences” and/or “managed retreat” in this era of global warming. We know that sea levels have fluctuated naturally and widely over the past few thousand years but even this hard-won knowledge is just a snapshot in geological terms. Looked at with this perspective our civilisation really is built on shifting sands.

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What…………me, guv? (Part 1)

Recently I’ve been struck by the selfish attitudes of some members of the public when it comes to the disturbance of wildlife. Birders and bird photographers are constantly reminded that the welfare of their subject matter always comes first, and, I think, in general, they take heed. But an idiot with a camera – that is a different matter altogether

One evening last week I was down at Aberystwyth, hoping to photograph the starling displays. It became more and more apparent that they were not going in to roost as normal. Or if they did, they didn’t stay very long. Large groups of birds were flying around offshore, very low over the water. I had noticed someone creeping along the beach and I wondered if s/he was still there. In the gloom I could see a dark figure under the pier, with camera to eye. I eventually realised that I was going to have to go down and ask him to leave.

It was not the young tearaway I was expecting, but a rather elderly man armed with what looked like a Pentax bridge camera. Not a specialist then. I told him that the first rule in bird photography was not to disturb one’s subject matter, and the second was that it was far too dark anyway!. His reply was classic – “But my camera can see in the dark.” No matter what argument I used, he was not going to budge. He just didn’t give a damn. I made my way back up to the Promenade. A small group of what I would describe as “heavy duty birders” had been watching, so I asked if they would like to assist me in removing the man from the premises. They declined..

Ironically, had the sun not already disappeared behind a bank of thick cloud, it would have been an excellent opportunity to photograph these very mobile flocks – from a respectable distance – against a fiery evening sky. Us regulars often bemoan the fact that once the birds have gone in under the pier, that’s it for the evening. We long for a peregrine to come along and create a little panic. But we would never be the cause of the disturbance ourselves.

Eventually, the little nuisance decided enough was enough, and climbed back up to the prom; the starlings began to return to their roost. I met him at the top of the steps, and began a short conversation, with the birds’ welfare at the heart of it. “But I’m not a bird-watcher, I’m a PHOTOGRAPHER…..” he told me, as if that justified his stance. Then….“I wasn’t photographing the birds, I was photographing the chaos.” Some interesting logic, I think you’ll agree, in the latter statement.

In recent years it has usually been at the beginning of March, just prior to leaving for their breeding grounds, when the starlings have put on their most stunning displays. This year? Virtually nothing – the birds tumbling like falling leaves, as one onlooker described it, down into the metal framework under the pier, almost as soon as they arrive.

Still, there’s always tonight. We live in hope.

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