Carpets of knot (part three).

After the drama and intensity of my session in the hide with waders arriving in countless thousands (see this post), it was a relief to find myself outside in calm and sunny conditions, with the waters of the Wash gently lapping at the shoreline. Other birders and photographers were moving towards the main hide, however, and I thought it was about time I headed in the same direction.

To my surprise the photographers’ screen was more sparsely populated than it had been the previous day. Rather than squeezing onto the bench I stood at the back and set up my tripod, which enabled me look through the viewing slot without the discomfort of bending down. And there, just a few score yards away, was a veritable carpet of knots. Within this huge throng of life, large groups of birds surged from right to left, forwards and back, The predominant colour at any one time varied between the white of their breasts and the mid-brown of their backs. The occasional brick-red remnant of their summer plumage could also be seen on a few individuals (see below). It was an entirely charming spectacle, and I couldn’t help smiling. The light was perfect, bright without being harsh, illuminating the birds to perfection.

I recognised a couple of well-known bird photographers in the screen – Chris Gomersall and David Tipling – and there may have been others. There was clearly a workshop session going on, although I’m not sure who the leader was. An authoritative voice announced that “this is as good as it gets”. I took burst upon burst of images.

Having now examined all the results, I do question some of the photographic choices I made during the session. Among other things I was trying to show how groups of birds moved within the flock while others stayed still. I hoped to do this by reducing the ISO rating below Olympus’s base level of 200, and using shutter speeds as long as 1/25th second, but the moving birds just looked blurred. Using long focal lengths such as 300 mm (equivalent to 600 mm on full frame) resulted in too narrow a depth of field in many cases. But looking on the bright side, when I got it right, the images showed what excellent results my kit is capable of in good, contrasty, light.

I mentioned taking ” burst after burst” of images. During this one session alone, lasting about two hours, I took more than seven hundred images. Only a limited number of compositions were possible from the hide, so many bursts differed from the next only by minute differences in focus, exposure or depth of field. At something like 10 frames a second moving birds moved only a few millimeters between frames, if that. Ploughing through such a huge number of files while processing is a real chore. To be frank, it does my head in! But I fear that is the lot of the bird photographer. On a recent session photographing bramblings in a rowan tree I took 638 images over a period of four hours, and only about 1% of them are really worth keeping. I’m beginning to wondering if taking jpg’s rather than raw files might be the answer.

Most photographers waited till most of the knot had returned to the mudflats. I think we were waiting for all of the massive flock to burst into flight together, but it wasn’t to be. They flew off in dribs and drabs. All in all, though, it had been a fabulous morning, and I walked back to the car park a very contented man.

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Highly Commended image in the 2017 BWPA competition

Hawfinch in cherry tree.


At long last I can announce that one of my images – Hawthorn in a Cherry Tree – has been Highly Commended in the “Habitat” section of the 2017 British Wildlife Photography Awards. That makes three Highly Commended awards, one each time I have entered! Not bad for a landscape photographer. (Removes tongue from cheek……….)

For further information about the image and the background to it, please click here.

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Digging in to the memory banks (part two)

Peregrine eyass, Cumbria, summer 1982
Peregrine eyass, Cumbria, summer 1982

Following on from my season on Mull (see previous post), I spent spring and summer of 1982 in Cumbria. I was a kind of roving species protection warden-come-survey worker, undertaking various raptor-related tasks. Although most birds of prey do very little most of the time – even during the breeding season – taking part in a 24-hour watch at a nest site is still a rewarding activity.  There is always the chance of seeing some previously unknown behaviour. At one cliff I noted a male peregrine at the eyrie being harassed repeatedly by a jay. The peregrine took no notice. At another I saw the well-grown eyass (peregrine youngster) being physically knocked off its nesting ledge by one of its parents. Adults do tempt fully-grown eyasses off the nest by carrying food in front of them, but this seemed a little bit extreme! Obviously not ready to fly, the juvenile tumbled down the cliff-face, then the scree slope beneath it and disappeared. A search party consisting of myself and some local ornithologists eventually found it, apparently quite well, deep in some bracken below the cliff (see pic above). Even at the tender age of six weeks, a peregrine is such a beautiful creature. There’s just something about those eyes……..

During 1983 – 84 I had what could be described as a “proper job”, working as, in effect, the first coastal footpath officer for Ceredigion. But I then began another long break from real work by spending late April – early August in the arctic on the Greenland White-fronted Goose Study 1984 expedition. The membership otherwise consisted mainly of ambitious young biology, zoology or environmental science graduates.  Although I had been through university and come out at the other end with a BSc, I had also gained a healthy ( I believe) scepticism about the scientific method.  I was also far more interested in the gyr and peregrine falcons found in the GWGS study area, which didn’t go down too well either! So I can’t claim to have been the most popular member of the expedition. But I actually managed to get a paper published in an American Raptor Research journal on my return to civilisation.

The homesickness I felt during every one of my summers with the RSPB was even more acute on the expedition.  The lyrics of the Robert Wyatt song “Moon in June” reverberated though my head over and over again during the dry Greenlandic summer.

“Ah but I miss the rain,

ticky, tacky, ticky,

and I wish that I were home again,

back home again, home again,

back home again…….”

Probably every expedition needs a scapegoat and I guess I was it. Helicopters frequently trundled over the study area and there were times when I longed for one to just pick me up and take me away.

Great northern diver, west Greenland, summer 1984.
Great northern diver, west Greenland, summer 1984.

However I had borrowed a long telephoto lens from my father and for the first time did some serious-ish bird photography. Much to the disgust of the expedition leader I set up a portable hide by the side of a lake where a pair of great northern divers was holding territory. I spent one full night in the hide, drifting into and out of dreamland as the eerie and evocative wailing calls of the divers echoed around me. It really was most surreal. The photographs I took there were technically very poor, unfortunately, but I can see quite clearly that what I was aiming for then was exactly what, thirty years later, I would be producing for  Bird/land. Birds in the landscape.

The same could be said for many of the other bird images I managed in Greenland and elsewhere during these early years. I have cropped a great northern diver image to panoramic format to illustrate this.

On return from Greenland I continued in the routine of field work during the summer, travelling and “resting” during the winter. I worked in central Scotland and north Wales during the following two summers. But it became more and more apparent that I was never going to get a “real job” in the world of conservation. I badly needed a means of earning a living that would sustain me for a period of years. Not shy of a challenge, I decided to become a photographer…….

The Halstatt lecture is at 1 p.m. on August 26th at MOMA Wales, Machynlleth, Powys. Tickets are £6.00 each. Call 01654 703355 for more details.

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An intimate and a distant encounter.

Red-footed falcon, north Staffs.
Red-footed falcon, north Staffs.

While I sometimes feel pangs of envy (…or is it lust….?) on hearing about the presence of a rare bird, I would not admit to being a twitcher. There is something rather desperate in the idea of travelling miles (or hundreds of miles) to try to see a bird which was originally found by somebody else and put out on the birders’ grapevine. I’ve sometimes described myself as the worst twitcher in the world, anyway, because on the rare occasions I’ve succumbed to temptation, the bird has usually disappeared by the time I arrive. I can justifiably claim to have been the first person not to see the great spotted cuckoo at Tenby in February 2014 because I waited too long to go down. It had probably died or been blown away during the particularly stormy day of my journey.  To fail in a pointless quest is particularly soul-destroying, I find. But if a bird is on my local patch I might eventually get round to having a quick look, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. A local bird would involve little time investment, or travel expenses or carbon emissions.

I was tempted last week, though. A red-footed falcon had been reported in Staffordshire, well over a hundred miles from here. However, a visit to my aging mother was long overdue, and she lives ……. in Staffordshire. I do like multi-purpose journeys! So Saturday morning found me on the northern outskirts of the Potteries joining a few dozen other birders staring at a red-footed falcon on an overhead electricity cable. It was hardly the most difficult twitch in the world. The click of motor-driven shutters rang out. _04A2298Being an immature male it would not be breeding this year; but one has to wonder why ever would this bird end up in north Staffordshire? It probably should have been somewhere in eastern Europe. Itcould conceivably have been escape from captivity but the only known captive red-footed falcon locally was an adult male in a rescue centre about twenty miles away. Whatever – in birder’s parlance it was “performing well” – perching on the cable in full view, searching for insects on the ground below. There was a strong breeze blowing, though, and, probably seeking shelter,  it later spent some time in a hazel bush just a few feet from the pavement on which expectant birders waited. It was so close that I had to take a few steps backwards before I could focus down on it with my binoculars. However a shield of branches and leaves made it difficult to see more than face or feet at any one time. It was an both intimate and distant encounter at the same time.

As far as the main image is concerned the bird was by no means at its closest here. I feel that the green background  sets off its plumage better than the grey sky did, however. And as for the composition, I suppose I just like to be different! Any thoughts on this?

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Starling monster over Aberystwyth. Or….The Gift (part two)

Starlings over Aberystwyth
Starlings over Aberystwyth

On bright winter evenings (see also this post, this post, and this post) I often go down to the sea-front at Aberystwyth with the aim of photographing the starlings which roost under the pier . It’s been almost three years since I’ve come back with any worthwhile results, though. For that long, as far as I know,  the starlings had done nothing remotely like the spectacular pre-roost displays which they are renowned for. At first there was a fairly acceptable theory circulating amongst the photographers and birders.  The birds would be too busy simply surviving during mid-winter to spend valuable time and energy tearing around over the town at dusk. The fact that their most spectacular displays in recent years had been during the longer days of early March tended to support this idea. It was thought that the displays might be part of a process culminating in their exodus later in the month towards their breeding grounds further north. The presence of a predator (like a peregrine) was believed to precipitate avoidance behaviour which looked sensational to us but was actually self-preservation for the starlings. But last winter – nothing. And until last Saturday – nothing this winter either. All very frustrating and it wasn’t just me that was disillusioned either.

It wasn’t the greatest of evenings last Saturday and I almost stayed at home. On arrival at the wooden jetty I found the usual gaggle of photographers and sightseers. I met a fellow photographer and began to gossip about this and that and bemoan the lack of starling activity. The birds seemed to be following their usual routine. The earliest arrivals flew around silently together for a while before diving down amongst the framework of the pier and starting to chatter. Subsequent arrivals presumably heard them chattering and followed them in in a fairly disorganised fashion. I was on the point of leaving when the birds deserted the roost and began circling around over the town. There followed a spectacular exhibition of flight lasting more than ten minutes, flocks rapidly splitting and re-grouping, forming three-dimensional ribbons, ovals and swirls which constantly morphed into each other. It was exhilarating to see it after so long; I expect the word “wow” might have been heard and a broad grin seen.

More starlings
More starlings

About eight minutes past five the display was over.  I shook hands with Si and we went our separate ways. I had loaded my gear back into the nearby van when I noticed that some of the birds had left the pier and were again swirling around. By this time it was far too dark to think about using the camera but I wandered back over to enjoy a short encore.  Back on the prom I met another friend who had watched the display from a distance. We agreed how lucky we were to live at Aberystwyth and be able to see such an awe-inspiring exhibition. “It’s a gift.” she said, “I don’t usually believe in that hippy bollox but this is an exception”.

Speaking as the photographer who is never quite satisfied, though, I’ll add that it was a shame they were displaying over the town rather than the pier itself. The birds’ backdrop was a darker section of the post-sunset sky than it would otherwise have been. This necessitated a step-by-step increase in the ISO rating and opening up of the aperture. 3200 ISO and f4 seemed a bit dodgy to me………. Back home, though, I found that the images are noisy at 100% but I have  some usable results even at those settings. In the days of film such images would have been virtually unobtainable.

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This is what we’re here for!

Starlings entering roost site, near Gretna Green.
Starlings entering roost site, near Gretna Green.

After a quiet Christmas at home, Jane and I started out on a journey that would eventually take us as far as Stranraer for a New Year reunion with some old friends. I had planned some bird-photography-related visits en route; it would be difficult to pass through Gretna Green in late afternoon – on a sunny day – without trying to locate probably the most well-known starling roost in the UK!

Research on the internet had told me that it was now no longer at Gretna itself but a couple of miles west near the village of Rigg. Some photographs had showed the site to be close to two parallel lines of electricity pylons so it wasn’t too difficult to find. One bird photographer was already in attendance and she said she believed she was in the best place to photograph the great gathering of birds. As sunset passed it became apparent that they were rather further away than she expected, and it was necessary to use my longest lens, the Tamron 150-600 zoom. By this time perhaps ten other photographers were present.

Birds certainly congregated and swirled around in very large numbers, but it was well past sunset before they began to form the amoeba-like formations which I had hoped for. I had increased my ISO to 3200 by this time, and shutter speeds were rather too long for comfort. At 4.25 p.m. there was a crescendo of shutter clicking as the starlings formed a funnel shape and tumbled down into a small forestry plantation. This was what we were all there for! Within 60 seconds the birds had gone and the whole event was over.

I decided that, as far as possible, I would use one of the electricity pylons to anchor the composition within the landscape. I felt that the large bird of prey (probably a buzzard) perched on top of it added an extra layer of interest to the image. As it turned out it was a good decision and it was not difficult to find the best couple of images from the sequence. Following some judicious cropping to create a square-format image, this is the one that immediately registered in my mind and stayed there. Fortunately the 1/320th second exposure was short enough to prevent bird movement being recorded on the sensor.

The robin says……

Christmas greetings to all my readers!

A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days in the Morecambe Bay / Leighton Moss area of Lancashire. Waking early on the first morning I had arrived at Leighton Moss’s Lower Hide by daybreak – well, it’s not that early this time of year! The windows were smothered in frost so I opened one and peered out. Little egrets were leaving their roost in some scrubby woodland opposite and I counted fifty-seven altogether. How quickly times change in nature…….. Then, all of a sudden, a robin appeared on the window frame about nine inches from my face! It turned out to be the tamest robin I have ever come across. It was obviously a regular visitor because there was a scattering of bird seed on the window  ledge, but I got the impression that it genuinely wanted some human company. Apart from the couple of hours when I went for brunch I was in the hide all day. The robin was never more than a few yards away and usually actually inside it, despite an often full compliment of human visitors being present as well.

Sunbathing water rail
Sunbathing water rail

The robin seemed to be paying particular attention to something lying on an empty bench at the back of the hide, so I went over to investigate. It was a laminated photograph of a robin, which had originally been attached to the hide wall.   Every time I held it up the real robin pecked the eye of the robin in the photograph.  Over and over again, absolutely consistently. I held the photograph up and slowly turned it round. The real robin would go round the back to investigate. It was absolutely fascinating. And yet I didn’t feel that the real robin was genuinely angry. It seemed to be playing a game in the same way that a dog will repeatedly bring back a thrown stick.

Well, small things please small minds, you might be thinking. What else took my attention? Leighton Moss seemed to be bursting with two elusive reedbed species, water rails and bitterns, and I had excellent views of both. The former were pecking around the edges of the reeds in several places, but they are extremely nimble and you need lightning fast reflexes to be able to photograph one. One spent quite some time sun-bathing not far from the hide. It must have been asleep because the white nictating membrane in the eye was visible. Another spent a long while in and out of vegetation directly below the hide window, but by that time it was almost dark; I’m still searching for the perfect water rail image, or even something useable. I do get the impression that water rails are common than they were ten or twenty years ago, though.

Bittern at Leighton Moss
Bittern at Leighton Moss

It is nearly always exciting to see a bittern although at a big reedbed like Leighton Moss one does get a little blasé about distant half-views of them creeping in and out of the reeds. Reserve staff reckoned there were between nine and eleven birds present last winter, and on my visit several flew towards a particular area of the reedbed from late afternoon onwards. I guessed they were roosting communally.The above was captured on one of these late afternoon flights, but I’m still searching for the classic bittern shot too!

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A light bulb moment

Bird / land no. 15 - crows
Bird / land no. 15 – crows

Earlier on this year I may have mentioned that I had been awarded an Arts Council of Wales grant to create new work for an exhibition in summer 2015.  Receiving the grant was exciting but the hard part was yet to come – yes, actually doing the work – but bit by bit, piece by piece, it is coming together.

For many years I photographed landscapes while at same time only watching birds. It partly went back to an earlier stage in my life when I spent a period of time working on and off for bird conservation bodies. During these years I spent months at a time in exotic parts of the UK, either surveying upland birds or protecting rare species at the nest site. In neither situation was I able to photograph the object of my interest. It just wasn’t possible, and I kept the camera to one side for the landscapes. But a few years ago I began to put my two interests together. There are many fabulous bird photographers around and I knew that it would take me many years to build up my skills to their leveI, if I were ever able to do it at all. But what I did have, I felt, was an awareness of the landscapes the birds inhabit which some of the photographers seemed to miss. That was the direction I decided to take.

The arts establishment is not known for its interest in wildlife. Many individual painters, photographers and sculptors (for example) are passionate about nature but there seems to be an unspoken agreement that it is not a subject worthy of the serious artist. So in theory it was probably an uphill battle for me to convince the Arts Council that my project was worthy of support. One needs to dress one’s ideas up a little to convince them of their value, so an exhibition of single images would probably not be sufficient. I came up with an idea which was not cutting edge but seemed genuinely innovative. This was to present the images in groups of three or more – triptychs if you like – linked by species, location or aesthetic qualities. Each individual image would be panoramic format. It also might have helped that I already had a good exhibiting track record achieved with minimal Arts Council support. Whatever, they went for it.

So an exhibition of 35 “pieces” would need something like 100 separate images; each one, ideally, worthy in its own right of being exhibited, and able to be linked to two others in some way or another. Ambitious or what! To be honest the amount of funding I received was in no way adequate for the time and expenses I have already spent on the project, not to mention the next six months, but it keeps the wolf from the door. By now I’m well on the way towards completing the work, and I have hundreds of images potentially suitable for use. Sometimes it’s possible to visit one location and come away with a set of images that are subtly different but similar enough to be shown together, and this can work very well. But in most cases the biggest problem is grouping individual images which may have been taken in widely different locations.

Not being specifically relevant to Wales, this project has allowed me to travel to some fabulous locations elsewhere in the UK and on the continent. But – rather appropriate for the time of year, I think – my most recent attempts have been very close to home. I’m only about five miles as the red kite flies from the Bwlch Nant-yr-arian feeding station. Here, at two o’clock every day, 10 kilograms of waste meat chunks are deposited by the side of a lake for the accumulated gathering of kites and crows. It is rather an overwhelming spectacle for the photographer, with well over a hundred kites present every day. Most people would eventually come up with some stunning close-ups of individual birds sweeping down to grab some food, or carrying a piece away to eat elsewhere. But that didn’t fit my brief, so I walked some distance away from the lake and gained some altitude. I’m still not quite sure how I’m going to tackle the kites but on one visit I noticed a dead conifer trunk nearby which served as a regular perching place for crows to observe the proceedings. It was just one of those light bulb moments! It was not what I originally had in mind but by visiting the same spot several times I came away with several suitable images and earlier this afternoon I put five of them together. While this may not be the finished article it was a real buzz to see how well they worked as a set!

What do you think?

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Whatever happened to fieldcraft? (Part four)

Choughs, Whitesands
Choughs, Whitesands

I really didn’t expect this series of posts to reach part four! But a couple of weeks ago I was down in Pembrokeshire and took an early morning walk from the car park at Whitesands towards St. David’s Head. An active cold front had pushed through overnight and as well as bringing heavy rain, it formed the leading edge of an arctic airmass which eventually covered the whole of the UK. The air was sparkling in its clarity and the temperature several degrees Celsius lower than it had been the previous day; very invigorating and ideal for the outdoor photographer!

After a landscape session at Porth Melgan and a frustrating hunt for migrant birds on St David’s Head, I returned to the van. I noticed there was a flock of choughs, rooks and jackdaws feeding in a nearby field. There was a pattern to their behaviour; they would start at one end of the field and work their way into the wind, feeding as they went, until they reached the hedge-bank. Then they flew back to the shoreline for a few minutes before returning to the field. I wondered if I could get myself into position at the end of the field while they were away and photograph them as they came towards me.  So I donned the nearest I had to camouflage gear and headed over.

Corvids are the most intelligent of birds and they noticed me immediately. But they were not entirely spooked; the chough, in particular, stayed faithful to the field and I felt sure that,  eventually, they would come close enough to be photographed. As the afternoon wore on and my body became more numb it became apparent that they were no longer so hungry and that feeding time was more or less over. So eventually never really came and I tried to be philosophical as I returned to the van. It was worth the try….wasn’t it?

Just a couple of days ago I had a look at the results from the session. In an ideal world  the birds would have been closer, but to my surprise a couple of images were actually quite useable. Thanks to the quality of my equipment – Canon 5d3 and Tamron 150-600 zoom – and the excellent light, I was able to crop down quite deeply into the image without encountering sharpness or noise problems. The image above begins to illustrate how full of character choughs really are.

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Whatever happened to fieldcraft? (Part three)

Crested tit, Abernethy
Crested tit, Abernethy

I’ve just returned from a 1300 mile road trip which took ten days, and culminated in a couple of days in the Caledonian pine forests of Speyside. If that sounds excessive you’re right. I probably spent more time driving than enjoying the landscape or wildlife!

I spent quite a few happy days on Speyside during the 1980’s when I worked for the Nature Conservancy Council in Scotland for a short while. At the time I felt that, more than anywhere else I had experienced, the pine forests of the Spey valley had the “feel” of the primeval past. Each individual pine tree seem to speak of the ages (a far cry from the commercial plantations of mid-Wales and elsewhere) and the overall impression was more than the sum of its parts. So it was a bit of a pilgrimage for me to go back .

I had a day in the Abernethy forest near Aviemore, which is now owned by the RSPB. Much of the management work they have done has been with the aim of allowing the forest remnant to regenerate naturally and it was quite noticeable how successful this has been. It is sometimes said that we feel most comfortable in a parkland-type landscape because it is similar to the savannah which was our ancestors’ home when they first emerged from the African forest. Well, I think my ancestors must have emerged into the pine forest somewhere…….

Birdlife in the forest was, I think it is fair to say, pretty sparse. I regretted that I had not returned in spring; but then I always want to be everywhere in spring! Just occasionally one would encounter a mixed flock of small birds as they passed through high in the forest canopy. These flocks consisted of coal, blue and great tits, goldcrests and willowchaffs, with the odd crested tit mixed in. The presence of one of these Speyside specialities could be inferred from its trilling call and as soon as I heard it out would come the long lens. But in most cases the birds passed by high overhead.

Pine seeds seem to take root along the sides of tracks where loose bare soil is exposed. This leads to the formation of what is, in effect, a narrow barrier of young pine trees. Out towards the edge of the forest I came across a couple of “cresties” moving along such a row whose maximum height was only about six feet. This looked more promising! But the birds kept their distance and could barely be seen. Then I remembered a trick which I had read about in a book called “Sharing nature with children”, but never really tried. Probably too embarrassed…… but what the hell, there was no-one else around!

The trick is to make a “p” sound with pursed lips, then open the mouth and make a sssshhhhing sound, and end with a “t”. “Psssshhhhht” . That’s it!  Repeat over and over again as necessary. Perhaps any similar sound would do but it seemed to work. It attracted a willowchiff and a wren appeared from nowhere to investigate. Rather than moving ahead of me along the track  the cresties came closer and closer until one paused in full view just a few metres away. And I was well equipped and prepared to make the image. It was a relief to open up the file and discover that the bird is sharp and looks good amongst the pine needles. These opportunities don’t come along too often, especially when you live in rural Wales.

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