Whatever happened to fieldcraft? (Part two)

Preening dunlin, Ynyslas
Preening dunlin, Ynyslas

In my last post I described how I managed to approach a flock of small waders to within just a few yards. I used my knowledge of the location, the season, the time of day, and the species. I approached them slowly and carefully over a period of time. It’s what is described as “fieldcraft”. It was also my good fortune that there were no freelance dogs on the beach that day…….

I’m planning to photograph red kites over the winter  for my birds/landscape project and on the way back from south Wales recently I called in at Gigrin Farm near Rhayader to check out the facilities. Gigrin Farm was one of the original red kite feeding centres (if not THE original) and charged a modest fee to visitors to watch the spectacle. I was surprised to see that hides reserved for photographers were priced at £10, £17 and £22. For the latter you get access to a 2nd storey “hide” with low front and no roof.  I thought this was a bit steep, but in comparison with other locations it is still a bargain.

There is an burgeoning trend these days for enterprising photographers and landowners to set up feeding stations for particular species, each one complete with a hide for photographers. The cost of one of these pay-to-enter set ups is typically £100 – £125 per day, although if you want golden eagle at the nest that can stretch to £200 – perhaps understandably in view of the unique nature of the spectacle!  At the extreme end you can pay £795 for a three-day, all-inclusive holiday to photograph pine martens.  So more and more of those rather wonderful images of red squirrels, crested tits, little owls and an increasing number of other species will have been taken at a pay-to-enter hide. The close-ups of ospreys catching fish which are so  popular at the moment will almost certainly have been taken at a single location on Speyside. Reflection pools are also popular at some of these hides but in my opinion that type of image is already so hackneyed that their shelf life will be very short  indeed!

It is perhaps understandable that this situation has arisen. Many wildlife photographers – particularly the part-time pro’s and amateurs – are pretty well off and will probably possess many thousands of pounds worth of equipment. A hundred quid is neither here nor there. At the other end of the spectrum are the fully professional nature photographers who have seen their earning power plummet over recent years. It’s a match made in heaven! The nature photographers who know their stuff set up the opportunities for those who have little time but an adequate income from elsewhere. And yet……….

It’s becoming increasingly obvious when a wildlife photograph has been taken at a pay-to-visit hide. I have already mentioned ospreys. Many of the bird/mammal portraits taken at these sites are just so “perfect”. The perches look real (you can take your own…..) and the backgrounds are blurred out and natural looking – even if they are not. What about the creature’s environment? Is that not part of the picture? Some of the images could have been taken at the zoo. The photographer still needs good light but in these set-ups wildlife image-making is more of a technical exercise:  shutter speed, aperture, fast reactions and split-second timing. Even the latter is no longer the problem it once was with 10 frames a second motor-drives.

A recent article in Outdoor Photography (August issue) illuminates some of the issues more clearly. In “Nature on demand?”, the author bemoans “an over-reliance on industrialised photographic opportunities” and “the potential loss of creativity and connection with your subject”, for example. He tells us what a shame it would be “if the photographic teachers of today, for the sake of a quick buck, taught the new wave of wildlife photographers not to think for themselves”. And yet he himself, as well as being a prominent wildlife photographer, is one of the big names in wildlife photo-tourism, and must make a significant  percentage of his income from the activities he criticises in the article. Where is he really coming from?

Last week I went on a boat trip out to Grassholm island to photograph gannets. Eleven bird photographers were crammed on to a RIB with barely room to move; it proved to be a little frustrating –  for me, anyway. Amongst the other “punters” was a friend and skilled bird photographer, Janet Baxter. After the trip she described how earlier that day she had spent quite some time successfully habituating a family of choughs to her presence so that she could photograph them. Then along strode a group of birders who frightened the birds away and accused her of disturbing them. It was Janet who used the phrase “whatever happened to fieldcraft?” in response to this incident so I hope she doesn’t mind me appropriating it for my blog.  In reply I would suggest that there is still room for fieldcraft, but that instant results are increasingly the name of the game these days.

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Whatever happened to fieldcraft? (Part one)

Curlew sandpiper, Ynyslas
Curlew sandpiper, Ynyslas

There have been some very high spring tides this week. At low tide, wading birds feed in the sand and mud of our estuaries and are more or less invisible. But at high tide they are forced onshore by rising waters. During the hour or two their feeding grounds are inaccessible they tend to rest and sleep, and can be quite approachable. This is particularly the case in autumn, when large numbers of juvenile birds are pausing on their long migratory journeys southwards. They seem to have less fear of humans than their parents. So on a visit to the high tide roost at Ynyslas, mid-Wales, on Wednesday I took advantage of these conditions to get some close-up images.

Ornithologists these days all seem to have telescopes and their preferred method of bird-watching is to stand well back above the tide-line and watch the birds as they arrive. This allows reasonably accurate counts to be made and population trends can be identified over a period of years. Photographers prefer to be nearer the action, and we do run the risk of flushing the birds from time to time as we attempt to get that bit closer. There is a certain amount of tension between the needs of one group and the other. So I let the birders do their counts before edging closer to the birds which were resting amongst areas of cobbles on the beach.

Over a period of time I gently approached them until the nearest bird was less than five metres from me! At first they appeared to be absolutely exhausted. They nearly all had head beneath wing and I watched one dunlin’s head and beak visibly drooping is it nodded off. Gradually they become more active and preened, stretched their wings and chattered amongst themselves. It was marvellous to be up close and this personal with these delightful wild creatures. One doesn’t know how much one’s own presence affected their behaviour. Were they excited to see me? It’s impossible to know. When the time came for me to leave, however, I just stood up and walked away without disturbing them in the slightest. I had been completely accepted by them.

As it happened the bird that remained closest to me was a curlew sandpiper. This species is very similar to a dunlin but a little taller and more elegant. There are minor plumage differences in autumn but the white rump is distinctive. It is an annual passage migrant to our shores in small numbers and is usually found amongst large flocks of dunlin. It can provide quite an identification challenge unless one is quite close; in the picture above the white rump can just be seen between the folded wings.

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Close to perfection – photographing puffins on Skomer

Puffins at the Wick, Skomer Island
Puffins at the Wick, Skomer Island
On Tuesday I took the boat over to Skomer Island to photograph puffins. It wasn’t my first visit but this time the intention was to photograph them within the landscape. It is easy – all too easy, really – to get frame-filling close-ups of these approachable and entirely charming little creatures. The discipline for me would be to stand back and let the landscape speak as well.

It wasn’t a great start, to be honest. I woke early with the unmistakeable signs of a developing feverish cold. Arriving at Lockley Lodge about 7.30 am. I discovered that a significant queue had already formed. By the time I had checked in at West Hook Farm campsite and returned to Lockley Lodge there were already more than 60 people waiting. So, in the unlikely event that each person was queuing for themselves only, I still wouldn’t get the first boat. In fact I had to wait for the third, leaving at 11 a.m. I consoled myself with the knowledge that Martins Haven wasn’t exactly the worst place in the world to be waiting for public transport!

But taking into account the crossing, disembarkation, a long haul up steps with heavy gear, the obligatory welcome talk from the island warden, and then another mile’s trudge, it was nearly noon before I arrived at the Wick. The sun was almost at its highest already, and I hadn’t even started. Fellow photographer Andy Davies was there with one of his puffin photography workshop groups and I told him my heart just wasn’t in it. Occasionally puffins would fly in with beakfuls of sand eels. This was the “money shot”, the classic puffin image that everyone wanted; yes – even me! I swapped lenses several times, from long zoom to standard zoom, to medium telephoto, each time in reaction what had just happened, and in the hope and expectation that it would happen again. Not a healthy state of affairs. I wasn’t “seeing” anything.

It is difficult to describe the way puffins are at their colonies to those that have never experienced it. There is barely a hint of fear in their attitude to human onlookers. When one flies in with a beakful of fish it sometimes makes a rush for its burrow. But puffins are heavily predated on by herring gulls, which patrol the colony on a regular basis or stand back, just waiting for the opportunity to grab a load of fish. (In fact, research is taking place at the moment to discover if a crowd of people standing within the colony actually improves puffin productivity by discouraging the gulls.) At other times single puffins stand outside their burrows. One disappears underground and another pops up somewhere. One flies in and a couple fly off. One walks over to join its neighbours in a companionable manner. It looked as if they were having a good old gossip. Apart from an occasional argument with its flurry of clashing beaks and flailing wings it is all very relaxed.

Slowly and gradually I began to recognise the way the birds were part of the island landscape. I settled on my medium telephoto zoom lens and began watching as these small gaggles of puffins gathered and parted against the stunning background of the Wick, its aquamarine waters and rocky shores.  I repeatedly walked backwards and forwards along the footpath to set bird against background.  I felt that one puffin was just a distant portrait and had already been done a million times, two puffins together looked like a co-incidence, but groups of three, four and five….. now we’re talking! My main problem was depth of field and I sometimes made the mistake of estimating (well….guessing…) the hyperfocal distance and using that, rather than focussing on the birds. At the shorter end of the zoom at least I got back-to front sharpness in some cases. Elsewhere I planned to create panoramic images anyway so a sharp background wasn’t always important.

It was soon time to pack up my kit and begin the walk back to the jetty in time for the 4 p.m boat back to Martins Haven. My fever had continued to develop during the day and eight hours (altogether) out in the hot sun was definitely not what the doctor would have ordered. I must have looked far from cool in any possible sense of the word – laden with gear, wearing badly fitting sunshades and a wally-style sun hat. Nor was my mood any better. I managed to negotiate an extra hour on the island but was too knackered to take advantage of it. Fortunately I did not need to go anywhere that evening.

The next day I was too ill (man-flu, definitely…..) to do any more photography, unfortunately, so I drove home – a seemingly never-ending series of hold-ups, roadworks and traffic lights. I had a quick look at some of the images before going to bed and I was disgusted. They were all out of focus and I never, ever wanted to see another puffin again in my life! But it was the illness talking and on closer examination I seem to have covered most bases. Having said that a beakful of sandeels somewhere would have been perfection!

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Who’s a pretty boy, then?

Pied flycatcher - Ynyshir
Pied flycatcher – Ynyshir

Sitting staring out of my window at sullen grey cloud and the branches of the ash tree in the garden whipping backwards and forwards, it is difficult to recall the delightful conditions we experienced during April.

In this part of the world the last week in April is a critical one for photographing small woodland birds. Most of the migrants will have arrived but the leaves are not fully open, meaning that those birds are still visible. During several visits to Ynyshir RSPB reserve during late April there’s no doubt that the most prominent of those attractive summer visitors was the pied flycatcher. I spent many hours with two males which were both energetically defending small territories around their chosen nest-boxes. For hour after hour they flew from bare twig to bare twig and uttered their simple sweet song. When you see the determination with which they do this it is worth remembering that each bird had probably completed its journey from Africa only a day or two – or possibly just hours – previously. And not only that, but it is quite likely to have been the same nest box they had used last year. By the time of my last visit one bird had attracted a female – again possibly his mate from last year – and they were visiting the box together. Who knows what they got up to in there! (discussing the colour scheme, I should think…..). By that time he was also noticeably less inclined to sing.

Who's a pretty boy, then.......
Who’s a pretty boy, then…….

One bird was easily visible from the Ynyshir hide, which in theory should have made photography easier. But a constant stream of other human visitors to the hide was a distraction for both bird and photographer. How dare they! The other bird was quite approachable out in the open. Over a period of a couple of days altogether I came back with hundreds of pied flycatcher images, many almost identical, and it has been quite an ordeal processing and sifting through them. It was easy to pick out one classic bird portrait, but as far as “pied flycatcher in the landscape” goes I still haven’t come up with an absolute favourite. The birds’ surroundings were usually a jumble of oak twigs and branches, some in focus and some out, with a few leaves, but little regular structure. In any event I plan eventually to show three images together so (in theory) that should make life a little easier when the time comes to make final decisions.

As far as the technicalities were concerned modern equipment makes bird photography SO much easier. At 1000 ASA (equivalent) I was getting lovely clean results with my Canon 5d3, and any noise is easily removed in Lightroom.  Such high sensitivities  allow fast shutter speeds to be used, with lower risk of subject movement or camera shake. Thanks once more to the 5d3 it has been possible to crop down quite deeply into an image to obtain a pleasing composition.  My lens is the new Tamron 150-600 zoom. The Canon version was released several months ago and I was lucky to get hold of one of the first batch. It has received generally favourable reviews – with the proviso that there may be “issues” when focusing on moving subjects, and particularly with older bodies. I can’t comment on that but in general I’m very pleased with the results. The results are certainly sharper and more consistent than the Canon 100-400/1.4x TC combination that I was previously using. As always a black and white bird presents contrast problems in strong sunshine so slightly subdued lighting was helpful

The other birds I had hoped to photograph were redstart and wood warbler. The former was present but difficult to get to grips with; I’ve never found Ynyshir to be the best of places to connect with this species. The latter just hadn’t arrived by the end of the month. Oddly, if one left the reserve and went a short distance inland several wood warblers were holding forth in tall beech trees on the side of the Einion valley. They were impossible to photograph, however, so I wonder if the Ynyshir birds are back yet. And I wonder if this awful weather will relent for a while before I leave for the Camargue on Tuesday?

Does everyone do this now but me?

Avocet, titchwell
Avocet, Titchwell

On a recent trip to Norfolk I spent a day at Titchwell RSPB reserve. It was one of those misty/hazy days where atmospheric pollution led to disappointing long-distance visibility. But with variable layers of cloud – often thin – and with no great contrast between light and shade – and little wind, it was ideal for bird photography, I spent many hours in the Parrinder hide, focusing my attention on the waders, ducks and gulls on the freshwater lagoon. When the cloud was at its thinnest birds and background were illuminated by bright, silvery light which was exquisite and close to perfection. The image above is one of my favourites from the day.

At lunchtime I left the hide and walked back towards the visitor centre. A cluster of photographers were stationed on the embankment with long lenses pointing into the reedbed. Alert to what other people may already have seen, I heard a distinctive “pinging” call emerging from the reeds – a bearded tit. This is one of the most stunning and sought-after of British birds, and one of the rarest. Further calls followed and it became apparent that a pair of “beardies” was moving through the reeds parallel to the path. Then I heard another “ping” to my left and quickly turned to find its source. Another birder was fiddling with his phone and saying …”Oh, that was me”. The penny dropped – he was broadcasting bearded tit calls in order to entice the birds out of the reeds and into visibility. Over the next few minutes a male perched high in the reeds several times to investigate whether a rival was in his territory. It was an ideal photographic opportunity and despite forgetting to re-adjust my camera settings for this new situation I obtained a few decent images of the bird.

But I couldn’t help expressing my surprise over his methods to the birder. Many people believe that using tape lures such as this is unethical, and the British Birds Code of Practice for bird photographers states the following –

The use of playback vocalisations should be employed sparingly, if at all; if a reaction is not forthcoming immediately, then playback is unlikely to work and should not be repeated in a given territory. It should be noted that the use of playback for species protected under Schedule 1 [like the bearded tit] of the Wildlife & Countryside Act may be considered illegal.

He was unconcerned. He got the recording from the RSPB website, he said, and also did it at home in Birmingham to attract woodpeckers. It reminded me of a friend who, many years ago, and despite being a committed insect conservationist, threw branches into trees to dislodge tree-dwelling butterflies. A scouser with a drier than dry sense of humour, he called it “science”, because it “got results”.

In the greater scheme of things the occasional use of tape lures may cause little more than irritation to a bird, rather than actual disturbance. But it appears to be a growing trend. A columnist in the current edition of “Outdoor Photographer” magazine, Steve Young, recalls an incident at a lesser spotted woodpecker nest site where he berated a bird-watcher for doing the same thing. I consoled myself with the fact that in this instance the birds genuinely WERE there before the use of the recording, and, rather selfishly, that any bearded tit images I managed would have been obtained without any unethical behaviour on my own part. Under other circumstances I would have been thrilled with this image, but in fact it just feels a little bit flat.

Bearded tit, Titchwell
Bearded tit, Titchwell

The birder moved on and another took his place. I couldn’t help recounting to him what had happened just a few minutes earlier. “Oh,” he said brightly, “I’ve got a bearded tit on mine.” He retrieved the phone from a pocket, turned it on, and hey presto – “…..ping…. ping…..”. Does everyone have a damned bearded tit on their phone but me?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A winter visit to the Camargue.

Flamingos, the Camargue
Flamingos, the Camargue

Mid-winter might not seem to be the obvious time of year for the bird photographer to visit the Camargue – well known for its nesting herons, other brightly coloured summer visitors and phenomenal spring and autumn passage migration. But I wanted to have a crack at some of the reedbed specialities which are so difficult to find here in the UK. And small numbers of several species of eagle are known to winter there, although I knew I would be lucky to even see them. As it turned out the bitterns and the bearded tits were just as elusive there as they are in the UK. I may also have seen a distant glimpse of a booted eagle as it flew away in the rain.

As far as the practicalities are concerned I will summarise them first. Travel down to Nimes was by train to minimise my carbon footprint. Some nature photographers must believe their carbon emissions do not count, but that seems an irresponsible attitude in my opinion. It is quite feasible to do the journey in a day by train, even from Aberystwyth, although it seemed sensible to book a  room in Nimes in advance to avoid the risk of spending my first night on a park bench. Train fares are quite reasonable especially if they are booked in advance; London to Nimes was £110 return. I picked up a hire car at Nimes train station on my first morning and spent five of the next six nights at Salin de Badon, a “gite” right in the heart of the Camargue, owned and operated by the Societe National pour la Protection de la Nature.

Previously a hunting lodge, this old stone house is correctly described as “rustique” by its owners, although characterful would be another way of putting it! Accommodation is self-catering, there is no drinking water, and rooms are shared. But on the positive side, it has hot and cold running water and central heating, and access to three nearby hides is included. For me another big positive was getting to meet other French visitors with interests in common, and to practice my French on them! In particular I met two bird photographers there. Having asked if they could help me with French bird names, I was so knocked out by the quality of the images one showed me on his phone that the bird names largely passed me by. I can’t imagine any meeting of minds at the quite characterless hotel by the motorway outside Arles, where I spent my sixth night. You can find Salin de Badon on the internet or contact me for further information.

Great white egrets, the Camargue
Great white egrets, the Camargue

As far as birds were concerned, on my first morning I discovered some large congregations of great white egrets, grey herons and cormorants on agricultural land outside the protected area. The egrets, in particular, were staring intently into a ditch, although what there was to see I have no idea. Another egret gathering nearby contained 73 of these spectacular birds (with about 50 others in nearby fields), I was able to photograph some of these using the car as a hide. I was surprised at the number of this species wintering in the Camargue – as well as this group, individuals birds could be widely seen.

Another species which has increased rapidly in recent years is the common crane. About ten years ago I felt lucky to see a flock of ten wintering birds, but now they have reached an incredible four thousand. Apparently they have discovered a new food source in spilt grain on the agricultural land surrounding the Camargue wetlands – ironic really as so much natural habitat was lost in land reclamation for rice growing. Who says nature is not adaptable? The birds roost in the reserve and commute between it and their feeding areas at sunrise and sunset. During the day, with some good fortune, they can be photographed from local roads from your car.

The flamingo is another conspicuous bird with which I spent some time. It seems an impossibly exotic species to be seen anywhere in Europe, but they are fairly widespread around the western Mediterranean in winter; their only French breeding site is in the Camargue. I managed some images of them on lagoons close to the sea, against a backdrop of the heavy industry at Fos-sur-mer, across the river Rhone. On  a more tranquil afternoon I photographed them and their reflections in still water at the same location. Despite a rather limited range of species, then, and some distinctly changeable weather, it proved a fairly profitable visit, and I’m thinking of going back in May.

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Knots landing (Part One).

Knot, Snettisham, Norfolk
Knot, Snettisham, Norfolk

For many years I hardly took a single photograph outside the borders of Wales. It is an infinitely varied country with enough landscape interest to last a lifetime, and it was how I defined myself as a photographer. ‘Wild Wales’ was my brand and in one way or another I earned an income from Welsh landscapes. Despite a passion for wildlife that pre-dated one for photography, my two interests ran largely in parallel for almost thirty years. But gradually my priorities began to shift and the purchase of the requisite equipment (a secondhand Canon 100-400 L zoom) in summer 2011 allowed me to extend my range of subject matter significantly. While I’m still earning a living from landscape – just – it is bird photography that gives me more of a buzz these days. In a rather unstructured way I’m working on a wildlife project which I hope will see the light of day at some stage.

With this new interest in mind I’ve given myself permission to travel outside Wales to seek out new subject matter – hence two visits to north Norfolk this autumn. Lying between Norfolk and Lincolnshire, the Wash is an extensive area of mudflats at low tide but totally inundated by the sea during the highest spring tides. It is a rich source of food for tens of thousands of wading birds – notably knot – during the autumn and winter. At peak spring tides all these birds are forced onshore by the sea and a large percentage of them congregate on some old gravel pits at Snettisham, near Kings Lynn, now an RSPB reserve.

Tidal rhythms dictate that the highest springs at Snettisham are at roughly of seven o’clock, morning and evening. During the short days of winter the roost thus usually takes place in the dark, and even in autumn it may be necessary to begin one’s walk to the gravel pits in total darkness. So one morning about a fortnight ago I began the journey from my camper van towards the wader roost about 6 a.m. The first few other vehicles had also already arrived: shadowy figures emerged from them, torches in hand, rummaging for equipment in car boots, and quiet voices could be heard. There was a sense of anticipation apparent in the air. Conditions overhead were clear; it all augured well for an exciting morning’s photography.

It was still more or less dark when, half an hour later, I reached the vicinity of the gravel pits. A quiet stream of other visitors were also arriving, many of them laden with photographic gear. Dark figures engaged in quiet conversation as they waited. Small groups of oystercatcher and knot were already moving (and other species) but many more could be heard offshore. Gradually dawn blossomed and a wonderful pink light flooded the area. I couldn’t help noticing as light levels increased that the woman I was chatting with was a lot older than I had imagined! I then had a difficult decision to make: enjoy the tranquillity of the dawn or move quickly to the hide where there would still be room in the ringside seats? As more and more flocks moved into the roost I decided to make a break for it.

I first discovered Snettisham on a bird photography workshop with Chris Gomersall and I am a great admirer of his work – not flashy at all and often paying more attention to the birds’ surroundings than that of other photographers. I’d like to think his work is an inspiration for me rather than something I am consciously trying to copy. I had made some reasonable images of roosting birds two weeks earlier and this time I also wanted to try something more experimental – slow exposures of birds in flight, for example, to try and capture attractive movement blur. From the hide I was hoping for close-ups of wader flocks landing and taking off. In practice the results one can expect using these techniques seem to be unpredictable and it would be difficult to emulate exactly what another photographer has already achieved, so my conscience is clear.

Over a period of an hour and a half I sat in the packed hide and watched the wader flocks arrive and then depart. The rapid-fire clicking of motor-driven shutters was interrupted by short periods of calm. A rather lovely old man squeezed in next to me – a newcomer to the world of birding, I guessed. His comments and questions showed how he was over-awed by the sheer number of birds and their closeness to him. It was far more a reflection on my own attitudes that I found this rather childlike innocence at the spectacle slightly irritating. It was a very intense, goal-oriented experience for me. The sense of wonder that one might hope to feel at such a marvellous natural phenomenon was over-ridden for this photographer by the desire for results.

But such is our lot. It is the same, I feel, for the landscape photographer. A stunning landscape may be unfolding in front of your eyes; a moment when light and land come together completely. It is almost essential to subdue any feelings or emotions that might naturally be felt in that situation – only the calm, collected and efficient operation of one’s equipment will allow the image to be successfully made.

At the very moment the biggest knot flock in front of the hide exploded into flight Sod’s Law dictated that I would be fiddling with my camera bag on the floor! Nevertheless I did get some interesting results like the one above, which, incidentally, looks far better viewed large. I’m still on a fairly steep learning curve, but one thing is for sure: there is so much potential at Snettisham for creative bird photography that I just can’t wait to go back.

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A visit to Skokholm island ……. and the joys of running a business.

Razorbill, Skokholm Island
Razorbill, Skokholm Island

As mentioned earlier I spent a few days on the delightful island of Skokholm earlier this month. It is an excellent place to get close to razorbills and puffins, in particular, although the latter were conspicuous by their absence on this visit. Only during the first day – when it poured with rain – could they be seen standing conspicuously outside their burrows. And due to spring’s lateness this year, the vegetation was less colourful than I had hoped.

But my visit has become more memorable for the presence there of another photographer  – I’ll call him Greg. Soon after arriving we had a chat and he told me that, in addition to his full-time job, he was in the process of developing a sideline as a wildlife photographer.  I told him I had earned a modest living from landscape photography for about twenty years, but more recently wildlife was becoming my favourite subject matter. I told him about my “Wild Wales” calendar.

Back home a few days later I was browsing around ‘Talk Photography’ when I came across a post entitled “A trip to Skokholm Island”. I could hardly resist having a look, could I? And there were some landscape images of the island with the slogan “Wild Wales Photography” plastered across them. And yes, they were Greg’s. I immediately sent a personal message to him stating that I had been using  “Wild Wales” in my business for many years, that I was in the process of registering it as a Trade Mark, and that it would be better for both of us if he stopped using it.

During a short email conversation Greg told me that had bought “Wild Wales Photography” as a Limited Company about a year previously. It appears from the Companies House website that he actually registered it after returning from Skokholm this year, with the full knowledge that I was already using the name. He has also bought a “Wild Wales Photography” domain name.

It must be  genuinely  confusing for newcomers because, on one hand,  they can buy a domain name if it is available and immediately begin using it – no matter who else is already using one of  the myriad variations on the same theme. On the other hand if the name also happens to be someone’s business name, they are getting into much more difficult waters. In my case I have been using it for over twenty years and steadily building up an awareness of the “brand”.

This is the third time I have become involved in this kind of dispute. A year ago someone else living a few miles away from here also set themselves up as “Wild Wales Photography”, while three years ago another Jeremy Moore from Ceredigion also began trading as  “Jeremy Moore Photography”! Unlikely but true…….!  In both cases it was  the availability of domain names that began the whole process – leading to problems and unpleasantness for both of us and considerable expense for me. I’ve had to register my own name as a Trade Mark  – yes, it’s Jeremy Moore (TM)!

As for Wild Wales, once the process of registering it as a Trade Mark is complete it will trump Greg’s Limited Company name. He will never be able to use it. Through Talk Photography I have tried to explain this to him, as have several others, but he seems unwilling to listen. Oh, the joys of running a business…………

Now where was I? Ah yes  …….  Skokholm Island. It was a lovely few days, and I met some interesting people there. There was an exceptional print maker named Julia Manning; and Celia Smith, a sculptor who creates bird sculptures out of wire. It was good for me to talk to people whose interest in birds goes beyond counting and studying them – important though that is. And I found a pectoral sandpiper – a rare-ish American vagrant wader. In my opinion Skokholm is probably the best of the Welsh islands for bird photography. Skomer is great for a day visit but I’d describe  Skokholm  as “the connoisseur’s choice”.  Not only are the birds just as close – or even closer – but the island itself is much more colourful thanks to the red sandstone rock that forms its coastline. And its relative inaccessibility is an advantage too.

Postscript:  Greg has generously (cough) agreed to let me carry on using “Wild Wales” in my business.

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Third time lucky (Part 2)

Black grouse, north Wales
Black grouse, north Wales

The very briefest of weather windows seemed to be opening up over the weekend following my unsuccessful trips described in Part 1. Heavy showers and sunny intervals were forecast for the Saturday evening followed by a sunny couple of hours first thing on Sunday morning. I decided to go for it.

All was quiet when I arrived at the lek site in the early evening. The setting itself looked a bit scrappy – probably linked to some abandoned quarries nearby – but suddenly four blackcock swept in together. Almost immediately they took up their stances and hostilities began. It was quite comical really; these birds were quite clearly not strangers to each other and yet all of a sudden it was handbags. While the light wasn’t good, the distances I would be working at were very useful.  I took a series of images of the birds over the next hour and a half, at which point –  for no apparent reason – the grouse flew, only to return again just before dusk.  I felt reasonably confident that a morning session would be profitable, so set my alarm clock for 5.30 am; I should get a decent night’s sleep……….

At 2.30 am the first rally car sped past. For more than an hour there was the sound of burning rubber on tarmac every few minutes as one car followed another around the bend beside which I was parked up. One stopped alongside and the driver shouted “hello?” before heading off again. As silence eventually fell over the moorland at 4 am, and the very first hint of dawn began to appear, the bubbling and hissing sounds of lekking black grouse became apparent. I could just see their white tail feathers in the gloom through my binoculars. It looked like some serious action was underway on the lek. By 5.30 it was just about light enough to begin work with the camera and such are the joys of having a camper van, I did not need to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag to do so! Just sit up, reach over for the camera and open the side window…..

While the promised sunny morning did not actually materialise the birds did come very close, closer than I could have hoped for, really. I recalled the adverts I had seen on the internet offering dawn visits to hides near leks for upwards of  £100 a go. Here I was doing the same thing  in much more comfort for free!  Other leks not too far away could be heard in a light breeze. And fortunately several other birder/photographers who arrived later on did not leave their vehicles until after  the birds left of their own accord. Light levels were quite poor, however, and it seemed likely that any photographs of moving birds would be disappointing. Nevertheless I felt that the series of portraits I took of standing birds should contain at least something usable, and this has proved to be the case. I’d like to have a go here in brighter sunlight at some stage but I feel now that I’ve made a good start on the new project. And it really was third time lucky.

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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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