Them’re chuffs, them are.

I’ve lived in Ceredigion for over fourty years, and worked on the Ceredigion coastal path in the 1980’s, but have never really spent much time at Mwnt. And yet, with its tiny, ancient church, sheltered beach and National Trust car park, it must be one of the most popular and attractive destinations in the county. I had heard that a large flock of chough gathered there early in the morning, and that it was also a great place to photograph bottlenose dolphins. So I decided to visit.

The first morning – having parked up overnight a couple of miles inland – I arrived early. Choughs were gathering on the short grass in front of the church, so I manouevred my van into a position where I could use it as a hide. The choughs were busily feeding on leatherjackets , which they were digging out of the turf with their strong red beaks. I counted a total of twenty-nine altogether. They were barely troubled by the occasional passer-by, flying a short distance away before quickly returning. One thing I noticed was that they both hop and walk, the latter giving them quite a pronounced waddle!

Them’re chuffs, them are…….

I overheard the following conversation between one couple as they walked through the flock –

Him : “Them’re chuffs, them are”

Her : “Warrar?”

Him : “Them, they’re chuffs”

Her : (louder) “Warrar???”

Examining the pictures on the camera’s screen, it looked like very few of them were perfectly sharp. I blamed myself. I thought I was out of practice. But then I had an idea: was the viewfinder’s dioptre adjustment wrongly set? I re-adjusted it and found that most of the pictures were in fact quite acceptable. I must have rotated the adjustment dial getting the camera in or out of my bag. This is an ongoing problem with digital cameras . They have so many buttons and dials it is virtually impossible NOT to change settings in normal day-to-day use. Typically the focus point moves from centre to somewhere near the edge and you wonder why it won’t focus properly. There should be a lock button somewhere which would prevent these accidental changes.

As more and more people arrived, so the choughs began to filter away. I returned the next morning for another session. Parking in the same spot I waited for the birds to arrive. And so they did. It was mostly good-natured, co-operative feeding, but not always. Twice there were short but vicious tussles between individuals, who very rapidly resumed feeding alongside each other shortly later. I’m told by Adrienne Stratford, an expert on chough behaviour, that these spats are mostly between two juveniles – possibly even nest-mates. Far more often, however, two birds could be seen nestled close to each other, gently preening each other’s plumage.

Having pretty much exhausted the possibilities of individuals and groups of chough digging into what looked like a lawn, I turned my attention elsewhere. Occasionally choughs would rest on the church tower or a gravestone, and I thought that could make a nice picture, even though the birds themselves would be small in the frame. It turned out be quite an easy task with such co-operative creatures, and the pictures work well for me.

O

When I first started bird photography (for the book Wales – at Waters’ Edge) it was beyond my wildest dreams that I would be able to photograph chough. They seemed so rare and elusive. But as I have got to know them better I’ve realised they’re actually one of the most approachable species in Wales. At the same time they have lost some of their mystique; but is still so nice to spend some time in the presence of one of my favourite birds.

As for the dolphins I spent some time scanning the sea , and one afternoon picked out a small group heading quickly westwards some distance offshore; the more I looked the more I found. They were scattered over a wide expanse of water covering perhaps 1/2 mile by 1/2 mile. There were probably dozens altogether, possibly as many as fifty. Presumably they were bottlenose but a large group of commons was seen off the Teifi estuary not far away at about the same time, so who knows? When conditions are right (and when the mood takes them) bottlenose dolphins come very close inshore at Mwnt, and some great photographs have been taken of them. So I shall keep my eyes and ears open and make another visit before too long.

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One good tern deserves another.

Arctic tern

One of my favourite places in Wales is Cemlyn Bay, on the north coast of Anglesey. It is a brackish lagoon separated from the sea by a curving shingle spit. Within the lagoon are a couple of islands on which very large numbers of terns raise their young every year. Commonest is the sandwich tern, with large numbers of common and arctic terns as well; it has held roseate terns in the past and occasional birds are seen every year, although they do not now breed.

Several roseates were reported earlier this summer, which encouraged me to plan a visit for later in the year; I had never knowingly seen one before. Then in July an elegant tern took up residence within the colony; this is a very rare visitor to the UK and is normally found on the western coast of northern and central America. I decided to bring forward my visit to try to catch both species together.

Tern identification has never been my strongpoint. Sandwich terns are pretty unmistakeable but I tend to lump most arctic and commons (let alone roseates) – unless seen very well – as “comics”. However, Cemlyn Bay is one place in the UK where with a little bit of time and patience one can get to grips with this tricky ID problem. From the safety of the shingle ridge it is possible to get excellent views of the terns on the islands even without a telescope.

A sandwich tern on steroids……..

It wasn’t difficult to locate the elegant tern. It has a massive bill the colour of a banana and over a period of a couple of weeks it had established a “territory” centred on one of the unoccupied roseate tern nesting shelters. It would perch there and display to any passing sandwich tern. It is basically a sandwich tern on steroids and in my opinion has been badly mis-named. It is large and chunky, with a backward-pointing crest, but ‘elegant’? Sorry but no!

The roseate terns were another matter altogether. One of the Wildlife Trust wardens pointed one out and yes…… I could see it. But would I be able to pick one out in a crowd (of other terns)? Probably not. Every so often a “dread” would take place : the whole colony took flight and swirled around overhead for a couple of minutes before returning. On a couple of occasions the dread occurred when a hunting peregrine flew through the colony but often there was no apparent reason for it. On my first evening there it happened over and over again. I’m not sure if anybody knows why they do it but they do, and after one of them the roseate tern disappeared.

A dread…….

I was under no time constraints and particularly enjoyed the delightful approachability of the arctic terns. They would alight just a few yards away on the shingle without batting an eyelid, or fly from the colony past the observer to the sea at a similar distance. Fledglings lay prone on the ridge waiting to be fed and their parents would bring them sandeels no matter how close you were. It must be one of the best birding (and bird photography) experiences in the British Isles. Everybody should visit Cemlyn at least once!

Roseate tern (or is it…..?)
Spot the difference…….

During the afternoon, as the tide receded, more and more terns rested on the beach, sometimes no more than ten yards away. It gave me the chance to examine them in detail. I picked out one individual with a black bill, one of the most noticeable features of a roseate tern. The more I looked, the more black bills I found, perhaps half a dozen of them altogether. Were they ALL roseates? Another birder examined them with a telescope and confidently told me that they were; I wasn’t convinced. Another said they were, in fact, first-summer arctics – despite the fact that they normally spend their entire first year in the Antarctic and are scarce in the UK. The secret is in the colour of their legs – roseates have (relatively) long bright red legs while those of the arctics are very dark red or black and very short.

Examining the images at home I picked out one which looked good for a roseate, and sent it for confirmation to the tern wardens. They agreed. But there’s a snag; the tail streamers on a roseate are exceptionally long and this bird’s just aren’t. So there’s one final possibility. On the Skerries, an offshore tern colony just a few miles away, very occasionally a roseate tern has mated with a common and reared young. So could this be a hybrid? We will probably never know.

N.B. Apologies for the terrible pun in the post title, and to many of you whose interest in the minuteae of tern identification is………err………limited…..! But I’m sure you’ll agree, they’re stunning little birds.

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It’s not all bad news.

Hobby at Shapwick

In recent posts I’ve written about some of the exciting and fascinating wildlife encounters I had during my May travels. These included great bustard, lady’s slipper orchid, snakeshead fritillary, even the humble Duke of Burgundy butterfly; all four were either re-introductions and/or found specifically on National Nature Reserves. Without interventions from conservationists none of these four species would be found in the UK, or would be struggling to survive. The last post of this series involves a bird species which has, on the quiet, become very much more common over the last fifty years. At the time of the first Breeding Bird Atlas (published in 1976) there was an estimated 100 pairs of hobbies in the UK. By the time of the 2013 edition, it was far more widespread, with a population of about 2,200 pairs.

The hobby is a small falcon related to the peregrine. It is fully migratory, arriving in the UK in April and leaving for Africa in September. It feeds on small birds and large insects caught on the wing. As a very fast, fluid and agile hunter it can catch even swallows and swifts in flight. On their arrival in the UK hobbies congregate at certain wetlands (where there is normally an abundance of dragonflies to feed on), before dispersing to their breeding areas. I had read of flocks or even “swarms” of hobbies at certain locations in early May and longed to see such a spectacle.

I have visited one of these locations – the Avalon Marshes, near Glastonbury – several times in recent years (see here), and it is one of my favourite UK birding destinations. Up to eight species of heron have bred there, which is extraordinary – given that just a few decades ago only the grey heron and the rare and elusive bittern were found in Britain. It was here that I headed after leaving Stonehenge.

My first evening and the following morning there were unspectacular. I was disappointed that the hides at the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve were still closed following the Coronavirus lockdown, and birds seemed a little thin on the ground. After lunch I headed in the opposite direction along the disused railway line into Shapwick Heath NNR. Just a few minutes later I had seen my first hobbies, a dozen or more, hunting independently in a loose flock. Prey must have been small insects because there was also a very large dispersed flock of hirundines (swallows and martins) doing the same thing. Occasionally I caught sight of a bird transferring prey from its feet to beak in flight, a sure sign that these were hobbies. A few minutes later I heard loud bugling calls coming invisibly from Meare Heath to the north – surely they must have been cranes? *

Checking me out………

I hurried on towards a northward facing hide. From there it looked like the hobbies had disappeared. I then began to pick them out in the heat haze, perched singly or in small groups on stunted dead trees amongst the reeds. Gradually they resumed their hunting and I managed a reasonable count of thirty-three birds altogether. It occurred to me that these were truly African birds spending just a few months of every year in the UK. Although they were very active, the hobbies were really too far away to photograph, so I returned to the railway line. And guess what? Hobbies, lower and much closer. Part of the same flock, no doubt, but this was more like it! I returned to the van to eat and recharge my mental batteries.

Late that evening I returned to the same area. Still hobbies! They were hunting insects low over one of the lagoons until well after sunset. Close to darkness in the far distance I could see about twenty of them perched on the stark boughs of a dead tree, one-by-one disappearing to roost somewhere nearby. They had gone by the next morning; but great white egrets – ethereal and otherworldly – floated by just outside the hide window. There must have been a nest nearby.

These spectacular birds are a very welcome addition to the British avifauna; as are the little egrets that are now a familiar sight in many parts of the UK. The flocks of hobbies that are now seen in the UK every spring are another example of the continually changing nature of our bird populations. It is a mistake to believe that wildlife distributions and numbers are normally static. For the wildlife lover there is a relentless diet of bad news in the media, and there’s no doubt that we are still losing some species rapidly. The difficulty is in distinguishing between natural fluctuations of bird populations and those changes, like the loss of farmland birds (and other wildlife), that are entirely down to human destruction of wildlife habitats.

* Sightings at nearby RSPB Ham Wall that day included a flock of eight cranes flying over, and two returning.

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On manoeuvres: great bustards on Salisbury Plain.

A male great bustard in all his finery

Some wildlife photographers have attempted to boost their income in recent years by setting up a hide in a likely position, getting birds and mammals acclimatised to being fed there, and then renting it out to other photographers. Species involved include red squirrels and ospreys. Some of latter have learned that easy prey can be found at certain fish farms. To offset their losses the owners of these facilities have built a hide nearby, and who can blame them! But for me the satisfaction (and frustration) of wildlife photography begins with researching where a species might be found. It continues through the location of individuals  – “the thrill of the hunt”  – to the press of the shutter button. It is said that well-off but “time-poor” photographers were more likely to take advantage of hide set-ups such as this. I have always said that I would never do it.

Last year my plans to visit Mallorca in the spring were frustrated by Covid travel restrictions and then Plan B suffered the same fate. Part of Plan B was to visit the Great Bustard Group reintroduction site on Salisbury Plain, where volunteers take visitors out in a Land Rover to see the birds. Earlier this spring I discovered that while the Land Rover trips were not yet in operation, the GBG had set up a hide specifically for photographers and were renting it out. The cost was substantial but I had just sold the last remnant of my Canon system – a x1.4 converter which I found lurking at the back of a cupboard – for the same sum. Whatever the outcome, I felt that it was a donation to a cause that I was happy to support. So I clicked OK.

Male human in observation mode

I worried about the weather, of course, and checked the forecast at regular intervals. On the appointed day the first depression for weeks was due to cross the country, with heavy rain and gales. It felt like Sod’s Law was in operation here.  A meeting was arranged in a layby on one of the main roads crossing the Plain – at 5.30 in the morning. It was all a bit hush-hush. I was led to some farm buildings a couple of miles away where I met the guide, Nigel Cope, and was fitted up with my Great Bustard suit for the walk to the hide The weather was actually quite pleasant; light cloud overall but little wind. Conditions were actually very good for bird photography but as for the bustards – well, I could see several quite clearly but the nearest were at least a quarter of a mile away.

Great bustards are huge and extraordinary-looking birds, especially the males. They are more than three feet in height (females much smaller), and stride purposefully across the landscape. Their plumage is a mixture of white, black and shades of chestnut, with a grey head and dark blue bare patches on either side of the neck. On closer examination the blue patches are scattered with white spots, reminding me of a starlit night sky. In display, the males seem to turn themselves inside-out and became largely white.

A “semi-display” pose

Nigel left me in the hide. I knew good sightings of the bustards were not guaranteed but this was disappointing. I went outside, photographed myself in the bustard suit, and went back in. Then, two and half hours after arriving, I opened the rear flaps of the hide: I couldn’t believe my eyes! Three male bustards were right out in the open, perhaps fifty yards away! Now I had to keep calm.

They weren’t exactly difficult to photograph. One began displaying but at first – and frustratingly – he was behind some tall, straggly stems of dead vegetation. He then moved a short distance into a field of lucerne and went through the whole sequence in full view in the open. I probably giggled and danced a little jig myself. The male bustard seems to pick a spot, inflate his neck pouch and turn himself inside out, rotate, rinse and repeat. They are said to gather together and display at “leks” rather like black grouse do, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. They were more mobile than that; I saw one male in the distance furiously displaying at a single female.

On manoeuvres.

It is believed that at one time great bustards bred in about a dozen counties in the UK, but became extinct due to persecution and agricultural change. They last nested in 1832. Led by David Waters, the re-introduction project on Salisbury Plain began in 2004. Chicks were brought first from Russia and later from Spain. Breeding began in 2009 and there is now a self-sustaining population of about a hundred birds on Salisbury Plain. Strangely the project hasn’t received the support from mainstream conservation organisations that one might expect.

While a much unimproved grassland still exists on the Plain thanks to the extensive military ranges there, the bustards seem quite happy on the farmland around the perimeter. By mid-morning bustard activity had died down, and the promised inclement weather had begun to make itself felt. As I left the site a large group of GBG volunteers were beginning to comb the lucerne field, shortly to be mown for silage, for clutches of eggs which would be incubated artificially. Personally I was glad to retire to a warm hotel room that afternoon to catch up on some sleep.

For more information on the project, see this clip from Springwatch –

https://youtu.be/aL5LFGk_Qd8

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Homecoming – the Aberystwyth purple sandpipers

A couple of weeks ago I had a look for the purple sandpipers at Aberystwyth. There has been a wintering flock of these dumpy little waders here since at least 1927, and their high tide roost is always at the same place – on the sea wall, facing north, below the castle. This year a maximum of four birds has been seen, but the size of the flock has normally varied from five birds up to about twenty-five. Perhaps the current cold weather will bring some more in this winter.

I’d like to say that I found them after a couple of hours staggering about across treacherous rocks and seaweed, but it wasn’t like that at all. I parked my van near the right spot, walked over, looked down, and there they were! They were a little jittery at my presence above them and at the waves passing by below, but allowed me to take a nice series of photographs. Later, as the tide began to drop, I found them beginning to feed on the rocks.

What amazes me is how they return to the same spot every year. There must be plenty of suitable habitat for them around the coast. Could there be a suggestion of “culture” about it, rather than ecological necessity? Whatever, Aberystwyth must feel like home to them.

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(Still) shooting itself in the foot……..

The Upper Llyfnant valley (with newly bulldozed tracks)

Living in west Wales as I do the issue of gamebird shooting has rarely raised its unpleasant head. I knew there was a shoot on the Dyfi estuary but it didn’t really seem like a problem. That all changed in a big way over the summer.

Cwmrhaiadr had been farmed in a fairly wildlife-friendly way for decades, is much loved by local people, and is stunningly beautiful. It consists mainly of the Upper Llyfnant valley, which runs north-south along the Ceredigion / Powys boundary, a few miles from Machynlleth. The river then swings westwards and flows into the Dyfi estuary. It is short but sweet. At the head of the valley is Pistyll-y-llyn (“waterfall of the lake”), down which the infant Llyfnant plunges from the Cambrian Mountain plateau into the lowlands. The farm was purchased by a businessman from Essex (he paid cash…), who sold the shooting rights to a Shropshire-based company, and began turning the valley into a commercial game-bird shoot. New roads were bulldozed throughout. It was lockdown so few people knew what was going on.

The valley has been renamed “Dyfi Falls”. The cost of a day’s shooting? A staggering £2640 (+ VAT).

The moorland at the head of the valley is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI); this includes the cliffs and steep hillsides at the head and upper reaches of the valley. Another SSSI lies a few miles downstream. It is deciduous woodland, a remnant of the “temperate rainforest”; rich in lichens, bryophytes and invertebrates. It would be susceptible to changes in the quality of the water running through it, and the air surrounding it..

In their early publicity the shoot company (Cambrian Birds) boasted about releasing 40,000 birds or more (pheasants and red-legged partridges) into the valley. Imagine that! Although this figure seems to have disappeared from their website they have never denied it. Certainly if you walk there (or anywhere within a few miles) you are continually tripping over pheasants, and I saw flocks of partridges totalling at least fifteen hundred birds. The shooting industry itself has estimated that only 35% (on average) of released birds are actually shot. At Cwmyrhaiadr that leaves 26,000 to die of starvation, predation, disease, parasites or being run over by cars. And of the estimated 57 million released annually in the UK – yes, you did read that correctly – 37 million will die similarly unfortunate deaths. One may view the shooting of birds for pleasure as unpleasant but these figures show that in every way the industry has a callous disregard for living creatures.

Now, regarding the SSSI. It is quite clear to anyone visiting the valley that the gamekeeper has placed many of the feeding hoppers as close as possible to the SSSI boundary. A trail of feed has illegally been laid – inside the SSSI – along the footpath from the valley bottom to the top of the waterfall. Cambrian Birds’ publicity states –

“The steep sided valleys will allow us to present high-flying birds flying straight back to their home at the centre of the estate”

And on their social media pages they excitedly tell us –

“Can’t wait to see these [pheasants] flying off the tops of those hills!”

The trouble is, those hills are the SSSI and (supposedly) protected from the release of non-native birds. Cambrian Birds may be (largely) respecting the letter of the law but certainly not the spirit. Or as one planning officer I spoke to put it:

They are very good at pushing the boundaries“.

For many years the RSPB has been equivocal about gamebird shooting. It accepted that in agricultural lowland Britain woodland was retained for the rearing and release of gamebirds. This provided habitat for many other species of wildlife and would otherwise probably have been felled to increase agricultural production. However the Society now recognises that the nature of gamebird shooting has changed, saying in a recent report –

there are substantial negative environmental consequences from the industrialised form of this shooting, including the direct and indirect impacts that released birds can have on other wildlife. ” 

It has now told the industry that if it does not put its house in order within 18 months – reducing the quantity of birds released, for example – it will call for statutory regulation of gamebird shooting. The RSPB is a powerful organisation and this may bear some fruit. But we should also remember that the landowning class has its own political party which is currently in power with a very large majority.

Meanwhile the pressure group Wild Justice is pursuing a legal case against the government in the High Court, arguing that it is failing in its duty to protect native species in the UK from the excesses of the shooting industry. . The industrial quantities of non-native birds released into the countryside amount to “a very serious ecological assault” upon it, Wild Justice says. The biomass of pheasants and red-legged partridges released every year “exceeds that of all native UK birds put together“, it adds. The Court case will be heard in early November.

What of the shooting industry itself? The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) portrays itself as the voice of the reason in the debate. It has a series of “guidelines” for the industry, for example, and a “policy” of zero tolerance over the killing of birds of prey. As for the RSPB’s new position on gamebird shooting, the BASC says –

 if the RSPB really wants to regain some good will and positive influence with the shooting world, they would do well to start formally recognising and celebrating where and how things are going right.”

The problem is that this has been the RSPB’s position for many years already. Self-regulation has failed to keep the shooting fraternity in check. Raptors continue to be killed on shooting estates, for example, and many believe that the industry is completely out of control. Hence the RSPB’s change of heart. So will the shooting industry begin to mend their ways? If the example of Cwmrhaiadr is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding “no”.

POSTSCRIPT: On November 12th I walked up the Llyfnant valley to observe and photograph the shoot that was taking place on that day. I kept a very low profile, carefully using public rights of way (where they weren’t blocked) and open access land. I left my van at the end of the public road adjacent to the entrance to Cwmrhaiadr. When I returned I found that two of my tyres had been slashed.

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In the middle of the Irish Sea (Part two)

Choughs near Aberdaron

After the excitement of the brocken spectre and then a quick breakfast I met up with Ben Porter for a birding and photography walk. Ben is a rising star in Welsh conservation circles. He was brought up from the age of 10 on Bardsey Island where his parents were the island farmers for a number of years. As such he was home educated and at a very early age became an excellent naturalist and wildlife photographer. He graduated with a Conservation Biology degree at Exeter University in 2018 and was immediately head-hunted by Alastair Driver (of Rewilding Britain), and came to work as an intern on the Summit to Sea project in Machynlleth, where we met. Following a winter spent researching rare seabirds in the Azores he is now back at the family’s permanent home on the Welsh mainland near Aberdaron, just a few miles from Bardsey Island. It is fair to say that Ben is a young man mature way beyond his years.

We decided to walk around the mainland coast opposite Bardsey Island. I had heard chough calling there from the fog the previous day; it sounded like there was a fair few birds but I had no idea how many. I well remember spending a summer night on the top of Mynydd Mawr many years ago and waking to find a flock of about thirty birds, adults with dependent young, just a few yards from the van. I had already decided that if I were to be reborn as a bird it would have to be a chough: they seem to have so much fun. But seeing the ever-open beaks of chough fledglings and hearing their incessant begging calls I decided I perhaps shouldn’t rush into this decision! After the breeding season choughs stay in family parties and come together with neighbouring families to form these quite large groups – 25 is not uncommon. But the flock of 64 birds we found that morning was exceptional and may have been the entire breeding population of the Llyn Peninsula! We eventually found a quiet spot where we could watch the birds without causing any disturbance.  Adult choughs have bright crimson beak and legs while those of recently fledged young are paler, orangey-red. One of the first things we noticed was that it was already difficult to distinguish adults from offspring in this way.



Ben was on the lookout for colour rings. In an extraordinary long-term project, over the last twenty-nine years Adrienne Stratford and Tony Cross have fitted young Welsh choughs (and some adults) with plastic leg rings in different colour combinations. A total of almost 6000 birds have been ringed so far so many individual birds can now be identified. In the main image above the top left and left front birds are carrying leg rings. The project is revealing some fascinating life histories about Welsh choughs;  for example, one female hatched from a North Anglesey nest in 2016 and was next photographed near Porthcawl in Glamorgan – over 200 km away – that November. She returned to Anglesey the following spring.  A few birds have left Wales, including about a dozen to the Isle of Man, mostly in one flock in 2004.  One stayed on there as a nesting bird, while two returned to nest on Anglesey.   Another Anglesey bird was recorded on the Lancashire coast near Heysham in 2007 and two others travelled to the Yorkshire Moors in 2019 (150 km away). The oldest known Welsh chough is a 23-year old from Ceredigion which reared three young in 2019.

When I first started photographing birds (for the book Wales at Waters Edge), I assumed it would be virtually impossible to photograph this classic bird of the Welsh coastline. But in fact the chough is one of the easier and more approachable species. After some time searching for leg rings from a distance with binoculars we decided to try to get closer for a better look. It’s called fieldcraft, I suppose, gradually approaching the birds without apparently doing so.  I’m sure they weren’t fooled, though, and the flock gradually diminished in size as we got closer – possibly family parties leaving together. But eventually we found ourselves in the close proximity of a dozen or more individuals which appeared to be totally relaxed in our presence. It was a tremendous few minutes as they went about their business in the hot sun and we photographed them as they did so. My one reservation about these images is that the sun was high in the sky resulting in the birds being top-lit, rather than my preference, side-lit. But hey-ho …..it was a magical encounter.

And all before lunch-time!

For the first part of this piece, click here.

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Many thanks to Adrienne Stratford for her help with this post.

Nine things I learned about kingfishers last week.

Kingfishers : juvenile on left, adult with worn plumage on right.

Last week I decided to throw off the lockdown shackles and broaden my recent horizons. The first part of the plan was to try to capture the Neowise Comet, which I managed to do with some success; I planned to head off immediately afterwards down to Cardigan (about 40 miles away) ready for a visit to the Teifi marshes, the following morning. So in the early hours I hit the very empty A487 and soon arrived in Cardigan. After a few hours sleep I woke and lit the stove to put a brew on.  I soon realised there was a gas leak: so no more cups of tea (or coffee….or toast…..or any hot food……) for me on this trip! 

The previous night, as I stood with my tripod in the castle grounds at Aberystwyth, a photographer friend had loomed out of the darkness. She wasn’t up for photographing the comet but was thrilled about the kingfisher photographs she’d recently taken at the Teifi Marshes. A brood of recently fledged juveniles had been brought to one of the pools by their parents to learn how to catch fish; my friend had managed to capture the three youngsters lined up on a branch just as one of the parents joined them! It looked like a very promising time to visit the Marshes. 

In flight…….

So by eight o’clock I was settling in to the mallard hide to see if anything would turn up; sure enough, within minutes a kingfisher had appeared. It perched on one of the strategically located branches directly in front of the hide. Between bursts of kingfisher activity I got chatting to another woman there, armed with a camera and long lens. She seemed to know what she was talking about, and I learned the following:

  1. A few days previously a brood of fledged juveniles kingfishers had been brought to the reserve by their parents to learn how to fish. 
  2. At least eight juvenile kingfishers had already been ringed on the reserve by the local ringing team. That would make about 17 birds in the area by now, assuming that all were still alive.
  3. Kingfishers have two broods a year.
  4. It doesn’t take long before the youngsters have their own hunting perches, which they defend against allcomers.
  5. Adult kingfishers have bright reddish orange feet; juveniles have muddy orange feet.
  6. Adult females have an orange lower mandible (the underside of the beak); males’ are dark, like the upper mandible.
  7. When kingfishers fly or drop down to catch a fish, they move very quickly! It’s virtually impossible to keep up with them at close range.
  8. The kingfisher hide on the reserve had been burnt down by vandals earlier this year. 
  9. Despite this, the kingfishers keep on coming. They don’t seem to notice the line of admirers on the path nearby……….
The remains of the Kingfisher Hide.

After a rather lengthy lull in activity I took the opportunity to stretch my legs. It was a short walk down to the site of the kingfisher hide, which was pitiful to behold. The local youth presumably find these hides handy for all sorts of activities, not many of which are related to ornithology, I suspect.  I can understand that, but why do these scumbags then find it so gratifying to burn them down? This is the second hide to have suffered the same fate, and another has been systematically vandalised to such an extent that it has had to be closed…… but I digress. By mid-morning the sun was so high and harsh that getting a decent photograph was impossible, so I took a long siesta. Having a coffee in the main street of Cardigan was a novelty after all these months!

Got one! (click to enlarge)

I was back at the kingfisher pool by late afternoon, by which time the light was perfect. Kingfishers were active from the word go and I found a spot where I could point my lens through a gap in the vegetation for a different angle on a perch used by the birds for hunting. One individual looked like one of this year’s young, and there were interesting interactions between it and other birds. One such, which I was lucky to photograph (see main pic.), appeared to be with an adult, judging by the latter’s worn plumage and partial moult. As afternoon merged into evening I enjoyed the company of other people. We agreed on how lucky we were to watch these exotic little birds at such close quarters  – living their lives in such a relaxed and unselfconscious way. They were totally unconcerned by our presence.  

By this time I had taken almost eight hundred photographs in less than twenty-four hours, got through two full batteries, and there was no prospect of any breakfast the next morning.  It was time to go home.

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Homing in.

First of all let me say that I am a very lucky man. I live out in the Welsh countryside, with long views in every direction from the house. The valley to the north is stunningly beautiful, with several stretches of remnant oak woodland, just coming into leaf right now, on its sides. I can take any one of a wide variety of walks direct from my front door, on public footpaths, bridleways or minor roads.  I can use my electric bike to get me a bit further afield and to help iron out the many steep hills in the vicinity.  I have no money worries: my pension payment comes in, regular as clockwork, every four weeks.

This is, of course, a far cry from the experience of those people now confined to rooms and apartments in towns and cities throughout the world. Or delivering food to our shops and supermarkets, driving buses or trains, collecting rubbish and re-cycling, delivering mail, or risking their own lives daily in care homes and hospitals. My heart particularly goes out to those brave and committed men and women saving other people’s lives on the front line, in some cases to the extent of losing their own.

Red kites : attempted talon grappling

When it became clear that I was going to be confined to base for a considerable length of time, I made it my aim to get to know my immediate surroundings as best I could. After a relentless diet of rain and wind over the winter the start of the lockdown coincided with a change to much sunnier conditions. I started to walk some of the local footpaths, and listened out for bird song in the nearby woodlands. Late March is also good time of year to search out woodpeckers while they are still drumming to advertise their territories.   At one time many years ago I thought I could distinguish the drumming of lesser spotted woodpecker from its much more common relative, the greater spotted; but with the former being so uncommon now my memory had become rather rusty. I managed to almost convince myself that I had found a lesser spotted just a few minutes walk from the house. So I spent some time quietly visiting a couple of local woodlands listening for its call – which would conclusively identify it – without success. But what I did find, without really trying, were two red kite nests. In fact it was partly as a result of the kites that I felt I had to give up searching for woodpeckers. By April 7th both pairs were obviously incubating and I just couldn’t continue without disturbing them.

Of course red kites are nowhere near as rare as they used to be. I well remember seeing my first red kite soon after moving to mid-Wales in 1977. I had cycled up a remote valley not far from here and took a photograph (yes, even then) of a bird I assumed was a buzzard. It wasn’t until I got the prints back from Boots (or was it Max Spielmann?) that I saw the forked tail. In fact the valley below this house seems to be a bit of a hotspot for red kites. There is a communal roost in one of the woodlands – I’ve seen fifty birds there at dusk in winter. For much of the year there are birds floating around enjoying the breeze. One of my neighbours – a lady in her eighties – sometimes puts scraps of meat our for them in the field the other side of her garden fence. We are only about five miles from one of the well-known kite feeding stations (Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian) so I suspect some individual birds associate the appearance of people with the arrival of food. At least one  perches on an electric pole at the back of her house and calls in the hope that she will feed it.

On bright days in late winter and early spring the larger birds of prey (kites and buzzards) are very prominent in the air, displaying and socialising with each other.  One recent evening I looked out of the bathroom window to see two kites grab each other’s talons and freefall together, whirling round and round, before releasing and flying away. But then, round about the second week in April, clutches are completed, incubation starts and it normally goes very quiet. You wonder where all the raptors have suddenly gone. But a loose grouping of kites (up to eight together) soared, chased and displayed over the field at the back of the house throughout last week, sometimes joined by buzzards. They seem to like each other’s company.

Probably because they are such a familiar feature of our landscape here in mid-Wales, I have hardly ever tried to photograph red kites. During work on my “Bird/land” exhibition I visited Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian several times but ended up focussing my attention on carrion crows (see this post)! But in my current enforced state of immobility it seemed like a good time to put right this failing; that and a realisation that they are, actually, incredibly beautiful creatures……

So I took my new(ish) Olympus/Panasonic m4/3 kit out “into the field”  – the field at the bottom of our garden, that is. It was actually quite frustrating to have to exit the house via the front door, walk fifteen yards along the road, then open a gate and go through it……how lazy we can get! I began to explore the camera’s various settings and autofocus modes. It has SO many…….far too many for a technophobe like me, to be honest, but by chance or otherwise I have managed some good results.  One particular afternoon the harsh sun was tempered by a veil of high cloud; bright diffused light is perfect for bird photography, and it so happened that my next-door neighbour had just put some scraps of meat out for them! It was an ideal opportunity.

For a red kite I’d guess that grasping another bird’s talons and cartwheeling towards the ground together is just about the ultimate in sociability and the mastery of flight. For me capturing the act would be the pinnacle in red kite photography; but now the peak in pre-breeding season activity has passed, I wonder if it will now have to wait until next year?

 

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At the beginning of the learning curve : first impressions of the Olympus OM1D EM1 Mk2.

Above Penrhyncoch, Ceredigion. (1/60th @f11; ISO 200)

In November I wrote that I had taken the plunge and bought into the Olympus micro four-thirds system (see this post). I knew I was at the very beginning of a steep learning curve and I’m probably only a couple of steps further forward four months later! For one thing, while some photographers probably never get past the “testing” phase with their new kit, I seem to be allergic to doing so. I just want to get out and actually use my equipment for real. And secondly, the weather this winter has been almost unrelentingly dull, wet and windy; I just haven’t felt like getting out into the field in those conditions. My em1mk2 / 12 – 100 f4 zoom have been sitting in their bag, together with the Panasonic 100-400 mm zoom lens which I bought during the Black Friday sales for wildlife photography.

However I’ve taken advantage of a couple of short spells of better weather and come back with some decent results. So I feel like I’m making some progress. The top picture was a bit of a grab shot taken from the side of the mountain road a few miles above my house on a morning which just seemed tailor made for landscape photography: bright blue skies and patchy cloud above and below that valley fog drifting inland from the sea.  In fact, although I spent most of the day out with the camera this was the best shot of all, although  I had to crop and clone out the tops of some spindly conifers in the foreground. Later that day I went down to Aberystwyth and managed a few shots of kayakers at sunset. This was a real test for the ISO capabilities of the camera; don’t look too closely, though, because it wasn’t entirely successful…!

 

Aberystwyth sunset (1/60th @ f11; ISO 1600)

In November I had spent a couple of days with friend in north Wales. I spent a few hours among the derelict slate quarries near Nantlle. The following day – a rare sunny one – we headed over to Anglesey and spent a couple of hours around sunset on the west coast near Aberffraw where I was able to take advantage of the em1ii’s amazing image stabilisation capabilities. The picture below was hand-held at 0.6 seconds – and perfectly sharp. Another was equally sharp at 1.6 seconds!

Eglwys-yn-y-mor Sant Cwyfan – 0.6 secs @ f8. (ISO 100)(handheld)

Last week I had my first real opportunity to use the long zoom in earnest. I met up with some birding friends in Pembrokeshire and we headed off to Carew, in the south of the county, where two or three firecrests had been regularly seen over a period of a couple of months. Sure enough one was visible on and off for an hour or so, and what a little beauty it was! Firecrests have been described as ‘little jewels’ and I would certainly go along with that description. I watched it with binoculars at first and saw it raise and spread its stunning little orange crest at close range. Eventually I got the camera out of my bag, attached the Panasonic and managed to catch it as it rested briefly between spells of frantic activity.

Firecrest, Carew Cheriton. (1/1250@ f8 ISO 1250.)

What a stunning little creature! And I was very happy with the technical quality of the picture. While the em1ii / Panasonic 100-400 zoom combo is still pretty chunky it is about half the weight and size of my previous Canon 5d4 / Tamron 150- 600 set-up.  And despite the massive difference in sensor size, on the evidence of this picture, image quality is very similar. Bearing in mind the crop factor of the micro four-thirds format I can cover the entire range of focal lengths from 24 to 800mm with just the two lenses. The handful of outings I’ve had with my new kit this winter have persuaded me that it is worth persevering with the em1ii’s rather frightening manual and the online guide (442 pages long) by Tony Phillips which a fellow user directed me towards.

So watch this space for more pictures and roll on springtime!

 

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