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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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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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.
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.
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:
A few days previously a brood of fledged juveniles kingfishers had been brought to the reserve by their parents to learn how to fish.
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.
Kingfishers have two broods a year.
It doesn’t take long before the youngsters have their own hunting perches, which they defend against allcomers.
Adult kingfishers have bright reddish orange feet; juveniles have muddy orange feet.
Adult females have an orange lower mandible (the underside of the beak); males’ are dark, like the upper mandible.
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.
The kingfisher hide on the reserve had been burnt down by vandals earlier this year.
Despite this, the kingfishers keep on coming. They don’t seem to notice the line of admirers on the path nearby……….
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!
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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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.
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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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…!
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!
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.
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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As I have done so little photography in the last two months I hope you’ll forgive me if recount an incident from spring last year. In early May I paid a visit to Ham Wall in the Somerset Levels near Glastonbury. In a post describing a previous visit I called this magnificent RSPB reserve ‘Heron HQ UK’ : as an example of habitat creation on a large scale it just can’t be beat.
My first morning there saw me making an early start. It was humid, still, and scraps of fog hovered above the wetlands and reedbeds. I wasted little time in making my way to the Tor View hide, joining another early-rising photographer. It can be good to chat to like-minded souls in bird hides and one can sometimes pick up useful info about what can be seen locally. But on this occasion it really was a bit too early for conversation and, besides, a surreal dawn was slowly developing into a stunning sunrise. But he just wanted to talk ….”Are you using Canon, then…..?” Even worse, he wanted to talk about kit. And did he! He proceeded to list his lenses: …the 600 f5.6, the 500 f4 and the 400 f2.8 (…..possibly…..). He carried on in this vein.
Meanwhile a pair of great white egrets were just becoming active in the mist nearby, offering a stunning spectacle to the photographer. But he just didn’t seem to notice. Fortunately a couple of other photographers arrived which took the pressure off me to respond! The sun began to break through the trees, spotlighting sections of the egrets’ brilliant white plumage. I couldn’t believe I was the only one pointing my camera in their direction.
Perhaps backlit birds don’t offer ideal subject matter for the traditional bird photographer. Whatever the reason, the others sat on the other side of the hide and chatted away. The sun rose, dispersing the mist and warming the landscape. I was able to photograph a bittern in flight with the summit of Glastonbury Tor in the background, an image that really sums up Ham Wall for me.
And what of our friend with the car boot full of equipment? I hadn’t noticed him slip away but certainly noticed him return. This time he was pulling a four wheeled trolley loaded with gear. Someone had advised him that thieves were known to frequent the car park and he must have thought it better that he had it all with him.
I’m struggling, really, to conclude this post because the moral is surely so clear to see. There is more to photography than kit.
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The wood warbler has always been a special bird for me. I recall an early May morning at Ynyshir reserve when a wood warbler would perch on a the end of low branch and sing its gorgeous song. Its whole body shook with the intensity of its refrain. Unfortunately I wasn’t a bird photographer in those days. In recent years I returned to Ynyshir to photograph the same species and not one was to be seen or heard, in the lower woodlands, anyway. It was rather curious. This spring I tried the Clettwr valley a little closer to home. Yes, I could hear one, but could I actually see it? The answer was no. On my next visit I kept to the minor road bordering the reserve on its steep northern side; the moment I opened the van door I could hear the song and I knew this was the spot I had been looking for.
The wood warbler is superficially similar to both the willow warbler and chiffchaff and was first only conclusively identified by the Reverend Gilbert White in 1768. He distinguished it first by its song, seeing it “shivering a little with its wings when it sings” and later conclusively by the comparison of shot specimens of each species. Its Latin name phylloscopus sibilatrix could be translated as “the whistling leaf-lover”, and this gives a handy summary of its character. The individual I soon located clearly had a territory in a young-ish oak plantation, and it flew from song post to song post amongst the trees, uttering its quicksilver descending trill at each one. Occasionally it would sing an entirely different song – pu, pu, pu, pu, pu – throwing its tiny head back and putting every milligramme of energy that it possessed into its performance, and sounding not unlike a wading bird might in a different environment.
Photographing a tiny subject like this was a tricky matter, however. In a complicated environment like woodland a bird’s surroundings and the background against which it is set can be horribly messy; added to that were the shadows projected by bright sunlight. It was going to be quite a test for my equipment which is not entirely at home with small moving subjects against complex backgrounds. It would be a matter of quantity in the hope of getting quality. I had a session lasting a couple of hours with the wood warbler and then returned during the evening two days later, to find that the bird had moved on and the little plantation was completely silent. It was an altogether different place without the wood warbler. He truly was the spirit of the woodland.
I spent the night in the van and woke early to the sound of wood warbler song. He was back! Atmospheric conditions had changed overnight too, and wisps of dry cloud drifted through the trees. Although it was much darker the cloud would reduce the contrast levels within the woodland. It was worth another try. So I had three hours worth of images altogether, a total of something like 400 to trawl through…… . He may not have been the smartest of his species but the image above illustrates his character very well, I think.
N.B. Michael McCarthy writes very well about his quest for a wood warbler in his lovely book “Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo”
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Earlier this week I headed down to Kidwelly near Carmarthen. Having arrived there I checked the Pembs Bird Blog – as I regularly do – to find that a green heron had been found near Narberth, only about 25 miles away. This is an exceptionally rare vagrant from north and central America to the British Isles, and a visit was a no-brainer, really. I restrained myself for several hours the following morning, photographing migrating whimbrel which had been pushed high on to the saltmarsh by a spring tide. But after a second breakfast I headed over to Pembrokeshire. Full directions to the site were given on the Bird Blog; it was in the grounds of the local M.P.’s house who very generously, really, had opened up his garden to the possibly hundreds of complete strangers who might want to see the bird.
I arrived mid-morning to find maybe twenty birders already there, with many thousands of pounds worth of optical and photographic gear on display, camped out just outside the back door of the house. The heron was in a wildlife pond, created by the owner, nearby, but unfortunately not showing very well. The words “creep”, “lurk” and “virtually invisible” come to mind. At mid-day it came to the edge of a bullrush bed and preened for a while, and a motor-drive hammered away over my right shoulder. That guy would have hundreds of virtually identical and more-or-less unusable files to sort through and delete! The heron retreated again, and I decided to cut my losses and return the next morning, when I guessed it might be more active.
I arrived about 7 a.m. to find the bird roosting close to the garden, but low down in deep shade. It immediately flew a little further away onto a low, horizontal branch where it remained for some time, facing away and partially shielded by branches and twigs. It eventually came closer and sidled up a branch in full view, where I was able to photograph it successfully. The above image is a big crop, from near the edge of the frame, and I continue to be amazed at the quality of results possible from the rather modest Tamron 150-600 Mk 1 lens that I have had for more than four years now. It helps to have a Canon 5d on the end of it, of course, but even that is only a mk3. I have cleaned up a couple twigs from behind and around the bird.
From the branch the heron extended its very long neck and stretched down to pick up some prey from the water beneath. As it did so it nearly slipped off the branch, exposing it’s stunning plumage, which shimmered with irridescent colours in the sunlight. You can see this quite well in the smaller image. The name green heron really doesn’t do it justice. One has to wonder how it managed to cross the Atlantic and arrive in such an obscure part of south Wales, some five miles from the coast. Some say it may have been “ship-assisted”, and it may have been lurking unseen around the area for months. We will probably never know, but it certainly seems to have found some ideal habitat with plenty of food to keep it going for some time.
Everyone who has seen the green heron will be very grateful for the opportunity. Birders from all over the UK were arriving at all hours of the day (and probably night). One car-load had set off from Tees-side at 11 pm and arrived at 5 am, others had come from Woking and Nottingham to name but two. One can only applaud the hospitality of Simon Hart and his wife, who at least once a day brought out a tray of mugs complete with a pot of delicious freshly brewed coffee.
I couldn’t help noticing the “Countryside Alliance” sticker on the kitchen window. However these are no ordinary members; Mr Hart was its Chief Executive from 2003 until 2010, and is currently its Chairman. The Countryside Alliance is a major part of the pro-hunting lobby and gets a pretty bad press amongst conservationists. As is common at twitches (apparently) a donations bucket was left outside – with donations in this case going to the charity “Songbird Survival”. This latter organisation also has a bad reputation amonst many wildlife lovers, being seen as a front for predator control (although there is nothing controversial on their website). One could not help but notice, though, that its staff and trustees are gathered largely from the land-owning fraternity, with no representatives at all from any of the main (or even minor) conservation organisations, which seems rather curious. But having seen the amount of fabulous wildlife habitat Mr Hart has created around his home one should perhaps take a more open-minded view of the way the landed types go about things.
So am I turning into a twitcher? On this particular trip I managed to get decent images from the Kidwelly area which may see the light of day some time next year. Seeing the green heron was a bonus at the cost of modest additional mileage. Like most birders I’m sometimes tempted to add a new species to my list – (not that I have a list, he added hastily) – by travelling to see a rarity. I’ve sometimes described myself as “the world’s worst twitcher” due to past failures so two successes in recent weeks makes a nice change! But there’s no way I’m going to subscribe to one of the bird news services with the consequent anxiety and carbon emissions this would entail. That way madness lies.
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This snowy owl was first reported from St. Davids Head on the Pembrokeshire bird blog on Good Friday, and then again on April 3rd. It seemed to be elusive, to say the least. But the forecast for April 5th was good, and I overcame my usual inertia and decided to go for it. It wouldn’t be the first snowy owl I have ever seen. The first was on Fetlar (Shetland) in 1985, one of the last birds from the breeding pair present there for a number of years. The second was on moorland in North Uist a few summers ago which may actually have been a plastic sack full of peat turves, so white was it and so little did it move! But a snowy owl in Wales! And (almost) on my home patch……
I arrived at Whitesands about 8.45 am and began the walk across to St Davids Head. After about half a mile I met a birder coming the other way. It was Mike Young-Powell, a local man whose patch I knew St Davids Head was. Obviously excited, he borrowed my phone to get the news out. He had seen the bird on a rocky outcrop just a few minutes previously. I headed back with him to relocate it, and it suddenly took flight from maybe twenty yards away from us. For such a large white creature it could be surprisingly inconspicuous.
It settled amongst tussocks in the valley bottom, with only its top half showing, unfortunately. We watched it from a distance while Mike waited for his wife and friends to arrive, and then he gave me the go-ahead to get closer. I apologised in advance in case I disturbed it……
I soon got to a point on the other side of the valley where the light was better and began to creep closer, stage by stage. The owl clearly knew I was there but didn’t seem at all anxious. At each point I watched her for a few minutes and took a few pictures. I peeped over a clump of brambles and bracken, and just watched. It was quite an intimate moment, and I felt truly honoured to be in her presence. She seemed quite relaxed, blinking in the sunshine and looking around from time to time. When closed her eyes looked like little smiley black slits in a round white face. Talk about inscrutable! There was something about a sumo wrestler about it. Much too soon, however, my presence became too much and she flew off.
I expected some flack from the other birders when I returned to the path but they were fine. Continuing up valley I rounded a corner and the owl exploded away from her perch on the ground about twenty yards away. She flew some distance and landed on a rock, where she was harrased angrily by a raven and chased back towards us. She landed on the hillside opposite, about half way up Carn Llidi, much too far away for a binocular user like myself. From this distance and with only 10×40’s, she appeared grey all over with a white face. I settled down and waited for her to make a move. Seven hours later she was still there.
During that time she shifted around a bit, and those with a scope would have found the minor details of her resting period fascinating, I’m sure. For me the most interesting thing was the behaviour of two ravens. One made a sudden right angle turn and flew over to the owl, landing briefly on a rock about ten yards away. Another inspected the owl carefully from above. Neither of them could ever have seen a snowy owl before, and probably didn’t know what to make of it. Perhaps the owl was too near to the nest of the angry bird mentioned earlier.
Eventually I got too cold to wait around any longer and drove home. I downloaded the pictures into Lightroom yesterday and found to my relief that one of the closest pics was sharp. I cloned out two grass stems which fell across the birds face, and cropped the image fairly drastically for the above portrait. The quality at 100% is still pretty impressive! It is noticeable how brown the barring is on its upper breast compared to that on its crown. The afternoon had been pretty frustrating, but what a morning! This has to be one of the most amazing birds I have ever seen.
PS : Many thanks to Alastair and Jill Proud for the sandwich and Welsh cakes…..
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