The Green Flash and another starling story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Twice bittern.

Kingfisher in the rain, Teifi Marshes
Kingfisher in the rain, Teifi Marshes

A few days before Christmas I headed down to the Teifi Marshes near Cardigan with high hopes of seeing a bittern. It is a regular winter haunt for this extraordinary but elusive species and I had photographed one there in January 2015 (see this post). Furthermore there had recently been reports in the local bird blog of one by the Kingfisher Pool. It all seemed very promising. But after six hours in a very cold hide without a single sighting I felt somewhat deflated……and I’m sure the bad cold I suffered over Christmas was not a coincidence.

But they do say that every cloud has a silver lining, though, and in this case it was the kingfisher which made a circular tour of its perches around the pool at lunch time. Various sticks and branches have been provided here for kingfishers by the Wildlife Trust, but they result in rather conventional “bird on a stick” type images. I think the perch shown above shows the bird in a more natural setting and the falling rain gives the photograph a rather painterly feel.

Bittern at Teifi Marshees, Cardigan
Bittern at Teifi Marshes, Cardigan

The bittern was reported (and photographed) again on Tuesday so it seemed like another attempt might produce results. Another photographer was already in the hide when I arrived about 9.30 a.m. yesterday and we were soon joined by several others. One told us that the bird had spent two full days wedged between branches in a nearby willow. Local birders and conservationists became concerned for its welfare so reserve staff had climbed up towards it and poked it with a stick, whereupon it flew back down to the reeds!

The bittern was first seen not long afterwards. It was crouched low to the ground, fluffed up like a big round feather duster, and appeared quite immobile. It did not look like a healthy or a happy creature. But after a while it began to walk slowly towards the hide, its weight breaking the ice at one point. It came closer and closer and motor drives began to rattle away in earnest. Over the next hour it was hardly hidden at all. It walked slowly, and then more quickly, around, pausing to take the sun from time to time. The light was lovely, either bright sunshine or light cloud. Either was excellent for this large, cryptically patterned bird. It can’t eventually have been further than 20 yards from the hide. Then there was a crouch, a pause, another crouch, and it launched itself into the air, flying away quite powerfully low above the reeds and blackthorn crub.

Bittern in flight
Bittern in flight

It had been a truly exhilarating hour for everyone in the hide. One always opens oneself to disappointment by a making a tightly focussed photography expedition like this. Without the bittern it would have been a rather dismal morning – dismal and cold. So we were all happy, although we all knew we would have many hours of file processing to look forward to. Let’s just hope that the bird itself stays well and finds enough food to get through the winter.

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A visit to woodpecker HQ.

Green woodpeckers at the nest, near Abergavenny.
Green woodpeckers at the nest, near Abergavenny.

Beech woodland is normally associated with the south-east of England; Burnham Beeches and Epping Forest are fine and well-known examples. But here in Wales native beech woodland extends into the south-east corner of the country, around Abergavenny, for example. It can be found as far west as Castell Coch, just to the north of Cardiff. It is what the writer and naturalist William Condry called “the district’s most distinguished calcicole” referring to its association with a narrow band of limestone rock which runs along the northern rim of the south Wales coalfield.

It is for oak woodland that most of Wales is renowned but in a forthcoming book I want to open people’s eyes to the presence and stunning beauty of beech woodland. This spring I visited Cwm Clydach, where the Heads of the Valleys main road squeezes through a narrow defile alongside the river between steep valley sides. I had first photographed here in the mid-1990’s and an  image of the polluted watercourse complete with dumped debris was used in my first book “Wales  – The Lie of The Land” (published in 1996). The gorge’s steep and rugged southern flank is clothed with native beech, but it is a far cry from the expansive woodland of southeast England. Here it is largely inaccessible but a public right of way descends to the valley bottom from the A465 and then climbs steeply through the trees to reach scattered houses, narrow lanes and an abandoned railway track.

Walking back to my van on this year’s first visit I heard the familiar laughing call of a green woodpecker, which I tracked down to the branches of an venerable but dead beech tree right by the side of the road. What’s more the tree’s branches were riddled with woodpecker holes large and small. One bird visited one particular hole which I took to be a potential nest-site. This looked like a photo-opportunity!

Anyone at home?
Anyone at home?

I spent many hours on three visits sitting in my van watching the woodpeckers going to and from the hole. The off-duty bird would call from a distance and its mate would appear in the entrance to the hole. They would then swap over. I was surprised at how late their breeding season was – there was no sign of food being brought to the nest even as late as June 11th. On one occasion a great spotted woodpecker peered in, and I believe I may have seen a lesser spotted on the same tree as well.  This really was Woodpecker HQ! Green woodpeckers seem to be quite wary birds at the nest and they are apparently very difficult to photograph there. So I was really thrilled when I managed to get what seems to me the perfect image of a pair at the nest.


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In hawfinch nirvana.

Hawfinch in cherry tree, Dolgellau
Hawfinch in cherry tree, north Wales

A couple of years ago I posted about photographing hawfinches in a Welsh churchyard. (See this post). While it was exciting to come back with something usable it was not really the image of my dreams. So I kept my ear to the ground about other possible locations.

The hawfinch has always been an uncommon bird in the UK and has become increasingly scarce in recent years. In 2013 the maximum number of breeding pairs remaining in the UK was estimated to be one thousand. The 2013 BTO Bird Atlas noted that the Welsh population was becoming increasingly significant in a UK context. And – unlikely as it may seem – it has become more and more apparent over the last few years that one north Wales town is the British hawfinch hot-spot. The first hint of this came in 2004, when research published  in “Welsh Birds” suggested a breeding population of about fifty pairs in the area, and a wintering population of more than a hundred birds. The increasing scarcity of the species and its growing presence in the  area has resulted in further ringing and other studies being undertaken there. Both the BTO and the RSPB have become involved. The results have shown how numerous the species actually is there and how little we knew about the hawfinch!

Ornithologist Dave Smith and bird-ringer extraordinaire Tony Cross  have set up a feeding station in woodland nearby which is kept well-stocked with sunflower seeds. Hawfinches can rely on this food source all year round and there they can be netted,  ringed and released. The yellow plastic leg-rings, each with an individual letter and number combination, can be read relatively easily in the field. Perhaps the most astonishing information has come from just one garden in the leafy outskirts of the town. Shortly after moving into the house, inexperienced bird-watchers Trevor and Chris ******** began to notice some unusual-looking birds on their feeders. Delving into their field guide they realised they were hawfinches. Their garden has since developed into a hub of hawfinch-related activity. Trevor and Chris themselves have become, by their own admission, obsessed with the species. They sit in their kitchen and read ring numbers with a telescope. To date they have identified 185 different birds, with probably an equal number of un-ringed individuals. It really is hawfinch nirvana.

Thanks to my contacts in BTO Cymru Trevor and Chris very kindly agreed to let me visit their garden to do some photography. Trevor has himself taken many excellent photographs of the hawfinches through their kitchen window and posted them on Flickr. But there is no mistaking the fact that they are all taken at bird feeders. Not really the type of setting I felt they deserved. Tony Cross generously took me to his feeding site but the setting there is, if anything, less attractive. It is an extensive carpet of sunflower seed shells surrounded by ringing paraphernalia. We tried scattering seeds on the woodland floor around the “feeding table” but the birds just weren’t interested. Perhaps I should have been more patient……..

But there is a cherry tree in the ********s’ garden and the hawfinches sometimes perch in it before heading for the feeders. That sounded more promising! There followed a wait of several weeks for it to come into bloom and leaf. The strong northerlies of late April and early May held back flowering even longer than usual. Last Sunday the tree finally began to show some colour and it was amazing how much change there was in the following 24 hours. I chose a position in the garden where I could look across to the cherry tree against a dark background. For the first time in my life I  set up the tripod, brought out the camping chair,  sat down and draped a bag hide over myself and all my gear.

It took a bit of getting used to. Apart from the issue of physical comfort, tunnel vision was a problem. I could hear birds all around but often not see them. The lower branches of the cherry tree were visible but the lawn and bird-tables were out of sight. But when a hawfinch lands it has the tendency to sit tight for a few seconds and survey its surroundings. There is sometimes an air of deliberation about their activities. They seem to take their time and think things through. So on the few occasions when one did perch in the cherry tree I had the chance to catch it in a variety of postures and compositions before it dropped down onto the feeders. Light cloud was preferable to bright sunshine as it tended to illuminate tree, flowers and bird in a gentle, even light, and cast no shadows. I’m absolutely thrilled by this image.

NB I have removed Trevor and Chris’s surname to maintain their privacy, and also the name of the town.

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A tale of three images.

Ramsey Island (on left) and the Bishops and Clerks, from Whitesands.
Ramsey Island (on left) and the Bishops and Clerks, from Whitesands.

It has been a while since I last posted but things have been moving apace. Most of February and March was spent getting postcards out into shops in various parts of Wales. It is always difficult to drag oneself out of the semi-hibernation of mid-winter and this year was particularly fraught because Easter was so early.

It has to be admitted that sales of postcards are steadily declining. This is partly because people are using phones and Facebook to contact their friends while they are away but also because the number of potential outlets is declining rapidly. The perils of running a bookshop in the Amazon era are well recognised, but independent retailers of all kinds have been closing and are not being replaced in similar numbers. What is particularly sad is the number of Tourist Information Centres that have closed, will soon close or are under threat of closure. It is happening all over Wales as a result of cuts to local authority funding. It may be our local councils (and National Park authorities) that are having to make the difficult decision to close them but the root cause is central Government.

A selling trip that would until recently have taken two and a half days now takes two or less. But that does mean I have a little more time available for photography on these trips and I was lucky with the weather on some of them. After one particularly busy day in Pembrokeshire I was able to nip down to Whitesands, arriving just after sunset. I started a short high-tide walk along the beach but quickly ran back for the camera. The conditions were just stunning! I only had a few minutes to run off a few exposures and I wasn’t entirely happy with the composition in any of them. But I’ll settle for the above…….

On a trip up to north Wales I spent one night at Pen-y-pass YHA. I normally avoid youth hostels these days but Pen-y-pass is so well situated for an early morning walk in the foothills of Snowdon that in winter I occasionally make an exception. Unfortunately my dorm also contained a snorer so I had a disturbed night’s sleep and was not able to get up at the crack of dawn as I had hoped. But a little later on this was the view of the Snowdon horseshoe from “The Horns”, situated between the PyG and Miners’ paths.

Snowdon summit and Y Lliwedd
Y Lliwedd, Yr Wyddfa and Crib Goch from “The Horns”

I was able to devote the whole of this superb day to photography so then headed off eastwards to photograph the packed masses of waders at their high-tide roost at the Point of Air, near Prestatyn. The only trouble was – there weren’t any. Just a handful of the commonest species. I then spent a couple of hours searching for, and failing to find, my current birding obsession – hawfinches. I won’t broadcast the location because villagers get pretty cheesed off with the behaviour of some birders, but there is a well-known site for this rare and elusive bird in the Conwy valley. So for the second time in one day I assumed I must be driving around in a van with a huge sign, facing upwards, on its roof saying “Bird photographer approaching destination – make a run for it”.

But I had more joy at my final location, the RSPB Conwy reserve at Llandudno Junction. There has been a starling roost there all winter and on my arrival I was pleased to discover they were still around. There was no wind and it looked like there would be a good sunset, so I found a location where I hoped the birds would be silhouetted against a stunning sky. There was even the possibility of a reflection for good measure!  Towards sunset small groups of starlings began to arrive, some time later than they do at Aberystwyth. And they just kept on coming!  Several sparrowhawks made appearances and made hunting dashes into the flock. The starlings created tightly-packed balls and ribbons of birds to try to evade them. It was fabulous to watch but set against part of the sky which was too dark to allow successfully photography.

It really was a very large flock by the time they eventually disappeared together into the reedbed. It was almost dark by that time and they had been displaying for some forty minutes since the first birds arrived.  It was interesting to compare this with their behaviour at  Aberystwyth, where they were going to roost some forty-five minutes earlier. I managed this image as the flock swirled over one the reserve’s shallow lagoons.

Starlings in pre-roost display, RSPB Conwy reserve.
Starlings in pre-roost display, RSPB Conwy reserve.

I don’t know if it be useable anywhere else but on the web.  It was taken at 6.31 pm on March 10th, using pretty extreme settings for this type of subject – 4000 ASA, 1/160th second and f4.

Finally, just before Easter, I installed part of my Bird/land exhibition in the Visitor Centre at RSPB Ynyshir. It will be showing there until May 30th; but for the full Bird/land experience wait until June 25th, when an updated and expanded version will be opening in the Photography Gallery at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Watch this space for more information.


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In search of starlings at Glastonbury and Aberystwyth

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

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

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

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

Starlings at Aberystwyth
Starlings at Aberystwyth

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

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


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Final thoughts on Bird/land…..for now……..

Mallard (from Bird/land)
Mallard (from Bird/land)

Well, Bird/land closed just over a month ago and I have to say in many respects it was a success. Feedback was excellent; visitors were particularly complimentary about how different the work was to anything that I had previously done.  Print sales were also very good  and much better than I was expecting. As a result I have just sent a cheque for £140 to the RSPB towards reconstruction of their hides at Snettisham in Norfolk. I had hoped to make multiple visits to Snettisham during the course of the project to photograph the countless thousands of waders which congregate there but a storm surge of December 2013 destroyed the hides. So my small contribution will benefit conservation generally and bird photographers in particular.

What has been disappointing is the almost complete lack of coverage I have received in the press and the photographic media in particular. I suppose the exhibition did fall between two stools – not really bird photography, and not landscape either – so it was difficult to categorise. And, of course, it was in a small town in mid-Wales and who could even pronounce its name? But not for the first time have I believed that there is a prejudice amongst the English media about all things Welsh.

All is not yet lost, however. I have agreed to display some of the work at RSPB Ynyshir, my local reserve, next spring. And on a much larger scale the whole exhibition will be shown at Aberystwyth Arts Centre for two months next summer. I am hoping to be able to expand it to fill the larger photographic gallery there but that will be subject to receiving further funding from the Arts Council of Wales. So watch this space for further information about dates, etc.

The image above is one of only two singles in the exhibition. It has sold really well and only one remains at the time of writing. How I wish I’d offered an edition of ten or more instead of just six! It is so difficult to know how to sell photographs. Over the summer I noticed an exhibition of really rather average black-and-white landscapes in a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, in an edition of 295. Only in the photographer’s wildest dreams would anywhere near that number be sold. A short edition would, I hoped, create a feeling of exclusivity around the work, and thus increase sales. But I think I may have misjudged it. Just one of the lessons I have learned over the last few months!


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Dotterel Days

Dotterel, Pumlumon
Dotterel, Pumlumon

The rounded mountain-top of Pumlumon in mid-Wales (more of a large hill, really, but still 2468 ft above sea level) is a recognised stopping off point for dotterel in the spring. In late April a single dotterel was reported on its summit so a couple of days later I decided to go for it. Leaving the house at lunch-time, I had reached the summit two hours later. I scoured and scanned for the bird but found nothing. Then there was a sudden movement on the ground three yards in front of me. There it was! What a gorgeous creature!

I spent a happy hour photographing it in light winds and warm sunshine. It was nice to “share the moment” with Janet Baxter, who I had overtaken on the way up. And whose dog, fortunately, was more well-behaved than it sometimes is! I was back down in time to take my van to the garage by 5.30 pm, as planned. Sorted! It’s very unusual for an expedition like this to work out so successfully. I was happy, too, that I was able to reach the summit and return so quickly, Carrying just the one lens and camera body, a snack and bottle of water helped.

Bearing in mind the image was taken in mid-afternoon on a cloudless day in late April, the sun was quite elevated. Contrast was therefore high and the shadows in the bird’s belly and chest were darker than I would have liked. Selecting this area with Lightroom’s radial filter and judicious use of the highlight and shadows sliders was quite successful in bringing this problem under control.

Other dotterel days……

1. A single bird was seen and photographed on a Lake District hilltop while I was an RSPB warden in 1981. This was during my first era of bird photography. I gave one transparency to a local ornithologist with whom I was working. It later appeared under his own name in the Cumbrian Bird Report for that year. The same image later appeared in my book “Heart of the Country” (published in 2003) to accompany one of the late Bill Condry’s Guardian Country Diaries – in which he laments never having seen one!

2. While working for the Nature Conservancy Council in Scotland in 1986 I spent a day – under licence – surveying a Grampian hilltop for breeding dotterel, with a group of friends and colleagues. During the survey I lifted a male dotterel off its nest with my finger.

3. A trip of dotterel seen on Foel Grach in the Carneddau (north Wales) in May 1987.

4. A trip seen on Pumlumon with a friend in May 1995. One bird was wearing coloured leg rings. From the combination of colours it was identified by the BTO: it had been ringed as a chick in Scotland 8 years previously and not seen since.

5. Three birds seen on a coastal field near Ynyslas in early May 2013. As I approached the field I met the farmer who was just leaving in his Land Rover. I asked him about the dotterel and he invited me to jump in: he would take me to see them. As we approached the birds they took off and flew strongly northwards, never to be seen again.

So almost every dotterel sighting in my life has a story attached to it. Their lifestyle is extraordinary. The female is the more brightly coloured bird. She takes the male’s role and vice-versa. She lays a clutch of eggs for her mate to incubate, then travels further north to do the same for another male. I particularly like the thought that they migrate from hill top to hill top, stitching Europe’s mountains together as they go.

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High on opinion but low on facts.

Ring ouzels, near Machynlleth
Ring ouzels, near Machynlleth

Following a talk in Aberystwyth by George Monbiot last spring on “rewilding”, a local ornithologist and friend Roy Bamford wrote a full-page article on the subject in our local newspaper, the Cambrian News. His main thrust, borne out of many years of personal experience, was that rewilding may happen – come what may – and that its effects may be unpredictable. The article was almost entirely uncontroversial but was followed a couple of weeks later by a letter from the Farmers Union of Wales. This included a personal attack on the author and a suggestion that he was quoting tittle-tattle from the internet (among other things) to support his case. I felt that this should not go unchallenged so wrote the following, which was published in the Cambrian a few weeks later.

I am writing with reference to Roy Bamford’s piece ( 3rd July) on rewilding and the subsequent letter from the Dafydd Jones, vice-chairman of the Ceredigion FUW.

Firstly I suggest that it is unfortunate that Mr Jones chose to make such personal comments in his letter. Mr Bamford has already defended himself on the letters page but a less modest man would have gone further. His knowledge is based on the many years of professional field work he has undertaken. It is upon this field work that much research into the relationship between agriculture and wildlife in the Welsh hills has been based. I cannot think of many people more qualified to make these observations than Roy Bamford. So if he quotes studies that include photographic evidence of sheep eating curlew’s eggs then this not an anecdote, it is a fact – unlikely as it may seem to most of us.

On a far more limited scale I have been surveying the same tract of land above Tal-y-bont for 20 years. I walk the same route twice a year and record every bird that I come across. I follow a fence line with improved grassland and heavy sheep grazing on one side, and unimproved grassland or “ffridd” on the other. The contrast could not be more marked. With its very low sheep numbers the ffridd is, in effect, rewilding in action, and it is home to a large and varied selection of small birds. The improved grassland might as well have been concreted over for all the wildlife it contains. A few meadow pipits and a few scavengers and that’s about it.

The farmers that Mr Jones represents have benefitted to the tune of many, many millions of pounds from the public purse since the last war. This same period has seen the Welsh uplands becoming demonstrably more and more impoverished in an ecological sense. The farming industry has itself become more depleted at the same time. Rather than the mixed farming of earlier generations, does the average hill farmer now grow more than one crop – grass? Does he farm more than one product – sheep? I suggest, in many cases, that the answer is no. Through its lack of vision the sheep farming industry has manoeuvred itself into a cul-de-sac, an evolutionary dead-end. So it is a shame that the FUW does not show a more open-minded attitude to the future – which may well include rewilding. It would be far more constructive to do so, and they would be doing their own members a service.

I could have published this letter under “name and address withheld” but chose not to. I’m not afraid to hold such opinions, which would, anyway, probably be held by a large percentage of the population. I realised that the letter might be read by the landowner whose land I walk and that there might be repercussions. And so indeed there have been. This year permission to access his land was refused.

The Cambrian News did not print the final sentence of my letter, which was as follows:

Instead we get the same anti-environment rhetoric that has become the norm from the farming unions – high on opinion and low on facts.

I’m not denying that hill farming might at times be a challenging occupation. I’m not denying that sheep farmers work hard. But so much of their income comes from the public purse. What benefit does the public receive in return for their support? By displaying such reactionary, head-in-the sand attitudes, and continuing to deny what is quite clearly true, farmers and their representatives are their own worst enemies. When the public money runs out they will need all the friends they can find.

I’m including an image of ring ouzels taken yesterday. This has become a scarce species over the decades in Wales, and they are now difficult to see, let alone photograph. But this small group of migratory birds has been feasting on ivy berries not far from here in recent days.

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Not quite a dartford warbler…….

Arne, Dorset
Arne, Dorset

Easter week found Jane and I down in the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. It was a part of the world I’d never seen and it also seemed to be a good chance to see, and possibly even photograph, a dartford warbler. We treated ourselves to the luxury (cough……) of a holiday flatlet in Swanage. Our first full day we decided to do a cycle ride, and, not being the hardcore types, it was soon time for a coffee stop.

We arrived at the village of Corfe Castle. Talk about picture postcard pretty! The restored Swanage railway passes through the village too, and the steam engines gave it a real flavour of the past. Purbeck has a very strong Enid Blyton connection and one could imagine the Famous Five still fitting in quite easily. However the women dressed up as wenches were, I felt, taking Heritage Britain a little too far. The Castle itself is owned by the National Trust, with an entry fee of £9.00. We decided to give that a miss. It is a spectacular ruin, however, and the National Trust tea shop nearby provided a fabulous view of it from its back garden.

Relaxing with coffee and cake, I noticed that house sparrows were popping in and out of a severely pruned privet hedge. They were using conveniently positioned twigs as lookout posts in their search for crumbs. Although I wasn’t in photography mode that day I could see an opportunity to add some “birds in the landscape” images to my collection. I filed the idea away in my memory banks.

Jane may not have my perhaps obsessive interest in birds and/or photography but she can be very tolerant. So a couple of days later I spent the night alone in the camper van close to the Arne RSPB reserve not far from Corfe Castle. It was a fabulous still and misty morning, with the sun rising like a crimson ball though a layer of fog. I confidently set out in search of a dartford warbler. Maybe a pair. Or two. It would be easy to find them. Two hours later I still hadn’t seen or heard one and I walked back towards the van. I began to think that dartford warblers were a figment of other people’s imaginations. Then I heard an unfamiliar sound and located one of these elusive birds on the topmost twig of a gorse bush not far away. But it flew very quickly and proved impossible to track down. The same thing happened with a second bird I found a few minutes later. So I gave up.

House sparrow, Corfe Castle (click to enlarge)
House sparrow, Corfe Castle (click to enlarge)

After such an early start coffee was now calling and the memory of those house sparrows was getting stronger and stronger. It was time visit the Corfe Castle tea shop again. I introduced myself, told them about the project I was working on, and asked if it was OK to take some photographs in the garden. No problem.  I spent an hour there taking as many different compositions as the birds would allow.  Being at such close quarters to them I was only using the standard zoom on my Canon 5d3, so I didn’t look too conspicuous.  Ideally I would have had more time but the images have an interesting graphic quality to them, and who bothers taking photographs of house sparrows! I think there’s enough variety overall to create one triptych for the exhibition.

Not quite a dartford warbler…….but hey!


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