Help! Am a turning into a twitcher?

Green heron, near Narberth

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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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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This is what we’re here for!

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

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

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

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

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