Spirit of the woodland.

Wood warbler near Tre’r ddol, Ceredigion

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”

 

To follow Tales from Wild Wales, scroll right down to the bottom and click Follow.

 

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.

To follow Tales from Wild Wales, please scroll down to the bottom and click Follow

Starling monster over Aberystwyth. Or….The Gift (part two)

Starlings over Aberystwyth
Starlings over Aberystwyth

On bright winter evenings (see also this post, this post, and this post) I often go down to the sea-front at Aberystwyth with the aim of photographing the starlings which roost under the pier . It’s been almost three years since I’ve come back with any worthwhile results, though. For that long, as far as I know,  the starlings had done nothing remotely like the spectacular pre-roost displays which they are renowned for. At first there was a fairly acceptable theory circulating amongst the photographers and birders.  The birds would be too busy simply surviving during mid-winter to spend valuable time and energy tearing around over the town at dusk. The fact that their most spectacular displays in recent years had been during the longer days of early March tended to support this idea. It was thought that the displays might be part of a process culminating in their exodus later in the month towards their breeding grounds further north. The presence of a predator (like a peregrine) was believed to precipitate avoidance behaviour which looked sensational to us but was actually self-preservation for the starlings. But last winter – nothing. And until last Saturday – nothing this winter either. All very frustrating and it wasn’t just me that was disillusioned either.

It wasn’t the greatest of evenings last Saturday and I almost stayed at home. On arrival at the wooden jetty I found the usual gaggle of photographers and sightseers. I met a fellow photographer and began to gossip about this and that and bemoan the lack of starling activity. The birds seemed to be following their usual routine. The earliest arrivals flew around silently together for a while before diving down amongst the framework of the pier and starting to chatter. Subsequent arrivals presumably heard them chattering and followed them in in a fairly disorganised fashion. I was on the point of leaving when the birds deserted the roost and began circling around over the town. There followed a spectacular exhibition of flight lasting more than ten minutes, flocks rapidly splitting and re-grouping, forming three-dimensional ribbons, ovals and swirls which constantly morphed into each other. It was exhilarating to see it after so long; I expect the word “wow” might have been heard and a broad grin seen.

More starlings
More starlings

About eight minutes past five the display was over.  I shook hands with Si and we went our separate ways. I had loaded my gear back into the nearby van when I noticed that some of the birds had left the pier and were again swirling around. By this time it was far too dark to think about using the camera but I wandered back over to enjoy a short encore.  Back on the prom I met another friend who had watched the display from a distance. We agreed how lucky we were to live at Aberystwyth and be able to see such an awe-inspiring exhibition. “It’s a gift.” she said, “I don’t usually believe in that hippy bollox but this is an exception”.

Speaking as the photographer who is never quite satisfied, though, I’ll add that it was a shame they were displaying over the town rather than the pier itself. The birds’ backdrop was a darker section of the post-sunset sky than it would otherwise have been. This necessitated a step-by-step increase in the ISO rating and opening up of the aperture. 3200 ISO and f4 seemed a bit dodgy to me………. Back home, though, I found that the images are noisy at 100% but I have  some usable results even at those settings. In the days of film such images would have been virtually unobtainable.

To follow Tales from wild Wales, please scroll right down to the bottom and click Follow

Whatever happened to fieldcraft? (Part two)

Preening dunlin, Ynyslas
Preening dunlin, Ynyslas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To follow Tales from Wild Wales, please scroll right down to the bottom and click Follow

Third time lucky (Part 2)

Black grouse, north Wales
Black grouse, north Wales

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

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

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

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

To follow Tales from Wild Wales, please scroll right down to the bottom and click the follow button

The problem of Conservation Photography

Wildlife photographers on Skomer island

In an article in Outdoor Photography (September 2012 issue) related to the 2020VISION project Niall Benvie makes his case for “conservation photography”. “By drawing attention to what happens in and to the natural world (rather than merely reflecting its aesthetics) conservation photography gives people the tools they need to to understand how their choices affect it.” he says. “But few, too few, to make any real difference, act on that knowledge.”

He describes some of the problems brought about by constant economic growth – among them biodiversity loss and ground water pollution. And – quite correctly – “The argument that industrial society and a vibrant natural environment are compatible just doesn’t stand close, ear-to-the-ground examination

The problem is that photography is itself a product and manifestation of the developed world which Benvie criticises in the article. A quick browse of the websites belonging to some of the 2020VISION photographers is quite informative. They illustrate just how far from sustainable nature photography often is in practice, no matter how admirable the intention. Air travel to exotic locations and the acquisition of the latest photographic gear are all prominent. Some of these guys’ carbon footprints, and let’s be honest, their financial footprints, must be off the scale. In some cases their sites contain promotions linked to equipment suppliers all designed to sell us even more “stuff”.

At the same time they make bold statements about their environmenetal credentials. One is “looking for a way to dedicate the rest of my career to the preservation of the wild. That is my mission.” I’m not criticising the sentiments, I just question whether as high profile photographers they are truly in positions to put them into practice.

The truth is that“conservation photography” is green only in the very shallowest of senses. It smacks, unfortunately, of “do as I say, not as I do”. Over many years of experience Benvie has eventually had to concede that “…….people don’t care about the earth. At least they don’t care about it if doing so impacts on their material life”. But photographers are not immune to such conflicts. Their high end photographic gear and travel-rich lifestyles are no less burdens on the planet than any other aspect of the Western society.

And it is not a new phenomenon at all. About twenty years ago I attended a symposium entitled “Green Photography”. There were very few attendees, in truth, and they split into two opposing groups. I was in the shallow green, ecological message camp. I believed it was a worthwhile way of proceeding. In the other camp were two photographers who travelled by train and bicycle to their locations. They complained that no-one had taken them seriously as photographers, even the greenest of green organisations, but in fact their actions actually spoke louder than our words.

Ansel Adams was, and still is, the best known and most effective conservation photographer of all time. He achieved a great deal of success in persuading American politicians to protect huge chunks of wilderness, and even has one named after him. But he took on all sorts of commercial clients to pay the bills, including mining, banking, and power corporations. He was aware of the paradox, but brushed it aside. He believed that such jobs were merely a means to an end, allowing him to continue his life’s work in the American wilderness.

In my own, more naïve days, I believed that if I tacked a conservation message onto my landscape images it would make a difference. Now I realise that in a rather modest, twenty year, career in photography I’m actually closer to being part of the problem than the solution. It is the unavoidable result of being a cog – even a very small one – in the capitalist machine.

In the 50 years and more since Adams was in his prime as a working photographer and conservationist, we have learned so much more about the environmental results of our activities. “Conservation photographers” seem to claim that their practice is somehow different or more worthy than other photographers. But in terms of their effect on the planet’s ecological balance, I see little basis for this belief in reality.

To follow Tales from Wild Wales, please scroll right to the bottom and click the Follow button.

Copyright Jeremy Moore (August 2012)