Them’re chuffs, them are.

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

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

Them’re chuffs, them are…….

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

Him : “Them’re chuffs, them are”

Her : “Warrar?”

Him : “Them, they’re chuffs”

Her : (louder) “Warrar???”

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

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

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

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

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

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I’m not a botanist but…… (part two)

Lady’s slipper orchid

In Part One I described the background to my hunt for the lady’s slipper orchid, but some detailed research was required for its actual location. A “re-introduced” plant at Gait Barrows would be fine but when would they be flowering? One local naturalist told me via email that, despite the cold spring, they were already flowering by mid-May, and this was confirmed a few days later by someone at Natural England ; not on the limestone pavement itself but “at the bottom of the field with the bird’s-eye primroses”. This sounded promising!

It was a five-hour drive to the camp site at Silverdale where we had booked a three-night stay. We spent the first morning at the nearby Leighton Moss RSPB reserve, and then headed off to Gait Barrows. We were a fair way into the NNR on a public footpath when we came across some birds-eye primroses on the other side of a fence. Entering the enclosure I followed a path as far it went without finding anything. I began to search a little harder and found four rosettes of orchid leaves bursting through the leaf litter but which species they were I had no idea.

Birds eye primroses

The primroses are a delight in themselves and I began to photograph them. Then I heard voices. Jane had been resting nearby and was now talking to another visitor. They came over and found me lying on the ground lining up the primroses. Had we come to see the orchids? You bet! I retraced my steps with him and there they were ……….. one clump withered and brown and another with two flowers in perfect condition. I think you will agree they are extraordinary; I don’t know how I could have missed them! On closer examination you could see that each plant and each stem was surrounded by copper rings, presumably to deter slugs. It was a straightforward task to photograph them and I then returned to the bird’s eye primroses.

The orchid enthusiast also mentioned fly orchids and I was keen to see that species as well. Following his instructions the next day I found myself on a grass verge beside a main road a few miles away. There could not be more of a contrast between two related species than between the fly and the lady’s slipper. One is showy and exotic and the other subtle and understated – but no less exquisite for that.

Fly orchid

Photographing the fly orchids proved much more difficult than I expected. In his book “The Orchid Hunter” Leif Bersweden says of them –

“[Fly orchids are] ……. true masters of stealth and camouflage. They appear slowly and softly, shifting in and out of focus. …….. You’ll see one three meters away yet remain unaware that one has crept right up to your knee. Over the years I’ve realised that looking for fly orchids is a futile activity; their ability to vanish right in front of your eyes is unprecedented.”

Several plants were already marked by sticks but I found an unmarked one, and mentally noted its location before I went to fetch my camera bag. On my return it was impossible to re-locate it. When I tried to photograph one of the marked plants, my lens refused to auto-focus, I worried about cars going past, about my van parked across the road in the quarry entrance next to the “No Parking” sign, and if I was crushing unseen plants in my attempt to get down to fly orchid level in the vegetation. All very frustrating but it was eventually “job done”.

Later I returned to Gait Barrows to see if I could find the lady’s slipper on the limestone pavement where they were originally planted. Most naturalists are happy to help and I asked several for directions, but with no joy. Either they weren’t interested in orchids or I was told variously that “they had all died or been picked”, “they have all been re-located”, “they are still in leaf”, and “the new warden isn’t watering them, so they’re late flowering” . But with photographs of the lady’s slipper already in the can I could relax; and it was a bonus to see a stunning little butterfly called the Duke of Burgundy in a clearing on the reserve specially created for them.

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I’m not a botanist but……. (part one)

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………….. I do love a good wild flower.

As mentioned in a previous post I spent a week touring southern England last month. The main attractions were the great bustards of Salisbury Plain but my first stop was actually a little north of there, at Cricklade, near Swindon. Here, at North Meadow, on the floodplain of the Upper Thames, is an ancient hay meadow. Unlike many other similar sites it has not been ploughed or dug up for gravel extraction. It has retained its ancient system of management and is now a National Nature Reserve. It is alive with wild flowers, including 80% of the UK’s snakeshead fritillaries. Its crop of hay is taken off in late summer after the wild flowers have set seed. 

A small proportion of the flowers are white.

I arrived at North Meadow at dawn on a cold May day to find a wisp of freezing fog in the air and countless thousands of fritillaries in bloom. Good timing? Possibly …….. but the sheer number of flowers was overwhelming. My first reaction was to try to photograph them en masse before the fog and frost dispersed. I was like a headless chicken! However the long telephoto lens needed to do a mass of flowers justice has a very narrow depth of field and most individual blooms were out of focus. I eventually settled down to photographing small groups of flowers or individuals, and even then a long focal length was required to reach photogenic specimens from the safety of the footpath. My first intention was to show flowers complete with ice crystals but they soon melted into tiny water droplets which proved to be more attractive. I moved on later that day to Salisbury Plain.

I have always found orchids fascinating. With only roughly fifty species in the UK it is a plant family which the non-botanist can get to grips relatively easily. My parents were great wild orchid lovers, and there’s no doubt there’s something special about orchids, something exotic, and exciting. The extreme rarity of some species only adds to their appeal. I had long harboured the desire to see the lady’s slipper orchid in the wild in the UK. This species with its extraordinary flowers was found in and around woodland on limestone in various parts of northern England. Its looks were its downfall, though; it was picked and collected to extinction by 1917. Then, in 1930, one single plant was found somewhere in the Yorkshire Dales. It has remained there ever since, its location only known to a select few. It is legally protected, fenced off and under close surveillance 24/7 to deter thieves and photographers.

Over a period of decades, however, a programme to reintroduce the lady’s slipper orchid to its former haunts has been under way. With great difficulty plants have been grown from seed at Kew Gardens and replanted in suitable locations across northern England. At one National Nature Reserve in Lancashire, Gait Barrows, the plants in the limestone pavement are made available for public viewing every year, and it was in this area that I made some inquiries. When would they be flowering this year after such a cold spring?

Click here for Part Two ……..

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Photography on the fly.

Fly agaric, near Betws-y-coed

We’re well into autumn now and I recently decided I needed some photographs of that spectacular fungus, the fly agaric. I was up in north Wales for a couple of days, and a mixed forecast suggested I might get some sunny scenic landscape photography done; any cloudy conditions being more suitable for more intimate “autumn colours” and woodland scenes. Yes, I know I’m a traditionalist but at my age what do you expect!

By mid-morning on the first day it was starting to brighten up although a strong southerly wind was blowing. My first destination was a hilltop above Betws-y-coed, with the town deep in the valley below and the main peaks of Eryri in the background. But why not first spend an hour or so looking for fly agarics in the woodland leading to my destination? Two minutes later, right by the path, I had found my first! It was a perfect specimen, I thought, in my excitement, so I got the tripod out and began taking some ground level shots with my telephoto zoom. A passer-by told me that fly agarics were very common this year;  some images he showed me on his phone looked great, and I realised my own specimen was not actually that special – tall and broad, yes; but crimson in colour with flecks of white on the cap? No, not really. I had a look around.

Fly agarics are usually associated with birch trees (and sometimes pine or other species). The fungus has a mutually beneficial relationship with the roots of the tree which helps both species thrive. What I found on my short exploration amazed me. Over an area of perhaps a hundred metres by fifty, I found several dozen fly agarics. Most were already past their best, being flat-capped, or even bowl shaped, with the red colouration having already faded towards orange. But I found one particularly photogenic group among some birch trees and did a bit of “gardening” to expose them. One was already broken off at ground level so I decided to make a feature of it alongside several other complete ones. Things are rarely as simple as you hope for, though, in this case because the sun was now shining brightly, creating areas of high contrast on the woodland floor. Every so often a tiny wispy cloud passed in front of the sun but even this didn’t give me the even lighting I needed for this shot. I wandered around, found more fly agarics, did some tai chi, looked at the sky over and over again, waited and waited some more. Eventually I realised that a better image would also include the mushrooms’ habitat so I swapped to a wide angle, placing them in the foreground with birch trees and bracken taking up the rest of the frame. Contrast was still a problem so I tried two other techniques:

1)  Using a ND grad over the brightest part of the image (at the top), and

2)  Bracketing with the intention of combining two images in Lightroom at the processing stage.

To some extent both worked, but the image (above) was processed using the HDR control in Lightroom. I had to examine individual frames carefully and choose those with the least subject movement for combining: the wind was still strong.

Thirty-six hours later I was back, and within five minutes had found a tiny, perfect little specimen freshly emerged from its protective sheath, looking just like something you might find in a very upmarket cake shop (see above). And it really wasn’t a difficult shot to take; a little gardening to clear dead bracken stems and twigs, tripod, aperture priority, f5.6 for minimal depth of field, and ….success!

Llyn Crafnant

The intervening day was glorious – warm, sunny and cloud-free; perfect for pure enjoyment but not great for the landscape photographer. I spent the night in the van by Llyn Crafnant above Trefriw. I do love the length of these autumn nights. No problem getting a good night’s sleep and no rush to be up before dawn. It was perfectly calm for several hours in the morning and, having found a good spot by the lakeside, I took a long series of images of the head of the valley and its reflection as the sun rose. In the end it was the very last image I took that was my favourite, so perhaps I should have waited longer!

Beyond the head of the valley, completely invisible from within it, lay the great peaks of Eryri – the Carneddau, Tryfan, the Glyderau, Yr Wyddfa and its outliers, and finally Moel Siabod. It was half-an-hour’s walk to a point where they could all be seen. Or so I thought: it actually took something like an hour and by the time I got there the sun was really too high and the sky too blue for successful image-making. But it was a great walk and I will do it again another day. As for the hoped-for view above Betws-y-coed, cloud was covering the peaks on both of my visits. Oh, and I got drenched in a two-hour downpour in woodland near Dolgellau on the way home. Light rain showers, the Met Office forecast said……….

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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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Wild Wales / Cymru Wyllt 2013 calendar

Wild Wales / Cymru Wyllt 2013 calendar (front cover)

Wild Wales 2013 calendar (back cover)

Just a little plug for my Wild Wales / Cymru Wyllt  calendar, now (2012) in its eighth year of publication. At 330mm x 245mm in size (opening to double), thick card cover and quality paper inside, and twelve seasonal image by me, it really is fantastic value at £6.50 (inc p&p in UK). An ideal Christmas gift, especially if you love Wales, or good nature photography wherever it might be found!

To order direct visit www.wildwalespostcards.co.uk ,  or phone me on 01970 828164 to arrange the purchase.

STOP PRESS – BUY NOW AT ONLY £5.00 PER COPY (INCLUDING POSTAGE)

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