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”

 

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The Great Wall of Aberdyfi (part 2)

Valley fog, Dyfi estuary
Valley fog, Dyfi estuary

Click here for the first part of this post

It was a few minutes’ drive inland to my next location, a hilltop overlooking the Dyfi valley near Derwenlas. I knew from numerous previous visits (see this post) that it would be mid-morning before the sun would be where I wanted it. A heavy shower moved inland on my arrival, creating another fine rainbow. Light was still good half an hour later despite the sun’s relentless rising, and I got the shot I had come for; would it be suitable for a new postcard, I wondered? See the upper picture of the pair below.

A couple of days later I decided to have another go at both the Glandyfi and Derwenlas viewpoints. Still conditions were forecast overnight and hence the formation of valley fog was possible. It was a very different morning to my previous visit. At Derwenlas all was gloomy low cloud but at Glandyfi a river of fog flowed continuously down towards the sea. Over about ninety minutes I took a number of images, but it was when the “river” began thinning and receding inland that I felt the best results were obtained (see above). It was an interesting contrast to the scene two days earlier (see previous post).

Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth
Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth (first visit)
Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth
Dyfi valley, near Machynlleth (second visit)

Then it was back to the Derwenlas viewpoint. It was still like being inside a bundle of cotton wool when I arrived, but after a few minutes the cloud cleared entirely,  revealing the gorgeously-lit Dyfi valley complete with a necklace of cloud draped around the hillside above Machynlleth. If this doesn’t work as a postcard, I’ll eat my hat!

As a postscript I have just sent a cheque for £70 to the charity Rewilding Britain (click for more info). This is a donation per work sold at the Aberystwyth showing of my Bird/land exhibition.

 

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Still waters and cloud in Eryri.

Near Capel Curig.
Near Capel Curig.

Last week, the sun shone endlessly, and I was finally able to get away from domestic commitments on Thursday afternoon. It was my intention to “do Snowdon” on Friday so I parked up overnight by the Llynnau Mymbyr near Capel Curig. Dawn was frosty and valley fog had formed overnight. The forecast was for a day of unbroken sunshine and light winds. While it would be lovely in the mountains I suspected that conditions would not be that great for atmospheric landscapes. Flexibility is the name of the game in landscape photography so it was over to plan B, which involved an early morning session in Dyffryn Mymbyr as the fog cleared. Sunrise comes so late at this time of year that it was a really leisurely start!

Llyn Mymbyr is one of the classic photographic locations in the National Park. The view from Plas-y-Brenin of the Snowdon Horseshoe reflected in the lake’s still waters is often the photographers’ desire. It is quite iconic in good conditions and when done well. But in valley fog one would be immersed in damp greyness and Snowdon would be quite invisible. It is then more profitable to take the rough and tussocky path between the two sections of the lake and look back towards Plas-y-Brenin. It is one of my very favourite locations in Wales. As the sun rises the fog tends to melt away downstream, allowing more and more of the landscape to emerge. Friday morning was just about as good as it gets, as you can see from the image above.

The sun shone all day on Friday and the Horseshoe looked absolutely stunning during the afternoon from Dyffryn Mymbyr. But I was glad that I had saved my energy for an attempt on Snowdon the following day. Saturday’s forecast seemed much more promising; a broken cloud base of perhaps 500 – 600 metres but with the summits remaining above the cloud. I liked the sound of that!

The next morning the fog was denser and more extensive at Capel Curig but stars could still be seen overhead. By the time I set out from Pen-y-pass about 7 a.m. the first wisps of cloud were forming above Y Lliwedd, and as I made my way up and along the PyG track I barely noticed how quickly it was developing.  I’m nowhere near as fit as I used to be and I don’t mind admitting that it was a bit of a slog to reach Bwlch Glas. At this point one leaves the confines of the great eastern corrie of Yr Wyddfa and can take in the view to the west. An almost complete sea of cloud spread out below me. It was more or less only within the corrie and above the very highest peaks that cloud had not already formed. Blue sky could still be seen over the summit of Snowdon while cloud lapped and drifted around below it.

Brocken Spectre, Snowdon summit.
Brocken Spectre, Snowdon summit.

I grabbed a quick vat of tea from the café and assessed the possibilities. I was a little disappointed about the extent of the cloud but these were ideal conditions for seeing a Brocken Spectre. I walked around the summit area to find the best location and for an hour or so one was visible intermittently as my shadow was projected on to cloud below. The shadow itself was astonishingly three-dimensional as it fell on to countless tiny individual water droplets. The Spectre – or Glory – takes the form of a small circular spectrum of light centred on one’s own head.  It has all the colours of the rainbow, and is, in fact, formed in a similar way, with violet on the inside and red on the outside.  At times, the colours in the Glory just glowed. I have enhanced the colours slightly in the image above but it still retains a close link with reality. And interestingly, if one enhances it further, additional concentric rings of colour can be seen outside the primary spectrum.

For a while it was truly glorious up on the summit. It was warm and there was barely a breath of wind, just enough to cause the cloud to drift slowly around. A continuous stream of people were arriving by mid-morning. Every train brought another few dozen, but on such a day far more were doing it on foot. Conversations could easily be overheard. English seemed to be a minority language! Was that Welsh…..? Er….no, probably Polish. A few fully bearded Muslim men had walked up and even a few veiled Muslim women. But it was apparent that few had actually noticed the Brocken Spectre, even if they were only a few feet away from a good viewing point. Occasionally one could hear the magic words being spoken, and it was a pleasure to join these individuals in the experience.

Well, all good things must come to an end. The cloud base was lifting imperceptively until it was clear of the summit by lunch-time. Beneath the cloud it was dull and hazy so it was time to put the camera away and return to Pen-y-Pass. Still the crowds were flooding upwards, though. Little did they realise what they had missed.

 

Whatever happened to fieldcraft? (Part four)

Choughs, Whitesands
Choughs, Whitesands

I really didn’t expect this series of posts to reach part four! But a couple of weeks ago I was down in Pembrokeshire and took an early morning walk from the car park at Whitesands towards St. David’s Head. An active cold front had pushed through overnight and as well as bringing heavy rain, it formed the leading edge of an arctic airmass which eventually covered the whole of the UK. The air was sparkling in its clarity and the temperature several degrees Celsius lower than it had been the previous day; very invigorating and ideal for the outdoor photographer!

After a landscape session at Porth Melgan and a frustrating hunt for migrant birds on St David’s Head, I returned to the van. I noticed there was a flock of choughs, rooks and jackdaws feeding in a nearby field. There was a pattern to their behaviour; they would start at one end of the field and work their way into the wind, feeding as they went, until they reached the hedge-bank. Then they flew back to the shoreline for a few minutes before returning to the field. I wondered if I could get myself into position at the end of the field while they were away and photograph them as they came towards me.  So I donned the nearest I had to camouflage gear and headed over.

Corvids are the most intelligent of birds and they noticed me immediately. But they were not entirely spooked; the chough, in particular, stayed faithful to the field and I felt sure that,  eventually, they would come close enough to be photographed. As the afternoon wore on and my body became more numb it became apparent that they were no longer so hungry and that feeding time was more or less over. So eventually never really came and I tried to be philosophical as I returned to the van. It was worth the try….wasn’t it?

Just a couple of days ago I had a look at the results from the session. In an ideal world  the birds would have been closer, but to my surprise a couple of images were actually quite useable. Thanks to the quality of my equipment – Canon 5d3 and Tamron 150-600 zoom – and the excellent light, I was able to crop down quite deeply into the image without encountering sharpness or noise problems. The image above begins to illustrate how full of character choughs really are.

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