An inscrutable visitor from the Arctic

Snowy Owl, St Davids Head.

This snowy owl was first reported from St. Davids Head on the Pembrokeshire bird blog on Good Friday, and then again on April 3rd. It seemed to be elusive, to say the least. But the forecast for April 5th was good, and I overcame my usual inertia and decided to go for it.  It wouldn’t be the first snowy owl I have ever seen. The first was on Fetlar (Shetland) in 1985, one of the last birds from the breeding pair present there for a number of years. The second was on moorland in North Uist a few summers ago which may actually have been a plastic sack full of peat turves, so white was it and so little did it move! But a snowy owl in Wales! And (almost) on my home patch……

I arrived at Whitesands about 8.45 am and began the walk across to St Davids Head. After about half a mile I met a birder coming the other way. It was Mike Young-Powell, a local man whose patch I knew St Davids Head was. Obviously excited, he borrowed my phone to get the news out. He had seen the bird on a rocky outcrop just a few minutes previously. I headed back with him to relocate it, and it suddenly took flight from maybe twenty yards away from us. For such a large white creature it could be surprisingly inconspicuous.

It settled amongst tussocks in the valley bottom, with only its top half showing, unfortunately. We watched it from a distance while Mike waited for his wife and friends to arrive, and then he gave me the go-ahead to get closer. I apologised in advance in case I disturbed it……

I soon got to a point on the other side of the valley where the light was better and began to creep closer, stage by stage. The owl clearly knew I was there but didn’t seem at all anxious. At each point I watched her for a few minutes and took a few pictures. I peeped over a clump of brambles and bracken, and just watched. It was quite an intimate moment, and I felt truly honoured to be in her presence.  She seemed quite relaxed, blinking in the sunshine and looking around from time to time. When closed her eyes looked like little smiley black slits in a round white face. Talk about inscrutable! There was something about a sumo wrestler about it. Much too soon, however, my presence became too much and she flew off.

I expected some flack from the other birders when I returned to the path but they were fine.  Continuing up valley I rounded a corner and the owl exploded away from her perch on the ground about twenty yards away. She flew some distance and landed on a rock, where she was harrased angrily by a raven and chased back towards us. She landed on the hillside opposite, about half way up Carn Llidi, much too far away for a binocular user like myself. From this distance and with only 10×40’s, she appeared grey all over with a white face. I settled down and waited for her to make a move. Seven hours later she was still there.

During that time she shifted around a bit, and those with a scope would have found the minor details of her resting period fascinating, I’m sure. For me the most interesting thing was the behaviour of two ravens. One made a sudden right angle turn and flew over to the owl, landing briefly on a rock about ten yards away. Another inspected the owl carefully from above. Neither of them could ever have seen a snowy owl before, and probably didn’t know what to make of it. Perhaps the owl was too near to the nest of the angry bird mentioned earlier.

Eventually I got too cold to wait around any longer and drove home. I downloaded the pictures into Lightroom yesterday and found to my relief that one of the closest pics was sharp. I cloned out two grass stems which fell across the birds face, and cropped the image fairly drastically for the above portrait. The quality at 100% is still pretty impressive! It is noticeable how brown the barring is on its upper breast compared to that on its crown. The afternoon had been pretty frustrating, but what a morning! This has to be one of the most amazing birds I have ever seen.

PS : Many thanks to Alastair and Jill Proud for the sandwich and Welsh cakes…..

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

As seen on Springwatch…..

Swallow’s nest (with flash)

Last week we hurtled down to Pembrokeshire in the heat. Jane had an event to attend in Haverforwest and I wanted to do some bird photography in the Marloes area. We had an evening boat trip lined up too, which took us into the bays on the north and south coasts of Skomer Island amongst all the seabirds.

I headed out with my long lens on Wednesday morning and spent some time around the Deer Park. There were two family parties of chough in the area and a group of adult non-breeders. After a couple of hours I headed back to Lockley Lodge for some coffee, and then into the nearby Marine Nature Reserve building with its illuminated displays and pilot whale skeleton. The main attraction for me here was the swallow’s nest built into the eye socket of the skull, which had earlier been featured on Springwatch. I was delighted to find four large, bouncing, baby swallows being fed frequently by their parents, despite regular interruptions by human visitors. There was another swallow’s nest in the ladies toilets next door, apparently, and I had previously seen a couple in the gents; so I guess this particular pair was more discerning than some of the others……

Adult leaving swallows’ nest (no flash).

Unless the doorway was almost blocked the adults took no notice of people at all; and with the nest at little more than head height this was an opportunity not to be missed. I set up the tripod in the corner of the room and attached the camera and long lens. But boy, was it dark! Even at 3200 ASA I was exposing at slower than 1/100th second. It would be nice to think that I could capture the young gaping excitedly (but without moving) on the nest while the adult hovered artistically beside them with food but it just wasn’t going to happen. Time for Plan B.

Flash.

I never use flash. I don’t have a flash gun and my 5d3 definitely doesn’t have one built in. Maybe the 6d (back in the van) had a built in flash? It was worth a try; but no joy. Then there was the little Panasonic GX7 which I carry around with me when I can. Yessss! I was in luck. After a long time fiddling around with menus I finally worked out how to use it. You press the button and the flash pops up. Surely it can’t be that easy…..?

With the 5D3 and other SLR’s (I imagine) you press the shutter and keep pressing – the result being a burst of images which capture the action at up to 12 frames a second – although the 5d3 is rated at 6 fps and seems slower than that. With the GX7 it’s one frame at a time; that is, in this situation, one frame each time the parent brought food for the young. Fortunately the feeding visits were coming thick and fast and I never had long to wait. I wouldn’t say I’m totally happy about any of the results, however. Technically those with flash are much better, but I didn’t quite get the composition right on any of them. Those without might be artistically more pleasing but those conditions were really was pushing the camera beyond its limits, even one as capable as a 5D3. It was difficult to process any of the images to any meaningful extent without degrading the image even further into unusability.

Nevertheless it was lovely just to watch the young begging enthusiastically for food, and the adults bringing it in so fearlessly. I love swallows and it is a source of sadness that they no longer nest in our garden shed.

 

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

You wait around and then you wait around some more.

St David's Head (in the far distance) from Garn Fawr.
St David’s Head (in the far distance) from Garn Fawr.

One evening about ten days ago I headed down to Pembrokeshire. Postcards are still selling well down there and I need to renew a couple of cards for next season. One card in particular had sold out, a view of Strumble Head lighthouse from the mainland. I hoped that the heather would still be in flower so that it could appear in the foreground of the picture. Conditions for my journey down were poor but a clearance to sunshine was forecast for the following morning. I spent the night in my camper van on the car park just below Garn Fawr. This is a rocky 200 metre hilltop, complete with hill fort, on Pen Caer, the peninsula upon which Strumble Head is the northern-most point.

By 8.30 a.m the following day it was indeed clear and sunny. I walked the short distance up to the summit of Garn Fawr. It is a stunning viewpoint with 360 degree views across north Pembrokeshire, notably down the coast to St. David’s Head. It should have been perfect for photography, but it wasn’t. There was a murkiness in the air, possibly a legacy of the previous night’s rain, and the sky was cloudless – blue but uninteresting. After a few minutes I returned to the van. There was no point in even pressing the shutter when I knew that the results would not equal those I had achieved on previous visits. I brewed up some coffee and compared notes  with another campervan driver who had recently arrived. I decided on a different walk nearby, and rather lazily drove the couple of miles to its starting point.

By this time it was about 10.30 am. I normally have a cut-off point of about 10 a.m. in summer, after which I feel that the sun is too high for successful landscapes. It’s all part of a process, of course, but shadows become insignificant and the light tends to become too harsh. But by this time some attractive clouds had begun forming and the air did appear to be sharper. So I decided to head back up to the summit of Garn Fawr instead. I could still walk from my new parking place although it would be a longer and steeper climb.  One might prefer the sun to have been lower but I think you’ll agree from the picture above that it was worth it, though.  And so one single, ten-minute picture-taking session made over a period of five hours was all that was needed for a successful morning’s photography.

Later that day a bank of thick cirrus cloud edged in from the north-west, gradually obscuring the sun. I walked along the coast path to the location for the lighthouse image I had in mind, but it was too late – the sun had gone.  And the heather on the cliff-top was over – no longer the luscious pinky-purple that I love but brown. It was all a bit dispiriting. I returned to the van and buried myself in a book. I would have another go the following day.

Strumble Head lighthouse, Pembrokeshire.
Strumble Head lighthouse, Pembrokeshire.

The next morning I awoke before dawn and turned the radio on, just in time for the 5.30 a.m. weather forecast.  Ever heard it?  I thought not! The forecaster described the same band of cloud and, very unusually, added that there could be a good sunrise.  I hadn’t thought of that! The Pen Caer section of the Pembrokeshire coast runs roughly west > east so the lighthouse might be set against a pink sunrise from my viewpoint. I gulped down a mug of tea and drove down to Strumble Head ; then there was the fifteen-minute walk! The sky was brightening and wispy cirrus pinking up quickly. But I made it. I took a series of images in the hope that one would include the lighthouse beam. A glance at the camera’s monitor was enough to tell me that I’d been successful. What a bonus! There was a real spring in my step as I walked back to the van.

The cirrus that had provided the focus of my sunrise picture proved to be a bit of a downer for the rest of the morning, however. More often than not the sun was behind it, which had the effect of casting a veil over the light on the landscape. It was the end of picture-taking for the day and I was back home by mid-morning. I had been away for 40 hours and during that time had actually had the camera in hand for 20 minutes. And yet I felt it had been a successful trip. Such is the life of the landscape photographer: you wait around and then you wait around some more. And if you’re lucky…….

 

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

Welcome to purpleworld……

Years ago a website designer was adding nonsense text to my then-under-construction site. Under one heading he wrote

“Jeremy Moore is out in the jungle photographing rocks”

At first glance this was just an off-the cuff remark, but on further consideration it may have been a comment on the activities of landscape photographers. The world is beset by a multitude of problems, with climate change being one of the most pressing. And what do landscape photographers do? We drive across the country and take pictures of rocks.

Not that often in the jungle perhaps, but at the coast……..we do a lot of it. And that brings me to the title of the post. One quite popular and easily accessible beach in Pembrokeshire backs on to a quite astonishing little cove with purple and bright red sandstone bedrock and a variety of boulders in red, purple and green/grey. The beach itself features on one of my postcards and the boulders are easily visible in the image. It is surprising that more photographers don’t venture down there, but even those from Pembrokeshire seem to give it a miss, let alone the big names from England. I’m not going to name the location; that would make it too easy. But look at this image – you’d expect it to be elbow room only down there at low tide! 

Image

As for “purpleworld” the sense of colour at the back of the cove is so complete that one’s eyes begin to compensate for it and it starts to look “normal”. Turning one’s back and looking out to sea again the real world seems unreal.  

There are two interesting caves to explore there as well; I may post another image or two some time……

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