It’s not all bad news.

Hobby at Shapwick

In recent posts I’ve written about some of the exciting and fascinating wildlife encounters I had during my May travels. These included great bustard, lady’s slipper orchid, snakeshead fritillary, even the humble Duke of Burgundy butterfly; all four were either re-introductions and/or found specifically on National Nature Reserves. Without interventions from conservationists none of these four species would be found in the UK, or would be struggling to survive. The last post of this series involves a bird species which has, on the quiet, become very much more common over the last fifty years. At the time of the first Breeding Bird Atlas (published in 1976) there was an estimated 100 pairs of hobbies in the UK. By the time of the 2013 edition, it was far more widespread, with a population of about 2,200 pairs.

The hobby is a small falcon related to the peregrine. It is fully migratory, arriving in the UK in April and leaving for Africa in September. It feeds on small birds and large insects caught on the wing. As a very fast, fluid and agile hunter it can catch even swallows and swifts in flight. On their arrival in the UK hobbies congregate at certain wetlands (where there is normally an abundance of dragonflies to feed on), before dispersing to their breeding areas. I had read of flocks or even “swarms” of hobbies at certain locations in early May and longed to see such a spectacle.

I have visited one of these locations – the Avalon Marshes, near Glastonbury – several times in recent years (see here), and it is one of my favourite UK birding destinations. Up to eight species of heron have bred there, which is extraordinary – given that just a few decades ago only the grey heron and the rare and elusive bittern were found in Britain. It was here that I headed after leaving Stonehenge.

My first evening and the following morning there were unspectacular. I was disappointed that the hides at the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve were still closed following the Coronavirus lockdown, and birds seemed a little thin on the ground. After lunch I headed in the opposite direction along the disused railway line into Shapwick Heath NNR. Just a few minutes later I had seen my first hobbies, a dozen or more, hunting independently in a loose flock. Prey must have been small insects because there was also a very large dispersed flock of hirundines (swallows and martins) doing the same thing. Occasionally I caught sight of a bird transferring prey from its feet to beak in flight, a sure sign that these were hobbies. A few minutes later I heard loud bugling calls coming invisibly from Meare Heath to the north – surely they must have been cranes? *

Checking me out………

I hurried on towards a northward facing hide. From there it looked like the hobbies had disappeared. I then began to pick them out in the heat haze, perched singly or in small groups on stunted dead trees amongst the reeds. Gradually they resumed their hunting and I managed a reasonable count of thirty-three birds altogether. It occurred to me that these were truly African birds spending just a few months of every year in the UK. Although they were very active, the hobbies were really too far away to photograph, so I returned to the railway line. And guess what? Hobbies, lower and much closer. Part of the same flock, no doubt, but this was more like it! I returned to the van to eat and recharge my mental batteries.

Late that evening I returned to the same area. Still hobbies! They were hunting insects low over one of the lagoons until well after sunset. Close to darkness in the far distance I could see about twenty of them perched on the stark boughs of a dead tree, one-by-one disappearing to roost somewhere nearby. They had gone by the next morning; but great white egrets – ethereal and otherworldly – floated by just outside the hide window. There must have been a nest nearby.

These spectacular birds are a very welcome addition to the British avifauna; as are the little egrets that are now a familiar sight in many parts of the UK. The flocks of hobbies that are now seen in the UK every spring are another example of the continually changing nature of our bird populations. It is a mistake to believe that wildlife distributions and numbers are normally static. For the wildlife lover there is a relentless diet of bad news in the media, and there’s no doubt that we are still losing some species rapidly. The difficulty is in distinguishing between natural fluctuations of bird populations and those changes, like the loss of farmland birds (and other wildlife), that are entirely down to human destruction of wildlife habitats.

* Sightings at nearby RSPB Ham Wall that day included a flock of eight cranes flying over, and two returning.

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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)

s

………….. 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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On manoeuvres: great bustards on Salisbury Plain.

A male great bustard in all his finery

Some wildlife photographers have attempted to boost their income in recent years by setting up a hide in a likely position, getting birds and mammals acclimatised to being fed there, and then renting it out to other photographers. Species involved include red squirrels and ospreys. Some of latter have learned that easy prey can be found at certain fish farms. To offset their losses the owners of these facilities have built a hide nearby, and who can blame them! But for me the satisfaction (and frustration) of wildlife photography begins with researching where a species might be found. It continues through the location of individuals  – “the thrill of the hunt”  – to the press of the shutter button. It is said that well-off but “time-poor” photographers were more likely to take advantage of hide set-ups such as this. I have always said that I would never do it.

Last year my plans to visit Mallorca in the spring were frustrated by Covid travel restrictions and then Plan B suffered the same fate. Part of Plan B was to visit the Great Bustard Group reintroduction site on Salisbury Plain, where volunteers take visitors out in a Land Rover to see the birds. Earlier this spring I discovered that while the Land Rover trips were not yet in operation, the GBG had set up a hide specifically for photographers and were renting it out. The cost was substantial but I had just sold the last remnant of my Canon system – a x1.4 converter which I found lurking at the back of a cupboard – for the same sum. Whatever the outcome, I felt that it was a donation to a cause that I was happy to support. So I clicked OK.

Male human in observation mode

I worried about the weather, of course, and checked the forecast at regular intervals. On the appointed day the first depression for weeks was due to cross the country, with heavy rain and gales. It felt like Sod’s Law was in operation here.  A meeting was arranged in a layby on one of the main roads crossing the Plain – at 5.30 in the morning. It was all a bit hush-hush. I was led to some farm buildings a couple of miles away where I met the guide, Nigel Cope, and was fitted up with my Great Bustard suit for the walk to the hide The weather was actually quite pleasant; light cloud overall but little wind. Conditions were actually very good for bird photography but as for the bustards – well, I could see several quite clearly but the nearest were at least a quarter of a mile away.

Great bustards are huge and extraordinary-looking birds, especially the males. They are more than three feet in height (females much smaller), and stride purposefully across the landscape. Their plumage is a mixture of white, black and shades of chestnut, with a grey head and dark blue bare patches on either side of the neck. On closer examination the blue patches are scattered with white spots, reminding me of a starlit night sky. In display, the males seem to turn themselves inside-out and became largely white.

A “semi-display” pose

Nigel left me in the hide. I knew good sightings of the bustards were not guaranteed but this was disappointing. I went outside, photographed myself in the bustard suit, and went back in. Then, two and half hours after arriving, I opened the rear flaps of the hide: I couldn’t believe my eyes! Three male bustards were right out in the open, perhaps fifty yards away! Now I had to keep calm.

They weren’t exactly difficult to photograph. One began displaying but at first – and frustratingly – he was behind some tall, straggly stems of dead vegetation. He then moved a short distance into a field of lucerne and went through the whole sequence in full view in the open. I probably giggled and danced a little jig myself. The male bustard seems to pick a spot, inflate his neck pouch and turn himself inside out, rotate, rinse and repeat. They are said to gather together and display at “leks” rather like black grouse do, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. They were more mobile than that; I saw one male in the distance furiously displaying at a single female.

On manoeuvres.

It is believed that at one time great bustards bred in about a dozen counties in the UK, but became extinct due to persecution and agricultural change. They last nested in 1832. Led by David Waters, the re-introduction project on Salisbury Plain began in 2004. Chicks were brought first from Russia and later from Spain. Breeding began in 2009 and there is now a self-sustaining population of about a hundred birds on Salisbury Plain. Strangely the project hasn’t received the support from mainstream conservation organisations that one might expect.

While a much unimproved grassland still exists on the Plain thanks to the extensive military ranges there, the bustards seem quite happy on the farmland around the perimeter. By mid-morning bustard activity had died down, and the promised inclement weather had begun to make itself felt. As I left the site a large group of GBG volunteers were beginning to comb the lucerne field, shortly to be mown for silage, for clutches of eggs which would be incubated artificially. Personally I was glad to retire to a warm hotel room that afternoon to catch up on some sleep.

For more information on the project, see this clip from Springwatch –

https://youtu.be/aL5LFGk_Qd8

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Stonehenge : a photo-essay.

I recently spent a week touring central southern England in my camper van and one of the locations I visited was Stonehenge in Wiltshire. I had only seen the stones once before; I believe I may have been to a free festival there in my youth but that might be my imagination! I do recall that I had been expecting the stones to be larger than they in fact are. I gather this is a common misconception, and may be due to the ability of photographers to compress the perspective of the scene using telephoto lenses.

Entry to the visitor centre and monument costs a staggering £21.50: it is a real cash-cow for English Heritage. However it is possible to get close-ish without paying by using the remains of the A344 which passed the stones on the northern side. Although the road has now been grassed over it appears that a right of way on foot has been retained. A wire fence is all that separates the viewer from the grassland surrounding the stones.

The weather on my visit was clear and still at dawn rapidly clouding over and becoming very cold with a northerly wind and showers.
Between the showers the light was dramatic.
From certain angles the visitor infrastructure surrounding the stones was very evident.
Security guards patrol the site 24/7.
About 5 a.m. I was woken by voices outside my van. Then laughter and dogs barking. I hurriedly got dressed and put on my best Mr. Angry voice. What do you think you’re doing at this time in the morning etc, etc……? It turned out they were celebrating Beltane (even though it was four days previously …..) and it had to be done just there. It’s the alignments, man …. It was a bit of a grumpy interlude all round but I soon saw the funny side of it. I hope they did.
It was a lovely morning, though, and skylarks were singing their little hearts out overhead.
The travellers were living in vans about a quarter of a mile away. This one had been burnt out a couple of nights earlier. I met the couple whose prized possession it was. He blamed himself for the fire and she was in tears, having lost everything she owned.
Jackdaws are nesting in crevices between the stones.

Until the closure of the A344, the stones were within the fork of that road and the A303 to the south. For many years there have been plans to divert the A303 away from the site and recently a £1.7 billion plan was approved for it to pass underground in a two-mile long tunnel. That would seem to a layman like myself to be an expensive but reasonable solution. However the Stonehenge monument is only part of a much larger historical landscape of world-class importance. Archaeologists believe that a tunnel would need to be about 5 miles long to avoid damage to the outer sections of the site. A protest camp has already been set up and a judicial review is under way to decide on the matter, but I can’t help feeling we have not heard the last of this one!

Viewing the stones even from a respectable distance I did feel that they gave off far more of a presence than I had felt all those years ago.

After about twenty-four hours around the Stonehenge I hit the road again. I’ll write about the rest of my trip shortly.

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Nine and a half years later.

Back in 2011 I was exploring the country taking photographs for a book – Wales at Waters Edge – about the Welsh coastline. It wasn’t landscape, or wildlife, or documentary; rather a combination of all three. It took me a long while to realise it, but what I was doing was creating a natural and social history of the coast of Wales. On 2nd July I found myself in Tenby and discovered that there was a sandcastle-building contest on South Beach that afternoon. It sounded like a good photo opportunity.

So I duly turned up and took a series of photographs of the event. As it happened none of them was used in the book and most have long since been deleted. But a more interesting idea was forming in my imagination – to come back after the contest was over as the tide was rising. I thought a series of images of disintegrating sandcastles might illustrate sea-level rise and the consequences of global warming. So I returned to the beach about six in the evening – armed with my tripod – for some long exposures. It was deserted and the waves were beginning to lap around the first row of sandcastles. I quickly selected one, set up the tripod, and took a series of images as it collapsed. Focal length was set at 50 mm and exposures ranged between 1.6 and 4 seconds at about f11. I must have been using a neutral density filter as it was still broad daylight. I ended up with 35 images taken over a period of 11 minutes.

They then sat on my hard drive for nine and a half years! But in January I discovered that the Mid-Wales Art Gallery (near Caersws) was inviting entries for an open exhibition on the subject of global warming. I went back to my Tenby long exposures, selected ten of them with a view to making a sequence and began processing them. I made a whole series of minor changes to them all in an attempt to standardise the colour saturation, and cropped them all square. I sent a preliminary set to the gallery, who approved the idea, and suggested that I should have them printed on aluminium. Although this is an expensive medium to print on it avoids the need for framing.

I found a printing company online who do aluminium prints and provide layouts for dropping images into, including a 3 x 3 grid. Arguably a horizontal or vertical strip of single images might make the message clearer but the square format is much easier to deal with for both me and the gallery. I’ve just sent the work away for printing.

The exhibition will be at Mid Wales Arts, Caersws, Powys; provisionally from April 2nd > May 17th. Tel: 01686 688369

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In the abstract

Still locked down and with the weather continuing to be as grey as grey I have very little to report from the last few weeks. As mentioned in my last post I’ve been going through my images – some 40,000 dating back to the year 2006, when I began my journey in digital photography. I’ve retained the habit from my film days of taking a three-frame burst for most landscapes, with 1/3 stop difference in exposure between each one. This was crucial with transparency film as you really only had one chance to get the exposure right. With digital it is far less important – especially with full-frame, I’ve found, which is so forgiving of minor errors. So after every photography trip I have a very large number of surplus files to examine, rate and dispose of. I’m getting quite good at it now but going back a few years I kept far more than I needed to.

As well as deleting about 6,000 of them I’ve found a few gems which I had missed the first time round. Some might be suitable for postcards and there are also quite a few “abstracts” which will never see the light of day unless I post them on my blog and/or website. So, for your viewing pleasure, here is a selection. Enjoy!

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Warts and All

Looking north east from Tre’r Ceiri

As I’m sure most of us now are, I’m stuck at home and finding it difficult to keep myself occupied. During the spring/summer lockdown the weather was delightful and I explored my local area on foot and electric bike. It was exciting to get to know the local wildlife a little better. Mid-winter is a completely different kettle of fish, of course, and my bike has barely left the garage in the last couple of months. I’m still walking, but to a very limited extent; on the edge of the uplands around my home it’s cold, wet and windy and most of the wildlife has left for lower altitudes. It’s not a very exciting task, I know, but I’ve taken to deleting digital image files to make more room on my hard disc.

This morning I came across a folder from January 13th 2012, exactly nine years ago. I was working on the book Wales at Waters Edge at the time, and spent the day on Yr Eifl, a triple-topped peak on the north coast of the Llyn peninsula between Caernarfon and Nefyn. It is one of the most spectacular locations in Wales, with views down Penllyn to Bardsey Island and inland to the mountains of Eryri. On one of the peaks is a beautifully-preserved hill-top settlement known as Tre’r Ceiri – or, in English, “Town of the Giants”. There are numerous hut circles within the settlement walls, suggesting that the inhabitants were – in fact – far from tall in stature! Isolated fragments of low cloud drifted onto the hilltops in a light breeze, while most of the landscape remained lit by strong sunshine. It was one of those once-in-a-hundred days. I spent several hours up high during the morning, before returning to the van for something to eat.

Tre’r Ceiri itself; hut circles are clearly visible, but hardly big enough for giants…..

Finishing my lunch I discovered I no longer had my mobile phone. I had recorded some thoughts on it during the morning so I must have left it up on the hill. Fortunately it is not a difficult walk back up to Tre’r Ceiri and the repeat visit gave me chance to try some sunset shots. But despite a thorough search there was no sign of the phone and I came back empty handed. The sunset shots weren’t much cop either……….

I started the blog in July 2012, but by the January I must have already started thinking about how I could describe my experiences in outdoor photography.

It was never intended to be a typical photographers blog, with equipment reviews and technique lessons. Plenty of people were doing that already. It would be more of a story-telling exercise in which I wouldn’t necessarily take myself too seriously. Leaving my phone on a hill-top after an exhilarating morning’s photography was exactly the sort of thing I thought I might include.

Even more so when I found the phone in the cubby hole above the van windscreen where I always put it! It had been there all the time. So, just a mere nine years after it happened this is the “warts and all” account of my day!

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Homecoming – the Aberystwyth purple sandpipers

A couple of weeks ago I had a look for the purple sandpipers at Aberystwyth. There has been a wintering flock of these dumpy little waders here since at least 1927, and their high tide roost is always at the same place – on the sea wall, facing north, below the castle. This year a maximum of four birds has been seen, but the size of the flock has normally varied from five birds up to about twenty-five. Perhaps the current cold weather will bring some more in this winter.

I’d like to say that I found them after a couple of hours staggering about across treacherous rocks and seaweed, but it wasn’t like that at all. I parked my van near the right spot, walked over, looked down, and there they were! They were a little jittery at my presence above them and at the waves passing by below, but allowed me to take a nice series of photographs. Later, as the tide began to drop, I found them beginning to feed on the rocks.

What amazes me is how they return to the same spot every year. There must be plenty of suitable habitat for them around the coast. Could there be a suggestion of “culture” about it, rather than ecological necessity? Whatever, Aberystwyth must feel like home to them.

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Taking your chances….

I recently heard about a very approachable otter not far from here. I assumed it was a one-off but later discovered it had already been attracting wildlife watchers and photographers for several weeks. Better late than never, of course, but my first visit offered two brief, unsatisfactory views and a few unusable photographs. I was more lucky on my second visit. I first noticed the otter mid-river; it then proceeded to hunt downstream towards me in the seaweed along the edge of the channel. It very quickly came up with an eel, brought it onshore and proceeded to crunch it down. It then resumed its hunt, moving back upstream in a similar manner. I quickly realised that if I could position myself beyond it, and my luck held, it would gradually get closer. And so it did! I was particularly fortunate in that there was no-one else around, so no there was jockeying for position or complaints that I might be too close.

I lay flat on my belly on the riverbank, the otter oblivious to my presence. I repeatedly reduced the focal length of my zoom lens as it got closer. At a certain point it stared directly at me at close range without really registering what I might be. After twenty minutes with this lovely animal I realised it was finally heading downstream. Meanwhile quite a crowd had built up on the bridge: the otter and I had had quite an audience! Back on dry land I felt like I was floating on air: one photographer friend said she thought I was in shock!

I hasten to add that I had already put plenty of hours in but when an opportunity like this presents itself you just have to grasp it with both hands and take it………..

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