Not soon coming to a bookshop near you……….

Not soon coming to a bookshop near you……avocets at Goldcliffe, Gwent

Earlier this year I wrote about a number of disappointments I had had as a photographer during the previous twelve months (see this post). At the time I wasn’t sure if I should be blogging about my failures but they are part and parcel of the life of the freelance and it felt like a reasonable response. Unfortunately there is more disappointment to recount.

Following the sudden rejection of In Search of Wild Wales by the publisher in January, Jon Gower and I discussed finding another outlet for it. After a while he suggested a little known specialist publisher from south Wales, who had put together a very high quality book on the Welsh artist John Selway.  Jon had provided the text. They were keen to go ahead with In Search of Wild Wales. Things were looking up! Jon sent the final version of his text through to me in the middle of October and I read it avidly. Most (about two-thirds) was intelligent, invigorating writing. He had written a beautiful essay – at my request – about avocets, to accompany the above photograph. But the remainder ………. hmmm…….. it just seemed rather flat, somehow, as if someone else had written it.

I think I had better just say at this point that several chapters of the book needed re-writing.  At first he agreed to do it over the winter, but then there was a second email. He had changed his mind overnight and despite profuse apologies, was now withdrawing from the project altogether. “Your very fine images”  he said, “should not be coupled to shoddy, lazy writing”.

Strangely enough I don’t feel angry. I just can’t get my head around it. I still wake up and think “Did that really happen?”

So that’s five publishers and three authors I’ve exhausted trying to get this book off the ground.  A very good friend assured me that I was good enough to write the text myself, or that he could write it for me, but working with a friend on anything can ruin a good relationship. There comes a time when you have to accept that something is just never going to happen.

As a photographer I believe that a book can be image-led but images do have their limitations, no matter how good they are. I’ve always felt that a good text can take a book way beyond the photographs that accompany it. To that end I’ve worked with different authors on five books but in almost every case it wasn’t the real collaboration that I had been hoping for. Ironically the most satisfying in that sense was Wales at Waters Edge  :  author –  Jon Gower!  With that one exception I’ve had a series of bad experiences with authors over the last decade. In some cases they seem to have such sense of superiority over the photographer that the latter is only worthy of illustrating their magnificent, all-knowing and world-shattering text.

One could argue that I should never have worked on this project without having a contract in place. However, there is no chance that the photographs could have been produced within the time frame of a normal book production schedule. Nature is seasonal for one thing. The photographer has to fit in with its rhythms. If you miss a subject one spring, for example, you just have to wait twelve months for another opportunity. And did I mention that I was a perfectionist?

There is no doubt that this has been the most difficult blog post I have ever written. I would love to recount exactly why Jon withdrew from the project, but I have taken the advice of others not to be too specific. In the meantime, I have dragged myself out of the hole that I found myself in and sent a new proposal to Gomer Press for consideration. If successful, it will use some of the images from the book which has finally now bitten the dust. Other than the publisher, no-one else will be involved.

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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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Dicing with death (part 1)

Newgale

I’ve always said that August is one of my favourite months for landscape photography and nothing I have seen this year will make me change my mind. It’s just a pity the weather in August seems so consistently bad. I feel so sorry for anyone who took their holidays in Wales during the last week! Nevertheless I’ve had a few opportunities to get out into the field recently.

One trip took me down to Pembrokeshire. After a heavy early morning downpour I managed a good session on Newgale beach as the tide went out. An image like the above might be suitable for a postcard at some stage. On the way back home I stopped off near Fishguard. Again, I was thinking postcards and decided to try the view across Fishguard Bay with Lower Cwm in the background. I walked down the coastal slope towards the harbour on a well-surfaced but steep footpath.  To raise myself a little above the surrounding vegetation I put my foot on what I thought was a rock. The following thought process took about two seconds from start to finish –

Oh, that’s not a rock………. wow, that nettle sting hurts!…….oh, there aren’t any nettles ……….oh, that’s a wasp. ………

Pausing (very) briefly to brush wasps off my bare and sandal-clad legs, I ran back up the footpath until my breath gave out. But the damned wasps were following me! I gasped my way further uphill, eventually going flying, and dropping my tripod in the process;  the camera detached itself and hit the ground with a crunch.  The whole thing must have looked hilarious! But somehow my kit escaped virtually unscathed, and two grazed knees, four wasp stings and a bruised ego were the only injuries.

I tried to look cool in case anyone was watching,  taking more photographs from the hill top while my legs stung like ****.  I remembered that my father had been allergic to either wasp or bee stings and wondered if I might suffer the same fate. I mentally stored the locations of the hospitals I would pass on the drive home …. Cardigan …… Aberystwyth……..  just in case the need arose ………  But I’m glad to say that I arrived home safely.

(Part 2 follows)

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The perils of using an ND filter.

Wreck, Cefn Sidan, Carmarthenshire (1/15th second at f16)

In October last year (see this post) I wrote about using a ten-stop neutral density filter at a rather surreal stretch of coastline near Aberdaron on the Llyn Peninsula. As waves came in I used exposures of several seconds to create blur and fizz from water moving amongst rather sculptural black boulders. I don’t claim for one moment that this was a new idea of mine, but I was happy to get good results from a technique that others had been using for quite some time. In fact, this kind of result has been possible since the very earliest days of photography. At first it was inevitable given the very limited sensitivity of the materials then available; there was no choice but to use long exposures. More recently apertures of f64 were possible with the large format film cameras used by certain landscape photograpers, with long exposures the inevitable result.  There are several examples in Paul Wakefield’s first book “Wales – the First Place” , published in 1982. Some photographers would use twilight only or even moonlight to obtain the same effect. But this technique really wasn’t mainstream.

Same subject, 10 stop ND filter, 2 secs, f11

Then I noticed a trend. Photographers were asking online about where to get hold of neutral density filters. For over a century and a half one of the main advances in camera technology was to make it possible to stop movement. And now people wanted to do just the opposite.  I just couldn’t understand it. I suppose I’m just a bit slow on the uptake, because images using ND filters were suddenly to be seen all over the internet.  Typically they would feature a coastal structure such as a pier surrounded by waves rendered silky and smooth by the use of a long exposure. And usually at sunset. A ten-stop filter was often used, which cut down the amount of light reaching the sensor to one thousandth of that actually available.  Lee Filters coined the term “Big Stopper” to describe theirs, while some cheapskates used glass from welding goggles as an economical substitute (….. ok, I tried that …..). Some photographs were actually very effective, but there were a much larger number of copycat images produced by the less imaginative.

Skokholm Island ; ND filter 5 secs @f11

I do now use a neutral density filter occasionally, but not necessarily when one might expect to.  An ND filter can bring an extra element of interest into a daylight seascape, for example in the image of Skokholm on the left, as well as at dusk. But there are times when I have reached for one, used it and then regretted it. Look at the main picture here. The sand snaking away from the camera in the wind is an integral part of the image, but too long an exposure removes it almost completely. Over a period of two seconds the sand particles are never in the same place for long enough to register on the sensor. Fortunately I saw the error of my ways before leaving the scene, removed the filter and had another go without it. In the previous post (click here) I described another example of NOT using an ND filter when others might have used one – in fact, were doing.

I always advise against using an ND filter to photograph waterfalls, too. I have to admit that I am a sucker for a silky waterfall shot, while others loathe them. In reality there is no correct way of making a still image of moving water, and it is down to personal preference in the end. But choose your day (cloudy, even light is ideal), use a narrow aperture (eg f16) , and a polariser, and you will easily be able to achieve an exposure of about 1/2 second – which in my opinion is just about ideal for a waterfall. An ND filter is almost never required.

So there we have it. Sometimes a little bit of subject movement will make or enhance an image , but an ND filter may remove it.  Use one at your peril!

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….. and later that same morning……….

The tern posts, Ynyslas

Having exhausted most of the wood warbler possibilities (see previous post) and with over 400 images to examine and process, my mind turned to other things. It was still early in the morning and just a few miles away it would be high tide at Ynyslas, at the mouth of the Dyfi estuary. I decided to head over there to have a look at the wader roost.

The low cloud that I could see filtering through the trees above Tre’r ddol was even lower than I thought. Cloud base at Ynyslas was between zero and a hundred feet. Nevertheless it was a gorgeous morning, warm and still and there was no moisture in the fog at all.  To acclimatise myself with the conditions I began a short walk without my camera gear. Swallows perched on bramble stems set against a white background would have made a wonderful graphic composition; why on earth had I left my gear in the van? At that moment I half-noticed two black and white birds flying through the fog together. My instinctive reaction was “shelduck”, and then “those shelduck sound like ringed plovers”. Something wasn’t quite right here. I quickly got the binoculars on to them and immediately identified a pair of avocets! I watched them fly past through the mistiness and never saw them again. Avocets are rarely seen in Ceredigion so I phoned the news through to a couple of local birders before doing anything else.

The tern posts #2

Moving onward it was difficult to know whether I should be looking for birds to photograph or concentrating on the watery, monochromatic landscape. I know Ynyslas like the back of my hand but I had never seen conditions like these before. Another photographer was setting up his gear near some vehicle barriers (which migratory terns sometimes roost upon) and I could see why. It was bang on high tide and the water was barely rippling around them. I used a fast shutter speed to stop the ripples, while he was using a neutral density filter, tripod and a long exposure to blur what slight movement there was.  I wonder what his pictures were like?

Personally I love the broken reflections of the tern posts, and the herring gull which landed on one of them during my picture taking sequence. ND filters can be over-used and – call me old-fashioned – the old ways are sometimes the best.

 

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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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Help! Am a turning into a twitcher?

Green heron, near Narberth

Earlier this week I headed down to Kidwelly near Carmarthen. Having arrived there I checked the Pembs Bird Blog – as I regularly do – to find that a green heron had been found near Narberth, only about 25 miles away. This is an exceptionally rare vagrant from north and central America to the British Isles, and a visit was a no-brainer, really. I restrained myself for several hours the following morning, photographing migrating whimbrel which had been pushed high on to the saltmarsh by a spring tide. But after a second breakfast I headed over to Pembrokeshire. Full directions to the site were given on the Bird Blog; it was in the grounds of the local M.P.’s house who very generously, really, had opened up his garden to the possibly hundreds of complete strangers who might want to see the bird.

I arrived mid-morning to find maybe twenty birders already there, with many thousands of pounds worth of optical and photographic gear on display, camped out just outside the back door of the house. The heron was in a wildlife pond, created by the owner, nearby, but unfortunately not showing very well. The words “creep”, “lurk” and “virtually invisible” come to mind. At mid-day it came to the edge of a bullrush bed and preened for a while, and a motor-drive hammered away over my right shoulder. That guy would have hundreds of virtually identical and more-or-less unusable files to sort through and delete! The heron retreated again, and I decided to cut my losses and return the next morning, when I guessed it might be more active.

I arrived about 7 a.m. to find the bird roosting close to the garden, but low down in deep shade. It immediately flew a little further away onto a low, horizontal branch where it remained  for some time, facing away and partially shielded by branches and twigs. It eventually came closer and sidled up a branch in full view, where I was able to photograph it successfully. The above image is a big crop, from near the edge of the frame, and I continue to be amazed at the quality of results possible from the rather modest Tamron 150-600 Mk 1 lens that I have had for more than four years now. It helps to have a Canon 5d on the end of it, of course, but even that is only a mk3. I have cleaned up a couple twigs  from behind and around the bird.

From the branch the heron extended its very long neck and stretched down to pick up some prey from the water beneath. As it did so it nearly slipped off the branch, exposing it’s stunning plumage, which shimmered with irridescent colours in the sunlight. You can see this quite well in the smaller image. The name green heron really doesn’t do it justice. One has to wonder how it managed to cross the Atlantic and arrive in such an obscure part of south Wales, some five miles from the coast. Some say it may have been “ship-assisted”, and it may have been lurking unseen around the area for months. We will probably never know, but it certainly seems to have found some ideal habitat with plenty of food to keep it going for some time.

Everyone who has seen the green heron will be very grateful  for the opportunity. Birders from all over the UK were arriving at all hours of the day (and probably night). One car-load had set off from Tees-side at 11 pm and arrived at 5 am, others had come from Woking and Nottingham to name but two. One can only applaud the hospitality of Simon Hart and his wife, who at least once a day brought out a tray of mugs complete with a pot of delicious freshly brewed coffee.

I couldn’t help noticing the “Countryside Alliance” sticker on the kitchen window. However these are no ordinary members; Mr Hart was its Chief Executive from 2003 until 2010, and is currently its Chairman. The Countryside Alliance is a major part of the pro-hunting lobby and gets a pretty bad press amongst conservationists. As is common at twitches (apparently) a donations bucket was left outside – with donations in this case going to the charity “Songbird Survival”. This latter organisation also has a bad reputation amonst many wildlife lovers, being seen as a front for predator control (although there is nothing controversial on their website). One could not help but notice, though, that its staff and trustees are gathered largely from the land-owning fraternity, with no representatives at all from any of the main (or even minor) conservation organisations, which seems rather curious. But having seen the amount of fabulous wildlife habitat Mr Hart has created around his home one should perhaps take a more open-minded view of the way the landed types go about things.

So am I turning into a twitcher? On this particular trip I managed to get decent images from the Kidwelly area which may see the light of day some time next year. Seeing the green heron was a bonus at the cost of modest additional mileage. Like most birders I’m sometimes tempted to add a new species to my list – (not that I have a list, he added hastily) –  by travelling to see a rarity. I’ve sometimes described myself as “the world’s worst twitcher”  due to past failures so two successes in recent weeks makes a nice change! But there’s no way I’m going to subscribe to one of the bird news services with the consequent anxiety and carbon emissions this would entail.  That way madness lies.

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A Norwegian coastal cruise (Part 2) and some thoughts on photographing the Northern Lights.

The Aurora near Tromso; 1/8th sec, f4, 6400 ASA

Was there anything else? Oh, yes…….the northern lights! Unless conditions are absolutely perfect, a moving ship will be rocking backwards and forwards and from side to side, with engine vibration to add to the photographer’s misery.  There wasn’t any prospect of using a tripod for the long exposure that photographing the Aurora would require. I imagined that some sort of digital trickery would be available to solve the problem. I thought it should be possible to “stack” a burst (say 15) of shorter handheld exposures to simulate a single long exposure; similar to a technique used by astro-photographers to photograph the Milky Way, for example. The problem with this, I learned,  was that the subject was likely to be so badly under-exposed in a handheld “short” exposure that it would not be recognised by the sensor.  So, should the aurora be visible,  I was really left only one solution – bump the ISO (sensitivity) right up, hand-hold, hope for the best, and remove the noise in PP. I consoled myself with the knowledge that the Norwegian coast is renowned for its beauty, and that I probably wouldn’t be short of subject matter.

The M.S. Lofoten at Tromso

Weather conditions were ideal for the Aurora, and they were visible on four consecutive nights.  When geomagnetic activity is quiet (eg a Kp number of 2) the auroral oval lies across northern Norway and Tromso (its “capital”) is fast becoming a mecca for aurora hunters. At the end of the fourth day there was an extended stop in Tromso, and as dusk fell there was a definite air of anticipation and almost feverish activity around the quayside. Small vessels and coaches were loading up with people keen to see the aurora. I felt sure they would appear that night, and so they did. About 8.30 pm, as the ship cruised northwards, I noticed a waving, pale green ribbon high in the sky and before long there was a full-blown overhead display. I can’t say that it was overwhelming or breathtaking, though, and according to others on board it was quite a modest affair. It proved very difficult to photograph successfully, for the reasons explained above, and with crowds of other people all trying to do the same thing in a very limited space. I realised quite quickly it just wasn’t going to work. But I consider it a learning experience which will hopefully be useful at some stage in the future. One thing I definitely did learn was “Don’t try to photograph the Aurora from a moving platform”.

As far as processing the aurora images is concerned, it’s a bit a photographic dilemma (or to use current parlance  ‘issue’). Because of the way our eye works we do not see the aurora as vividly as the camera does. We have two types of sensor at the back of our eyes – rods, which are receptive to light only, and cones, which are colour-sensitive.  Rods are more sensitive generally than cones so we tend to perceive weak light sources like the aurora as a pale colourless glow rather than the overwhelming light-show that some photographs depict. What should our aim be in post-processing, then? The relatively subdued palette that we actually experience or the more colourful one which we know would have been there if only we could see it? I don’t actually have an answer but I was pleased that one of aurora images came out reasonably well. It is closer to visual reality than light-show, and whatever you do,  don’t examine it too closely……!

The Tough Guys in balmy waters near Bergen. Jerry two-hats in the red jacket. (photo: unknown, but thanks)

One final aspect of the cruise I must mention is the number of lovely, funny and interesting people I met on board. For the daily evening formal dinner you were allocated a seat for the trip with others speaking the same language, and that helps. Some of the passengers you have nothing in common with at all, of course;  some stayed indoors and read or played patience on their tablets, only emerging to go on deck for a smoke (you had to wonder what they were doing on the trip at all……). On the other hand some you met over and over again and struck up a real rapport with. In particular I had some real good times with Frank-Arild Spetland from the far south of Norway, celebrating his retirement; later joined by the bearded twosome, Richard and Ralf, from Stuttgart. All four of us tended to congregate on the upper deck aft where we watched the world go by in the lee of the ship’s superstructure. We ironically called ourselves “The Tough Guys”. Well, it was cold outside…..

So here’s to them in particular; and to Aude and Guillaume from Paris (both far less than half the average age of the rest of the passengers); and to John and Mary Ruston from Wallingford; and to everyone else who helped make the trip such a memorable experience.

Click here for Part One.

P.S. If you are reading this, Aude and Guillame, thanks for the card but I don’t seem to have your address……….

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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…..

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My annus horribilis

It is probably not the done thing to blog about one’s failures. Like the Christmas circular letter a blog will normally only contain details of the writer’s achievements. There have been successes over the last year for me to look back on, of course. My exhibition at Plas Brondanw, for example (see this post),  the “highly commended” image in the 2017 British Wildlife Photography Awards (see here), and my involvement in the Fay Godwin “revisited” exhibition at Machynlleth (see here). But more than anything else the last year has been characterised by disappointments, and I’m beginning to ask myself “is there life after photography?”

For a number of years now I have been working on a book about Welsh wild places and wildlife. There is currently no sign that it will ever see the light of day;  I have already been through four publishers and am on my third author. I wrote about the end of the first attempt (spring 2013) in this blog post. There followed another attempt with a different author where I was quite comprehensively shafted by Publisher No 2. Things were looking good with Publisher No3 and another author; this time it was Jon Gower, with whom I had successfully collaborated on “Wales at Waters Edge”. We had had several positive meetings with the publisher and they had applied for, and been offered, grant support from the Welsh Books Council for the book.

Then in February 2017, everything went pear-shaped. There were major changes at the publisher; in order to concentrate on the printing side of the business, eight staff in the publishing department had been told to apply for four posts or take redundancy; no guarantee about books “in development” was offered. All existing staff took the money and ran and Jon Gower, understandably, vowed never to work for that publisher again. He approached Publisher No4, and in May they agreed, in writing, to a October 2018 publication date. As a result of this I continued working on the project right through until late autumn by which time 95% of my work was complete. I had a meeting with them in late December at which a timetable and other details were discussed and many agreed. An application for grant funding had been submitted.

Earlier this month there was a phone call from their English-language editor. They had changed their mind and no longer had any interest in the book.

So onto other things. At the Fay Godwin exhibition I was approached by William Troughton of the National Library of Wales and asked if I would be interested in having a retrospective there. To say that I was surprised and honoured was an understatement! I didn’t think I was quite old and wrinkly enough but no matter – the Gallery at the Library is huge and he made it seem like a formality. There followed a couple of meetings and then he put in an application to the Library’s exhibitions committee.

In October I was told that this had been turned down.

In January 2017 I put in an application to the Arts Council of Wales to attend  the Open Studio Workshop in the North-west Highlands to begin to develop a new  book/exhibition project. The application was successful and the workshop took place in March. I was excited to be attending because amongst the tutors were two of my landscape photography heroes – Joe Cornish and Paul Wakefield. Despite me being quite clear about what an early stage the project was at, the latter was unreasonably and publicly critical at great length over the work that I showed. I was shocked and deflated, and have not yet been able to rebuild my confidence about the project.

During the years I worked with Gomer Press (Publisher No3) it had always been the case that a verbal offer or agreement was as good as a written contract. I built up an excellent track record for completing book projects on time (unlike some of the authors I collaborated with…..) and working successfully with designers and other print professionals.  I am sure they would agree that this was the case. I have a long history of exhibiting my work and my record there is equally well proven. But over the last few years I have unfortunately had dealings with more than one prima-donna-ish author and disreputable publisher. The requirement for mutual respect that I have been used to seems to have vanished into thin air.

Whether any of the three projects I mentioned above will ever now happen I cannot say. Jon Gower and I may still try other publishers for the “wildlife and wild places” book but between us we are running out of options. For my part, not for the first time, there is a feeling that ‘it just won’t ever happen’.

So that is story of my year. An annus horribilis indeed; but at least there hasn’t been a serious fire at one of my castles……….

 

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