Homing in.

First of all let me say that I am a very lucky man. I live out in the Welsh countryside, with long views in every direction from the house. The valley to the north is stunningly beautiful, with several stretches of remnant oak woodland, just coming into leaf right now, on its sides. I can take any one of a wide variety of walks direct from my front door, on public footpaths, bridleways or minor roads.  I can use my electric bike to get me a bit further afield and to help iron out the many steep hills in the vicinity.  I have no money worries: my pension payment comes in, regular as clockwork, every four weeks.

This is, of course, a far cry from the experience of those people now confined to rooms and apartments in towns and cities throughout the world. Or delivering food to our shops and supermarkets, driving buses or trains, collecting rubbish and re-cycling, delivering mail, or risking their own lives daily in care homes and hospitals. My heart particularly goes out to those brave and committed men and women saving other people’s lives on the front line, in some cases to the extent of losing their own.

Red kites : attempted talon grappling

When it became clear that I was going to be confined to base for a considerable length of time, I made it my aim to get to know my immediate surroundings as best I could. After a relentless diet of rain and wind over the winter the start of the lockdown coincided with a change to much sunnier conditions. I started to walk some of the local footpaths, and listened out for bird song in the nearby woodlands. Late March is also good time of year to search out woodpeckers while they are still drumming to advertise their territories.   At one time many years ago I thought I could distinguish the drumming of lesser spotted woodpecker from its much more common relative, the greater spotted; but with the former being so uncommon now my memory had become rather rusty. I managed to almost convince myself that I had found a lesser spotted just a few minutes walk from the house. So I spent some time quietly visiting a couple of local woodlands listening for its call – which would conclusively identify it – without success. But what I did find, without really trying, were two red kite nests. In fact it was partly as a result of the kites that I felt I had to give up searching for woodpeckers. By April 7th both pairs were obviously incubating and I just couldn’t continue without disturbing them.

Of course red kites are nowhere near as rare as they used to be. I well remember seeing my first red kite soon after moving to mid-Wales in 1977. I had cycled up a remote valley not far from here and took a photograph (yes, even then) of a bird I assumed was a buzzard. It wasn’t until I got the prints back from Boots (or was it Max Spielmann?) that I saw the forked tail. In fact the valley below this house seems to be a bit of a hotspot for red kites. There is a communal roost in one of the woodlands – I’ve seen fifty birds there at dusk in winter. For much of the year there are birds floating around enjoying the breeze. One of my neighbours – a lady in her eighties – sometimes puts scraps of meat our for them in the field the other side of her garden fence. We are only about five miles from one of the well-known kite feeding stations (Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian) so I suspect some individual birds associate the appearance of people with the arrival of food. At least one  perches on an electric pole at the back of her house and calls in the hope that she will feed it.

On bright days in late winter and early spring the larger birds of prey (kites and buzzards) are very prominent in the air, displaying and socialising with each other.  One recent evening I looked out of the bathroom window to see two kites grab each other’s talons and freefall together, whirling round and round, before releasing and flying away. But then, round about the second week in April, clutches are completed, incubation starts and it normally goes very quiet. You wonder where all the raptors have suddenly gone. But a loose grouping of kites (up to eight together) soared, chased and displayed over the field at the back of the house throughout last week, sometimes joined by buzzards. They seem to like each other’s company.

Probably because they are such a familiar feature of our landscape here in mid-Wales, I have hardly ever tried to photograph red kites. During work on my “Bird/land” exhibition I visited Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian several times but ended up focussing my attention on carrion crows (see this post)! But in my current enforced state of immobility it seemed like a good time to put right this failing; that and a realisation that they are, actually, incredibly beautiful creatures……

So I took my new(ish) Olympus/Panasonic m4/3 kit out “into the field”  – the field at the bottom of our garden, that is. It was actually quite frustrating to have to exit the house via the front door, walk fifteen yards along the road, then open a gate and go through it……how lazy we can get! I began to explore the camera’s various settings and autofocus modes. It has SO many…….far too many for a technophobe like me, to be honest, but by chance or otherwise I have managed some good results.  One particular afternoon the harsh sun was tempered by a veil of high cloud; bright diffused light is perfect for bird photography, and it so happened that my next-door neighbour had just put some scraps of meat out for them! It was an ideal opportunity.

For a red kite I’d guess that grasping another bird’s talons and cartwheeling towards the ground together is just about the ultimate in sociability and the mastery of flight. For me capturing the act would be the pinnacle in red kite photography; but now the peak in pre-breeding season activity has passed, I wonder if it will now have to wait until next year?

 

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Red Rebellion

 

In November I spent a day with Extinction Rebellion activists, leaving Aberystwyth in a minibus at some ungodly hour in the morning to arrive in Cardiff by 9.30 am. The objective was to take part in an action outside the Welsh Government building in Cardiff Bay. The surprising thing about it was this – it wasn’t a protest about something, or to demand something; rather to support the Welsh Government in its attempts to prevent further oil and gas exploration off the Welsh coast. The problem for the Welsh Government is that they have no powers over fossil fuel exploration because it is what is known as a “retained function” of the UK Government. And UK policy is still to maximise fossil fuel extraction within UK waters…….

So a hundred people or more from all over Wales gathered outside the Assembly Building on a blustery morning, with assorted banners and placards to await the arrival of the Red Rebels, who have become an integral part of Extinction Rebellion’s actions. Dressed from head to toe in crimson, with and wearing thick white make-up, they move through a crowd in single file, in what might be described as an atmosphere of extreme silence. Stereotypical movements and highly focussed eye contact are all part of the act, which has the feeling of mime or street theatre. While I know several of them personally, it’s actually very difficult to recognise them in the full garb. Sometimes just the shoes give them away! I did my fair share of holding banners, listening to speeches and just being part of the event, but also spent time alongside the Red Rebels. It felt extraordinary to be in their space. Here are some of the pictures, all taken with my little Canon M5 ……..

For more see my website :  https://www.wild-wales.com/v/photos/75568xmh/28358875804/red-rebels-12

 

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Tripod head talk….and our cutest mammal (surely!)

Red squirrel, Anglesey

For many years I used a Magicball tripod head which I thought was a brilliant and very versatile piece of kit. I had two, in fact, with a Mini-Magicball on my lightweight “walking” tripod. The secret of the design was that it was “upside down” and screwed directly into the base of the camera or lens plate. It wasn’t until I started using long, heavy lenses to photograph wildlife that I began to see the weakness in the Magicball design. It was VERY stable when the lens (even a heavy one) was aligned along the main axis of the head. When it was at 90 degrees for a portrait format image it tended to slip out position very easily. So it was time for a rethink…..

Then  I discovered the Uniqball, as its name suggested another unique design this time with one ball inside another. The outer ball was first locked to fix the horizontal axis; the inner ball then behaving like a pan-and-tilt head for an exact composition. About a year ago I got hold of one of the very first UBH35P models in the UK, and I really, really wanted to like it. Over a period of a few weeks I got to know it reasonably well and concluded that it was a qualified success as a piece of equipment. It had two weaknesses, but I thought I would get to grips with them over a period of time (to read the full review click here). The problem was, I just couldn’t. While using the head in  “landscape” mode I found it incredibly frustrating to have to re-set the outer ball every time I moved the tripod. This was particularly annoying on uneven and/or sloping ground, and I found myself cursing over and over again in such situations. The photographer should never have this kind of relationship with their equipment so I retired it and dug out a rather cruddy old ball-and-socket head while I decided what to do next.

Poseur? Moi?

After many hours of browsing the internet I came across an American brand called Acratech. Their ball-and-socket heads are distinctive in several ways, including their very light weight, and their astronomical price in the UK, but what really grabbed my attention was the claim that they could also be used as a gimbal head. I’ve never used one myself but actual gimbals are very specialised and bulky heads used by bird photographers. With a well-balanced camera/lens combination, all the locks can be slackened off to allow movement in all directions using only fingertip pressure.  I was sceptical that a lightweight ball-and-socket head could also include this functionality.  I worried particularly that with a heavy camera/lens combo tipped over to one side,  the tripod would become unbalanced and tip over. Manufacturers continually claim that their new gadget will solve all your photographic problems, and it may solve some. But at the same time it may have disadvantages which only become apparent when you get one in the field……. however, I digress: my b&s head was getting stickier and stickier and I was cursing it more and more. Things were looking desperate. I saw one final positive Acratech review and my mind was made up. It was time to click “buy”.

Last weekend saw the first outing of the new head (model code GPss) when I headed off up to Anglesey to have a go at photographing red squirrels. This lovely mammal was close to extinction on Anglesey in the late 1990’s when the Red Squirrel Trust Wales was set up. Its aim was through education and conservation measures – including the release of captive bred animals – to re-create a thriving population of red squirrels on the island. Grey squirrels had already arrived by using the bridges across the Menai Strait (or by swimming) but it was thought to be relatively easy to keep Anglesey free of them. The project has been a real success and it is thought there is now a population of about 700 on the island. They are beginning to re-colonise the area around Bangor on the mainland from this stronghold, and extermination of greys there will help to encourage this process. I had been told that the Newborough Forest – where there are some feeders – was the place to see them, although I failed to do so on my first visit last November.  This time, however, I was more successful and I spent several happy hours in their company over a couple of days.

Another red squirrel……

What lovely creatures they are! On a cuteness scale of one to ten, they must be at least eleven! They proved pretty elusive during the day but around breakfast time and before dusk up to five visited the area around the feeders. They are also kept well-fed with treats there by nature lovers and wildlife photographers.  They are partial to all sorts of nuts and seeds and at quieter times of the day will sit calmly feeding (and looking really, really, cute) just a few yards away from people sitting at nearby picnic tables. When more nervous they might scamper up a nearby tree-trunk and then stop, posing for all their worth for the photographer. Problems included trying to keep up with their erratic movements within the trees and occasionally high levels of contrast when stray sunbeams found their way through the tree trunks into the feeding area. It was sometimes difficult to expose correctly when an individual moved from a dark background to a light one, or vice versa.

And how did the new tripod head cope? I have to say very well. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to use the head as a gimbal; there was no real threat that the tripod was about to overbalance although one would always need to keep an eye on this. And even with shutter speeds down to 1/125th second due to the low light levels within the woodland I managed a high percentage of sharp images. This suggests the tripod and head combo was keeping the lens pretty stable, even at 600mm.

There was a steady stream of other photographers and wildlife lovers visiting the site over the couple of days I was there, and I enjoyed some interesting conversations. On Sunday morning I shared a long session of red squirrel fun with Martin and Jayne from Rhos-on-Sea.  We were entranced by the animals’ antics and, as our shutters clicked away busily,  it felt quite special to share the experience with other like-minded people. But the thought remains that if it wasn’t for those dedicated people, often volunteers, who worked on this conservation project we would have had no red squirrels to photograph and enjoy. So my thanks go to all of them.

UPDATE: A fter using the Acratech GPss for a couple of months, I exchanged it for the larger model – the GP – which holds the ball more firmly, although not always firmly enough……. However, I am otherwise very pleased with it. Many thanks to the importer, Bob Rigby, for the exchange.

 

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