A tale of three images.

Ramsey Island (on left) and the Bishops and Clerks, from Whitesands.
Ramsey Island (on left) and the Bishops and Clerks, from Whitesands.

It has been a while since I last posted but things have been moving apace. Most of February and March was spent getting postcards out into shops in various parts of Wales. It is always difficult to drag oneself out of the semi-hibernation of mid-winter and this year was particularly fraught because Easter was so early.

It has to be admitted that sales of postcards are steadily declining. This is partly because people are using phones and Facebook to contact their friends while they are away but also because the number of potential outlets is declining rapidly. The perils of running a bookshop in the Amazon era are well recognised, but independent retailers of all kinds have been closing and are not being replaced in similar numbers. What is particularly sad is the number of Tourist Information Centres that have closed, will soon close or are under threat of closure. It is happening all over Wales as a result of cuts to local authority funding. It may be our local councils (and National Park authorities) that are having to make the difficult decision to close them but the root cause is central Government.

A selling trip that would until recently have taken two and a half days now takes two or less. But that does mean I have a little more time available for photography on these trips and I was lucky with the weather on some of them. After one particularly busy day in Pembrokeshire I was able to nip down to Whitesands, arriving just after sunset. I started a short high-tide walk along the beach but quickly ran back for the camera. The conditions were just stunning! I only had a few minutes to run off a few exposures and I wasn’t entirely happy with the composition in any of them. But I’ll settle for the above…….

On a trip up to north Wales I spent one night at Pen-y-pass YHA. I normally avoid youth hostels these days but Pen-y-pass is so well situated for an early morning walk in the foothills of Snowdon that in winter I occasionally make an exception. Unfortunately my dorm also contained a snorer so I had a disturbed night’s sleep and was not able to get up at the crack of dawn as I had hoped. But a little later on this was the view of the Snowdon horseshoe from “The Horns”, situated between the PyG and Miners’ paths.

Snowdon summit and Y Lliwedd
Y Lliwedd, Yr Wyddfa and Crib Goch from “The Horns”

I was able to devote the whole of this superb day to photography so then headed off eastwards to photograph the packed masses of waders at their high-tide roost at the Point of Air, near Prestatyn. The only trouble was – there weren’t any. Just a handful of the commonest species. I then spent a couple of hours searching for, and failing to find, my current birding obsession – hawfinches. I won’t broadcast the location because villagers get pretty cheesed off with the behaviour of some birders, but there is a well-known site for this rare and elusive bird in the Conwy valley. So for the second time in one day I assumed I must be driving around in a van with a huge sign, facing upwards, on its roof saying “Bird photographer approaching destination – make a run for it”.

But I had more joy at my final location, the RSPB Conwy reserve at Llandudno Junction. There has been a starling roost there all winter and on my arrival I was pleased to discover they were still around. There was no wind and it looked like there would be a good sunset, so I found a location where I hoped the birds would be silhouetted against a stunning sky. There was even the possibility of a reflection for good measure!  Towards sunset small groups of starlings began to arrive, some time later than they do at Aberystwyth. And they just kept on coming!  Several sparrowhawks made appearances and made hunting dashes into the flock. The starlings created tightly-packed balls and ribbons of birds to try to evade them. It was fabulous to watch but set against part of the sky which was too dark to allow successfully photography.

It really was a very large flock by the time they eventually disappeared together into the reedbed. It was almost dark by that time and they had been displaying for some forty minutes since the first birds arrived.  It was interesting to compare this with their behaviour at  Aberystwyth, where they were going to roost some forty-five minutes earlier. I managed this image as the flock swirled over one the reserve’s shallow lagoons.

Starlings in pre-roost display, RSPB Conwy reserve.
Starlings in pre-roost display, RSPB Conwy reserve.

I don’t know if it be useable anywhere else but on the web.  It was taken at 6.31 pm on March 10th, using pretty extreme settings for this type of subject – 4000 ASA, 1/160th second and f4.

Finally, just before Easter, I installed part of my Bird/land exhibition in the Visitor Centre at RSPB Ynyshir. It will be showing there until May 30th; but for the full Bird/land experience wait until June 25th, when an updated and expanded version will be opening in the Photography Gallery at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Watch this space for more information.

 

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

Digging in to the memory banks (part two)

Peregrine eyass, Cumbria, summer 1982
Peregrine eyass, Cumbria, summer 1982

Following on from my season on Mull (see previous post), I spent spring and summer of 1982 in Cumbria. I was a kind of roving species protection warden-come-survey worker, undertaking various raptor-related tasks. Although most birds of prey do very little most of the time – even during the breeding season – taking part in a 24-hour watch at a nest site is still a rewarding activity.  There is always the chance of seeing some previously unknown behaviour. At one cliff I noted a male peregrine at the eyrie being harassed repeatedly by a jay. The peregrine took no notice. At another I saw the well-grown eyass (peregrine youngster) being physically knocked off its nesting ledge by one of its parents. Adults do tempt fully-grown eyasses off the nest by carrying food in front of them, but this seemed a little bit extreme! Obviously not ready to fly, the juvenile tumbled down the cliff-face, then the scree slope beneath it and disappeared. A search party consisting of myself and some local ornithologists eventually found it, apparently quite well, deep in some bracken below the cliff (see pic above). Even at the tender age of six weeks, a peregrine is such a beautiful creature. There’s just something about those eyes……..

During 1983 – 84 I had what could be described as a “proper job”, working as, in effect, the first coastal footpath officer for Ceredigion. But I then began another long break from real work by spending late April – early August in the arctic on the Greenland White-fronted Goose Study 1984 expedition. The membership otherwise consisted mainly of ambitious young biology, zoology or environmental science graduates.  Although I had been through university and come out at the other end with a BSc, I had also gained a healthy ( I believe) scepticism about the scientific method.  I was also far more interested in the gyr and peregrine falcons found in the GWGS study area, which didn’t go down too well either! So I can’t claim to have been the most popular member of the expedition. But I actually managed to get a paper published in an American Raptor Research journal on my return to civilisation.

The homesickness I felt during every one of my summers with the RSPB was even more acute on the expedition.  The lyrics of the Robert Wyatt song “Moon in June” reverberated though my head over and over again during the dry Greenlandic summer.

“Ah but I miss the rain,

ticky, tacky, ticky,

and I wish that I were home again,

back home again, home again,

back home again…….”

Probably every expedition needs a scapegoat and I guess I was it. Helicopters frequently trundled over the study area and there were times when I longed for one to just pick me up and take me away.

Great northern diver, west Greenland, summer 1984.
Great northern diver, west Greenland, summer 1984.

However I had borrowed a long telephoto lens from my father and for the first time did some serious-ish bird photography. Much to the disgust of the expedition leader I set up a portable hide by the side of a lake where a pair of great northern divers was holding territory. I spent one full night in the hide, drifting into and out of dreamland as the eerie and evocative wailing calls of the divers echoed around me. It really was most surreal. The photographs I took there were technically very poor, unfortunately, but I can see quite clearly that what I was aiming for then was exactly what, thirty years later, I would be producing for  Bird/land. Birds in the landscape.

The same could be said for many of the other bird images I managed in Greenland and elsewhere during these early years. I have cropped a great northern diver image to panoramic format to illustrate this.

On return from Greenland I continued in the routine of field work during the summer, travelling and “resting” during the winter. I worked in central Scotland and north Wales during the following two summers. But it became more and more apparent that I was never going to get a “real job” in the world of conservation. I badly needed a means of earning a living that would sustain me for a period of years. Not shy of a challenge, I decided to become a photographer…….

The Halstatt lecture is at 1 p.m. on August 26th at MOMA Wales, Machynlleth, Powys. Tickets are £6.00 each. Call 01654 703355 for more details.

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