The Green Flash and another starling story.

Starlings at Aberystwyth yet again)
Starlings at Aberystwyth (yet again)

Several more visits to Aberystwyth seafront at sunset have elapsed since my last post. You can’t believe how frustrating it is to witness another damp squib, then go home, turn on the TV to watch Countryfile and see video of amazing displays from somewhere in the Midlands and then somewhere in Cumbria! Last Wednesday was a bit of an exception, in a way. I arrived in good time and got chatting with a photographer who had driven over from the West Midlands to see the famous Aberystwyth starling murmation.  He must have thought I was a gloomy old so-and-so when I told him it hardly ever happens!

Once any possibility of a display seems to have evaporated I swap lenses from the standard zoom to the long zoom. I set it up on the tripod and head down the wooden jetty as far as sea level will allow, and focus on the starlings as they perch on the metal framework under the pier. This area seems to serve as a ‘waiting room’,  as later – or perhaps younger / less dominant birds – await their turn to squeeze in under cover. There is constant movement as they re-arrange themselves.

On Wednesday, the sun was setting dramatically, the tide was high and there was quite a swell. The crests of big waves fizzed with orange light as they broke against the shore. I took a long series of images in really exciting conditions, although I knew I would be deleting most of them later! As it happens I did manage a few that I am pleased with such as the one above (click on it to enlarge it.)  In the nick of time I then remembered the Green Flash. The very last sliver of the sun’s disc can turn green as it disappears below the horizon, especially if the atmosphere is clear and crisp. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon; I’ve seen it a number of times while down at the starling roost,  but never managed to photograph it. I alerted my new pal from Brummidgem, who had joined me on the jetty, pointed the camera at the setting sun and quickly pressed the shutter.

Reviewing the images on the screen I could see I’d captured the Green Flash successfully behind the framework of the pier. Exposure is always a problem at sunset and I’m not sure why this image works when previous ones haven’t. It was very much a grab shot and a reflex reaction to the situation. But it so happened that the exposure was good (ie – it was underexposed) and the light levels elsewhere in the image were compatible with that of the sun’s disc; and of course, digital processing helps.

The Green Flash, Aberystwyth, 11/02/17.
The Green Flash, Aberystwyth, 08/02/17.

After sunset a gaggle of photographers tends to gather on the prom to have a moan (er….discuss the afternoon’s events…..). Our Brummie pal joined us as we muttered. He was elated! “That was amoizeen!”  he enthused; “absoluteloy moind-blaween!” He loved watching the starlings and had never seen the Green Flash before….never even heard of it, in fact.  It was lovely to encounter someone being SO excited about something which many of us locals now take for granted.

 

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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.

 

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In search of starlings at Glastonbury and Aberystwyth

Starlings, Avalon marshes, Somerset
Starlings, Avalon marshes, Somerset

Last weekend Jane and I headed off to Glastonbury for a few days. It’s an unreal place. If ever you needed to visit a personal transformation coach, an angelic reiki practitioner or a shamanic hairdresser, make for Glastonbury. It would be easy to sneer at the apparent pretentiousness of it all, but that would be unfair. While there may be some charlatans involved, I’m sure many of these people are quite genuine in their thinking; and I sometimes think how comfortable it must be to live according to a ready-made belief system. It was curious to note the vigorous campaign for the retention of the last remaining bank (Barclays, if I remember correctly….) in the town, though.

An extensive area of former peat workings near Glastonbury has been reclaimed to create a cluster of wetlands and reedbeds, now known as the Avalon Marshes. These are home to several rare bird species, notably bittern and great white egret. The latter was fairly prominent at the Ham Wall RSPB reserve, and I photographed one on a beautiful, still, winter’s morning with warm light and a hint of frost on the ground. The former lived up to its reputation for skulking. But arguably the biggest  draw on the Avalon Marshes in winter is its huge starling roost, which I spent three evenings trying to capture. For roosting, the birds have a very large area to choose from, and they can move from one site to another on a daily basis. Even the local birders and photographers admit to being unable to predict what they are likely to do next. On my first visit I found a likely looking foreground at sunset and hoped a flock would fill the sky with interesting shapes. Needless to say it didn’t work out how I had hoped, but there was the above; I’m not sure yet if the image works or not.

On the second night, from a different location,  I watched as huge flocks gathered over farmland and in trees to the east against a dull background; and later, with mounting disbelief, as a continuous stream of starlings moved from one section of reedbed to another. The process lasted some 15 – 20 minutes; there must have been millions of birds altogether. But it was a frustrating encounter;  they flew too low over the ground to photograph successfully. On the third night I sought out the trees where they had gathered the previous evening but again the results were disappointing.

Starlings at Aberystwyth
Starlings at Aberystwyth

Back in Aberystwyth,  decent sunsets have encouraged me to visit the starling roost three times this week. Tuesday was just the most gorgeous winter evening; cloud had largely cleared during the afternoon and there was no wind. The starlings must have felt it too. For a few brief moments a flock briefly indulged in one of their spectacular ribbon/bracelet formations before dropping in under the pier. At last! Something to write home about……

For the last couple of months my camera bag might have been a door stop for all the use it has had, so it was good to pick up the camera again….. even if I could barely remember what some of its buttons were for! But the experience did remind me how important it is to be familiar with the controls of your equipment. A few seconds delay and confusion can mean the difference between getting the shot and missing it. And which shutter speed would blur the movement of birds in flight most successfully? I just couldn’t remember. But there is one thing about trying to photograph wildlife – it teaches you patience.

 

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Starling monster over Aberystwyth. Or….The Gift (part two)

Starlings over Aberystwyth
Starlings over Aberystwyth

On bright winter evenings (see also this post, this post, and this post) I often go down to the sea-front at Aberystwyth with the aim of photographing the starlings which roost under the pier . It’s been almost three years since I’ve come back with any worthwhile results, though. For that long, as far as I know,  the starlings had done nothing remotely like the spectacular pre-roost displays which they are renowned for. At first there was a fairly acceptable theory circulating amongst the photographers and birders.  The birds would be too busy simply surviving during mid-winter to spend valuable time and energy tearing around over the town at dusk. The fact that their most spectacular displays in recent years had been during the longer days of early March tended to support this idea. It was thought that the displays might be part of a process culminating in their exodus later in the month towards their breeding grounds further north. The presence of a predator (like a peregrine) was believed to precipitate avoidance behaviour which looked sensational to us but was actually self-preservation for the starlings. But last winter – nothing. And until last Saturday – nothing this winter either. All very frustrating and it wasn’t just me that was disillusioned either.

It wasn’t the greatest of evenings last Saturday and I almost stayed at home. On arrival at the wooden jetty I found the usual gaggle of photographers and sightseers. I met a fellow photographer and began to gossip about this and that and bemoan the lack of starling activity. The birds seemed to be following their usual routine. The earliest arrivals flew around silently together for a while before diving down amongst the framework of the pier and starting to chatter. Subsequent arrivals presumably heard them chattering and followed them in in a fairly disorganised fashion. I was on the point of leaving when the birds deserted the roost and began circling around over the town. There followed a spectacular exhibition of flight lasting more than ten minutes, flocks rapidly splitting and re-grouping, forming three-dimensional ribbons, ovals and swirls which constantly morphed into each other. It was exhilarating to see it after so long; I expect the word “wow” might have been heard and a broad grin seen.

More starlings
More starlings

About eight minutes past five the display was over.  I shook hands with Si and we went our separate ways. I had loaded my gear back into the nearby van when I noticed that some of the birds had left the pier and were again swirling around. By this time it was far too dark to think about using the camera but I wandered back over to enjoy a short encore.  Back on the prom I met another friend who had watched the display from a distance. We agreed how lucky we were to live at Aberystwyth and be able to see such an awe-inspiring exhibition. “It’s a gift.” she said, “I don’t usually believe in that hippy bollox but this is an exception”.

Speaking as the photographer who is never quite satisfied, though, I’ll add that it was a shame they were displaying over the town rather than the pier itself. The birds’ backdrop was a darker section of the post-sunset sky than it would otherwise have been. This necessitated a step-by-step increase in the ISO rating and opening up of the aperture. 3200 ISO and f4 seemed a bit dodgy to me………. Back home, though, I found that the images are noisy at 100% but I have  some usable results even at those settings. In the days of film such images would have been virtually unobtainable.

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This is what we’re here for!

Starlings entering roost site, near Gretna Green.
Starlings entering roost site, near Gretna Green.

After a quiet Christmas at home, Jane and I started out on a journey that would eventually take us as far as Stranraer for a New Year reunion with some old friends. I had planned some bird-photography-related visits en route; it would be difficult to pass through Gretna Green in late afternoon – on a sunny day – without trying to locate probably the most well-known starling roost in the UK!

Research on the internet had told me that it was now no longer at Gretna itself but a couple of miles west near the village of Rigg. Some photographs had showed the site to be close to two parallel lines of electricity pylons so it wasn’t too difficult to find. One bird photographer was already in attendance and she said she believed she was in the best place to photograph the great gathering of birds. As sunset passed it became apparent that they were rather further away than she expected, and it was necessary to use my longest lens, the Tamron 150-600 zoom. By this time perhaps ten other photographers were present.

Birds certainly congregated and swirled around in very large numbers, but it was well past sunset before they began to form the amoeba-like formations which I had hoped for. I had increased my ISO to 3200 by this time, and shutter speeds were rather too long for comfort. At 4.25 p.m. there was a crescendo of shutter clicking as the starlings formed a funnel shape and tumbled down into a small forestry plantation. This was what we were all there for! Within 60 seconds the birds had gone and the whole event was over.

I decided that, as far as possible, I would use one of the electricity pylons to anchor the composition within the landscape. I felt that the large bird of prey (probably a buzzard) perched on top of it added an extra layer of interest to the image. As it turned out it was a good decision and it was not difficult to find the best couple of images from the sequence. Following some judicious cropping to create a square-format image, this is the one that immediately registered in my mind and stayed there. Fortunately the 1/320th second exposure was short enough to prevent bird movement being recorded on the sensor.

What…………me, guv? (Part 1)

Recently I’ve been struck by the selfish attitudes of some members of the public when it comes to the disturbance of wildlife. Birders and bird photographers are constantly reminded that the welfare of their subject matter always comes first, and, I think, in general, they take heed. But an idiot with a camera – that is a different matter altogether

One evening last week I was down at Aberystwyth, hoping to photograph the starling displays. It became more and more apparent that they were not going in to roost as normal. Or if they did, they didn’t stay very long. Large groups of birds were flying around offshore, very low over the water. I had noticed someone creeping along the beach and I wondered if s/he was still there. In the gloom I could see a dark figure under the pier, with camera to eye. I eventually realised that I was going to have to go down and ask him to leave.

It was not the young tearaway I was expecting, but a rather elderly man armed with what looked like a Pentax bridge camera. Not a specialist then. I told him that the first rule in bird photography was not to disturb one’s subject matter, and the second was that it was far too dark anyway!. His reply was classic – “But my camera can see in the dark.” No matter what argument I used, he was not going to budge. He just didn’t give a damn. I made my way back up to the Promenade. A small group of what I would describe as “heavy duty birders” had been watching, so I asked if they would like to assist me in removing the man from the premises. They declined..

Ironically, had the sun not already disappeared behind a bank of thick cloud, it would have been an excellent opportunity to photograph these very mobile flocks – from a respectable distance – against a fiery evening sky. Us regulars often bemoan the fact that once the birds have gone in under the pier, that’s it for the evening. We long for a peregrine to come along and create a little panic. But we would never be the cause of the disturbance ourselves.

Eventually, the little nuisance decided enough was enough, and climbed back up to the prom; the starlings began to return to their roost. I met him at the top of the steps, and began a short conversation, with the birds’ welfare at the heart of it. “But I’m not a bird-watcher, I’m a PHOTOGRAPHER…..” he told me, as if that justified his stance. Then….“I wasn’t photographing the birds, I was photographing the chaos.” Some interesting logic, I think you’ll agree, in the latter statement.

In recent years it has usually been at the beginning of March, just prior to leaving for their breeding grounds, when the starlings have put on their most stunning displays. This year? Virtually nothing – the birds tumbling like falling leaves, as one onlooker described it, down into the metal framework under the pier, almost as soon as they arrive.

Still, there’s always tonight. We live in hope.

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