You wait for years for an eagle re-introduction project to arrive….

Golden eaglet, Isle of Mull, 1981.

……. and then two come along at the same time!

A good friend and I have often discussed how good it would be to see golden eagles back in Wales. We have often thought that the area above Nant-y-moch reservoir, in the shadow of Pumlumon, would be one of the best sites in Wales for them. It is remote, quite mountainous and very little visited. One imagines there would be a fair few dead sheep to feed on too. In contrast, the number of walkers and climbers around the great crags and summits of north Wales and the Brecon Beacons are such that golden eagles would probably be unable to tolerate the disturbance. But when other conditions are favourable their nests can sometimes be at “walk-in” locations, as I discovered while doing a golden eagle survey on the Isle of Mull many years ago.  So quieter parts of Snowdonia, like the Arenig/Migneint and the Rhinogydd, might be suitable, despite a shortage of cliff or tree nesting sites.

A few months ago I became aware of the Eagle Re-introduction Wales project (ERW). It is based at Cardiff University, and has the backing of the Welsh Wildlife Trusts. It is currently undertaking some pre-feasibility studies to examine whether there would be a niche in Wales for either or both of the UK’s eagle species.  For most of its short life, the ERW project has been carrying out its activities very much ‘under the radar’. It expects that re-introducing eagles into Wales will be controversial and is building the case for it in a methodical and deliberate fashion. That all changed recently when a completely separate golden eagle re-introduction project made its TV debut on Countryfile Winter Diaries.

Presenting the proposal was Dr. Paul O’Donoghue, project leader for “Wilder Britain”. They plan to submit their application for a release licence to Natural Resources Wales in July. Dr O’Donoghue is quoted on the North Wales Live website (18th February) as saying –

If successful, project organisers hope to re-introduce 10 young Golden Eagles as soon as this autumn, though next year is more likely.”

The release will form the model for further releases elsewhere in Wales.  He is obviously very positive about their chances of success. The trouble is, any re-introduction project like this has to satisfy something like fifty-three guidelines set out by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). They just don’t happen overnight.

‘Wilder Britain’ is a Community Interest Company, based in St Asaph, with just one director – Dr. Paul O’Donoghue. It was set up on 25th August 2018, and until January 25th this year was known as  “Rewilding UK”.

As a result of some of his other recent initiatives, Paul O’Donoghue has become quite a controversial character. He is also ‘Chief Scientific Advisor’ to Wildcat Haven (directors Emily O’Donoghue and Douglas Wilson).  This is a fairly well-established project doing good work on wildcat conservation in Scotland; for example catching, neutering and re-releasing feral cats and wildcat/feral cat crosses so that they become unable to reproduce. It is also proposing to re-introduce wildcats from elsewhere in Europe into the Scottish Borders this year2019 . On the other side of the coin Wildcat Haven has also entered into an unpleasant war of words with the “official” wildcat conservation body Scottish Wildcat Action. Wildcat Haven has also sued for defamation a very well-respected Green Party Member of the Scottish Parliament. It is believed that the astonishing sum of £750,000 (+ interest) is involved. The court case is due to be heard later this year.

Then there’s the Lynx UK Trust. Its registered address is also in St. Asaph, and its directors are Paul O’Donoghue and Emily O’Donoghue. The Lynx UK Trust submitted an application to release wild lynx into the Kielder Forest (on the England / Scotland border) early in 2018, and it was turned down in December. The refusal was just about as damning as it could possibly have been. Natural England was concerned, among other things, about the project’s lack of financial security, its reliance on volunteers, its lack of liaison with land- owners and managers, the lack of an environmental impact assessment, and insufficient information on the methodology for “acquisition, release and monitoring of lynx”. They had failed to satisfy some of the most important IUCN guidelines. Despite this refusal the Lynx UK Trust now proposes to re-introduce Lynx at three locations in Scotland ………

It appears that ERW got wind of the Wilder Britain announcement and decided to take pre-emptive action. A press release from project leader Sophie Lee-Williams also dated February 18th appears on the BBC News website. In it she says –

“Wales is home to large expanses of potentially suitable eagle habitat but there are many questions we need to answer about the quality of habitat, and whether it can sustain eagles. The project is in the very early stages of development, and a reintroduction is not likely to happen for some time.”

The two projects couldn’t be more different in their approaches.

So what chance does Wilder Britain stand of getting a release permit this year for golden eagles in Snowdonia? My feeling is very little. So little ecological groundwork has been done. Also on their agenda for Wales is the re-introduction of mountain hares – a worthwhile project in itself but which could take years to undertake.   One of its aims is to provide prey for introduced eagles.  So why not work on this first? Perhaps the mountain hare isn’t sexy enough? While he may be very good at making headlines, in the cold light of day Paul O’Donoghue’s proposals seem to me to amount to little more than an elaborate wishlist. And with the track record he has quickly built up how can the authorities take him seriously?

I would also suggest that his sudden arrival is bad news for rewilding in Wales in general and for the ERW project in particular. It must be hoped that Dr O’Donoghue will soon return from whence he came.

Many thanks to Jonathan Stacey for advice and inspiration.

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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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Repeat until it gets dark……

Porth Ysgo (recent)

In summer 2011 I discovered Porth Ysgo, a tiny cove near Aberdaron at the tip of the Lleyn peninsula. I was working on Wales at Waters Edge, my book about the Welsh coastline. It took me a while but eventually I noticed that the beach was littered with extraordinary rocks. It wasn’t so much their shape – although there were some interesting ones – but their colour; when wet they were pitch black. I used a heavy ND filter to slow down the wave motion and create a frothy foam which contrasted strongly with the solidity of the rocks. One picture appeared in the book and I vowed that one day I would go back.

Porth Ysgo (from Wales at Waters Edge)

Well it took more than six years but I finally made a return visit last week. I met up with my old friend Brian Boothby, a very fine musician and photographer, and it was with a growing sense of excitement that I descended the steep steps down to the beach. Conditions were just about right – a receding tide with a fresh onshore wind.  On this occasion I didn’t mind the cloud cover. I put the camera on the tripod immediately, fitted the ND filter and started shooting long exposures. I very rarely use it otherwise but live-view is brilliant in this situation. It gives an “actual exposure” simulation while the image in the viewfinder is virtually invisible thanks to the heavy filtration.  It all went well for a while until I noticed that I was getting some massively under-exposed images. I checked all the settings but still no joy. Then I realised what the problem was. Having set a two-second self timer to prevent camera shake, I then took my eye away from the viewfinder. Light entering the viewfinder during an exposure of several seconds was affecting the automatic meter reading by about two stops. In other words, it was cutting the exposure to something like a quarter of the correct one. It seems odd that this should be possible. Can someone explain it?

So the solution was simple. Once you have found your location and accepted that it is usually pot luck with long exposures, this type of image is actually quite easy to create:

Use live-view to compose the image.  Set the self-timer. Wait until a likely looking wave begins to enter the frame. Place the thumb over the viewfinder. Press the shutter. Repeat until it gets dark.

In fact, Brian had been exploring and found another tiny cove nearby with more extraordinary black rocks.  This time they were larger, more sculptural, and placed randomly on the shore, almost like surreal chess pieces. There were also some massive square-ish blocks, each the size of a small car, piled on top of each other well above the waterline. But salt spray was filling the air.  I managed a few more long exposures, then began to enjoy the sheer exhilaration of the conditions as darkness began to fall. Who needs photography on an evening like this?

Edit: but it’s always nice to come back with a trophy or two………

 

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Tea and brasso.

Early morning at Boston Lodge.

I first picked up a camera as a schoolboy. My father gave me his old rangefinder after he bought himself his first Praktica.  He had introduced me to trainspotting a few years earlier and 1968 saw the dying days of steam power on main-line railways in Britain. I spent as much time as I could that summer travelling around northern England to see and photograph the last steam engines still in operation.  On the last day of steam – 15th August if I remember correctly – I officially gave up trainspotting and put my Locoshed book away for the last time. With the photographic vision and skills I now have how I wish that I could travel back in time to those days when grimy and unloved steam engines could still be found.

I have since then retained a broad interest in railways, and Wales has an abundance of preserved narrow-gauge lines. In fact, Porthmadog is the hub of quite a narrow-guage steam network with the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland lines terminating there. Last week I decided I was man enough to do some railway photography again: man enough because I needed to overcome my concerns about being seen as a train nerd. So one evening recently I wandered in to the Boston Lodge works/engine shed of the Ffestiniog Railway as one of the last engines of the day was being “put to bed”.  I gingerly approached the railwaymen to enquire about getting access the following morning, and was told that I would need to speak to the Works Supervisor who would be on duty from 7 a.m. I was there at half-past seven, only to find no-one in the office but railwaymen (and women) preparing several engines for the day’s duties. I couldn’t help noticing several people polishing the engines furiously – something that you would never have seen on British Rail in the 1960’s.

Once I did find someone to report in to I was surprised at how relaxed the regime was for visitors – “Oh just sign in, and mind where you’re putting your feet” I was told. Very refreshingly there was no  “elf’n safety” paranoia here. I cautiously began exploring the sheds and sidings. If you’re interested in steam engines you will know this already but the first job in the morning is to light the fire. Once this is done the engine is driven gently out into the open for the fire to take hold and steam pressure to build up, and for more polishing to be done. Everyone had a tin of Brasso to hand, and there was a cupboard full of the stuff inside the shed. Mugs of tea were also well in evidence. In the midst of a downpour, a swallow chased a butterfly in the grime and smoke of the engine shed.

I was casually looking into the cab of one of the engines when the fireman leapt in through the opposite door. Although dressed in grimy dark blue overalls, like most of the men, this was clearly a woman. I asked what the attraction was for her in firing a steam engine – “it’s just something completely different to what I normally do” she said. And what was that? “Oh, I’m a teaching assistant in a school for autistic children”.  She paused for a few seconds. ” Although, come to think of it, compared to some of the volunteers we get here, there isn’t actually that much difference.” Train nerds, you see. I saw her later, at lunchtime, having worked all morning, on her second round trip of the day. Her teeth gleamed white from a face caked in sweat and coal dust. “One of the best fireman on the railway”, said the driver.

Here’s one I prepared earlier – Taking on water at Tan-y-bwlch station

The main attraction at Boston Lodge was, of course, the presence of the engines. The railway staff must have been accustomed to railway photographers, though, because they seemed quite unselfconscious subjects themselves.  It probably helped to have a chat: one driver – in real life an English teacher at a school in Switzerland – was back at the Ffestiniog for his thirty-second year, while another man told me proudly that it was his fourty-ninth year as a fireman. One pointed out an osprey hovering over the Glaslyn river as it hunted for fish to take back to its family a few miles away. I found I was often able to include them and in fact, some human interest really seemed to lift the images. The results were far from traditional “steam engine at 45 degrees”and one could say were more social documentary in nature. I have a feeling there is more to be done on the Ffestiniog.

 

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A silver-studded Saturday

Male silver-studded blues, the Great Orme

I didn’t mention it in my last post but the van broke down on the way back from Pembrokeshire. It had been feeling and sounding particularly rough the whole journey and a few miles south of Aberystwyth it started to become difficult to engage gears. I nursed it back up the long hill to our house in second, and rolled it down to the garage the following day. It is still there, 12 days later; virtually untouched. The garage proprietor still doesn’t know if it is the clutch that has gone or the gearbox; so it’s either going to an expensive repair or a horribly expensive one.

He loaned me his “courtesy car” over the weekend – an X-reg Proton. Quite a comedown, as you can imagine, and you definitely can’t cook or sleep in it. Nevertheless it got me up to Llandudno and back at the weekend, where I was planning to visit the Great Orme. This is a massive limestone headland overlooking Llandudno with long stretches of white or pale grey cliffs facing in all directions. Its grassland is home to many interesting and rare plants and animals, including the silver-studded blue butterfly, which is uncommon nationally but appears in huge numbers on the Orme. The last week in June is supposed to be the time to see them. They were certainly widespread and numerous but not occurring in quite the clouds I had been hoping for /expecting.

It’s a long time since I have done any insect photography and I don’t have any specialist equipment for it. I was relying on my 70 – 200 f4 zoom which has a closest focus of four feet. The silver-studded blue is a tiny butterfly, well under an inch across, so even at maximum magnification an individual was very small in the viewfinder. But on the plus side the lens is very good optically and I knew I would be able to crop down into the image significantly. The butterfly is very skittish when the sun is shining so getting much closer than four feet might have been tricky anyway. So as far is gear was concerned it was a case of swings and roundabouts.

Male (left) and female silver-studded blues

What about the butterfly, though? The Orme silver-studded is a distinct subspecies, (“plebejus argus caernensis”) appearing about a month earlier than those elsewhere in the UK. The males and females are completely different in appearance; the males blue, the females largely brown – but far from dull as the smaller picture shows. In bright sunshine they seem to indulge in a great deal of apparently random flight – a far cry from the graceful and purposeful behaviour of our larger and more familiar species. It can only be down to one thing – sex. The males are desperate to find females, and copulating couples seem to be everywhere. But in more subdued light they tend to stay put, exposing their uppersides to whatever light is available. And during heavy cloud cover they just seem to shrink away into the vegetation and disappear. It is said that they rarely move more than 20 metres away from their place of birth at any time during their lifetimes.

The adult butterflies don’t seem to pose prettily on flowerheads to any great extent; anywhere will do. So the photographer needs patience to obtain that perfect composition. I struggled at first, I must admit. But as thin cloud covered the sun and they became less active, I came across a little congregation of five males on bramble flowers. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for. Even here I managed to take some rubbish. Depth of field was very limited  and it was easy to focus on a butterfly’s body and find the edge of its wing was out of focus. Backgrounds were often untidy. I really, really wanted to do some wide-aperture, out-of-focus-background type images but it was a lost cause. I needed as much D-o-F as possible to get even this tiny butterfly in focus.

The butterfly’s life-cycle is extraordinary: from the moment the eggs hatch until the adults are ready to fly the caterpillars are tended by black ants. The ants carry the caterpillars into their nests and protect and look after them.  Even when the caterpillars emerge to feed the ants accompany them. In return the ants feed on a sugary solution excreted by the caterpillars. The more I learn about nature the more complex and intertwined it all becomes. A web of life, indeed.

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Swings and roundabouts

Fish farm, Penmon: Purchased by National Library of Wales

Over a period of many years the National Library of Wales bought complete sets of prints from each of my books as it was published, or as they were exhibited. They currently have a total of 371 Cibachromes purchased in this way. This came to a sudden end about ten years ago when they took on a new member of staff whose task it was to raise income from items in its Collection. I’m not sure what her background was but this bright spark decided it would be a good idea to sell copies of photographs bought from photographers or donated by them. She obviously had no idea about copyright. I was asked to sign a statement approving this and I refused. I found it astonishing that an institution whose readers had to sign a “personal use only” statement every time they photocopied a page of one of its books should believe it could appropriate photographers work in this way.  It may have been a coincidence but no more of my work was purchased for the following decade. It was just one of the ways in which my income declined over that time.

I’m glad to say the situation seems to have changed. That particular member of staff has apparently retired and I’m now in the process of selling a set of prints from “Wales at Waters Edge” to the Library. Not the whole lot (there are over a hundred) but a selection of twenty made by their Curator of Photography Will Troughton. He has described me as “Wales’ leading environmental photographer” and goes on to say that “his meticulous work has received extensive praise from many quarters”. For months on end it feels as if one is working in a vacuum, so this came as a very pleasant surprise. Environmental photography might sound a bit of a niche but it does suit my work quite well. I’ll quite happily use a building – a castle, lighthouse or cottage – as an aid to composition in my more commercial landscapes (the postcards, for example). But in my personal work I’m usually careful to use human elements within the landscape only when I’m tring to say something about that landscape.  I’m not always sure what exactly I’m trying to say but photographs do not always provide answers; sometimes they can pose questions. In my case the question is often “What exactly is our place within the landscape?” That is also why I have always been so keen on Fay Godwin’s work. It was very pleasing to see from his choice of prints that Will understands what I am trying to do.

Life is full of ups and downs and I have also suffered a major setback recently – although hopefully only a temporary one. Most of my books have been published by Gomer Press, arguably Wales’ premier publisher. However they are clearly now downgrading their publications department and in an attempt at “restructuring” are replacing the number of posts by 50%. All eight current members of staff were asked to re-apply for the four posts now envisaged. All refused and took redundancy payments. Gomer currently thus has no publications department, and any books “in development” but not contracted have been shelved.  However I am still hoping that either Gomer Press or another publisher will take my new book up before too long. Both Jon Gower (the author) and I are well-known and respected in Wales in our respective fields so they should be leaping at the chance!

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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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Twice bittern.

Kingfisher in the rain, Teifi Marshes
Kingfisher in the rain, Teifi Marshes

A few days before Christmas I headed down to the Teifi Marshes near Cardigan with high hopes of seeing a bittern. It is a regular winter haunt for this extraordinary but elusive species and I had photographed one there in January 2015 (see this post). Furthermore there had recently been reports in the local bird blog of one by the Kingfisher Pool. It all seemed very promising. But after six hours in a very cold hide without a single sighting I felt somewhat deflated……and I’m sure the bad cold I suffered over Christmas was not a coincidence.

But they do say that every cloud has a silver lining, though, and in this case it was the kingfisher which made a circular tour of its perches around the pool at lunch time. Various sticks and branches have been provided here for kingfishers by the Wildlife Trust, but they result in rather conventional “bird on a stick” type images. I think the perch shown above shows the bird in a more natural setting and the falling rain gives the photograph a rather painterly feel.

Bittern at Teifi Marshees, Cardigan
Bittern at Teifi Marshes, Cardigan

The bittern was reported (and photographed) again on Tuesday so it seemed like another attempt might produce results. Another photographer was already in the hide when I arrived about 9.30 a.m. yesterday and we were soon joined by several others. One told us that the bird had spent two full days wedged between branches in a nearby willow. Local birders and conservationists became concerned for its welfare so reserve staff had climbed up towards it and poked it with a stick, whereupon it flew back down to the reeds!

The bittern was first seen not long afterwards. It was crouched low to the ground, fluffed up like a big round feather duster, and appeared quite immobile. It did not look like a healthy or a happy creature. But after a while it began to walk slowly towards the hide, its weight breaking the ice at one point. It came closer and closer and motor drives began to rattle away in earnest. Over the next hour it was hardly hidden at all. It walked slowly, and then more quickly, around, pausing to take the sun from time to time. The light was lovely, either bright sunshine or light cloud. Either was excellent for this large, cryptically patterned bird. It can’t eventually have been further than 20 yards from the hide. Then there was a crouch, a pause, another crouch, and it launched itself into the air, flying away quite powerfully low above the reeds and blackthorn crub.

Bittern in flight
Bittern in flight

It had been a truly exhilarating hour for everyone in the hide. One always opens oneself to disappointment by a making a tightly focussed photography expedition like this. Without the bittern it would have been a rather dismal morning – dismal and cold. So we were all happy, although we all knew we would have many hours of file processing to look forward to. Let’s just hope that the bird itself stays well and finds enough food to get through the winter.

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A visit to woodpecker HQ.

Green woodpeckers at the nest, near Abergavenny.
Green woodpeckers at the nest, near Abergavenny.

Beech woodland is normally associated with the south-east of England; Burnham Beeches and Epping Forest are fine and well-known examples. But here in Wales native beech woodland extends into the south-east corner of the country, around Abergavenny, for example. It can be found as far west as Castell Coch, just to the north of Cardiff. It is what the writer and naturalist William Condry called “the district’s most distinguished calcicole” referring to its association with a narrow band of limestone rock which runs along the northern rim of the south Wales coalfield.

It is for oak woodland that most of Wales is renowned but in a forthcoming book I want to open people’s eyes to the presence and stunning beauty of beech woodland. This spring I visited Cwm Clydach, where the Heads of the Valleys main road squeezes through a narrow defile alongside the river between steep valley sides. I had first photographed here in the mid-1990’s and an  image of the polluted watercourse complete with dumped debris was used in my first book “Wales  – The Lie of The Land” (published in 1996). The gorge’s steep and rugged southern flank is clothed with native beech, but it is a far cry from the expansive woodland of southeast England. Here it is largely inaccessible but a public right of way descends to the valley bottom from the A465 and then climbs steeply through the trees to reach scattered houses, narrow lanes and an abandoned railway track.

Walking back to my van on this year’s first visit I heard the familiar laughing call of a green woodpecker, which I tracked down to the branches of an venerable but dead beech tree right by the side of the road. What’s more the tree’s branches were riddled with woodpecker holes large and small. One bird visited one particular hole which I took to be a potential nest-site. This looked like a photo-opportunity!

Anyone at home?
Anyone at home?

I spent many hours on three visits sitting in my van watching the woodpeckers going to and from the hole. The off-duty bird would call from a distance and its mate would appear in the entrance to the hole. They would then swap over. I was surprised at how late their breeding season was – there was no sign of food being brought to the nest even as late as June 11th. On one occasion a great spotted woodpecker peered in, and I believe I may have seen a lesser spotted on the same tree as well.  This really was Woodpecker HQ! Green woodpeckers seem to be quite wary birds at the nest and they are apparently very difficult to photograph there. So I was really thrilled when I managed to get what seems to me the perfect image of a pair at the nest.

 

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