Good Planning and Good Luck

Yesterday was my last visit to Dinefwr park before my Scotland trip. Dinefwr is the National Trust estate where I volunteer. It was cold in the wind but the sun was shining and I felt really good about my routine:

  • 9:30 get keys from Rhodri for the badger hide and the deer park gates
  • Down gilet on under new dull-green raincoat
  • Boots firmly laced, 80D camera with 400 lens slung at my right side, binoculars at the left.
  • Configure backpack into sling pack and load with thermos, sandwich, fruit, biscuits, general purpose lens, both the small tele-converter lenses, camera rain cover, phone, leggings
  • Set off at a brisk pace until I am in the deer-park, then walk everywhere slowly, stopping frequently and watching carefully
  • Enter badger hide drink coffee and eat biscuits
  • Stay for an hour recording what I see – not much today
  • Walk very slowly round the boundary checking for any weak spots
  • Stalk the deer and take pictures
  • Arrive at the kingfisher hide in time for lunch
  • Stay for an hour recording what I see – again, disappointingly little today.
  • Walk the rest of the boundary, congratulating myself on catching my best picture of a jay to date (see below this paragraph.)
  • Leave keys on Rhodri’s desk in the staff office and depart at 14:00
  • I was happy with the day so far, but wanted to make another visit to the quarry where ravens and peregrines are nesting. I arrived there at about 14:30, moved quickly to an area of dappled shade from where I can watch the quarry wall. Here I set up tripod and camera with 400 lens and x1.4 converter, giving me the equivalent of a 560mm lens on a full frame camera. The distance from here to the crag is approximately 100 metres. I could use a x2 converter but with a crop sensor camera it’s hard enough to find a target that far away, so I stick with x1.4. The ravens have already seen me and are flying around croaking. No sign of the peregrine yet.

Now the tricky bit – putting on the bag hide in double quick time,  hoping the ravens will decide I’m no longer a threat when I am disguised by fine camo netting. It’s open enough to be able to see through, and I’ve just got the camera ready and pointing in the right direction when I see movement on the crag wall. The raven has upset the peregrine which has come out of hiding to chase away his noisy neighbour. I miss focus at first but then lock on and get some great  pictures.

I now know where the peregrine eyrie is, and unusually for this species, the nest is lower than the surrounding grass which hides the sitting bird from view. Hugely encouraged, I wait, moving slowly from side to side to cover both the peregrine and the big old ravens’ nest to the right. My stance is awkward and I slowly move my feet to ease the muscles. After about 20 minutes I see both ravens, both croaking and clearly suspicious of this strange looking moving object. Neither goes near the nest, but one is back just below the peregrine, on a ledge which looks well used.

Then, to my amazement I see something I had so far missed: to the right of the mucky ledge is a big bunch of sticks between the little tree and the rock wall. I get both raven and nest in focus and see from the movement of her beak that she is calling, but I can’t hear her. Hardly surprising with my terrible hearing – but actually it is. The croak of a raven is loud and distinct: I usually hear them.

Then the penny drops: this is the new nest and she’s calling softly to her babies – hatched or still in the eggs – telling them to keep their heads down: there’s an unidentified threat. Anthropomorphic? Possibly, but ravens are one of the most intelligent of all birds. They can count and, astonishingly, can understand the concepts “me” and “you”.  It’s late in the year for ravens to have small chicks – they usually start nesting in February. My theory is that a first clutch in the old nest failed and they moved to an alternative site further away, but only a few metres below the peregrine. Two top predators in each other’s nesting space: no wonder the raven got dive bombed.

Getting the shot has a great deal to do with luck, but one of the first rules of nature photography is: you don’t get lucky if you are sitting at home. At this point I was ready to go but since only 5 minutes ago I had recorded the peregrine shuffling its eggs and settling down to brood, I did not want to disturb it again so soon, so I waited. After 50 minutes of discomfort mixed with joy, I was about to call it a day when suddenly the bag hide proved its worth. A jay flew in and landed in a bush no more than 10 metres away. Jays are cautious birds and difficult to get close to, but this one clearly did not see me as a threat and I was able to top my best jay picture with even better ones.

What a day!

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