Light, Colour, Detail

What we see in the natural world is constantly changing; colours, shapes, light intensity, light direction and the mood of the sky all offer a huge variety of backdrop for whatever is the subject of the picture. I’ve recently become fascinated by the difficult technique of focussing on a subject part hidden by foliage. In the early morning on the day after my trip round Skomer Island I carried the big lens and monopod up to the headland at Martins Haven. It was calm and sunny; the cliffs on the South side a lovely pale grey-green with lichen. I settled in to do some sea watching. Opposite, on Skomer, was a big colony of Kittiwakes and 2.5 miles away to the South, I could easily spot the house on Skokholm where I had stayed in 2016 and again in 2018 -it’s the tall one on the left. The booking for 2022 opens for Wildlife Trusts members in September. I’ll be there! As I sat watching the sea I noticed that the tide race was particularly strong, and thought how strange and how restful it was to watch the sea flowing like a river.I am still exploring the capabilities of f my big Sony 400mm f2.8 lens.  It can focus down to 2.7 metres which, combined with a wide aperture produced some interesting effects at the cliff edge. It also has what photographers call amazing “bokeh”. This is the blurring of the background which throws the subject into sharp contrast.

Another interesting use of light is to have your  subject backlit. It’s very easy to “blow out” highlights using this technique, so careful metering is required. This Meadow Pipit on Sea Buckthorne illustrates this.

 This male Stonechat is almost too sharp a contrast to the gorse behind him.

Later I lugged the big lens and tripod down a track to a small wetland area called Marloes Mere. The bushes and scrub were full of vividly marked little birds and I spent a happy half-hour taking pictures. They were Sedge Warblers, (top picture)  a species I was familiar with, but I had never seen the males in full breeding plumage. They have a delightful noisy song and a characteristic short parachuting display flight.

I ended up that night at Ginst Point near Laugharne. This is military land and normally only open at week-ends. Despite being a favourite dog walking place, I was delighted to find lots of Skylarks here, and quite close.

I had some more composition exercises with, first another gorgeous Wheatear,  then a pair of Linnets and then a male Lesser Whitethroat. In the fourth picture I have removed some of the distracting twigs in my editing software “Capture One” .  I’m not sure it does much to improve the composition though. The surprise of the day was finding this solitary Dunlin in full breeding plumage. I’ve never seen a Dunlin on its own before and wonder what had induced it to shelter where I saw its footprints, under a ledge of mud at low tide.

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When Kissing is in Fashion

Around the edges of South Wales as you walk the coast path, all around you are vivid patches of deep yellow. It’s true that Gorse, like kissing, is in flower and in fashion all through the year, but this is the peak. Dense, prickly, evergreen “Eithin” is an important native plant for birds and an early source of nectar for insects. It was, in less mechanised times, a valued source of dyes, kindling and fodder, and it thrives in the heathland areas that still resist the sterility of modern agriculture in West Pembrokeshire. In May it acts as a backdrop for a host of flowers, but the most striking are the two Campions, pink and white, and the bluebells.

The first trips to Skomer Island for more than a year opened for booking a fortnight ago, and I got one of the early ones, so I took the camper back to West Hook Farm at Martin’s Haven near Haverfordwest for a three night stay.

Skomer in the spring is Puffin land, and I knew I would have to do my stint at The Wick where they are so used to visitors you can almost pick them up. However, in one of those absurdities which the Corona virus regulations throw up, this windy, open island had a one way system in operation, so we had to leave the Puffins until last, and follow the paths to the North. A familiar site to regular visitors is the little colony of Razorbills right by the harbour.

Although the headland at Martin’s Haven has the same geology as Skomer, the deep tide race between them keeps rats, cats and myxomatosis away so the whole feel of the place is different. There are plenty of gulls on the mainland, hut here they are everywhere, fed by the abundance of young rabbits and the carcases of the rabbits and shearwaters. Most of the ground on Skomer is riddled with burrows, many of them, right now beneath my feet, housing Manx Shearwater nests, but many too providing homes for the thousands of rabbits on the island, and the hundreds of Wheatears who have recently arrived to breed.

I spotted two Oystercatchers nesting in the middle distance.

Moving slowly round in the bright sun and cold wind, I arrived at the Bull Hole where there is a big colony of nesting Razorbills and Guillemots, and settled in to eat my lunch and watch.

The birds flew in and the birds flew out; no peregrine to stir them up, not even a Kestrel, so after half an hour I walked on to Puffin Central. In truth it was disappointing – much less activity than on previous visits, but I’d never been as early in the season before.  Numbers are apparently up this year so I assume they are mostly sitting on eggs.

The walk down to the boat offered wonderful views of them swimming, flying and of their characteristic way of landing on water – a headfirst plunge!

On the boat back, a Herring Gull took up station just above our heads, hanging as if on a string with almost no movement. How strange its feet look close up! It was waiting for something, and soon one of the crew offered it a piece of bread which it took from his hand and flew off.

Later in the evening I took my wide angle lens to catch the sun going down along the coast path.

 

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Sandpipers and Redpolls

Two birds, neither uncommon, but both special to me, and their appearance has got me thinking again about what we find so fascinating about this class of animal. What is it about these creatures that we get so fixated on? We, the converted, don’t need a reason, but it’s no bad thing to look a little deeper, so here goes.

 

Top of the list is this: they are beautiful! Yes, even the archetypal LBJ (little brown job) the House Sparrow has feathers, and feathers have iridescence, a very special way of reflecting light which gives their possessors such beauty. Many cultures have adorned themselves with feathers, and the RSPB was founded as a protest against the killing of rare birds to adorn ladies hats.

 

It may seem obvious, but unlike most of the natural world which lives hidden away or is nocturnal in habit, they are supremely visible. Almost all birds are diurnal though a few such as owls, are crepuscular, but I can’t think of any which don’t, like us, rely on sight.

 

More scientifically they are “indicator species”. When birds become plentiful or disappear you can be sure that there have been some profound changes to the living systems which support them. It is because we can see and record the 57% decline in farmland birds since the 1970s, that we can map the damage modern agricultural systems are doing to the whole ecosystem of farmland. Increases in, for example, carrion eaters such as Ravens and Crows in the uplands show that there are more animals which die or give birth in these areas.

 

Returning to the finch and the wader. Neither was expected, though both greatly hoped for.

There are, according to the RSPB “15,000 breeding pairs of Common Sandpiper in the UK, though the breeding population has fallen in recent years. Around 70 birds winter in Britain and Ireland. They once bred commonly in lowland Britain and Ireland, but gradually have retreated into upland areas and is still declining, perhaps owing to the acidification of streams and rivers, which reduces the food available.”

I have occasionally seen them in the part of the Towy where I have my hide set up, but there has been very little life of any non-plant kind visible there lately and I did not have much expectations when I clambered into the hide yesterday. Watching in places like this where wildlife of any kind is scarce bears obvious comparison with the distribution of busses at bus stops, though not many bus stops are as attractive as this one.

I’d have been happy with one, but there were more! As you can see in this video, one bird appears to be trying out different nest sites. She (or he) flew off with her mate, but they both returned. My fingers are so tightly crossed they are turning blue, but I fully expect to return next week and see no sign of them.

 

As for the Lesser Redpoll, seen here with a Siskin, this is from the RSPB:

“Population

There are 220,000 pairs in Britain and 20,000 100,000 in Ireland. Has recently suffered a rapid 80% decline.

 

Conservation

Once common in northern and western Britain, it declined from about 1930, but from 1950 it started to increase again, probably helped by the increase in young forestry plantations. Since the early 1970s there has been a rapid decline. The reasons are not clear, although it is subject to natural fluctuation, linked to food availability.”

 

They appeared at our feeders once before, but a few years ago. My recent discovery of feeders specifically for Niger Seeds has brought lots of Goldfinches and Siskins, but I didn’t expect to see Redpolls in the breeding season. Fist in the air moment!

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The Town on The Beach

Trefdraeth has become Newport in English. Both names seem odd for the present day settlement. The beach is only a stone’s throw away from the coast path, but to get to it you have to take a long detour outside the town or wade through the river at low tide. We can assume that the river once took a different course which enabled ships to berth at what is now the car park at the Parrog, and left a beach on the town side of the river.

Whatever you call it, the town is one of my favourite places, and I have visited many times. I was last here last November when I now see I made a similar comment about the town. Hm! http://phototwynog.co.uk/winter-light-in-west-wales The Memorial Hall was a favourite venue when I was involved in the music business. There are some great pubs and restaurants in the town, and for the Nature lover it has everything – an estuary, a rugged coastline, wild mountains and a beautiful river.

Well almost everything – at this time of year there is one item missing from the list: birds. I wasn’t expecting much. All the winter migrants have gone, but I was still a little disappointed. Apart from the resident flock of gulls, there were just two Shelduck – oh and a little group of Sandpipers dozing in the mid-day sun.

However, there is a nice little campsite at the Parrog run by the friendly Nicky who asked me to park so that I didn’t block the view of the next van up. She’s justly proud of her “Costa del Parrog” as she calls it. Her base is the Morawelon, a pub, restaurant and cafe where, in less constrained times you can eat and drink in style or sit on the wall outside and look at the view.

I decided to walk along the coast path south of the town, past some amazing  rock formations.

There were  jackdaws, a pair of ravens and, surprisingly, this pair of Choughs. I was surprised because all the fields inland from the path were intensively managed grazing for dairy cows: a very hostile environment for anything except milk.

It’s been a while since I did much walking so I set off to explore the woodlands round the village of Nevern, just inland from Newport. There were Wood Anemones and Primroses, and old technology slowly returning to nature like the cottage where, sitting on the front step, I stopped to have coffee.

A few miles further up the coast is the Teifi Wetlands Centre, another regular stop-over. Last time I was here I was treated to some fabulous view of a kingfisher, and once, many years ago, an otter. It’s not a destination for winter visitors, but I was hoping to see some new spring arrivals. In the afternoon I saw roosting Curlews, nesting Canada Geese and a Little Egret. The next morning, just after dawn with the temperature below freezing I was back at the hide. The Curlews had gone but the Canadian Gander was actively patrolling his territory. Later I came across Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps (females should be called Browncaps)  amongst the blossoms, and a Dunnock singing his heart out.

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Best of March 2021

Since I helped dismantle the old one, the new hide which overlooks the big oxbow lake below Dinefwr Castle has been open all the time. I could have gone there every week last summer and kept up my records of the birds there, but knowing that the gate to the deer park was locked and I had no volunteer role, it just felt too sad.

All that changed when I had a request from the new county Ranger Stuart MacDonell to make some nest boxes, and even better, to put them up, so March began with a joyful walk round the deer park and a session counting the birds on the lake again:

1 Great White Egret

1 Heron

12 Pintails (a first)

14 Mallards

145 Wigeon

10 Gadwall

4 Coots

4 Tufted Duck

1 Shoveler

2 Teal

2 Mute Swans

In 2019 I tired to make a case for a big reduction in deer numbers, but it didn’t seem to get anywhere, and with the collapse in venison prices due to the closure of restaurants, I feared numbers would be even higher, so I was delighted to hear that, on the contrary numbers had been substantially reduced, and so had the supplementary feeding.

I soon noticed a change – to something more like natural deer behaviour, with all the does together in one group instead of half of them hanging around with the blokes. Here is the bucks group well away from their previous hang-out.

Winter visits to the river can yield long periods when the only living things to be seen have roots*, but this punky Goosander and an unexpected Tree Creeper raised the spirits.

On  the tenth, a promise of sunshine finally gave me an incentive to get up on the mountain. As usual in the winter it was cold, empty and silent but beautiful as ever.

Back at the feeders in the garden, I made up some peanut butter balls, and discovered specialist metal Niger seed feeders. What quarrels these provoked!  The Starlings went mad for the peanut butter, and the Goldfinches loved the Niger feeders. We soon had up to eight of them fighting it out for access! With their dark red faces they do look angry but I’d no idea they were so quarrelsome – these are not kissing!

After long gaps between the first sod turned and the beginning of the build, real progress on our new multi-purpose shed was made. It is to be a bird hide, a photo studio and a summer house. I was very pleased to find a local supplier of Douglas Fir waney edge boards.

Two days after travel within Wales was allowed, the forecast look good for a trip to the coast, as described here: http://phototwynog.co.uk/gannets-and-porpoises  It was a glorious break and to celebrate, here is another Gannet for you.

On the last day of the month I slashed my way through the brambles and set up a hide again at another favourite place further up the Towy valley. I didn’t expect to see much, so was pleased enough with this common pied wagtail.*OK lichens don’t have roots but you get the drift. 

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