Castles and Sandpipers

It’s an anomaly. A little walled town built by the English King Edward 1st at the narrowest point of the Conwy estuary and inhabited by English settlers as an outpost to supress the rebellious Welsh. For the visitor, the position offers much in a small area.  Just outside town there is a mountain with stunning views;

There is an estuary with thriving colonies of birds protected by the RSPB; a harbour filled with elegant yachts and a few fishing boats; (pic) the best mediaeval town house in Britain, a huge and only partly derelict castle and ancient city walls which contain most of the city. (pic)

In 1826 Telford built an elegant but narrow suspension bridge to replace the old ferry. Perhaps it didn’t bring enough English tourists, so a brutalist rail bridge was built alongside it. Even this was not enough so the old bridge is now hemmed in on both sides by ugly 20thC transport links. Even that wasn’t enough. Still the inhabitants of the great Northern English cities could not get to North Wales fast enough so a motorway tunnel was dug under the estuary. Now the town is properly choked with cars and visitors.  What an irony that after all this effort to cram more and more people together, we are now obliged to shun each other and keep our distance.

It’s a good place for my kind of photography. I was able to give my new Sony long lens and my new carbon fibre travel tripod a proper try-out on the bird reserve, and was thrilled with the results. The hides are still shut but there are good screens and within half an hour I had excellent images, not only of one of my favourite birds, the Snipe, (the other is a Moorhen) but also a real rarity, a Curlew Sandpiper, here seen hiding among a flock of dozy Redshanks.

Catching these Swans flying was a bonus.


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Ynyslas Beach

The name means either “blue” or “green island”, and reminds us that other times and other languages could see colour distinctions differently. In Welsh “glas” refers to the colours of nature, of the sky, the sea and the grass. Think how green the sea can look and you begin to realise that the distinction between blue and green in English is not absolute.

Actually Ynyslas is mostly a pale buff colour. It is a large sand peninsula reaching up from the long sandy beaches at Borth towards Aberdyfi on the other side of the Dyfi estuary. At low tide the deep water channel is barely 100 metres across. Although the peninsula is a National Nature Reserve, there are no restrictions on people or dogs and there is a large and well-used parking area. Having camped a few miles away, I arrive before dawn, park with the side door of the van facing the rising sun and set up my tripod. A car pulls in nearby and the sole occupant sits waiting and watching.


Waiting for the first glimpse, it is not hard to see the sun as a god and the sunrise as a mystical experience. You wait for ten, twenty minutes and then suddenly the top edge of this massive ball of fire which has been lighting up the sky reaches up above the hills and dazzles us. The light changes rapidly, and there is barely enough time to do justice to the scene before the complete sphere is huge in the dense atmosphere.

On the other side, the first rays make the elegant town houses glow a fiery orange, and opposite, the dense band of mist creates strange wintery silhouettes. A fishing boat sets off to navigate the channel to the open sea.

Although I know this area well, I have never been to this spot before so I pack up the tripod and set off round the point to explore. I am soon in a wide expanse of a foreshore of a type I struggle to describe. The best I can do is “large pebbles” – stones rounded by the waves of a size between an inch and a foot across. It looks deserted but a bird is calling: “peep” then a gap “peep”. I know this sound. It’s a small wader telling its companions that there is a threat, and I am the threat. The last time I heard it was in Iceland and the bird was a Golden Plover, but this is prime habitat for its smaller cousin the Ringed Plover, and no sooner is the thought in my head than I see a group of little birds flying rapidly across the pebbles. They must have been close, but they are so well disguised amongst the rocks I couldn’t see them. My guess was right, and this to me is one of the great experiences of bird watching – to recognise habitat and bird together; much more satisfying than seeing some rarity in the wrong place. Low light, camouflage and distance conspired to soften the images, but I’m happy. The day has begun well.

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Limekilns and a Kingfisher

My feet are dangling over the cliff edge while I eat a snack and drink coffee from a flask. Eight metres below is the stony foreshore of Cardigan Bay. Way out to sea the patchy sunlight catches the luminous white sail of a yacht. A heron flies in and takes up station where the incoming tide meets the pebbles. Behind me is the Wales Coast Path and to my left are the Aberstrincell Limekilns, an archaeological curiosity, now a Nature Reserve.

This is a quote from the “Ancient Monuments” website:

The site is first mentioned in 1786 when two limekilns were granted to James Lloyd. The complex was fully developed by David Morgan (1814-82). Six kilns are shown on a plan of 1850 but two may have been lost through coastal erosion. As many as 13 ships were known to discharge their cargoes of limestone and culm at wharves below this site at one time, and the lime was used on Morgan’s estates and widely in the district. This is one of the two most important groups of limekilns on the southern fringes of Cardigan Bay.

I scan the sea with binoculars in the hope of some cetaceous activity. What a nice meaty word – cetaceous. Just to make sure it exists I check with Google, but that ignorant entity points me to cretaceous – not the same thing at all. It’s whales I’m looking for; a porpoise or a dolphin would do, but there is nothing but a few gulls.

The van is parked by the church at Llansantfraid and the patchy light glints on polished marble.

I’m on my way to RSPB Ynyshir, near Machynlleth  –  one of my favourite bird reserves. At this time of year I’m not expecting much. It’s early for the incoming winter visitors and still the moulting season for the residents who are mostly silent, dispersed and concealed. It’s still a place of great natural beauty and variety and the sun is out!

Yesterday I was at The Teifi Wetlands outside Aberteifi (aka Cardigan) and a single bird, almost in full winter plumage, made my day. In terms of iconic bird images it made my year! How fierce her expression is seen close up, and how massive and powerful that great pickaxe of a beak.  Once the poor fish had been battered to submission it was swallowed whole.

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Moods of the Mountains

If I walk for twenty minutes from where I live I can get a good view of the Bannau Sir Gaer, the Carmarthenshire Fans. Another 10 minutes uphill, and the whole range of the Bannau Brycheiniog marks out the horizon. This is a place where the languages, Welsh and English, dance round each other. In English we say beacons, derived from the times when important news was conveyed across country by lighting a chain of fires at beacon sites. We also have the term “banner” for a flag, and the Welsh for flag is baner or faner. Fires, flags, beacons, banners or mountain tops; however I spin the words, I’ve seen more of them this year than usual.

At a time when all movement was restricted I had permission from  to climb one of the local footpaths on yet another fine morning in early  May. The light was strong but there was still a hint of the early morning clinging to that distinctive profile: a pale golden glow.

I decided that 9am is a wimpish time to be out with the camera in May, so the next climb began at 6.  The shadows are long, the valley lost in mist, a long thin cloud drawn out above the peaks echoing the shape of the tree shadows. One tree is a strange shape. Like a banner or a pennant (or a flag or a beacon) it has no branches on the left or eastern side. Follow the line of the trunk down and you will see that its companion tree has been cut down. I can only guess that it had no branches on the right side and that the two were like Siamese twins, making a functioning tree between them. Ignore the wire fences; admire the great oak trees, the sheep beneath, the mountains beyond and you have a timeless pastoral landscape.

Even 6am is practically mid morning in May. To catch the sunrise I must get the walking boots on before 5. Now we can get the feel of the real mid summer sunrise.

At 5:10 the mountains are hard edged. At 5:30 the valley is still in shadow but the beacons are alight. The low sun is still weak but it can already gild the peaks. At 6 the east side of every fold in the hills is lit. I use a long lens to get closer to them and, according to my friend Ade, to catch the hot breath of the Welsh Dragon.

In mid June there is little night to speak of and I really don’t feel like getting up at 3:30, so when I do make the walk  up to our friends’ land at Cwmcroiddur it is already ten to seven, but the foxgloves are out and it feels like a good day already. The dragon is still doing his stuff and the horizon line looming above the mist could be his body, long and  crouching.

August is a very different month, cool wet and windy, but the dramatic cloud patterns have me climbing up the hill again. This time I am higher and I can just make out the whole line of the beacons, the Brecon end mimicking our end, and patches of bright sunlight making the fields shine like emeralds.





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A Test Run

I have a nasty feeling that my love of camera technology and my love of nature are self-cancelling. Can we save the natural world without sacrificing our gadgets? I suspect not, but I also suspect that the full answer to that will not appear in my lifetime. In the mean time, I have a new camera to try out. When I decided to change from Canon to Sony, it was the sophistication of the Sony software which drove the move. (See this post: ) The first Sony interchangeable lens camera I bought was their market leader, a mid-price do-it-all, the A7iii, and with it I bought one of their best lenses the 100-400 GM (Gold Master – cheesy I know) This is a “downsize” from my previous Canon 400 f4 OS lens, but being a zoom is far more versatile. Sure enough it’s a great combination, but I was not entirely happy with the results at a distance, and had been reading up on the Sony 200-600 lens – heavier, lower quality but longer reach. From social media I learnt that stepping up to an A7Riv would give me all the benefits of 60 megapixels and still have high-speed bursts and top quality autofocus. The 60mpx should give me the ability to crop the image to the equivalent of 600mm and still have the detail. That was the theory. 


This trip is to test that proposition and work out how best to operate the many control options. The trip takes in 6 reserves across South Wales, Gloucestershire and Somerset. It’s one I’ve done before, but never in high summer. I was expecting the bird count to be down, but to see wide expanses of wet grassland, home to thousands of birds in the winter, almost entirely deserted was a shock. 


Here are some highlights:

A clear-sky sunset at Goldcliff lagoons in the Gwent levels near Newport is something special. The picture at the top shows a parent Canada Goose keeping a lookout while the almost-adult young are feeding in the gorgeous evening light. 

These lagoons have hosted an exotic visitor this summer, a Glossy Ibis, nicknamed with clunking inevitability “Flossie”. I came within a whisker of a perfect shot here, the autofocus picking up on the wing rather than the body.

The next day I was at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, home to the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust and now a huge operation capable of handling hundreds of visitors at a time. When I arrived at 11:30 there was a long, spaced out queue. Time for some picture editing and lunch in the van. When I got to the gate the queue had vanished.

The exuberant jungle of flowers and bushes was a great consolation for the lack of birds here, and the goldfinches loved all the thistledown. In the midst of an expanse of drying mud, a few pools and lots of grass, this Lapwing had found a little bunker to nest in, and nearby was a solitary Greenshank.

The most spectacular resident here, the re-introduced Cranes, were still around and gave me a chance to check on the long-distance abilities of my camera and lens. The first picture is magnified about 8 times by the lens, and uses the full 60mpx. The second is cropped to 1mpx and still shows good detail. Here they are circling above us – a glorious sight. 

The next day I headed down the M5 to the Somerset Levels and two spectacular areas of wetland – Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath. Sadly, not only were most of the birds in hiding or somewhere else, but none of the hides were open. However, in the early morning, not only did I have the place to myself, but could enjoy the sun rising, watch a Great White Egret fishing, and a Mute Swan posing.

I also got to try out my “birds in flight” button with these Gadwall.

There is one hide on Shapwick Heath which is hard to find and tough to get to. It is a kilometre down a spongy peat track at the far western end of the mile and a half straight gravel track which dissects  the wetlands. Of course it was closed, but it was a tranquil spot so I watched the water for a half hour waiting for something to happen. There were a few ducks dabbling in the lilies, and  I enjoyed watching the many tiny spiders who had made their webs between the edge of the hide and the nearby tree.

This shows how good the Sony “focus magnifier” on the camera is. On my last night I stayed in a rough parking area behind a stony beach on Bridgewater Bay. Here I found a moth I had never even heard of – a Jersey Tiger – and caught an eerie evening light behind some very different cranes – those building the nearby Hinkley Point C £20 billion nuclear power station. By a strange quirk of fate, heavy industry and wildlife in Britain are not infrequently neighbours.

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