Look, No Pictures

I’m walking up a gravel track in the upper Towy valley. To get there and keep to the epidemic restrictions, I cycled from home – 4 miles – then walked a further mile to reach the entrance to the narrow valley which leads up into the mountain. It’s early Sunday morning, sunny but cool and very quiet.

Today, in keeping with these strange times, I have a new discipline. Apart from my phone, I have no camera. Instead I have a new pair of binoculars – a considerable upgrade from my last pair – and they are opening me up to a different way of looking at things. It is a discipline centred on watching as opposed to catching the image. With a camera the experience of the moment is truncated, but extended to the future. It is watch, capture, edit and save. With just binoculars the visual experience is everything, with only the memory of it for the future. I can see more detail now and I watch more carefully now. It’s hard. I’m not by temperament a still person. I love the sheer busy-ness of photography. Watching and remembering is a much older discipline, older than writing, older even than painting. It goes with the difficult art of conveying images – and the emotions that go with them – in words. The words that follow are based on some written notes I took, though I cheated by writing them onto my phone!

It’s a landscape of muted colours, brown, silver, grey with an undertow of dull green. To my right, as I trudge the crisp gravel, is the steep slope of the mountain and a dense stand of birches. To my left the ground falls steeply away to the stream a few hundred metres below the track. The whole valley on both sides is clad with well spaced birches, recently thinned, the cut trunks neatly stacked and the brash in neat piles. The silver trunks and branches give the whole valley a pale cast though the trunks are dull green with lichen, the branches are chequered with patches of black lichen and the twigs, with buds still tight, are a dark purple. On the valley floor the dead grass is golden, and beneath the trees the bracken and grass are still brown.

There are a few other trees – some oaks, willows and near the head of the valley a group of pines. The oak trees show a haze of green, but this is not the new leaves, but a beautiful wispy pale sage lichen which covers all the outer branches. The willows have bright yellow catkins, and even brighter are the yellow flowers of the gorse bushes half way up the valley. Where there are no trees the rough grass is patched with grey clumps of heather.

It’s a steep climb and when I reach the top the wind is fierce and cool, and I am glad to find a sheltered spot for coffee from the flask and a snack. There are kites and buzzards in the middle distance, but all around me are meadow pipits, now glowing in their gold and brown spring colours. I watch one doing it’s characteristic song flight – up almost vertical and then parachute down to land on a fence post. I can see the markings clearly and wonder if it is a rare tree pipit, so, with the stylus on my phone I do a modern take on the old bird watching technique of drawing a rough bird outline and noting the features for reference when I return to the bird books*.

It is a wide landscape on top with mountains all round. There used to be Hen Harriers and Merlins up here, but I haven’t seen either for 20 years. It’s warm in the sun now and I’m glad I brought the small rucksack to stow my extra layers.

When I get back to the bike it feels like summer, and the ride home feels tough, but it’s been a good morning.

*It was a meadow pipit.

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At least I’ll still be able to . . . .

Self-isolation holds no horrors for me. It’s what I do much of the time anyway – in the open air.  Until relatively recently it was the fate of all deaf people – that and ridicule. Even though I have a high-tech hearing aid and am not alone, indeed am blessed with a very tolerant wife, the thought of house arrest fills me with dread. A week ago, in that very different world, the threat of all the over-seventies being locked up for 3 months – a fate worse than the virus to me – was receding. 

At least though I would be able to get out in the campervan to some remote spot where I would be safe and I would be no threat to others. Every day I tracked the BBC online weather forecast. (I can’t watch it on live television because of the ridiculous institution of live sub-titling which means the words don’t match the lip movements.) It shows two weeks, but we all know that the symbols at the far end of that period are unreliable and can change dramatically. As we came up to mid-March the daily image of cloud and rain, which had been our lot for so long, was showing a change – dry weather was on its way. Some days the change looked uncertain but the closer we got to the twenty-first – last week-end – the more our hopes rose. It really was going to be dry and sunny!

Joyfully I planned a trip to Pembrokeshire. I would go to the south coast where I might be able to see the first of the migrant birds arriving as the wind swung round to the south. A few weeks later and they will be unremarkable, but what joy to see the first Chiff-Chaffs, Sand Martins and Wheatears. (I do realise that not everyone knows what these birds look like, but bear with me.) By Saturday afternoon I was packed and ready to go, but for the next few days a cold North wind was forecast and it would be frosty at night. I was worried that the heating which had been temperamental recently so I decided to stay closer to home. Pembury Burrows near Bury Port would be a good place – wild open dune-land, a good place for landfall. The names show a fascinating and rare interchange between English and Welsh. Bury is synonymous with Warren, one of the many places where Conies and their youngsters, then called Rabbits, were kept confined by warreners and trapped for their meat. The Welsh word is “twyn” which also means “down” and “dune”, and was part of the name of our first house in Wales, Felin Maestwynog. I kept the “twynog” bit (pronounced too-in-og) meaning “hilly” or “downy” as my email address. So Porth Twyn or Bury Port was where the dunes were.

With all the talk of staying at home, I was surprised to find so many people out and about, mostly walking dogs.

“Look” I said to myself, “it’s the first fine day of the year and it’s Mothers’ Day. Of course I’m not the only one to want to be out in the open air.” As long as we don’t get too close it’s the healthiest place to be.So I walked out in the cold wind and watched a young kestrel flying close to the ground. It’s a Nature Reserve so the young man wandering through the dunes with two lurchers running free was breaking the rules and damaging the wildlife, but then I realised it could have been me forty years ago! All dogs, on leads or not, suppress wildlife, but what can you do? There are just too many of them and they need excercise.

I stayed by the long-silted Pembury harbour, and was out in the early morning, isolated, alone, biting wind on my face, two pairs of gloves, but was thrilled to see this Ringed Plover.

On the long spit of sand where the Pembury Burrows peninsula merges with the sea is a resident colony of Oyster Catchers. I waited a long time to get the perfect shot of them flying, but settled for these: Then it was eastwards, passing Llanelli to the north, and on to the bridge over the Loughor and my favourite spot on the Gower Peninsula – Llanmadoc and the Whiteford Burrows: more dune-land. There were already a few cars in the little car park at Cwm Ivy, and as I walked the two miles to Whiteford Point with it’s lonely rusty lighthouse (see above), I said a passing hello to a few small family groups and solitary walkers, again mostly with dogs. The Cwm Ivy Marsh was created when the 17thC sea wall finally gave way to the pressure of rising water levels in 2013. It is now, according to the National Trust website, a thriving saltmarsh, but it didn’t look very exciting today:

Water levels were still very high after the succession of deluges we have suffered over the past month, and detours away from the flooded path were the norm. The wind was cold but the sun was warm and here was the first Wheatear

(the name is a corruption of “white-arse”).

When, 4 hours later, I got back to the van, the car park was rammed and there were cars backed up all through the village.  All the wonderful places on Gower have kept their magic despite all being within half an hour’s drive of 300,000 people, but the roads are narrow, the van is wide. I made my escape. The internet was full of condemnation of the crowds. The message is “Go home and stay home”. It was Sunday afternoon. Kidwelly Quay was on my way home and I could stay the night there. Trying to escape the many dog-walkers, I walked up the canal and was so happy to hear, see and photograph the first of the incoming Chiff-chaffs, and yes, the name is the song! On the way back I came across an extraordinary tableau. Grouped together on the path were two rats, two blackbirds, a chaffinch, a dunnock and a squirrel. I couldn’t get them all in focus at once though.As the sun set there were still plenty of people, but I sensed that they were taking a last opportunity to be in this beautiful place before returning to their homes and an uncertain and constrained future. In the morning I took some more pictures but then cut short my trip and went home. At least though I can get out into the hills and valleys around us. I can can’t I?

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Last Post from Dinefwr?

On Monday as I drove to Llandeilo the mist lifted in strands and feathers and the sun made the winter trees glow. The thermometer said 3 degrees, but the sun, oh the sun, how warm and welcome it was! When I arrived there was a group of new part-time recruits for the Information Centre and I offered to show them which gates to unlock each morning. We chatted as we walked and I told them the names of the so-familiar fields and woods, all fresh and wonderful to them. The millpond shone like a mirror and I waved them a cheerful goodbye as I went on to the Castle Woods hide and they walked back to the car park. The flood plain was still in flood – water, grass and rushes in a complex pattern – but too much water for the birds, and the duck count was low.

Up on Rookery Ridge (an old name; there are no rooks) I took up station on the shadow side of a tree and set the camera on the monopod. I was not expecting to see any deer – there were no recent tracks here – but after being still for a while the tits and nuthatches busied themselves around me, exploring tiny crevices in the trees, living and long dead.A Jay flew in. There are lots of them here – it’s a good place for acorns. A treecreeper crept up a tree, and as expected, a Red Kite flew out from the group of tall trees to my right. The kite watchers know that if you see them fly into the canopy in mid-March they are looking at nest sites, but no matter from what angle I gazed up into the bare branches, I couldn’t see any of the debris associated with kites nests – those bits of plastic and old rope they like as decoration. I would look again next week.

Suddenly, to my surprise, there were deer: a group of does and a pricket, maybe 10 of them, moving up from Browns Path towards the Fire Tanks; the first time I had seen deer up here this year. Their behaviour is changing. Sure enough, as I moved slowly northwards I could see part of what I call the Brown Path Group which, in winter includes all the bucks older than a year.

It’s not a large group, but difficult to count because it’s hard at a distance to tell which bucks are still with their mothers and which consider themselves one of the big boys. These are the mature bucks; they know exactly who they are and insist on maintaining their dignity even when one of us humans is present. This year there are eight of them and perhaps 20 younger adult bucks. Next month I will be watching to see when the first antler is cast, and in a few weeks they will have lost all their dignity and be hard to tell from the older does.

With a contented sigh I walk down past the Badger Hide and begin my tour of the boundary. As usual the old walls, held together by moss and ferns, have not changed. On the southern boundary the rickety, much repaired fence is still holding. I step over the barrier which Carol and I built last year to mark off the sanctuary area and walk down the steep path to the Kingfisher Hide. Here I have my sandwich and flask and gaze at the water. The lilies, dormant for so long under all that water,  are reaching up to the light. Soon they will cover most of the open water.

Nothing happens for 40 minutes until suddenly a Kingfisher flashes past. It perches over to the left and I get ready to capture a stream of images of it on one of its favourite perches when suddenly it is flying past me again in the opposite direction. I am not prepared and the image is poor. Then I spot a heron making a pretty picture in the long grass and sedge; (see above) worth the wait.

In the early afternoon I trudge up the anthill-pocked slope of Caelan to the elegant copse of mature trees so artfully planted in the 18th century to enhance the view from Newton House. From here I can see the whole Brown Path group following the tractor which is laying a trail of feed beet for them. The big bucks push their way to the head of the queue, but the new staff recruits are here too, watching the feeding, and the does hang back in an anxious group. I watch as the tractor finishes its run and the people wander off. Back in the car park I find them packing up and we chat briefly – “See you next week”.

When I get home, happy after a good day in the sun, I check my pictures, do some jobs in the garden and enjoy my evening meal with Thelma. After the meal I check my email and there is a message from the Director General of the National Trust with the now familiar closure notice.

At first I think that because I work alone and in the open I will be able to continue, but it wasn’t long before I had an email from Amy saying that they must stick by national rules. For the time being, as for all the volunteers, my weekly nature fix is over.

We’ll be back sometime, and things will be different, but perhaps better? All National Trust grounds will be open and free as will those of the other big conservation organisations. Unless the virus gets personal I’ll still be out there taking pictures and writing about it. Please keep in touch.

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A Perfect Conjunction

A week ago I was trudging along a pebble beach in North Norfolk. The morning clouds had been blown away but the biting cold wind was still strong. After what counts a long spell of rain in Norfolk – 36 hours – I was keen to get out and explore the wide-open landscape which is Cley Marshes. This was to be a proper walk so the camera was in my rucksack rather than slung at my side. There is a narrow road from Cley to the beach and a little car park carved out of the shingle. From there a path stretched out in a straight line south, and it linked with a few paths into the wide marshland between the beach and the road – known amongst bird watchers as one of the best places for migrating rarities in England.

With water levels exceptionally high there were few reports of interesting sightings, but there was one regular winter visitor here which, if not a rarity, is certainly special: the Snow Bunting, known affectionately amongst the twitchers as “snobs”. I had photographed these enchanting birds in their breeding plumage in Iceland where they are common, and the pebbles are bigger!

There were reports of a group on the beach here, but I was not specifically looking for them. It’s hard work walking along pebbles and I veered away from the path to an area with some vegetation which offered a better footing. As I approached it did occur to me that this looked like a good place for a snob, but I was still surprised and delighted when a small group of birds took briefly to the air just in front of me. What so delighted me was that I had seen this patch as territory, as an environment. Before that moment all I knew was that these birds liked pebble beaches, but I didn’t know why. Before I saw the birds I guessed that this scrappy vegetation provided food in the form of seeds and some shelter.

It was clear they weren’t going far so I took off my pack and assembled the camera – Canon 90D – and lens – 70-200 f2.8. I slowly moved forwards and was soon surrounded by them. As soon as I hit focus I realised there was a wonderful extra bonus to this bit of habitat: it offered perfect camouflage: food, shelter and safety. These birds nest closer to the north pole than any other and have flown thousands of miles to reach this scrappy bit of beach.

What a privilege to be amongst them.

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What’s the Anser?

No, it’s not a spelling mistake, and there are no philosophical musings here. It’s all about the Anser and Branta families – geese.

AS I drove south from Norfolk (from the North Folk to the South Folk) towards Minsmere, it struck me that I had seen and photographed almost all the geese likely to be seen in Britain in the winter. The most astonishing find was the species I had spent hours chasing in their breeding grounds in Iceland, the Pink Footed Goose Anser Brachyrhyncus. This was the species I had last seen in Britain flying overhead at dawn on a cold December day in 2015. There were thousands of them, a great black cloud rising from the mudflats of the Wash: a sight and especially a sound I will never forget.

While I was travelling in Iceland I looked closely at any goose which seemed to have pink feet, but many Greylags seem to have pink feet too. I finally saw a small group of geese with dark brown necks and knew immediately what they were. It’s no good looking at their feet to identify them, it’s the dark neck which sets them apart. 

So I knew that those thousands of geese moved inland to feed during the day, but hadn’t seen any at the reserves at Titchwell and Cley, and hadn’t given much thought to where they might be, until I happened to glance to my left as I was driving along a busy main road. There was a big flock of something odd looking in an ordinary field beside the road. I quickly pulled in and crept along the hedge. There they were, hundreds of them:There are two common geese which you can see in most parts of Britain. One is the native Greylag Goose Anser Anser, the parent species of all our domestic geese.  

This one was at Slimbridge, but there were plenty in Norfolk too. (The first picture shows Greylags at Cley Wetlands.) One of the fascinating trends in bird behaviour I have noticed recently is that the wild Greylag has learnt from it’s Canadian relative how to live in our cities. They have gone from wild to feral, the reverse of the more normal captive to feral process, as epitomised by the Canada Goose Branta canadensis, a strongly migrant species in its native North America, but one which has adapted to a sedentary and indeed urban life here.

Another rare goose with a confusing name is the White Fronted Goose Anser Albifrons. These really do look like Greylags and it’s no good looking at their fronts which are barred black. The white bit is above the beak – on the forehead. Every time I go to the Wetlands reserve at Llanelli I walk within a few feet of captive White Fronts, but at Slimbridge there is a big flock of the real deal – birds which have flown from Greenland or Siberia to winter in Britain. They were a good half a mile away so I was pleased with this shot.Also much less common are the two “black” species, the Barnacle Goose Branta Leucopsis and the Brent Goose Branta Bernicla. 

The name Branta comes from the Old Norse “Brandgas” – burnt goose. They were at first considered to be the same species, and were believed to spawn from the Goose Barnacle! It must have been very confusing to have been a bird enthusiast in the Middle Ages. To add to the confusion, Barnacle Geese in Britain can have the status of breeding resident, feral resident and winter migrant. These are from the feral population around Slimbridge.

Both species can be seen in Norfolk, with the Brent being particularly noticeable. This is Blakeney Harbour.

Lastly, a Norfolk speciality is another feral goose which has not spread far from East Anglia, the odd looking Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca.


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