I Curlew

Dawn. It has been a cold night here on our little island in the marshes. Here we can sleep safe from the animals, the rufus and brown, the teeth and claws and the cracking of bones and scattering of feathers. Safe from all the animals but one: the big brown one that lives in the water, but he eats fish. Some say there is another, black and terrible, but I have not seen one here. 

There is a brown human square box thing with dark patches, and something moves inside it, but whatever moves inside it does not look like humans. They make noises. The water birds swim around, heads in the water, searching for food. The little diver dives again and again and I can see where he is swimming from all the bubbles. The big grey fisher bird is here too, slowly flapping in and standing stiff by the water.

Something catches his eye and he wades out into the water, but it’s nothing and he wades back again.

She pretends to sleep, my mate there with her head under her wing. I see the eye open and close again.

Ah, my little friend the fisher bird with his gaudy colours is here. The creatures in the box point round black things at him. There are clicks.

The little brown stripy birds are hiding in the dead reeds by the fat quacker. One of them has flapped over to our island.

The light is good now and my stomach is empty. There is no food for us at the island, but all around are big patches of wet mud full of Curlew food. I call out. “Weeper loo loo loo”, stretch my wings and fly over the brown square thing. She follows. We come here every winter, and in the spring we fly inland to our nest site on the moors. There is something wrong with our patch. Every year she lays eggs, but the animals find us, the big black birds find us, the big red birds too and they all eat our babies. The grass is too short now to hide in.  The big white animals eat it all. Every year there are more of them and with them come the big killer birds. Peck peck  and the egg is broken open. They suck up what they can, but most of it is left to die. One year we had three chicks but the animals and the birds took them all.

Every winter there are less of  us locals at the mud. Most of those with us are foreigners. They fly in from the cold places in the north to eat and roost with us. It’s good to have them round us. It gets lonely in Spring when they all fly away.

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Flight to Pembrey Harbour

At the far eastern edge of Pembrey Burrows, a wide tidal creek divides the dunes from the long disused pier at Pembrey harbour, and provides a normally safe roosting site for thousands of Oyster Catchers – small back and white birds with brilliant red bills. They gather at the shore line, looking from a distance like some form of black tide wrack. This last week-end however spring tides as high as 9 metres were expected along the south coast of Wales.

The weather forecast was uninspiring to say the least, but it was an excuse to get wet somewhere else, and I had been here before. The peak of the tide was due around 17:00, but well before dark I expected to see some big flocks taking off as the rising sea, driven even higher by gale force gusts, drove them out of the shallows.

I battled against the wind to the far end of the jetty where there is a bit of shelter. There are no buildings here now, the harbour has been filled in and it’s hard to imagine its industrial heyday. I trained my binoculars on the opposite shore. As well as all the Oyster Catchers there were some tiny silvery looking waders. Too far away to get any decent pictures with my Sony 100-400 lens, these grainy shots showed they were Sanderling.

Small groups of birds were taking off and circling, and I realised that things were building towards some big flight shots. I needed more fire-power and quickly strode back to the van parked on a bit of rough ground mostly used by dog-walkers. Half an hour later I was in position with the big Sony 200-600 and even before I reached the end of the pier I was surrounded by birds. They all followed a circuitous route: take off facing east, fly out to sea and then turn inland, pass close by the jetty and then swing north up the tidal creek to roost on the other side of the peninsula.

What joy! I was taking so many pictures the camera processor couldn’t keep up. (I later found it had chosen to save to the slower of my two SD storage cards.)

Now the smaller waders were taking flight and to my surprise there were large flights of Ringed Plover as well as the Sanderlings, but in the poor light they tended to merge with the background, making clear shots difficult. To make life even harder they both show a white wing bar when flying. (Please note that I would normally delete  pictures as poor as these. They are for identification only!)

The excitement many of us feel when watching big flocks of birds could perhaps hark back to some hunter-gatherer impulse: big flocks mean lots of food. Perhaps it is simply that they are beautiful, and I was able to indulge this aesthetic on Sunday at the Llanelli Wetland Centre.

Here I must confess to a blind spot in bird identification. Godwits tick all the boxes for bird watchers – tall, elegant, colourful and spectacular flyers. The problem is there are two kinds of Godwit and until now I could never remember which was which. I had got used to the idea that the Godwits we see along this coast are those which nest in Iceland and spend late summer and winter in Britain: the Bar Tailed Godwit. Two weeks ago I had photographed the other kind – less widely distributed but also to be seen inland, the Black Tailed Godwit. Now, to my delight, these have turned up at Llanelli.

Luckily I was in the British Steel hide, alone, when the rain came blasting through the healthy open windows and blanketed the lagoons. Thank you rain for two of the most interesting shots of the day:

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Is poetry worth the effort?

I always have a book open while I eat my breakfast, and it’s always non-fiction. This week, and not for the first time, I am determined to read more poetry. I studied a lot of poetry at university. I love words and their origins and am fascinated by how we pronounce them but until this week I had barely looked at a poem for years. Poetry is difficult.

The book by the cereal bowl today is an old anthology I found in a dark corner of a book-case: “The Penguin Book of English Verse” first published in 1956! Despite the absence of some of our best 20th century poets it suits my purpose, which is to re-visit some of our greatest poets. By co-incidence one of my favourite poems is the first in the anthology and another is the last. Four hundred years divide them. They are “The Lover Showeth How He Is Forsaken Of Such As He Sometime Enjoyed” by Sir Thomas Wyatt 1503? To 1542, and “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas 1914 – 1953. Great poets die young. 

Both have the capacity to move me to tears, and both have that essence which distinguishes poetry from mere verse – what I call compression. A fine poem is dense; you  have to tease out the meaning and the beauty of it. Each time you read it you discover more. A great poem adds depth and emotion to a few words by using rhythm and by playing words off against each other with rhyme and alliteration. This special form of writing has structure: imagine I am constructing something fairly complex out of wood – a drawer for example. Each of the dovetails must be a good fit, the sides must be at precise right angles to the front and back and the base should slide easily in place along a set of grooves in the sides and front. Turn it round and you can see the structure. It gives pleasure. Similarly a poem must have shape and form. It cannot simply meander. I remind myself  that verse existed long before prose. It predates writing. Verse was how ideas and instructions were passed on  in a way which could be remembered because of the structure and, in the case of songs, the tune and the music.

Here is Wyatt and two lines I have remembered for 60 years:

“They flee from me that somtime did me seke

With naked fote stalkyng within my chamber”



I remembered them because the rhythm of the second line conforms, I learnt then, to a classical format which I have since forgotten. We may long ago have forgotten the rules of Greek and Latin poetry – supposing we ever knew them – but we respond emotionally to the rhythm.

Perversely my old anthology does not list what is probably the best known of Dylan Thomas’ poems – “Do not go gentle into that good night”, but the last poem in my book begins:

“Now that I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green”


Need I say more?






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The Best of October

Can there be a philosophy of light? Could it be that how we experience light drives how we think? Is my experience of night and day, dusk and dawn, of highlights and shadows, shade and sun different from yours? If terms like nocturnal, crepuscular and diurnal raise your pulse, read on because if there is a unifying factor to my experience of a strange hybrid month, then October was about light.

The month began with a trip to Sussex where Thelma and I stayed for a few days at my oldest surviving cousin’s cottage near Steyning. Jill is 87 and lives in an estate cottage where the trees she planted 40 years ago now tower over the house. The outbuildings are slowly sinking into the ground under the weight of ivy and brambles and creeper blocks out the light from the windows. Unable to move around much, Jill lives in her kitchen surrounded by growing piles of books, papers and the clutter of a life well lived.

She needed help and before we left we had filled all available bins with discarded stuff, and removed great volumes of dust, grime and cobwebs. For Thelma it was full time, for me just afternoons. From dawn until mid-day I was 8 miles up the road at Knepp Wildlands, and I wrote about that visit here: http://phototwynog.co.uk/why-are-english-deer-bigger-than-welsh-deer

As for the light;  dawn at Knepp tended to be cloudy, but on the way there and back I stopped off at Farlington Marshes just outside Portsmouth, and caught the typical mix of shore birds and industry which you find at many of Britain’s bird reserves:

From Portsmouth I travelled to Arne near Wareham on Poole Harbour, and there I was able to experience the full magic of the early morning light in Autumn:

Here is a longer description of the visit:http://phototwynog.co.uk/heathland

Back home, it seemed as if the darkness was gathering. The days were getting shorter, and the long shadow of the pandemic was creeping up on us again. On the fifteenth, the crescent moon was so slim you could see the whole ghostly outline of the shadow.A few dry, calm and sunny days gave me a chance to indulge in a hallowed autumn ritual, one with much deeper roots than the alien Halloween. The deep satisfaction of nurturing a bonfire taps into the deepest parts of our subconscious. (pic)During 45 minutes spent watching the Towy not a single creature appeared but the light was good.

Squeezed into a gap in the cloud and rain, I had an opportunity to revisit Dinefwr park during the rut. It felt like coming home and I wrote about it here: http://phototwynog.co.uk/return-to-dinefwr

Tomorrow is the eve of All-Hallows, a time to remember the dead: the saints, the martyrs, and all the faithful departed.

I don’t think so. It seems much more like a celebration of the amazing success of Chinese and American business – an opportunity to sell useless goods and a fake culture with its roots in the very real suffering and horror of women accused of witchcraft in the 17th Century. Around 2000 tonnes of plastic and around 12 million pumpkins are thrown away after Halloween in the UK alone. You don’t want to know the figures for America!

It’s not all bad though, and not all plastic. It’s also a children’s celebration of dressing up. This is my step-grandson Arthur as “The Dark Lord”

It is yet another dim wet lockdown day, and the only light I can see is the  hope that there will be less plastic going to landfill and less good food thrown away. Oh, and the hope that Trump will be defeated and the rain will stop next week.

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Return to Dinefwr

With just hours to go before we in Wales are stuck at home again, and eight months since the last time my volunteer job with the National Trust allowed me into the steep oak-clad valleys in the bottom corner of the deer park at Dinefwr, I finally have the green light from the staff to mingle with the deer and the glorious colours of autumn. The official return of the National Trust volunteers has been delayed again by the national lockdown, but I have this short window of opportunity, and the hope that soon it will be a regular part of my life again. 

My weekly task back in February was to check the patched and botched up fence line of the 100 acre deer park. Back then it was holding, the bucks still had last year’s antlers, had forgotten their differences and  formed an all male clique, but the bird hide was flooded and everything looked dismal.

It’s not exactly dry now, but there is a brand new fence right along the southern boundary, and October is the peak season for deer watchers. It’s the rutting season when the males compete for the alpha position and the chance of an outrageously promiscuous sex life for a few short weeks. I first managed to get some images of the activity two years ago. Here a buck is frantically bellowing to gain the attention of any does in oestrus.

Later that month I was astonished to witness two mature bucks sharing the spoils – something which is not supposed to occur in nature. Last October I witnessed another extraordinary event. There are wild fallow deer in small numbers in the Towy valley and most years some of the wild bucks try to get into the deer park where there are so many does. Fights occur through the wire fence, and this year one poor beast got his antlers so entangled in wire, the only course of action seemed to be to call the culling team. Instead of using it, John the hunter propped his rifle against a tree and helped Rhodri the Ranger to cut him free. That animal was close to death and knew it. The expression on his face when he realised he was free is something I will always remember.

The stock iconic image, and the one I became a volunteer to try to capture, is of bucks or stags fighting. I did manage to catch a fight last year but it was between two young bucks, neither of whom would have been permitted to mate, and it was at a distance so lacks that pin-sharp quality of the great photograph.

Today was my last chance for this year. The park was only open for 6 hours and I determined to spend most of them slowly checking the known rutting sites and hoping to get close enough to see some action.

It wasn’t long before I found a buck calling. Although the detail is obscured by vegetation, you can see the prominent larynx and the little hole below the eye known as the suborbital gland wafting some unmentionable stench towards the females. As I set out in the rain I knew that my attitude to wildlife photography had changed since last year. What really matters to me now is the experience. I sat down on a fallen bough to eat my lunch: a carefully chosen spot so that I was partially concealed but could watch an area I thought a group I had seen earlier would revisit. I was right, and was well pleased with some of the pictures. Although again the deer were too far off, there was much to be learnt from them. There is a general air of “can’t be arsed” about the proceedings. One of the bucks is bellowing, but they are tolerating each other and the does seem more interested in something happening to my left. My guess is that none of this group are in oestrus. And I saw a fight. It lasted all of  five seconds and I had just decided to use the binoculars so I missed it. A year ago I would have been cursing, but I had been there! I had followed them around, understanding what they were doing and where they were going. I had again been in that special place I thought was lost to me, and it felt wonderful.

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