Best of July

Hot weather for days on end in Wales – is this a taste of things to come? Do you love it or does it scare you? It must seem strange and exhilarating for visitors from Southern Europe to see how green everything is here. For these few weeks we  have the heady combination of temperatures in the high twenties and a landscape still green and growing.

I spent much of my time this month trying out new lenses and new ideas in image making. One great delight has been capturing the faces and eyes of birds and animals half hidden by vegetation. This relies on the difficult technique of over-riding the autofocus manually and magnifying the image.  These were a Fallow fawn at Dinefwr Park, and a Sedge Warbler at the Dyfi near Machynlleth.

This month I finally finished our multi-purpose garden building – Summer House, Man Cave, Garden Office, Shed, Bird Hide, Photo-Studio – any other suggestions? I spent several evenings sitting on the deck enjoying the evening light and how it picks out the beauty in flowering grasses, the white, pink and purple wildflowers and the tiny insects which live on them.

This is the aptly named Big Headed Fly, and below, a more familiar hover fly. 

There seem to be millions of Soldier Beetles this year and I determined to try to catch one in their curious upright flight position – rather like sea horses swimming.A walk through the beautiful Aeron valley from Aberaeron to Llanerchaeron and back  with family members Nina, Viv  and dog Louis went past some surprising allotments. Landscape photography in Wales is always a challenge because typically everything below the sky is green. At the beginning of the month there were some glorious cloudscapes before the high pressure took over and cleaned up the sky.In high summer the land has a more varied palette and I captured something of the essence of the wonderful Ynyshir nature reserve on the Dyfi.

I was in the area for the Dyfi Osprey Project. These great birds were a joy to watch, but sadly my pictures, taken at a distance,  suffered from heat haze. These are some of the better ones. In the last week of July, driven by obsessive moods, as if trying to cram as much as I could into this untypical summer, I began trial shoots in the studio shed, cycled down to the old Towy bridge, and dashed off on a quick circuit of bird reserves – Llanelli, Newport and Slimbridge. I had little expectation of any exciting wildlife on our local stretch of the river, but was delighted to see a small family group of a bird  I had never seen here before – the introduced Mandarin Duck, which seems to be establishing itself in Wales now.In the shed I experimented with studio lighting with a treasured example of one of daughter Hannah’s early models, and I took an early morning walk out of the village with just a few sheep for company.The bird reserves were almost devoid of birds, but right at the end of the month, in grey weather and grey mood I came across this delightful family of Great Crested Grebes. Things began to get better:

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Dyffryn Dyfi

Picture the scene before the Saxons appeared. Winding down from the Berwyn mountains through ancient forest, the river reaches a flat plain at what is now Machynlleth. A few miles further west it is pinched in by high land one either side, but then opens out dramatically into wide expanses of marshland and tidal flats. To the north are more mountains but South and West is a huge peat bog interspersed with patches of higher land – Ynysoedd or Islands in the marshes. One of these is on the coast – a huge dune complex  which pushes out into the estuary at Ynyslas, the Blue Island. Further inland is Ynyshir or Long Island. Part of it is a posh hotel and restaurant, but most of it is an RSPB reserve, and this was my first destination last week.

Any serious bird watcher will tell you that mid July is a lousy time. The birds have no more need to claim their nesting territories so have stopped singing. Most will have had enough of parenthood too, leaving their offspring to fend for themselves. They are still around, but you neither hear nor see them – they’ve disappeared into the riot of vegetation or flown off to the shore. So, it was not with any expectation of much avian excitement that I set off on a hot day to walk slowly round this beautiful place and cherish all it has to offer.

Stepping ahead of me on the path was a group of feral ponies. Native grazing animals or their equivalents are important in keeping the balance in conservation areas. In other parts of the reserve there are cattle too. I had a new 90mm macro lens and was keen to test its capabilities. It performed well in close up, landscape and in an unexpected encounter with a pair of swallows in one of the hides.

One of the great pleasures of this time of year in this kind of  landscape are the purple and pink flowers, particularly Rose Bay Willow Herb, but also Purple Loostrife, Bramble and even the invasive Himalayan Balsam.

Back at the car park, the squirrels strut around expecting to be fed. They seem to regard us humans as servants or even as furniture.

The next two days were to revolve round the well-known Osprey nest just up the road at the Dyfi Osprey Project. In the next two posts I will cover the topics of Heat Haze, Livestock Farming and Hay Meadows as they impact on these spectacular birds.

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The Fish Eagle

(The picture above is from their website and shows the new visitor centre just before it opened in May 21)

The Dyfi Osprey Project doesn’t open its doors until 10, which seems ridiculously late to me – birds start early, though it must be admitted that eagles do tend to be a lot more lazy than sparrows. So I had time to kill and had a wander around the campsite further up the Dyfi valley – more Rose Bay!

I got to the site at 9:15, and asked if there was any way I could get in earlier – no! To my surprise there was only one other person waiting when the doors finally opened. Without wasting any time I shouldered my heavy pack with the big lens and hefty tripod and marched down the new plastic “board” walk to the spectacular “Observatory”, and managed to get the prime spot looking straight out at the nest and the two poles with cameras which have been set up alongside it.

“You’ve got the whole family here for you ” said the girl in the red T shirt. There were several staff or volunteers on duty, and when I stumped up the stairs they hastily put on masks, so despite the gale of fresh air blowing from the big open window, I put mine on too.

And there they were, exactly 200 metres away as I learnt later in correspondence with the Project Manager Emyr. It’s the closest they are allowed to be by law.

I’d been here before but had been disappointed with the pictures then. This time I had pretty much the best kit for the job so had high expectations. First I established which bird was which. The GIRT (Girl in  . . Yes I should have asked her name,) had to consult the recordings from the  high definition cameras cluttering the poles out there. As I suspected the one standing proud on the right is the adult male. The bird to the right of the nest is clearly just learning to fly and practicing vertical take-off again and again. The other two are the adult female and the second youngster.

The pictures looked good on the camera screen so I stuck to my post as a few more people arrived. Suddenly an excited ripple ran through the room – there’s a bird flying! Wow – a bird doing what all birds do! Still, this counts as an event when you’ve been watching them sitting still for half an hour. I quickly track the bird to and fro and catch a few shots. We troop outside to see where it has landed in the grass – more excitement! An hour passes quickly. There really isn’t anything more I can achieve so I relinquish my space and make my way back via a beautiful hide looking out onto a deserted stretch of water and reeds.

When I get the pictures into the editing software I am miserably disappointed. I have a hundred or more pictures but not one of them is really clear. What’s gone wrong? I agonise over shutter speed, aperture and ISO sensitivity, and send an email to Project Manager Emyr with a sample picture to see if he thought it might be heat haze. I got a commendably quick response – yes, heat haze is the problem. He had the same issue with a similar lens.

Too bad, but I have a plan.


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The Plan – it worked!

(Note, this is the last of 3 linked posts, but I am publishing them in reverse order so that the first will be at the top as you scroll through.)

The forecast is for the hottest day of the year so far, but at 6:30, parked up in a little village on the other side of the Dyfi, it feels cold. My plan is to follow a footpath from here down to a bend in the river which is nearly opposite the Osprey nest site. It’s about a mile, and I plan to follow the path further and return by a different route, so I pack my smaller wildlife lens – 100-400mm plus a x1.4 extender lens – some iced water in a flask, a snack and some fruit. With binoculars on a sling I still have room to pack the warm fleece I am wearing. Sun hat, boots and thin long trousers complete the assembly and I’m off before seven. 

Almost immediately I am up to my waist in long wet grass and plants. Within minutes my trousers are soaked, but it doesn’t matter; I’m walking through gorgeous hay meadows rich in flowers, patches of rough woodland, dykes filled with reeds, Welsh Black cattle watching me curiously; a buzzard flies up from a ploughed field and hides in deep shade. Clearly this path is little used: a broken wooden bridge, branches growing over it. It feels like the dreary animosity between farming and wildlife has dissolved. As I get closer to the river there are birds everywhere – Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Sedge Warblers, Redd Buntings and there they are again – the Osprey family. It’s a lot further away but I am able to see the same vertical take-off practice from the other side. There is a flood bank along the river and I walk slowly behind it until I find a place where I can sit partially concealed. My hope is that one of the birds might fly this way on a fishing trip. The small birds are either curious or affronted at my presence. A group of fledgling Meadow Pipits have little idea what I am. This one even perches on my shoulder for a few seconds! A Sedge Warbler  peeps through the leaves; another is collecting food for a second brood down in the sedges just in front of me; a skylark flies past. Who needs Ospreys? This is magic.

Suddenly the stakes are dramatically raised. One of the Ospreys is here, flying over the bend in the river and towards the hill then turning and swooping down back towards the river. It repeats the move, swings out, swoops down and then up. This goes on for several more cycles but there are grasses in the way so I take the risk of moving a little to get a better view. Still the bird hunts, but eventually decides to give up and flies back to the nest site.The pictures are not as sharp as I would like, but the thrill of taking them makes up for that. Eventually I drag myself away westwards along the flood barrier and then through some glorious hilly wooded country with views over the estuary and back to the van. By 10:30 I am on my way home just as all the holiday traffic heading north builds up. I feel smug. 

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The Photographer

This is a writing exercise. Creative writing (as well as creative photography) is important for my mental health as old age slowly increases its grip. I have found in the past that a good way to get past “writers’ block” is to write about myself in the third person. I hope you like it.

It is mid-summer. The photographer is sitting in an old wicker arm chair on a deck of boards he has nailed down, under a tin roof supported by two slim tree trunks. If faces West and looks out onto a little orchard, a stream and some tall willow and birch trees. All the trees he has planted himself and the low evening sun is filtered by the branches, sending out rods and shafts of light through the sticks and leaves. The light picks out narrow bands of grasses, flowers of sorrel, buttercup, meadowsweet.

In front of him is a sturdy tripod on which is clamped a small camera and a big lens. He looks through the viewfinder and presses a button which sets focus on one point – the delicate flower of a stem of grass. That point of focus is just a small part of the rim of a dome which extends all around him, wherever he moves the lens.  It is the skin of a perfectly round balloon, and he sits at its centre.  Wherever there is light, above, to the side, behind him, is this invisible part-sphere. Outside the sphere the light blurs into magical shapes, circles of light twinkling, half remembered shifting forms. Inside the rim, and back to where he sits, there is no detail, no magic, just grass and leaves with no distinction.

Each time he moves the lens and sets the focus he creates a new sphere. This one has tiny insects dancing in it. They glow with light against a dark green background.  This has a perfect stem of rose-bay flowers.

Here there is a common weed waiting for a breath of wind to send off its babies,

and nearer, in a smaller, tighter crisper field is a tiny beetle dancing in the air.

His heart leaps and then crashes when he realises that he has set the shutter speed too low and the beetle is unsharp. But the beetle is there, moving and it is still an object of wonder.

He thinks how extraordinary it is that this device can do what his eyes, with thousands of years of evolution behind them, cannot. There is no way  he can force his eyes to narrow their focus to this thin band of sharpness. The human eye can effortlessly shift its focus wherever the brain tells it to look, but it cannot not-see – partially focus. If the eyes are healthy they must focus widely.

Entranced, he moves the lens smoothly around on its gimbal and watches as the sun dips lower until there are no more shafts of light. He sits still for a while and thinks this would be how he would end his days if given a choice.

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