The Story in the Picture

Look at this Sparrow Hawk. She’s high up in a tree some 100 metres from our garden, and she’s watching. For a minute or so she is absolutely still. Then her head moves. That’s all. Below, in the garden, nothing moves. The normal bustle of small birds round the feeders has stopped dead: not a bird is to be seen. Fear stalks the bushes.

A wildlife picture is no more than the record of a story. The moment of capture is the climax of an interaction between the human and the non-human which can take many other forms. In digital photography we use a range of hard-won mental and physical skills which give a different dimension to the encounter, but you could as well lift up a flat stone and find a slow-worm, prize off a bit of rotten wood from an old tree and wonder at the gleam of a beetle or turn a quiet corner in a woodland ride on a misty morning and see a deer stepping gently about its business. By looking carefully and slowly, we can weave our stories with theirs.


The daily feeding project I described here  has brought several big and dangerous birds very close to the feeders. The Buzzard strutted around, Crows and Magpies swooped in, and most spectacular of all, the Red Kite did what I called it’s “bomb run” within a few metres of the feeders.

None of them had the effect that smaller bird had, and I was thrilled by the mantle of raw fear cast over the scene. 

The picture would not win any competitions – the Sparrow Hawk is stationary and her outline is blurred by catkins in the foreground – but it tells a story, as does this even more blurred  shot:

A few years ago I could go to the car park at Dryslwyn Castle in the Towy flood plain, find a gap in the hedge and see flocks of Wild Geese, Curlews and Whooper Swans in the fields around the river. Last year and this year there were few birds of any kind to be seen – yet another sign of the decline in our local wildlife I thought. This January, with little expectation, I looked out at the same scene and again saw very little – a small flock of Lapwings two fields away. Just as I was about to leave I saw a much smaller brown bird. Something about the way it moved was intriguing, so I went back to get the camera, long lens and tripod. The more I looked, the more of them I saw. They would stand still for half a minute and then make a quick dash forwards, pause, stay, then run again. The shot was impossible: too far off and too many branches in the way, but magnifying the image on the camera screen I could see these were Golden Plovers – not rare but seldom seen round here. These birds could well have come from Iceland to spend the winter here and to me the touch of hazy detail from behind the screen of branches hints at the mystery and romance of these long-distance travellers.

For the last two years I have intermittently visited a turn in the river Towy near Rhandirmwyn. To get to it I have to hack my way through a quarter of a mile of bracken and brambles – ten acres of scrubby woodland left to its own devices for years, and at the far end a tiny private beach where I can set up the hide. For an hour or so I am in my own little space with just a few wild creatures to watch – Grey Wagtails and Dippers and if I’m lucky a Goosander family, a Kingfisher, a Sandpiper, or a mink.  On Christmas Eve 2020, a day with little else to offer in Lockdown, I hacked my way through during a break in the rain, clambered into the hide, unfolded my little stool,  set up the tripod and camera, and carefully opened one of fabric windows. There, just in front of me, was this Cormorant looking like an angel with the low sun behind him. Again, the shot is far from perfect, but there is a story behind it. Cormorants, despite being very much at home under water, do not have waterproof plumage and have to dry off when they get too wet. From his mottled plumage I take him to be a youngster. He struts around enjoying the sun and his day of exploration. The fact that he was unaware of my presence close by did nothing to diminish my sense of joyful communion.

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