Best of April and May

 

Where did it all go wrong? April was full of promise.

The 16 year-old Red Kite with the wing tags – a familiar above our garden in the winter – was back on the nest just up the road and I was welcome to go and watch them.

I was back with my beloved deer at Dinefwr Park where I found a vole and another kites nest.

The summer-house cum bird hide in the garden was progressing well. We had redpolls on the feeders, a potential Sandpiper nest on a shingle bank in the Towy, goslings on a nearby lake and a third kites nest,  and we could travel within Wales.

The turn of the month set an ominous precedent – eating my lunch sitting on a log in the rain near the deserted service station at Aust with the old Severn Bridge looming through the mist. The tagged kite had gone, the nest deserted and the forecast was set to wet.

Although I always long for the prime month of spring, there are tensions behind the magic –  collateral damage from the explosion of life which is May. The scent of Hawthorne blossom, for example, reminds me of the stress of revising for vital examinations when I was a student. In the natural world there is so much happening at once that disappointment is inevitable. Yet again I have failed to find the nests I hoped to catch on camera and missed the best shots I might have achieved! I have not walked the back lanes and mountains of our home, and the garden upbraids me for neglecting it.

Still, despite the rain and the cold there were some magical moments.Dinefwr Park in Llandeilo is famous for its ancient trees, and I particularly liked this “elephant tree”:

My volunteer job is now quite different. In the years BC (Before Covid) my task was to check the boundary fence, and my self-education was studying the behaviour of the deer, in the hope that I could make a strong case for a big reduction in numbers. Now, with new fencing all round, the boundary is secure. Deer numbers have been reduced and are set to be reduced even further. Now my task for the Spring and Summer is to record all the birds I see – even the very common ones like this nuthatch.  Since birds are “indicator species” this will give us a good idea of what is missing from the biodiversity of the park.

One of the highpoints of May was meeting fellow bird-blogger Blair Jones and his friends at Goldcliff Lagoons, near Newport. We shared the magical sight of hundreds of swallows hawking for insects in the cool rain.(Blair is on the left). (Technical note: this shot was taken with a 400mm lens at 1/2000ths of a second, f4.5  and ISO 4000. Note the shallow depth of field, with the left wing of the lower bird out of focus! )

I also got to meet members of my extended family in Corsham, Wiltshire.  I took some pictures but I was still in Nature Mode and forgot that people can assume strange expressions when being photographed! Here is one I got right: grandson Charlie with friend Stan and daughter’s partner Dave in ex-wife Jan’s kitchen:

Just as I was leaving I spotted one of Corsham’s famous peacocks by the side of the road: At the end of the month I went very early to retrieve my pop-up hide from its temporary riverside home and recorded the scene: CODA

Following my reply to a comment by Gaynor Jones, here is one of the nicest of many old houses in the Goldcliff area of the Gwent Levels:

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A Strange Week-end

 

Just meeting people is strange enough. In two days I got to know someone I had met briefly once but had kept in touch with online, oh and his two friends, and I met a 2 year old great-grandchild for the first time. As if that wasn’t enough, throw in both daughters and spouses, two grandchildren, a peacock by the roadside, my ex-wife and two more great-grandchildren I hadn’t seen for ages, and things began to look like a mad-hatters tea party. I should add that I didn’t meet them all at the same time!

The first port of call was Goldcliff lagoons near Newport, where I can stay in the camper. I arrived on a gloomy Friday afternoon and was almost the only  person there. Although I enjoy wandering around on my own, it usually means the proper bird people know there won’t be anything worth seeing, and they were right – well almost. Coming from a village where Swallows have become scarce in the last few years, I was delighted to find hundreds of them here, and even more delighted to watch them roosting, along with some Sand Martins, in the reeds.

I’d been in touch by email with my fellow bird-blogger Blair Jones. He lives just up the valley in Pontypool, and I got this message:

Hi Dick 

I will see you in the morning. 

I am not going to Dinas. 

Speak tomorrow 

Blair

To which I replied:

Hi Blair 

That sounds good, though I have to leave at the latest by 11. I’ll be  on my way to a family re-union in Wiltshire. Hope that fits your plans. Since we are both early risers that shouldn’t be too much of a problem! 

One Ruff, one Whimbrel this afternoon. 

See you tomorrow 

Dick

 He then sent this:

Lol 😂 I will be there not long after dawn. See you tomorrow.

Dawn? In May? Allowing for travel that meant around 5:30! I decided I would join them if the light was good.  It was not, but I heard some cars pull  up at 5:30 so guessed it was them. This time last year I was up on the mountain catching the sunrise. Now it is dark and dreary. I decide to have a leisurely breakfast and then set out for the hides. Here we are: from the left, Blair, Paul and me doing combined elbow-bumps and social distancing.

We had some nice views of the more or less resident Godwits, but the Swallows stole the show. Blair wrote about it here The Wildlife Occulus  and we produced some near identical pictures. Here are someof mine. The Godwits are the Black Tailed species except for one at top left which is a Bar Tailed.

The next day was a riot of family. This is daughter Hannah with partner Dave, and Dave again to show that he doesn’t always look gloomy! They are doing in a few months what would take me years – transforming an ex-council house near Bradford on Avon. 

It was wonderful to be together again, but complicated and tiring so I made my escape on Sunday morning. The forecast was for some sun and heavy showers so I decided not to go further south but try to walk along  Aust Warth, an area of saltmarsh between the two motorway bridges.  The strange name apparently comes from an Old English word for marshland, and it is known as a good place for Short Eared Owls, one of the few owls which fly during the day, and much prized by nature lovers. I’d been here before but the paths and the little road from Old Passage were closed then. They still were, so I walked down to investigate and found a big flood defence being built. Could I find a way through? There seemed to be footpaths on the map so I packed a sandwich and some juice and set off to explore.

All around is the steady hiss and roar of motorway traffic. Here is an overgrown path, deserted and lovely with May blossom; here a concrete bridge over the motorway which leads to a footpath. There is an air of neglect – grass and moss creeping onto the path; up some steps and into an empty car park, an abandoned motorway restaurant, deserted picnic benches, and in one corner a tiny sign and a footpath through the bushes. I walk behind a dense hedge high up above the water until there below me is a combined sewage works and power relay station and beyond that a refugee camp for fishermen.

I sit on a log and eat my sandwich in the rain watching the few Shelduck and some gulls who seemed quite at home in this future fiction. It was a fitting end to a strange week-end.

 

 

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Light, Colour, Detail

What we see in the natural world is constantly changing; colours, shapes, light intensity, light direction and the mood of the sky all offer a huge variety of backdrop for whatever is the subject of the picture. I’ve recently become fascinated by the difficult technique of focussing on a subject part hidden by foliage. In the early morning on the day after my trip round Skomer Island I carried the big lens and monopod up to the headland at Martins Haven. It was calm and sunny; the cliffs on the South side a lovely pale grey-green with lichen. I settled in to do some sea watching. Opposite, on Skomer, was a big colony of Kittiwakes and 2.5 miles away to the South, I could easily spot the house on Skokholm where I had stayed in 2016 and again in 2018 -it’s the tall one on the left. The booking for 2022 opens for Wildlife Trusts members in September. I’ll be there! As I sat watching the sea I noticed that the tide race was particularly strong, and thought how strange and how restful it was to watch the sea flowing like a river.I am still exploring the capabilities of f my big Sony 400mm f2.8 lens.  It can focus down to 2.7 metres which, combined with a wide aperture produced some interesting effects at the cliff edge. It also has what photographers call amazing “bokeh”. This is the blurring of the background which throws the subject into sharp contrast.

Another interesting use of light is to have your  subject backlit. It’s very easy to “blow out” highlights using this technique, so careful metering is required. This Meadow Pipit on Sea Buckthorne illustrates this.

 This male Stonechat is almost too sharp a contrast to the gorse behind him.

Later I lugged the big lens and tripod down a track to a small wetland area called Marloes Mere. The bushes and scrub were full of vividly marked little birds and I spent a happy half-hour taking pictures. They were Sedge Warblers, (top picture)  a species I was familiar with, but I had never seen the males in full breeding plumage. They have a delightful noisy song and a characteristic short parachuting display flight.

I ended up that night at Ginst Point near Laugharne. This is military land and normally only open at week-ends. Despite being a favourite dog walking place, I was delighted to find lots of Skylarks here, and quite close.

I had some more composition exercises with, first another gorgeous Wheatear,  then a pair of Linnets and then a male Lesser Whitethroat. In the fourth picture I have removed some of the distracting twigs in my editing software “Capture One” .  I’m not sure it does much to improve the composition though. The surprise of the day was finding this solitary Dunlin in full breeding plumage. I’ve never seen a Dunlin on its own before and wonder what had induced it to shelter where I saw its footprints, under a ledge of mud at low tide.

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When Kissing is in Fashion

Around the edges of South Wales as you walk the coast path, all around you are vivid patches of deep yellow. It’s true that Gorse, like kissing, is in flower and in fashion all through the year, but this is the peak. Dense, prickly, evergreen “Eithin” is an important native plant for birds and an early source of nectar for insects. It was, in less mechanised times, a valued source of dyes, kindling and fodder, and it thrives in the heathland areas that still resist the sterility of modern agriculture in West Pembrokeshire. In May it acts as a backdrop for a host of flowers, but the most striking are the two Campions, pink and white, and the bluebells.

The first trips to Skomer Island for more than a year opened for booking a fortnight ago, and I got one of the early ones, so I took the camper back to West Hook Farm at Martin’s Haven near Haverfordwest for a three night stay.

Skomer in the spring is Puffin land, and I knew I would have to do my stint at The Wick where they are so used to visitors you can almost pick them up. However, in one of those absurdities which the Corona virus regulations throw up, this windy, open island had a one way system in operation, so we had to leave the Puffins until last, and follow the paths to the North. A familiar site to regular visitors is the little colony of Razorbills right by the harbour.

Although the headland at Martin’s Haven has the same geology as Skomer, the deep tide race between them keeps rats, cats and myxomatosis away so the whole feel of the place is different. There are plenty of gulls on the mainland, hut here they are everywhere, fed by the abundance of young rabbits and the carcases of the rabbits and shearwaters. Most of the ground on Skomer is riddled with burrows, many of them, right now beneath my feet, housing Manx Shearwater nests, but many too providing homes for the thousands of rabbits on the island, and the hundreds of Wheatears who have recently arrived to breed.

I spotted two Oystercatchers nesting in the middle distance.

Moving slowly round in the bright sun and cold wind, I arrived at the Bull Hole where there is a big colony of nesting Razorbills and Guillemots, and settled in to eat my lunch and watch.

The birds flew in and the birds flew out; no peregrine to stir them up, not even a Kestrel, so after half an hour I walked on to Puffin Central. In truth it was disappointing – much less activity than on previous visits, but I’d never been as early in the season before.  Numbers are apparently up this year so I assume they are mostly sitting on eggs.

The walk down to the boat offered wonderful views of them swimming, flying and of their characteristic way of landing on water – a headfirst plunge!

On the boat back, a Herring Gull took up station just above our heads, hanging as if on a string with almost no movement. How strange its feet look close up! It was waiting for something, and soon one of the crew offered it a piece of bread which it took from his hand and flew off.

Later in the evening I took my wide angle lens to catch the sun going down along the coast path.

 

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Sandpipers and Redpolls

Two birds, neither uncommon, but both special to me, and their appearance has got me thinking again about what we find so fascinating about this class of animal. What is it about these creatures that we get so fixated on? We, the converted, don’t need a reason, but it’s no bad thing to look a little deeper, so here goes.

 

Top of the list is this: they are beautiful! Yes, even the archetypal LBJ (little brown job) the House Sparrow has feathers, and feathers have iridescence, a very special way of reflecting light which gives their possessors such beauty. Many cultures have adorned themselves with feathers, and the RSPB was founded as a protest against the killing of rare birds to adorn ladies hats.

 

It may seem obvious, but unlike most of the natural world which lives hidden away or is nocturnal in habit, they are supremely visible. Almost all birds are diurnal though a few such as owls, are crepuscular, but I can’t think of any which don’t, like us, rely on sight.

 

More scientifically they are “indicator species”. When birds become plentiful or disappear you can be sure that there have been some profound changes to the living systems which support them. It is because we can see and record the 57% decline in farmland birds since the 1970s, that we can map the damage modern agricultural systems are doing to the whole ecosystem of farmland. Increases in, for example, carrion eaters such as Ravens and Crows in the uplands show that there are more animals which die or give birth in these areas.

 

Returning to the finch and the wader. Neither was expected, though both greatly hoped for.

There are, according to the RSPB “15,000 breeding pairs of Common Sandpiper in the UK, though the breeding population has fallen in recent years. Around 70 birds winter in Britain and Ireland. They once bred commonly in lowland Britain and Ireland, but gradually have retreated into upland areas and is still declining, perhaps owing to the acidification of streams and rivers, which reduces the food available.”

I have occasionally seen them in the part of the Towy where I have my hide set up, but there has been very little life of any non-plant kind visible there lately and I did not have much expectations when I clambered into the hide yesterday. Watching in places like this where wildlife of any kind is scarce bears obvious comparison with the distribution of busses at bus stops, though not many bus stops are as attractive as this one.

I’d have been happy with one, but there were more! As you can see in this video, one bird appears to be trying out different nest sites. She (or he) flew off with her mate, but they both returned. My fingers are so tightly crossed they are turning blue, but I fully expect to return next week and see no sign of them.

 

As for the Lesser Redpoll, seen here with a Siskin, this is from the RSPB:

“Population

There are 220,000 pairs in Britain and 20,000 100,000 in Ireland. Has recently suffered a rapid 80% decline.

 

Conservation

Once common in northern and western Britain, it declined from about 1930, but from 1950 it started to increase again, probably helped by the increase in young forestry plantations. Since the early 1970s there has been a rapid decline. The reasons are not clear, although it is subject to natural fluctuation, linked to food availability.”

 

They appeared at our feeders once before, but a few years ago. My recent discovery of feeders specifically for Niger Seeds has brought lots of Goldfinches and Siskins, but I didn’t expect to see Redpolls in the breeding season. Fist in the air moment!

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