Walking for Hearing

This September has been dominated  by my decision to take on the RNID walking challenge. The original goal was 100km in the month, but this seemed a bit feeble so I upped mine to 150km and set a target of £300. So far I’ve done 126km and raised £275, and I’m standing at 19th in the leader-board of 145 participants. Here’s the link, and it would be wonderful if  you felt able to support me: https://rnid.enthuse.com/pf/richard-turner

I’m a regular walker but by this summer I began to realise that I had not done much walking since the last lockdown so this seemed a good way to support a charity which is very important to me and to boost my fitness. Five kilometres is 3 miles: sounds easy enough – until you have to do it every day! For the first two weeks I was at home and it wasn’t much fun trudging round the local circuits which I knew so well, so I stomped up the mountain instead – very familiar but still good for the spirits.

My volunteer sessions at Dinefwr Park also enabled me to clock up some kms and catch a few birds like this juvenile moorhen, just finding its improbable feet!

Things changed dramatically mid month when Thelma and I set off for Portsmouth and the ferry to Ouistreham in Normandy.

With restrictions easing, the crossing was quite relaxing, but the coast road from the ferry to Bayeux was slow and stressful so it was wonderful to find that the flat Thelma had booked right in the centre was as good as the pictures – an architects dream in shades of grey and stone.

We stayed in Bayeux for 4 days and I found plenty of different ways to clock up the kilometres in the morning, do the culture in the afternoons and enjoy a meal in the still warm evenings.

We had both done some research on the tapestry, and spent a long time absorbing all the fascinating details. I don’t know anything to compare with it for a real insight into how people lived and thought in the eleventh century. Every gesture, the body language, the decorative details – they all carry a wealth of meaning which was obvious to contemporary observers but which we have to learn. Lace making and pottery were two more recent specialities of this special little city.

Tapisserie de Bayeux – Scène 1 : le roi Édouard le Confesseur

The art museum had lots of fabulous pictures, but I have to say I found the Normandy Landings museum depressing. Instead of feelings of triumph of good over evil I just felt an enormous sense of loss – tens of thousands of young men killed and maimed, thousands of priceless buildings destroyed, a terrible waste of precious resources. Was it worth it? I don’t know.

I found consolation in an early walk and a street market just setting up.

 

 

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Best of August

 

I have read of old lags re-offending when they are released in the hope of returning to an environment where decisions are made for them. It felt a bit like this when the Covid restrictions on travel were relaxed. I was happy with life at home when the task was to make the best of it. Now, despite the wild flowers flourishing in the garden (above)  I feel a restless urge to travel. I am pushing against the gathering clouds of old age and a stricken world, and some of my trips this month seemed more driven by this sense of approaching doom than by the on-going search for the perfect living image.

At the beginning of the month I was in Slimbridge. I knew it was the dead season for the wild birds but I was not quite prepared for the extraordinary emptiness of the place. Tack Piece is a huge grassy field which in winter is a feeding ground for thousands of birds. Today it is empty, but in a typical Slimbridge twist the only two living things on the drying-out pond by the hide were both rare: a Spotted Redshank and a Green Sandpiper.

With little to lose I decided to do some exploring of the surrounding countryside and discovered the little village of Purton where a nice farm campsite offered wonderful views across the estuary towards Slimbridge, and gave me easy access to the footpath along the canal south to Sharpness. In the early morning of a dull day I discovered the Hulks – a collection of old barges deliberately beached to strengthen the banks of the estuary.

Sharpness dock is like a dystopian film set. It’s web presence is of a flourishing port, but on this morning it looks deserted and very strange. What is happening to all those warehouses and all that ironwork?

Every Tuesday, when I’m at home, I do my volunteering stint at Dinefwr Park in Llandeilo. The new County Ranger, Stuart, is very much on my wavelength and it has been a pleasure to be part of his mission to restore lost biodiversity to the estate. This month I discovered the Flood Plain – the flat land between the Castle and the river. On a quick buggy tour we found an old wall beside one of the Oxbow lakes, and Stuart was positively encouraging when I asked to set up my pop-up hide there. He later did some research on the wall and found that it was a jetty, built to help British troops train for the Normandy landings – yes, here, on a lake in the middle of Wales! The troops were stationed on the estate at Newton House. 

Here is a selection from my month at Dinefwr. (Kingfisher from the Kingfisher Hide, Goosanders on the Towy and cleft oak fencing.)

Mid month I had a message from one of the other bird enthusiasts in the village to say that the Hobby falcons were here again. Falco Subbuteo (it gave its name to the football board game) is a summer visitor to Southern Britain with around 2000 pairs nesting, mostly in Southern England,  and spending the winter in Africa. We were, last August, very excited to find three of these charismatic birds taking up temporary residence just outside the village. After a few frantic days tracking them round the fields they were gone, and we decided it was probably a family group making a temporary stop on their way south.

And now here they are again, four of them, in the same season and the same area! Clearly they are creatures of habit. I spent several long sessions trying to get a closer shot, but in the end had to settle for this distant interaction between one of the parent birds and a youngster.

I wrote about my trip to the Dyfi last month to see the Ospreys:  http://phototwynog.co.uk/the-fish-eagle

Still feeling  frustrated that I had failed to get the images I hoped for, I decided to try again before they departed for Africa. I didn’t quite get the iconic pictures of them fishing, but I did get some good flight shots, and wrote about it here:http://phototwynog.co.uk/return-to-the-dyfi  

I also wrote about the extension to this trip further south.  Here are a few different pictures. (Thrill riders in the sunset at St. Justinian, A mushroom breaks the surface at Skomer and Rabbits against the sea at Skomer)

The end of the month produced a rarity at Dinefwr – a Wood Sandpiper, and found me in my favourite lunch spot, the Kingfisher Hide. A typical report for an hour spent by this long, narrow oxbow lake at this time of year would be:

2 Mallards, 2 Moorhens and a Kingfisher!

However, at other times I have seen Otter, Great White Egret, Little Egret, Teal, nesting Coots, Redstart, Wren, Jay, Magpie, Greylag Goose, and lots of dragonflies. 

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Ramsey and Skomer (2nd of 2)

I have to keep coming back to these places, the islands off the coast of Pembrokeshire. Both, and their more elusive brother Skokholm, had, until this year, been closed since 2019. For Skokholm you have to book a stay, and I have done so twice, both times in August, the low season and the cheapest month. It’s a quiet time for the other two as well, with less boat trips and fewer people to disturb the tranquillity. Why? – simple: the puffins have gone!

Skokholm in August is fascinating because you have the time and the company of experts to get a real feel for the movements of the birds and the sea animals as the migration season gets under way and the seal pups arrive on the stony beaches.

Today, on Ramsey, there is little time. Because of the Spring tide the first boat is at 12 and the last out at 4. On the open boat we all have to wear masks in case the sea air blows some virus into our faces. Inside the stuffy cabin the crew are bare-faced. I smile under my mask. Once we scale the steep path up from the jetty, it’s fine and warm with drifts of sea mist creating new islands for a few minutes before drifting away like smoke. The old walls are dry and bleached at the end of summer, the dull bracken a muted backdrop to the vivid heather.

On both islands there are very steep cliffs and in Spring many of them are nosily alive with thousands of sea birds squabbling for nesting spaces on every tiny ledge. Now, it’s just the ever-present gulls and the stiff-winged fulmars drifting across and the colours and textures stand out as beautiful objects in their own right. Way below in the mist on the stony beaches the seal pups are being born.

This year the boat operators have found new ways to waste fossil fuel by taking groups of visitors at top speed around the island. Wow – look at the size of those engines! They slow down to creep into the bays and watch the silent cliffs for a few minutes and then off they go again churning up the sea to get the punters screaming. During my four hours I was seldom out of sight of one of these boats. Never mind, I’m sure the dolphins love them, and any disturbance to the sea bed is soon washed away by the notoriously fierce tide race between the islands and the mainland.

Later the mist descends in earnest the temperature drops and I need the extra layers I packed. I find I’m not enjoying trudging up the steep paths with the weight of my camera, lens and binoculars. With little to see, the walk back is dull – here a Chough contemplates an obelisk topped by a White Wagtail, and down by the jetty a Grey Seal poses above a sculptured rock. On the boat a piece of rope, frayed by the sea, is evolving into some form of marine life.

Back on land, I pack the van and head South. Some out-dated memory drifting around my decaying brain cells told me I didn’t need to book at the camp site near the harbour for Skomer. Of course, like everywhere else, it was full and the roads were heaving with holiday traffic. I had driven past a few campsite and now there was no choice left. I settled in by the roadside. Despite all the crowds there was happiness everywhere – the simple joy of friendly company in fine weather and glorious landscape, and of course relief from the iron grip of the pandemic restrictions.

On Skomer it was flat calm, no mist, and a perfect temperature. After the long trudge up to the centre I found that late summer had switched the island pallet from the dense blue and pink spring colours of the bluebells and campion to the rich yellow of ragwort, the deep purple of the Loostrife and a more subtle sprinkling of white camomile.

It wasn’t until I got to the top of the island and joined a few sea watchers that I began to feel the simple but profound pleasure of gazing out at a calm blue sea which itself was moving with the tide but was also the backdrop to the gannets and gulls which were slowly patrolling the surface. Amongst some rocks near the top of one of the massive cliffs along the Western side I found a place where I could tuck myself in and watch the sea and beach below while I ate my sandwich. A tiny white patch in the sea caught my attention and getting it into focus I found it was a seal pup learning to swim. Just like a young human it clearly didn’t like going underwater for long and kept flapping its fins to keep its head above the surface. A huge parent joined it from time to time to give encouragement, but for most of the time it was alone.

 

I was hoping to see Peregrines and this shape in the distance  looked promising. The camera showed it to be a Sparrowhawk, but it slid away on the breeze and began gaining height before I could get near enough for a decent picture.

There were rabbits, some White Campion, Choughs and more beautiful rocks but all too soon it was time to get back to the boat. The brief trip back was entertained by the Dale Sailings Seagull, a bird I had caught last time I was here and which has learnt that there is food to be had by being just that bit too close for the comfort of some of us.

 

 

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Return to the Dyfi

 

(And the Teifi – see below)

The swallows are lining up along the wires. The Swifts are screaming round the roofs one day and the next are a happy memory. What few cuckoos were around in July have long gone. Summer is winding down and the summer birds are heading south.

Not yet the Ospreys though. Before setting off again for Machynlleth and the Dyfi Osprey Project I checked their “live feed” from the nest platform. At least one of the  young, in full shiny adult plumage, was still there so I packed the van on Sunday and left at 6 on Monday morning. Breakfast was in the Co-op car park in Lampeter and I got to the site well before it opened at 10. I was here to prove that I could get really good pictures of these spectacular birds from 200 metres away, which is the distance from the Observatory tower to the nest platform. My last batch in late July were spoilt by heat haze; no danger of that on Monday. It was warm but cloudy. 

It seems likely that at least one of the parents has gone, and now that the young birds are expert flyers and capable of catching their dinner, there is less to keep them at the nest site. When I arrived there was no sign of them- just a crow, looking for fishy scraps.

Half an hour went by with no sign of them. A few holiday makers with borrowed binoculars were looking disappointed. Then as if by magic they were there – two of them, and I was able to get my pictures.

Job done and it was barely lunch time. In the afternoon I set off to explore Cwm Einion – the Anvil Valley. It was once a metal mining site and the steep little road led up from the restored water-powered iron works at Furnace. It’s a curious place, full of hazards like rocks, moss, bees and frogs:

 I  had another plan for Tuesday morning so I stayed at the friendly little campsite at Furnace. The plan involved another early start and a long walk carrying my big lens, camera, tripod, camouflage netting, a flask and some snacks. I spent two and a half hours crouched on an uncomfortable stool but it was worth it. I knew that Ospreys could catch large fish, but I didn’t know they could also hover.

To help cover the expense of the trip I also planned to visit three more places, all favourite destinations visited many times in the past: Teifi Wetlands at Cilgeran near Cardigan, Ramsey Island and Skomer Island. On the way South I caught the sunset at a campsite near Sarnau, and felt a twinge of envy at this group of happy campers:

I was not expecting to see much at Cilgerran, especially as the early morning stint coincided with low tide, and I was right, but I did meet and chat to this young woman who was quite inspiring:  CTWildlife – Wildlife artwork and photography  I was also astonished to see the new willow sculpture at the visitor centre across the valley – top picture.

Another interesting conversation was with plant grower and friend Charlie Warner who lives just outside Cilgerran. He was full of enthusiasm for his plants but my pictures of them were more successful than my attempts at catching his most characteristic expressions. More practice with people pictures needed.

I arrived at another favourite campsite  – St. Justinian outside St. Davids and the jumping off point for Ramsey. (The name is a reflection of the Viking influence on western coastal areas, and comes from Hravns Eye – Raven’s Island. St. Justinian, who was confessor to St. David, lived on the island.) It was heaving with people. I have never seen so many holiday makers in the whole area let alone this little hamlet. Extra campsites had sprung  up all round to cope with the unprecedented demand. I wonder how many of these new converts to UK travel are trying, like me, to squeeze out the last drops of diesel-fuelled pleasure before the reality of fossil fuel restrictions kick in? Or do most of them feel they have a right to go where they please when they please? They already know they have to book accommodation, but how long before we have to book parking spaces? How long before barriers go up on the roads to Cornwall as they have this year on the streets of Venice? How long before we realise that road travel is a privilege, not a right?

Still, it was a glorious evening and everyone was happy – at least until the clammy breath of the sea mist cooled down the barbecues and brought out the coats. There was no hurry tomorrow – because it was a Spring tide, the boat for the island couldn’t leave until Noon. The mist drifted away and I was content to watch the spectacular sunset and some other watchers.

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Green Hay

A few days ago I joined a group of National Trust volunteers and three of the team from Biophilic Wales in a sort of reverse hay-making operation. (BPW is a 3 year project with the primary aim of enhancing and restoring spaces where people can enjoy and be restored by the natural world.) Overseers were Stuart and Carol from the National Trust and Kathryn from BPW.

We were at Paxton’s Tower overlooking the National Botanical Gardens at Middleton, near Carmarthen. The tower is surrounded by traditional grassland and woods and enjoys spectacular views across the Towy Valley.

Here are Pete, Simon and Rob taking a short break from what must be one of the most bizarre operations in the arsenal of those trying to re-create a more natural environment. We were spreading “green hay”. The idea is to take freshly cut grass from a well-established flower meadow just as the seed is ripening, and spread it over grassland with much less diversity of plant life. It’s a natural way of broadcasting seed which not only benefits insects and the creatures that feed on them, but if subsequently managed properly, it regenerates the soil.   Oh, and it will look lovely! (Image from Carmarthenshire Meadows Group)

For me as a youngster, haymaking was part of life. A mower towed by a Fergie tractor with snickety to-and-fro blades and a swath board would leave a neat row of long grass as it moved round the field from the outside in. We village kids would stand around with catapults (and later guns) waiting for the rabbits trapped in the middle to make a run for it. After a day or two of drying, the hay was turned and when properly dry made into small oblong bales by a baler towed behind the same old tractor with its metal seat on a single leaf spring. We would follow the baler and stack the bales into small piles ready to be picked up by a trailer and taken to the barn. Once there they would be unloaded onto an elevator which lifted them up into the barn – our warm winter playground. It was a process which used a lot of man-and-boy hours but comparatively little oil-based mechanical horse-power. It was good healthy work in the open air surrounded by the glorious summer smell of drying hay, and something I looked forward to every summer.

Now the machines are much bigger with 200 horsepower not uncommon. The work is done by contractors who move from farm to farm with long queus of slow moving traffic behind them. Two men with two rigs will mow and turn a hundred acres, bale the hay into huge cylindrical bales, wrap the bales in plastic and finally use a powerful fork lift on a tractor to stack the bales in an outdoor dump site – a classic blot on the landscape.

What made the operation here so odd was that the Trust were using contractors with machines which towered over us to cut and deliver the grass.  We peasants with our pitchforks were working alongside mega horsepower in an operation which would be incomprehensible to the traditional farmers of my youth – all that work and no food to show for it! It was, Stuart explained, the first time they had done this at scale . There would be an opportunity to try different methods next year because the whole operation would need to be done again!

The horsepower kept us all waiting for an hour  then dumped 22 tons of grass, clover, knapweed, plantain, yellow rattle and lots more into huge piles which the peasants with their pitchforks had to spread before it began to heat up.

It was hard work. Stuart’s feet got hot and Ossian for one enjoyed lunch enhanced with two huge cakes baked by Carol.

It takes a special kind of person to persuade a group of people, most of them well into retirement, to do hours of hard unpaid manual labour in steep fields and send them home fulfilled and happy; well done Stuart, Carol and Kathryn!

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