Best of March 2021

Since I helped dismantle the old one, the new hide which overlooks the big oxbow lake below Dinefwr Castle has been open all the time. I could have gone there every week last summer and kept up my records of the birds there, but knowing that the gate to the deer park was locked and I had no volunteer role, it just felt too sad.

All that changed when I had a request from the new county Ranger Stuart MacDonell to make some nest boxes, and even better, to put them up, so March began with a joyful walk round the deer park and a session counting the birds on the lake again:

1 Great White Egret

1 Heron

12 Pintails (a first)

14 Mallards

145 Wigeon

10 Gadwall

4 Coots

4 Tufted Duck

1 Shoveler

2 Teal

2 Mute Swans

In 2019 I tired to make a case for a big reduction in deer numbers, but it didn’t seem to get anywhere, and with the collapse in venison prices due to the closure of restaurants, I feared numbers would be even higher, so I was delighted to hear that, on the contrary numbers had been substantially reduced, and so had the supplementary feeding.

I soon noticed a change – to something more like natural deer behaviour, with all the does together in one group instead of half of them hanging around with the blokes. Here is the bucks group well away from their previous hang-out.

Winter visits to the river can yield long periods when the only living things to be seen have roots*, but this punky Goosander and an unexpected Tree Creeper raised the spirits.

On  the tenth, a promise of sunshine finally gave me an incentive to get up on the mountain. As usual in the winter it was cold, empty and silent but beautiful as ever.

Back at the feeders in the garden, I made up some peanut butter balls, and discovered specialist metal Niger seed feeders. What quarrels these provoked!  The Starlings went mad for the peanut butter, and the Goldfinches loved the Niger feeders. We soon had up to eight of them fighting it out for access! With their dark red faces they do look angry but I’d no idea they were so quarrelsome – these are not kissing!

After long gaps between the first sod turned and the beginning of the build, real progress on our new multi-purpose shed was made. It is to be a bird hide, a photo studio and a summer house. I was very pleased to find a local supplier of Douglas Fir waney edge boards.

Two days after travel within Wales was allowed, the forecast look good for a trip to the coast, as described here: http://phototwynog.co.uk/gannets-and-porpoises  It was a glorious break and to celebrate, here is another Gannet for you.

On the last day of the month I slashed my way through the brambles and set up a hide again at another favourite place further up the Towy valley. I didn’t expect to see much, so was pleased enough with this common pied wagtail.*OK lichens don’t have roots but you get the drift. 

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Gannets and Porpoises

Travel within Wales allowed again; fine weather forecast after Monday, and the campsite at Martins Haven, Pembrokeshire, open – no booking required. I could drive down in the rain on Monday morning and be set up ready for the sun to arrive in the afternoon. With warm weather would come the migrant birds and I hoped to see bushes full of them – “a landfall” in the jargon.  How good this all felt!

Just one problem: the van had been left standing for, um, 6 weeks; not enough charge in the battery to start the motor and it was facing the wrong way to jump start it from the car.  No problem, I could jump start it from the two leisure batteries which supply light, pumps and gas ignition to the van. They were low, and nearing the end of their lives, but at least I could charge them from the mains.

Monday morning: rain, cold, but the batteries are charged; link them to the van battery with jump leads and turn the key: one heave and a click. Hmm. Get help from Andy the electrical wizard. Andy brings another battery and a mains charger. We try various combinations, but nothing will get that motor going. It’s now late morning so I decide to leave everything on charge until after lunch and if no joy then, call the Home Start breakdown insurance. Two nice men arrived from miles away with a little black box which they attached to the battery and immediately started the motor.

So it was that around 4 pm I finally drove off to Pembrokeshire, and after 13 weeks of lockdown that in itself was a result. When I arrived I was the only vehicle on the campsite. I parked up overlooking the sea and saw a hint of sunlight over towards Skomer. It  was cold and damp but with the promise of better things to come.

The next morning a misty  sun had indeed arrived, but it was still cold when, as soon as it was light enough, I walked along the coast path to the little harbour where the Skomer and Skokholm boats go from, then up to the “Deer Park” the head of the peninsula which is walled off and was originally just that. By the gate is an area popular with small birds, and here they were, the first of my summer visitors – Blackcap, Wheatear, and a Chiffchaff taken in the same spot later when the light was much better.

The cliff edge along the South was raked by a cold wind, but the birds I expected to see here soon appeared. I spent a long time slowly approaching them until I was taking pictures from just a few yards away. I needn’t have bothered. This pair of Choughs is so used to people they carried on feeding until I offended them by moving away. Then they gave a huffy flying exhibition.

It was beginning to warm up as I walked back for some coffee; warm enough for this Linnet to take a bath.

Rested and refreshed I set out again: rucksack, big lens, tripod, sandwich, coffee. Soon I was competing for footpath space with a dozen or so other sea-seekers as I headed to the highest point on the peninsula where there was a good view of the straits between here and Skomer Island. I found a good spot where I could set up the tripod and spend the next 90 minutes or so. I watched a Harbour Porpoise, which on looking at the pictures turned out to be 2. One or two hefty grey Seals cruised below the cliffs. A solo Razorbill raced across the open sea and a young Cormorant and a Guillemot fished in the tide race.

Always there were gulls drifting south in the morning, north in the evening, but the stars of the show were the Gannets. How did I end up with 100 Gannet pictures? I just can’t resist them. They are sublimely unaware of their charisma and just sail to and fro looking majestic and inscrutable. Only once did I see one dive and of course missed the shot, but they had made my day.

Even the discovery that the sink tap in the van had failed – leaving me with no available water – didn’t spoil my day. It didn’t matter; I would be back home in time for my much postponed haircut. The Gannets could do without me for a few more weeks.

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A Shed for all Purposes

Except for the oddly positioned windows, and of course the still missing roof, this looks like something the fashionable garden aspires to. It’s the garden office, the man cave, the studio, the summer house. It could even become a Tiny House or an Amazing Space. Ah, we are so Right On here at Ty Jarman!

Well, it could be seen as any or all of those things, but it’s actually a symbol of a commitment we have made to this area and this community. Towards the end of last year as the weather and the health of the world grew darker, we began to think seriously about where we wanted to be as old age gnawed away at our health and abilities. Thelma has problems with her sight and had always said that if she lost her driving licence she would not want to be stuck in a place with no public transport. In January 2020 we finally sold the house in Llandovery we had reluctantly owned since 2008, so we had some extra funds and now, in 2021 we have lived here longer here (10 years) than anywhere else since we got together in the late eighties.  As in so many other ways, when it came to moving house, our preferences were wildly different. I yearned for wilderness, she for the comfort of family and community. We have family in Western England and Eastern Wales so somewhere around Abergavenny seemed a good compromise. With Ty Jarman valued at a promising figure we began our property search centred on the pleasant little town of Crickhowell. (Internet picture)It was a depressing experience. At the lower end of our price range were cramped “modernised” terraces or ugly bungalows. At the top end the houses got bigger but were just as ugly. The sort of old houses with nice gardens which make places like this so appealing to wander round were simply not for sale. After two day-trips before Wales closed down in mid December, it was Thelma who first gave up. In January I was still dreaming of a patch of land by an estuary where I could build my shed or park my van and watch the birds. I desperately wanted to buy my way out of the boredom of our lockdown winter, and came close to buying a new camper van. Perhaps instead I could organise my life better – set strict goals like “read poetry every day, practice lip-reading, walk the lanes for an hour”. I did make one appallingly expensive purchase – a top-end telephoto lens, the Sony 400 f2.8. Two months later I’m still not sure if I regret it, and I’m still not sure if I have really achieved the profound change in outlook which the man cave represents. If I have, then it was feeding the birds which changed me. I wrote about it here http://phototwynog.co.uk/embracing-the-familiar . Part of the reason it became a much deeper experience than I expected was down to the lens, so perhaps I was right to buy it, but it could also be seen as a step backwards in a long trek towards a way of life which should elevate gratitude for what I have over striving for something better.

It has been written that  you should never go for a country walk with a naturalist because they will show you what has been lost, and the more I study the natural world, the more I grieve for this loss. For the first time last year there were no House Martins nests in the village. There have been no Yellowhammers at our feeders for several years, and in the 5 years I have been watching and recording the wildlife on our river, the Towy, I have never seen a fish. During our first lockdown in the Spring of 2020 I walked the lanes for hours and marvelled at the silence – no cars, but also no birds singing. You can spend hours on the mountain and see nothing wild but an occasional kite, raven or meadow-pipit but thousands of sheep. When I travel to Scotland or to one of the Pembrokeshire Islands, or to any of the hundreds of Nature Reserves in Britain, I see a very different, much more bio-diverse world.

These are Choughs on Skokholm Island.

But those places are not home. This village, these mountains, these fields, woods, forests and rivers, they’re beautiful, friendly, peaceful, and safe. My experiment with systematic bird feeding opened my eyes to the beauty and fascination of the “ordinary” birds in our gardens. I thought the big flood in February had washed away all our frogs but they came back and now the pond is full of tadpoles. I have several amazing places where I can set up temporary hides and watch Kites, Dippers, Geese, Dabchicks and lots more. Best of all we have so many friends right here in the village, and even more in the small towns and villages of northern Carmarthenshire. To add the icing to the cake Cilycwm has a great pub and we are all keeping our fingers crossed that it will soon be open again. 

The summer house is me putting some of our money and a lot of my labour where my mouth is, because it will also be a bird hide and a place where I can expand my creative endeavours to include  portrait photography and even perhaps another craft like sewing (!) Wish me luck.

 

 

 

 

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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 http://phototwynog.co.uk/catching-the-bomb-run  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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The Best of February 2021

This was meant to be a remote control close up of frogs spawning. Instead I found an extraordinary image. It was one of several surprises buried inside larger pictures that helped me keep sane during an otherwise dreary February.I took a landscape shot of the Towy on a cold morning, and discovered an ice spear! (see above) Here is the original:

Just a few days ago the crocuses were at their best, and there was this tiny fly in one of them.

The early part of the month saw my feeders project hit the jackpot with some nice shots of our local buzzard and some of the local kites. Unfortunately by mid February they had lost interest and after a week or so of feeding crows, I gave up.

I bought some animal food peanut butter (unsalted) and once the starlings discovered it dozens of them piled in with some spectacular aerial squabbles. Late winter brought more siskins, a bird I only got to know a few years ago, and now find irresistible:A completely unexpected visitor was a Redwing. I photographed them quite easily in their breeding grounds in Iceland, but here,  as winter visitors, they are shy and usually stay in flocks.

Another bird I was able to get close to in Iceland was the Golden Plover – this is a male in his spectacular breeding plumage:Coming back from a hospital appointment in Carmarthen, I spotted a small flock of them, part obscured  by bushes in a distant field at Dryslwyn:There were plenty of Chaffinches in the garden, and I find their expression in close up particularly appealing.Among the regulars, one pair of Collared Doves have clearly adopted the garden and went round collecting sticks and chasing off any intruders.The Robins, too show fierce territorial aggression, and this one was shouting his message from way up in the tree tops.I’ve got pictures of daffodils and snowdrops, but I prefer to end the month with more crocuses and another unexpected fly!

 

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