Greetings Earthlings

“I bring  you tidings of . . . bits of meat! Eh . . .? Is there something more important?

Our relationship with Brian the Buzzard has survived the Christmas period. There were too many strange faces for him then and he flew off in a huff. Not for long though. We have a variable routine: some meat scraps on the high perch, a few on one of the lower feed platforms and then a few on the log which is barely 3 metres from where I am sitting in the Studio Hide. I’m hoping to tempt him even closer onto the deck, but so far he has preferred to move away and watch to see if I leave the scraps behind when I go.

Interestingly, although he looks like an eagle or a hawk, the little birds are not scared of him. Somehow they know his killer instinct is not strong, but they are happy to leave him his personal space as by far the biggest bird to visit the feeders. 

They would have felt very different about another bird of prey I came close to recently:

This was a female Sparrow Hawk  which had just caught a small bird near one of the paths at the Llanelli Wetlands Centre, and was rapidly plucking it. If this fearsome beast had turned up in the garden there would have been a mad dash for the bushes. Even one perching nearby last year was enough to banish all movement from the garden for a good ten minutes.

Brian features in the book I am just now preparing for printing. It’s called “The Deer, the Hare, the Osprey and the Buzzard – stories and picture from 2021” and has 40 pages of pictures and text in magazine style. 

Watch this space. 

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Farewell 2021

Thank you all who have read and commented on my posts this last year.

In a few  hours time we will be going through the ritual: games, chat, Jules Holland and Old Lang Syne. Instead of posting a “Best of December” I am working on a much more ambitious project: a full colour A4 hardback book of the year with hundreds of pictures, extracts from my blog posts and new writings. I will offer it for sale with the profits going to charity.  It’s a huge task but I’m confident it will be done and published in the next few weeks, so  please watch this space.

Happy New Year

 

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Brian and a Light Show

Sun setting over Cilycwm.

After my trip to Northern England I couldn’t get much inspiration for writing from the long succession of dull wet days that followed. The mornings are cold and late, the afternoons short and dreary, and ever looming is the threat and promise of Christmas. There are things about this strange period that I enjoy, but the underside is terrible – “Two million turkeys, 100 sq km of wrapping paper and more than 100,000 tonnes of plastic packaging will be binned on Christmas Day.” (According to the Independent, but other sources give 10 million turkeys in the UK, which is 19000 tonnes of turkey meat!). Why can’t we just have the good stuff – being with families, good local food and wine, singing  together, candle-light. I can do without an image of Christmas as re-invented to sell Coca Cola in 1931 (Santa)

See the source image

My Christmas came early. After finding some solace in my bird feeding and recording efforts last winter, I decided on a more elaborate scheme this year, with more feeding stations and two high platform feeders which I hoped would attract buzzards and kites.  It began in mid-November putting out seeds, peanuts, fat balls and peanut butter in small quantities and not every day. I also put a few meat scraps on one of the high feeders. This little beauty is a Marsh Tit:

The big surprise was the Jays. We’d never had them come to feeders before and now they were coming mob-handed – three of them at once! They cleaned up all the peanuts in minutes and then began on the meat scraps. Jays had a very good year last  year because of the bumper crop of acorns. Now there are hardly any acorns and there are too many Jays chasing too little winter food.I was enjoying doing my daily stint in my luxury bird hide, (the new studio /shed /summer house) counting the numbers of each species occurring together, and taking a few pictures. There was no sign of a buzzard or a kite, but I expected them to be keener after Christmas when food gets scarcer.

Then, with no warning last week Brian arrived. Of course it could be Briony but I’d just been watching Monty Python so it had to be Brian:

Next day he was there waiting, flew straight up to the platform and took a good ten minutes to eat up every scrap, wipe his beak, send out a huge squirt of guano and gently flap away. A few days later I managed to capture him flying. Now I’m hoping to get him even closer, but I’m also hoping his feeding will attract a kite.

If the coming of Brian The Buzzard is my Christmas present, then for my birthday – the 23rd – I had another early present: a light show. I’ve been doing odd jobs, such as making nest boxes, for the Dinas bird reserve up the valley. The Dinas is a conical hill.

The Welsh language developed without cities, so when the industrial revolution brought urban culture to Wales, they  had no word for City. Dinas means “fortress”  – near enough. It used to be so remote that the hero of Henry Fielding’s 1749 book “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling” aka Twm Sion Cati was able to avoid the irate father of his current squeeze by hiding in a cave here. Then in the 60s the dam was built and Llyn Brianne was created –  a reservoir to provide Swansea with water – so now there is a road and lots of visitors come in the summer, but in winter it is blissfully quiet, and feels very wild.

The latest volunteer job is a modification of a pheasant feeder which we hope might attract Yellowhammers, one of the formerly common farmland birds whose numbers are in steep decline.  I took some seeds – wheat, oats, kibbled maize etc and set it up on a little patch of ground near the car park. Then, in mid-afternoon I set off walking round the circuit. It’s a fairly challenging walk and the combination of cold air, exercise and the most wonderful light was the best tonic I could have asked for.

Thanks to those of you who read these pieces, and especially to those who give feedback. I’m working hard on a picture book with selections from the last year, so watch this space.

Merry Christmas

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Wilderness, Industry and a Small Space

The wet and windy edges of our land are calling me. It’s hostile territory for us but out there on the bleak mudbanks and salt marshes is the best place to be if you are a bird with a long beak and have flown south from the arctic to find food. So, I pack my warm clothes, food, cameras, lenses, tripod, phone and laptop for the last trip of the year. For the next 5 days and nights home will be my old Citroen Relay campervan. I will be living in about 6 square metres of space and I can reach almost all I need without leaving my seat! That’s never a problem during the day when I am out walking and watching and taking pictures. But now at the arse-end of the year, unless it’s sunny it begins to get dark at 3:30 and there’s barely enough light to see at 7:30 am.  That’s 15 hours of darkness in a small space! Sometimes I’m in a campsite, sometimes a lay-by on a quite country road.

Really it’s not that bad. I turn the heating on, put up the thermal blinds, lock the doors and forget where I am. I can easily spend a couple of hours editing pictures. If there is a phone signal I can tether the phone to the laptop and do some emails and read the news. The meal takes a while – finding places to put things while cooking, assembling the washing up, organising hot water. I put my feet up and read for a while, and if I have remembered to download some films I can watch them on the laptop. Sleep is seldom more than 7 hours, with breakfast around 6, but the remaining 90 minutes of darkness is when I am at my most alert for writing and editing.

On this trip I’m heading north, up through the marches of Wales towards Chester. My first destination is actually Conwy, but soon after leaving home I find the space heater is playing up. I know this temperamental beast by now having pandered to its foibles for the last 5 years, and I soon find what the problem is: the heater exhaust is kinked. In Llandrindod I buy a new Mole Grip spanner and get to work. Heating restored! However, by mid afternoon the light is fading and I’m still on the route towards Chester so I change my itinerary on a whim and next morning find myself looking, in the low golden light, over the estuary of the Dee. Here are the birds, and here, as so often in these places, is the heavy industry. I don’t know this area but in many of my more familiar nature reserves the marshland or saltmarsh has been reclaimed from industry. There is to me a satisfying bleakness about both.

In the afternoon I find myself at a place called Parkgate. There is a long straight road with posh houses on one side and a huge area of saltmarsh – which belongs to the RSPB – on the other. The road was once the seafront but the channel moved away, the silt moved in and “The Parade” as it’s called is now a viewing area for the bird people. At the point where the road turns away from the saltmarsh there is a pub, and just beyond it a car park with a height restriction. It is by the wall of this car park that most of the bird people congregate. Since I can’t get in, I park by the roadside and use the van as a hide. The birds are a long way off but I can use “focus magnify” and lens extenders to use the camera like a telescope. There are certainly lots of birds out there and I take lots of pictures. Some are of geese coming in to land, but I’ve got many better pictures of similar subjects so relegate them to the two star “just worth keeping” category. The same applies to my Harrier pictures, and only the Kestrel, positively glowing in the golden light, is really good.

Having traded a meal in the pub with a night in their car park,  my next destination is one of my great favourites: the city of Lancaster and the area just to the north – Arnside and Silverdale. It’s limestone country, the rock jutting out of the fields and the soil chemistry producing a distinctive mix of trees and plants where butterflies flourish. At Gibraltar Farm campsite the stony fields sweep down to the tide flats of Morcambe Bay, and just around the corner is the great Leighton Moss reserve which has it all – tidal lagoons for the waders, and a huge area of marshland edged and infiltrated by scrubby woodland. As well as all the ducks and geese, harriers and herons, egrets great and small, there are deer and otters lurking in the woods and the pools. It even has a railway station – just one stop on from Carnforth, the location for “Brief Encounter.”

In the morning I watch a spring tide slowly submerging the patches of land amongst the pools by the estuary. My hope is that all those distant swirling flocks of waders will move in closer as the waters rise. Not so. They  have better places to go, and when I leave there are few birds to be seen at all. So to lunch in the van and on to the opposite end of the reserve where I park by the roadside and walk the mile or so to the most remote hide on the reserve. This is where I have several times seen otters, but I’m still hoping for the best shot yet of a Marsh Harrier. 

The light was so special that even common birds look as if they are posing in a studio: Now back home at the big screen I am disappointed. Did I get my shot? Not quite, but tracking birds in flight at a distance is very difficult and the thrill of pressing the shutter when the little green square shows on your subject is unbeatable. This will do for now:

The other great thrill of digital wildlife photography is finding, during editing, an image you hadn’t expected. As I pored over the dozens of pictures from Parkgate, I realised I had captured two really special birds. The ordinary geese turned out to be Pink-foots, who breed in Iceland and come here in small numbers for the winter- the dark neck is the clue, plus small beaks when you can see them.Even more gratifying were the Harrier pictures. Fifty years ago I used to watch Hen Harriers on Salisbury Plain, and have seen them more recently in Orkney and in France, but thanks partly to persecution by gamekeepers they are now rare in England and Wales. The males are a gorgeous pale grey with black wingtips, and the females brown. Marsh Harriers were almost extinct in Britain when I was a boy but thanks to the conservation organisations they are now common in many marshland areas. The bird I was tracking was brown, but to my surprise and delight I found when I came to edit the pictures properly that the bird was a female Hen Harrier. Here she is with the kestrel. Who says brown is dull?

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More from the Celestial Lighting Engineer

November: it’s a month that needs sun. I crave the clear skies, frosty, misty  mornings, and that special low light on the dying leaves. I had been occupying myself with planning an ambitious trip to Scotland but then cancelled my early bird bookings because the ratio between the risk of serious discomfort and cost was out of balance – both far too high. Sorry eagles, I’ll see you another day. 

So it was back to the home turf,  “patching” as the “togs” call it. (Why do we need jargon? What’s the use of it – to exclude outsiders? Save time?) I was lucky enough to catch the CLE (see title) at his or her most inspired on a the few occasions when the clouds dispersed.

At the beginning of the month, driving back from an exhausting trip to Sussex cleaning and de-cluttering my oldest cousin’s decrepit cottage, we came head on to the most spectacular double rainbow forming a complete arch above the motorway. This poor phone picture gives a hint of what it was like. When we arrived home the tail of it had followed us.

On an early misty morning I trudged out into the flood plain at Dinefwr park. The bird life was little in evidence, but the light through the mist was wonderful.

On the left of the picture is the jetty which was built before the Normandy Landings so that the troops stationed at Dinefwr could practise embarking and disembarking. They couldn’t go anywhere – it’s a lake! A few days later, on my way to Carmarthen,  I stopped at Dryslwyn castle to see if there were any wintering birds there. As I arrived at the car park the mist lifted and the trees by the river were suddenly transformed. There were no unusual birds around but the landscape provided a striking background for a big flock of Canada Geese, another of distant gulls and, decorating the trees, some Jackdaws. As I returned to the car, a flock of Greylag Geese flew over complete with textbook evocative calls. The first week of the month showed a reasonable number of shiny sun icons in the online weather forecast so I was off again before the inevitable rain set in – up to Dinas RSPB reserve near the head of the valley, and  just in time to catch the late afternoon sun. Next door to the car park is the lovely old St. Paulinus’ church with its highly photogenic graveyard. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Daniel Theophilus (gravestone at the front) are still around. Quite when their more distant ancestor arrived in Cilycwm from Greece seems to be uncertain. “A long time ago” should cover it but no doubt friend Will T will correct me if I’m wrong. As I left the shadows were moving in and it was beginning to get cold, but I was happy to have caught some of the magic of November before winter set in. 

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