A Dream of Hares

I am standing, or sitting, on a balcony. It is very early on a midsummer morning. Beneath me is a garden and beyond the garden is nothing. The garden, golden in the early light, has tidy rows of fertile vegetable beds and there are flowers and neat, low box hedges. It’s not my garden. My garden is  scruffy and overgrown.

A magical, wonderful wild creature appears – a hare. It is there, below us on our balcony. Joy wells up. There is some special magic about hares, and now there is another one. Where is my camera? I long to capture these mysterious beasts. They move closer, a slow lolloping gait which quickly covers the ground, and now there are more – three, no five hares all so close, just below me and the friends who are with me.

We are so excited. Oh, if only I had my camera with me, but I don’t keep the camera in the bedroom, and I can’t tell from the light around the blind if it is a bright clear morning or yet another one of grey drizzle. I’m half inclined to lie here in the afterglow of the dream, but I get up and draw the blind. It’s grey and I wish I had stayed in bed. Too late now; I wrap myself in a dressing gown, go downstairs, brew some tea, wash and get dressed. It’s now five thirty.  The ground is wet with recent rain but it’s warm and there is sunlight and I decide to look for hares.

Hares have a much higher place in our esteem than their cousins the rabbits. Rabbits don’t jump over the moon, or change into witches or run at 45 miles per hour, or go mad in March or have boxing matches. When I was young, living in rural Wiltshire and much influenced by the books of Phil Drabble – he of “One Man and his Dog” fame – I used to hunt hares with a lurcher dog. Lurchers are the poacher’s dog, bred from one of the “long dogs” seen in medieval hunting pictures – greyhound, deerhound, wolfhound, borzoi, saluki, – and a supposedly more intelligent species such as collie. The idea was to breed a dog which could match the hare’s uncanny ability to turn at right angles at top speed and “lurch”  sideways with the hare. In my brief experience the hare almost always escaped. Hares were plentiful on the Downs then and I saw no harm in killing a few for the pot. However, when we proudly served jugged hare to one of our friends she refused to eat it on the grounds that it was a sacred animal!

The name “Harrier” is the hare version of “Rabbiter” and is applied to those wonderful birds which hunt over open ground and to a forerunner of the Beagle, dogs bred for their scenting ability and stamina which could hunt a hare to exhaustion. Until last autumn I had not seen a hare round here for 10 years or more, and was delighted then to spot one on the “fridd”, the marginal land between farm and mountain. Recently I have seen two. This is almost certainly because, under lockdown, I am spending a lot more time in my locality. Twice in the last 2 weeks I have seen and caught the image of a hare in an area of ordinary grass fields intersected by a narrow lane, just ten minutes walk from the house. The first, with an ear missing, was close but close to the wrong lens and the blown-up image was poor. The second saw me coming before I could take the picture and was soon too far away for a good image. 

This time I walk briskly through the deserted village until I approach a field gate in the hedge. Then I go into stalking mode – slow deliberate movements and long pauses. I carefully scan the first two fields – nothing. I walk on and repeat the operation – still nothing. Then I have reached the rough track where I saw the first hare, the one with one ear. There are no hares today, but walking back I spot these sparrows (Mum and two teenagers) jostling for a place on a post. I didn’t really expect to find the perfect shot and I’m quite happy with the sparrows.



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A Fresh Perspective

This post is a departure from my usual format in that it refers to a Gallery of pictures. If you hover over each picture you will see my notes on them:  Wildlife and Lockdown

It follows on from two previous posts: The Joy of Local and Lockdown Frustrations

All the places where these pictures were taken were accessed either by bike or walking or both. I crossed private land only with the permission of the landowners.

There was a period in May when I got depressed abut the “quality” and quantity of the wild creatures I could watch and photograph in this area so dominated by a sheep monoculture. It’s good practice and good for the soul to photograph Jackdaws and Robins, but doesn’t get the adrenalin going. Then a few things happened. I began to realise that I was finding creatures I thought were lost to the area or ones I didn’t know about, so I’ve collected a representative sample from April, May and June, and begun to realise that my “Patch” isn’t that bad after all!

Please have a look at the gallery. The pictures are in date order and begin with the first swallow – always a red letter day for me. Taking a fresh look at common birds like the Dunnock, Magpie and Jackdaw is well worth the effort, but the hedgehog image took a lot of preparation and was the most rewarding, even though I wasn’t there to see it. The only rarity amongst the birds and insects was the Wood Warbler, but the real thrill in that picture was identifying the long trills which mark out its song, and the gorgeous environment of the Pisgotwr valley up in Mallaen mountain.

I had my hide up at a local lake for the pictures of Canada geese, Little Grebes and ducklings. These are all species you can see in city parks, but here there were no people and the splashing of the geese chasing each other, the long trilling call of the Grebe and the song of the Blackcap were the only sounds breaking the silence.

The Song Thrush was in a wild little valley way up beyond Rhandirmwyn – the Gwenffrwd. Again the context made is special.

All the insects shown were in our garden, and it is especially gratifying to see the dragonflies and damselflies returning after the old pond was emptied and a new wider and deeper one created. It is astonishing how quickly the previous occupants – water beetles, whirligig beetles, frog and toad tadpoles, water skaters, newts et al – returned.

I now have three locations on the river where I can either use the pop-up hide or remain partially concealed, and the Goosanders, Wagtails, Vole, Squirrel and Buzzard were all caught by or near the river. Discovering the Bank Vole – a species I had barely heard of – was a big bonus, but it wasn’t until I saw Old Father Hare that I realised I now had photographed a really satisfying selection of wildlife.

Here in Wales infection rates in the densely populated areas are still high so it may be a few more weeks before we are able to travel again, but whereas I feel sorry for my friends in the Valleys and the cities, I no longer feel sorry for myself!





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The Joy of Local

This piece is about birds, but it’s also about being confined to my locality and the new mind-set I’m trying to embrace. I wrote a long introductory piece, but some might find it a bit heavy so I’ve made it an optional read here: http://phototwynog.co.uk/The%20Frustrations%20of%20the%20Local

Above is a picture of a common bird in a common tree. it’s a Chiffchaff, perched in a Alder, one of the many Small Brown Jobs (SBJ) relegated to the second division by the Birding community. To me this bird is special, but why should it be any more special than that other SBJ, the House Sparrow? That’s an easy one to answer because the Chiffchaff is one of our first summer visitors. It’s the herald of spring. I photographed one of the early arrivals at Kidwelly in March:

So why bother catching it again? Partly it is the excitement of the whole concept of migration – the enormous distances these little birds can travel and the romance of distant lands and the journey. I also think they are beautiful in their own right, and they are on my “Patch”. I now have to introduce a nasty bit of birder jargon – “Patching.” This has nothing to do with sticking on patches but refers to the study of your local patch and its avian inhabitants. Suddenly this is the only kind of bird-watching now available to almost all of us. Springwatch rises to the occasion, but I find it hard spending hours looking at areas which in previous years I would have dismissed as lacking in quantity and quality of wildlife. “Quality”? What does that mean? Is a chiffchaff of higher quality as a species than say a Dunnock? It’s a good question. Why for example would we be prepared to spend good money to see a Red Squirrel or a Pine Marten but would not cross the road to see their close relations the Grey Squirrel and the Mink? The first two are native species and rare, the latter introduced and common. The Native has more charisma than the Introduced, the Wild has more than the Domestic and the Rare more than the Common.

Take Canada Geese. (Yes please and as far away as possible). Here they are in April:

They are a familiar sight anywhere there is water and have become a pest in some cities. In their native North America they are migratory and their haunting cries from high above as they set off or return must be as exciting to birders in their homeland as the cries of our migrant geese such as the White Fronted are to us. 

Yet I now find myself keen to study and photograph these common birds. There are four geese here. The males are apparently bigger than the females, but not otherwise distinct. They divide into two pairs, though I don’t know if the pairs are male and female or both the same sex. One pair is dominant – those on the right – and bullies the other pair. The two pairs were still chasing each other around on the 11th of May, but all 4 birds stayed on the lake for the whole time I watched which led me to believe that they were not nesting pairs.

With permission from the landowner I set up my pop-up hide by the lake, though not anticipating much in the way of excitement. My next visit on the 25th was therefore quite a shock. Only two adult geese were in evidence; they were clearly a pair and clearly looking after their 5 well-grown goslings. I still don’t understand how 4 geese without a nest between them became a pair with young. Normal nesting behaviour for geese would be for one bird to stand guard – usually the male – while the other incubates the eggs. When the goslings hatch the pair would stay with them to adulthood. How had these 5 got to be here? Why did I think my patch wasn’t interesting?

It got better too. Another common bird on lakes is the Little Grebe or Dabchick. I’ve taken many pictures of these cute relatives of the more charismatic Great Crested Grebe, but I’d never seen them with young before let alone juvenile hitch hikers. Then a strange sound which took me immediately to the wild places of the north – the rippling trill which is the Grebes’ song. I was enchanted:

Further up the valley is a bend in the river which can only be reached on foot by beating a way through the undergrowth of a large patch of land which had been left untended for years. With encouragement from the landowner I moved the hide up here to a little pebble beach where on previous trips I had watched nothing much more than the water flowing, but it was an idyllic spot and it was still the breeding season. To get the hide there I had to strap it to a rucksack already laden with camera gear and cycle the three miles from home. As soon as I had it assembled I stepped inside, unzipped the small “windows” and lowered the mesh screens which enable me to see but not be seen. I waited an hour, taking pictures of the birds I expected to see. As well as Mallards which can be seen pretty much anywhere there is water, there are three species which are quite common along the upper Towy – Dipper, Grey Wagtail and Pied Wagtail. These are occasionally joined by the more charismatic but still quite common Goosander and in the summer by Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs and with luck a Spotted Flycatcher. I had for years been watching and studying Dippers nearer to home, and had also once, on different occasions seen an otter, a mink and a weasel. The wagtails and the dipper showed up, but there was a thrilling surprise – another bird quite common elsewhere but not here: a Common Sandpiper.

My next trip struck gold. The birds were now used to the hide and after a half-hour wait the Sandpiper popped up just in front of me. It was too close and I missed focus. Agony!

Then things got exciting:

A Goosander and something I had never seen before – Goosanderlings!
They seemed to be in a hurry to get away so I thought they must have been frightened by the movement of the camera lens. Not so. The hide was working as it should. Fifteen minutes later they were heading back towards me and spent another ten minutes exploring the area in front of the hide:

My day was made. The common had been made special.

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Dawn in May

It’s all the fault of that man Blair Jones, The Wildlife Occulus .  He is a fellow bird photographer who lives near one of my favourite places – Goldcliffe Lagoons near Newport. He’s been blogging about taking sunrise and sunset pictures on either side of the valley where he lives. Since I regularly wake ridiculously early I should be able to do the same. This is not a competition you understand: I cling to the conviction that I am not the competitive type. I never use an alarm. If I need to wake even earlier than my normal five o’clock I just remind my subconscious before I sleep – never fails. Any excuse to deprive me of sleep in the morning is eagerly latched onto by the bit of my brain which lurks in the shadows of the conscious mind.

I load up camera, long lens, wide angle lens and tripod. There’s a frost again so I dress with several layers, a woolly hat and thin merino gloves. On my doorstep it seems excessive, but not for long. At 4:15 it’s light enough to see, and my footsteps echo between the closed and curtained houses. Only the birds can outdo my boots – a glorious cacophony of avian testosterone. Apart from the ubiquitous blackbirds, one of the noisiest in our garden has been a Garden Warbler. I was delighted to find, first where the amazingly loud and melodious sounds were coming from, and then to catch him in mid-tweet:

That was yesterday; now I’m wishing I had put warmer clothes on, but there’s no going back; light is increasing rapidly and I need to move fast, both to warm up and to get my sunrise pictures. I make a brief detour up a side road where I know I can get a view of the village:

Something has gone wrong with the sun. It should be rising opposite my bedroom window in the dip in the horizon below the moon in this picture, but it’s shifted northwards, exposing how little I know about the movement of celestial bodies. After the stony track to Penstacan where I have permission to walk up the hill, I’m through a gateway and feeling the slope pushing the blood around my body and warming it. Two fields further and a lot higher I’m finally in position, but, mocking my rapid climb, the sun is in no great hurry to rise above the northeasterly hill where the light is strongest. I have time to adjust the tripod, set the exposure on a ten second delay to stop any movement, and press the shutter. The air is warmer here and the bluebells are unharmed.

The new fronds of bracken, all blackened and drooping in the valley, are green and vibrant here. The frost has rolled off the hills and gathered itself together in the valley where all the young vegetables are, just waiting to be wilted.

In the distance are the Carmarthenshire beacons – the Western outpost of the Brecon beacons. Now here is the sun:

It’s still in the wrong place, and why isn’t the sky all red like Blair’s pictures? These problems swim around in my head for a while. It seems unlikely that the sun has changed its trajectory, but  quite possible that I’ve never looked out of the bedroom window at this time in May. As to the colour, Blair lives in the Valleys. There are towns, cities, people, industry and traffic – the air is thicker. Here there is no pollution, the air is thin and pure – and boring.

A cuckoo calls and so does breakfast so I take a last long shot of the beacons and head for home.

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The Fisherman’s valley

Yesterday, before anyone was around, in cool sunlight I unfolded my folding bike and rode to the point where the Pisgotwr river runs into the Towy. A “pisgotwr” is a fisherman, but I have never seen a fish in the river, and the signs indicating angling beats are decayed and derelict. There is a road sign with one arm which points on up the valley to Llyn Brianne and one which points over a new wide ugly metal bridge over the Towy to Troedyrhiw (foot of the slope). A few hundred metres upstream is the new pumping house for the privately owned hydro scheme which is scarring the valley and silting the river.

When I first discovered this place in mid-seventies it was magical. I spent many hours as a volunteer nest guard watching the big cliff above the Pisgotwr called Craig Clungwyn where peregrine falcons had nested for countless years.

I once watched one of the birds stoop on a flight of racing pigeons hurrying down the valley. There was a brief flutter of feathers and one less bird flew on. There are no peregrines there now, though they are still around. Instead there is a kestrel.  Peregrines now find more food in the towns and cities than out here, but kestrels, driven from their roadside verges by pesticides, find refuge in the mountains.

All around are the great  hanging oak woods of the upper Towy, last refuge in the first decades of the twentieth century for the Red Kite. It was from the top of Craig Clungwyn on a bright March day 45 years ago that I saw my first Red Kite, and to make the experience unforgettable, it flew beneath me fox-red against the dull greens of the valley. The 120 year story of the re-establishment of the kite is an inspiring conservation success, but it hangs in parallel with big declines in other species.  Crows and Ravens though are flourishing here on the great bounty of sheep carrion spread across these hills. Further up the valley, by the little wooden bailey bridge, a path leads on to the rough old cottage we bird volunteers used to sleep in. Over the bridge and further on there were sandpipers bobbing from stone to stone, and in early spring great orgies of frogs mating. Now this sturdy cob stared at me but did not move:

The road winds uphill and the path branches. On the right a track leads up over the mountain to the isolated Soar y Mynedd chapel. In the seventies there was no road up there and I spent an hour or so talking to a tramp-cum-hermit who lived in the preacher’s cottage attached to it. On the left it runs through a farm yard and on to Troed-rhiw-cymmer, (foot of the confluence slope) a small farm with a heavenly view then owned by a family from the English midlands called Voyle who became friends. In later visits they lent ponies to my children so that they could experience the lovely Doethie river which joins the Pisgotwr at the confluence. There is a footpath through this little valley which climbs np over the hill and also leads to the chapel. Here, in the 70s I saw Merlin nesting, a Ring Oozel and once even a Golden Eagle, though at the time I thought it must have been a buzzard. Many years later I discovered that it was indeed a falconers eagle called Random.

The biggest change of all, and the one that led to all the others, was the building of the Llyn Brianne dam in the sixties. Having discovered the area ten years after it was built I can only imagine how remote and mysterious it must have been before then, but I also learnt how hard life was for the scattered farms by talking to those who had moved down the valley. There was little regret amongst the local community when the dam was built. Nobody was thrown off their land, and the winters up there were cruel.

Much has been lost, but this is still an intensely beautiful and peaceful place, and on a sunny morning in early May it is alive with birdsong. I locked the bike to a post and began to walk, binoculars and camera slung on either side and a pack with a flask, a snack, an extra garment and a few essentials: notebook, pen, phone, pocket knife. There were two birds I particularly wanted to see, one of which I had never photographed. They are both summer visitors little seen further east: Pied Flycatcher and Wood Warbler. Every year for the past few  years I have made 50 new nestboxes for the RSPB Dinas reserve, just over the river, and all intended to attract even more Pied Flycatchers. I didn’t see any so conclude that they are still in transit. I did though chalk  up the first Spotted Flycatcher of the year and a Balckcap living up to its reputation as the poor mans Nightingale with its loud and melodious song.

Though it is yellower, the Wood-Warbler is not easy to tell apart from the Willow Warbler except by its song which has a distinctive trill. Slowly walking through an open canopy of fresh spring-green oak and birch leaves glowing in the still-low  sunshine, my monophonic electronically amplified hearing was overwhelmed by different strands of birdsong: Chaffinch, Great Tit, Willow Warbler and  yes, unmistakably a Wood Warbler. I stood and watched and was at last rewarded with this shot.

One car passed me going, and on the way back one woman was walking two dogs. Otherwise it was silent but for the birdsong. It must have been like this before all the roads were built. Now the sheep claim the roads, wandering down the middle or sleeping on the verges. There is very little traffic to disturb them.

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