News

Great Northern Diver verses American Signal Crayfish.
04th December 2014
About three years ago someone introduced some American Signal Crayfish into a local reservoir. This reservoir, Llwyn-onn, is one of a chain of three along the Merthyr Tydfil to Brecon A470 road. If this action was deliberate then it was a really malicious thing to do, if this was done through ignorance then it was an unbelievably stupid act. Considering that the demise of the native White Clawed Crayfish by this American species is so well documented, both scenarios are quite unbelievable.
This American species is much larger than our native crayfish and out-competes it for food. The most worrying fact, however, is that it carries the ‘Crayfish Plague’ which is infecting our native crayfish causing death very quickly. They also are a problem for fish because they feed on their eggs as part of their diet. They can also exist in rivers and other waterways thereby spreading the problem.
It has now been established that they are widespread throughout both England and Wales and as a direct consequence of this alien proliferation there are ongoing re-introduction programmes to try and give the native species a foothold.
On the Llwyn-onn reservoir over the last few winters there has been one, and sometimes two great northern divers staying for a few weeks. These birds diet consist typically of pike, perch and other similarly sized fish. However, I was watching one of these birds this week diving quite deeply and then resurfacing with these large crayfish. In the time I was observing it caught at least ten and proceeded to swallow them whole. It was pleasing to see this lovely bird doing its bit to, albeit coincidently, prevent the spread of these crayfish.
Please see UK Birds, Great Northern Diver.
Late autumn scenery and memories in the Beacons.
24th November 2014
It's pretty quiet on the bird front at the moment, so we were out walking today in the mild autumn weather. We still managed, however, to locate a Northern Grey Shrike that looks to be wintering around the Lower Neaudd reservoir area and we also had some good views of a Green Woodpecker that was flying around. There was also a large flock of Chaffinch that contained a single Brambling and a few Redwings were in the same area. A reasonable mixture of birds for this time of year.
Later as we approached Pentwyn reservoir I could see the potential for a half decent landscape shot because the reservoir was like a mill pond and the subsequent reflection was quite clear. These relections don't happen that often because it is quite an exposed area and the wind creates 'rippling' on the water. I stopped the car, jumped out and got my lanscape kit from the boot, I then ran to the best vantage point and took a few shots, you have to be quick because the image can be gone literally in a gust of wind.
I remember many years ago I sold a similar shot to this to a hotel in Merthyr Tydfil, it was blown up to 36" x 24" and hung above their main fire place. Sometime after I learned that someone had stolen it when the owners back was turned, they must have been quick considering the size of it. I suppose it was a compliment of sorts that someone thought it was worth stealing.
This was an area I used to fish as a boy with my mates and standing there on the bridge I was remembering back around forty five years ago, I was just a kid on a push bike trying to catch the odd trout, with one eye kept open for the water bailif who used to patrol these reservoirs in those days. Many times he chased us from there for fishing without a license, great times when I look back. We used to see, what we considered an old man, riding on a small motorbike, he lived with his brother in an old rundown house on the mountainside. He used to go to the local shop in Pantyscallog for provisions on this little bike and he used to wave to us as he passed. They were both really big, about twenty stones, both batchelors who carried on living there after their parents died. This house was above the original Dolygaer outdoor pursuits centre, the first of its kind in the area, now they are everywhere. It was such a remote place to live, with no neighbours for miles, no running water or electricity. Unthinkable in these times, but it was all they knew I suppose.
Their time living there ended in a bad way because someone broke in there and tied them up and robbed them of what little they had, probably in the mistaken belief that they had some valuables. These people don't realise, or care probably, what they are doing. It wasn't just a robbery, those poor old blokes, so inoffensive, no longer felt safe in the house they had lived in all their lives. I often wonder what became of them after that episode, so sad. The house is just a pile of stones now, hardly anybody remembers the people who lived there.

Image below of Pentwyn / Dolygaer reservoir with the Beacons reflected.

Working at home and a few days in Norfolk.
05th November 2014
Sadly I haven't had much birding time over the last two months because of a heavy work schedule at home. I have been fitting new wooden doors internally and plastic doors externally. I have also been fitting plastic internal wall cladding to our porch, it really is marvellous material, it is so easy to keep clean and maintain, and it looks great! I have also fitted some external plastic cladding for protection against the weather, all part of my plan to decrease routine maintenance as I get older and more importantly I can then spend more time out birding.
In addition it's remarkable what you can order online these days, we had a large 2.4 x 1.0 metre window in a lean-to on the back of the cottage, it's been there twenty years since we have lived here and I suspect about ten before that. However it's time had come and it was in need of replacemant. I found a company online that supply windows by courier, if you provide the measurements and style of window they will post it to you. I must admit I was a little dubious about ordering a large window online, but after speaking to the owner of the company I was reassured. I measured up very carefully, several times, and then placed my order. Sure enough about a week later it arrived and it was exactly to my specifications and very good quality, more importantly it was much cheaper than getting somebody to supply and fit one. The total cost of the window, double glazed glass, the window sill and carriage was only £230.00, as opposed to over £500.00 for a supply and fit. There really is nothing to fitting these windows, you just need a sensible plan beforehand, the necessary tools and anyone can do it.
The next fine day I removed the old window, recycled all the materials and fitted the new unit, the followind day I fitted all the trims and mastiked the whole job. it was very satisfying and £300.00 more in my bank account!!
After all this work we decided to have a short break to Norfolk to recharge the batteries, the main birding was over but the weather was nice and we had some lovely early morning walks along secluded beaches and just generally chilled out. Back home the leaves are falling at a pace now and with the first real frosts due this week many more will fall. The hedges are being cut next week and then all the work is done until the spring.
I have started my winter bird feeding programme and this morning three young pheasants were in the garden, always nice to see.
I have also started work on my annual wildlife calender and I am just one image short. I only construct a calender for friends and family, it's too much hassle trying to sell them, I see people trying desperately to sell calenders but the general public wont pay enough for them to make it worthwhile. If you say £15.00 they look in disbelief, they want one for a fiver, considering the quality of the calenders that I get printed, large original images that no one else can possibly have, printed on high density gloss paper, along with the time and effort put in to get these images, I think that price is quite reasonable. There are some people, however, that recognize quality, because last year I gave a calender to my neighbours at their farm shop and some other people saw them and wanted them as well. I ended up selling all I had and then had to order more for relatives! But there you go, you can't please everybody.
However, this weekend my one year old nephew is coming to stay, (with his parents), so it will have to wait until next week.

Pictured below; Spoonbills near Holme next the sea, Norfolk.

Autumn's bounty.
08th September 2014
Autumn’s bounty.
What a fabulous spell of weather we are having in the Beacons at the moment.
The hedgerows are laden with fruit and nuts, the hazlenut crop this year is one of the best I can remember. The nut shells are just turning that light brown colour which means they will be ready for picking in a week or so. There is nothing like shelling a few fresh hazlenuts and just throwing them on top of your breakfast cereal, they are so full of flavour. When I was a youngster everybody used to go out picking hazlenuts in September but I hardly see anyone doing it now. I am afraid we have become too supermarket orientated and unless it’s in a plastic tray covered with cling film people don’t want it. Many young families these days just don’t even know about wild fruit and nuts they probably haven’t got the time and that’s fair enough I suppose.
I have a wild plum tree in my garden and it has to be fifty years old and every year it gives a wonderful crop of lovely ripe sweet plums. Again no good for the supermarkets because they are all different shapes and sizes and some have a small bare patch on their skin. Susan has been making gorgeous plum jam and we have been enjoying plum tarts and crumbles for the past week. They are equally as nice straight off the tree with a bloom of wild yeast still on them, just a quick swill under cold water and eaten straight away. I remember one year counting two thousand plums from this tree.
I also planted fruit trees in any available space, they cost as little as ten pounds each and this year I have pears hanging in bunches, cooking and eating apples weighing the branches down. The pears will be ripe later this month and the apples stored correctly can last right up until Xmas.
While we were out walking yesterday we commented on the bushes being laden with fruit such as blackberries, sloes and elderberries. I have a wild area at the bottom of my garden where my little mini nature reserve is and in the corner there is a lovely blackberry patch and today we have been picking trays of berries and as I write they are ready to go into an apple and blackberry crumble for tonight’s desert, accompanied by some vanilla ice cream.
Also in this little area are some blackthorn trees and they are laden with bunches of sloe berries. These sloes make a gorgeous sloe gin, I used to make it regularly, just pick a good crop of berries and wash and prick each berry a few times. Place these berries in a large vessel like a demi john and cover them with sugar and a few bottles of cheap gin, you don’t want good quality gin for this. You can also throw a few freshly cut almonds in for flavour. All you need to do then is mix it all up, stopper the vessel and leave it on a shelf in a cupboard, there is no fermentation to worry about so there can be no mess. Then once a week gently up end the vessel once or twice and repeat this procedure until Xmas, when the liquid will become a lovely rich red colour. Just filter it into bottles and enjoy on a winters evening with a good book or even in your hip flask on a winters walk, mmmm!
The elder is also a wonderful tree, its flowers in the spring make an absolutely superb cordial and I have made this many times it is so easy. The biggest prize, however, is its berries and as the year gets older the elder leaves are turning that beautiful pale colour, they are always the first to turn in autumn, now pick those superb wine coloured berries, these berries make the king of all fruit wines, it is my all-time favourite.
The old wine makers never picked fruit for wine making after rain because the wild yeast which is the bloom on these fruits would be washed away. Just rub your finger over a sloe berry and see the powder blue bloom come away to reveal the fruits true colour. These wild yeasts were essential before all the modern yeasts were available.
Soon all the hedges will be cut and shaped and all these wild foods will be gone, these fruits were an essential part of our birds autumn diet, one more thing gone in the modern era!
Kingfishers Part Two
16th August 2014
I have been hoping that the young Kingfishers would soon be out of the nest and that I would have an opportunity to photograph them. They tend to stay fairly close to the nest site for a couple of weeks until the adults drive them away. I have been back to the site a few times and have seen no sign of the female which suggests to me that she still has unfledged birds. Yesterday I was watching the male bird perched on ‘Nessie’ and after he flew up river and five minutes had passed a bird landed and I could immediately see that it looked very different. It looked in better condition than the male because he is looking much more worn after constantly fishing and going in and out of the nest tunnel.
On closer inspection I was delighted to see that it was a one of the youngsters, a female displaying all the classic markings of a juvenile bird. Then the adult male returned and pushed the youngster off the perch, they do not allow any other bird on their primary perches, in this case ‘Nessie’. It’s lovely to see all his efforts rewarded with a young bird flying around even if he doesn't appear to tolerate his offspring. This youngster is preening well and fishing with great enthusiasm but not too much success, but that skill will develop in time. The river remains low and there are plenty of small fish for her to practise on, so conditions are perfect for a high success rate for these iconic river birds. I will be watching their progress in the coming week.
Please see Favourites, Kingfishers.
Five Days with Kingfishers
05th August 2014
Last week, on a walk along the banks of the river Usk near to where I live, I came across three Kingfisher territories. It’s so nice to see these lovely birds breeding on the river, especially after last winter’s unprecedented rainfall.
The banks of the Usk have unfortunately become colonised by large swathes of the very intrusive Himalayan Balsam. In places it is above head height and you have to cut your way through. It is suffocating the river banks, overpowering our native plants that are unable to get enough light to survive. I would dearly love to see it removed, however, it would be such a huge undertaking to eradicate it because if you don’t remove it all then it just spreads again. This plant makes it very difficult to observe wildlife, especially birds.
I was not deterred by this because it’s been a few years since I have photographed any Kingfishers and lately I have been getting an urge to try for some shots. I don’t like sitting in a hide on some pond waiting for a bird to perch on a stick in front of me. Anybody can do that and it wouldn’t give me any sense of achievement. I prefer to try and set my own location up on a river, then I feel that I have actually produced something.
Two of the aforementioned Kingfisher territories were not a viable proposition. One site was too near the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal and this is really busy at this time of year. The birds just hide when water traffic comes along, but it’s different if you are trying to take photographs from a portable hide because you are constantly being interrupted.
Site two was much quieter, however, what put me off was a herd of cows with young calves. These animals were regularly coming to drink from the river very close to where I was observing the birds perching. I am very wary of this situation and only this week I read of a woman in Lincolnshire who was badly injured by cows. This woman got too close and was trampled, suffering two broken arms, a broken collarbone and broken ribs. Cows are fiercely protective of their young and they will attack anything that they feel is a threat.
The third site was not affected by people or animals, it is a very quiet stretch of the river, hardly visited. It is overgrown with Himalayan Balsam in places but this is a bonus because it puts people off. I want to remain anti-social when I’m trying to get images. I shun any company, if contact is inevitable then it’s a polite greeting and move on. Most wildlife watchers are the same if the truth is known.

This is a day by day synopsis of my attempts to photograph this pair of Kingfishers.

Day One
I was on the river at the bird’s territory at first light, this meant getting up at 04.30 and just taking a pair of binoculars, an LED head torch and my Walk Stool, both are invaluable pieces of kit when you are out walking in this type of situation. I tucked myself under the overhanging branches of an old Beech tree and just waited for daylight to break, this happened around 05.30. Soon after I heard the tell-tale ‘PEEP’ of a Kingfisher, this is a very distinctive sound and separates these birds from all others on the river, there is no other bird call like it! Soon after a bird flew past me, characteristically direct and low over the water. It didn’t see me, if you keep quiet and still most birds will not detect you. It flew right up river out of sight and didn’t return for fifteen minutes, however, the light had improved by then and on its return I could see it was a male bird carrying a fish in its beak. This could only mean one thing, it had young to feed. Kingfishers always eat their catch on or near to the perch it was caught from. This process was repeated several times so I decided to try and see where it was going to catch fish. I made my way up river but what I saw next was very disappointing, this male bird was going further and further up river out of sight to catch fish. I watched from a large bend in the river that gave me a view right up and down. I couldn’t believe how far this bird was going to catch fish, I estimated it as being 800yds each way; Kingfishers really do have large territories. I left for the day wondering how on earth I was going to pin him down.

Day Two
After my observations the previous day I had decided I would try and erect a perch that might be attractive to this male bird. The alarm went at 04.30 again and off I went, this time with my machete and wearing wellingtons. Yesterday I had seen a small shingle bank on the riverside that had been exposed by the recent dry spell, the river is very benign at the moment. I found a suitable perch among the many piles of driftwood that the winter storms had piled up. Looking at the height of this wood pile it must have been pretty wild there. I made my way through the shallows and erected the perch and anchored it down with some heavy stones. There was only one problem, because of the high banking I would have to view this perch from the other side of the river. This meant crossing over the Usk in darkness!! I only entertained crossing because of the very low water levels, it is far too dangerous to cross otherwise and I would advise anyone not to attempt it! I cut two pieces of wood to act as walking sticks for the following morning and I left them right by my crossing point.

Day Three
I was on the river at 05.00, I found my two walking sticks and I tentatively made the first crossing with my camera bag and tripod on my back, this is where the LED head torch is priceless. I came back across the river and then carried my portable hide across, I made two crossings because the combined weight, although stable on dry land, was a little awkward in a foot of rushing water. I find it best not to look down for too long at the water because it can make you feel dizzy and you can lose your balance quite easily, it’s better to probe the water with your sticks and find a smooth path across. Once across I quickly set up my hide and got undercover. I didn’t have to wait long the birds were active almost immediately. I waited and waited, three hours in total but both the birds flew past completely ignoring my perch. I was hugely disappointed, it was obvious the perch was not in the right position. I waited until the birds went on their usual flight up river and I quickly packed-up and crossed back across the river, Twice! I put all my kit out of sight and kept watch once more and to my surprise the male bird flew and landed on the stones right on the river side. I could see a large tree branch shaped like the Loch Ness monster near to the river bank and that set me thinking, so when the bird flew up river I crossed over again and dragged this tree branch into the river. I positioned it so that the ‘Body’ was in the shallows and the 'neck and head' were over the deep water where I could see shoals of Minnows. The male bird returned and immediately saw the new perch and he almost landed on it but veered off at the last second and flew up into a large Willow tree above. What happened next surprised me as he proceed to dive into the water from this Willow, a height of between twenty and twenty five feet, I have never seen a Kingfisher dive from this height before. He caught a fish and flew down river with it, presumably to the nest site. I waited for another half an hour and that ‘peeping’ told me he was on his way back up river, he flew low past me and I hardly dared to look as he landed right on top of ‘Nessy’. Hooray! At least I had him perching; that was an achievement in itself. I resolved to be back at first light to hopefully get some shots. I decide to leave my hide hidden at the river because I didn’t want to carry it in the dark the following morning. I hid it in an old tree surrounded by ivy and holly, nobody would see it there and anyway nobody goes there to see it. I covered it up with bin liners to keep it dry and I left full of hope.

When I got home I was severely disappointed after seeing the weather forecast predicting an inch of rain to fall overnight! I have seen what an inch of rain can do to that river, I was absolutely drained, all my hard work could be washed away, literally.

Day Four
There was no point in going to the river early, in fact there was no need to take any gear with me I just went to have a look at the water levels. When I got there my original perch, the one that had been ignored was still there, solid as a rock. However, I could see ‘Nessy’ keeled over lying flat where it had been swept away by the river. I felt really deflated and that it just wasn’t to be. I could see that I couldn’t cross the river with Wellingtons because it had risen about three inches and was flowing much faster. However, I had come this far and I picked myself up and became more determined to overcome these problems. I returned home and got an old pair of shoes that I use in the garden and I dug out an old pair of shorts. I took a few bin liners, a towel and my machete, all in a rucksack. I arrived back at the river and stood on the bin liners, removed my shoes, trousers and socks and put my old shorts and shoes on. I crossed the river again with my two trusty sticks, crossing was harder this time as the current was much stronger. I carried some large flat stones to the river’s edge and proceed to re-erect ‘Nessy’. I weighed it down until it was really solid and I then added another upright stick to stop it from keeling over again and to act as the final perch. I was confident it was stable so I crossed back over again. I dried off and redressed and just sat under the trees never expecting anything to happen. I could hear his tell-tale peep as he came back up river and he landed without any hesitation right on my perch. I couldn’t believe it, I thought I had made too much noise for him to come anywhere near. That was it; I decided where I would place my hide, it would be no good trying to assess it in the gloom tomorrow. I hoped I had turned a corner and I might get some shots after all.

Day Five
Up at 04.00 again, I was really feeling it now, the accumulative lack of sleep was catching up with me. What drove me on was that I had hopes that this morning would be the final piece in the jigsaw. I arrived in the gloom, I wasn’t taking any chances on him seeing me erecting my hide, I know he tolerated the noise yesterday but no two days are ever the same.
I set up and got under cover, as it started to get light I was almost falling asleep. It’s quite comfortable in these hides, out of the cold and sitting in a canvas chair. The first hour or so after day break are no good for photography anyway; you have to wait for it to get brighter. I could hear the 'peeping' as he flew back and fore up river and then he landed right on my perch, exactly where I wanted him, however, I just had to wait for the light to build. At around 07.30 with the bare lens at f4.0 and with the iso up a touch to 400 I had a reading of about 125th of a second on shutter speed. This was good enough to start with and the next time he perched I shot him and as the light improved he came back time and again, he was really favouring this perch. He posed in numerous positions and he appeared to be totally oblivious to me. I was sitting there waiting for him to return again when a bird landed on the perch and it seemed different to the male. I looked closer and I could see it was a female, Mrs Kingfisher obviously, I gratefully accepted her to the perch, having a pair to photograph is very nice indeed. I took many photographs as they went about their business over the next few hours and in the end I was really glad I persisted. I have left the perches there just in case the youngsters start flying about over the next week or so, that would be nice.
Please see Favourites, Kingfishers.
Is bigger always better?
10th July 2014
There seems to be a commonly held belief these days that you have to buy the biggest telephoto lens you can afford in order to obtain good quality wildlife images. While I don't deny that the 500 + 600's of this world are invaluable for some situations and I am indeed a huge fan of these lenses, there are times when they are not suited to the task at hand.
I have written in previous blogs about the unsuitability of the Canon EF800 5.6 lens, particularly in low light situations and also its almost non existant depth of field. Yet people still seem to crave this lens as if it's some sort of status symbol. It is a marvellous lens for shooting stationary small birds but after that it definitely has its limitations. Trying to wield a Canon 600 f4.0 to catch small birds in close flight and also quickly moving around is a major challenge ( Wood Warbler, typically ) and the 800 f5.6 is a bigger challenge. An f4.0 lens lets in twice as much light as a f5.6 lens and the smaller focal length makes it a bit easier to locate flying and moving birds. Yesterday on Skomer Island,( previous blog), was a prime example of a large telephoto lens being next to useless, not only because of the weight factor as I mentioned, but the difficulty in focusing on fast moving Puffins flying across your lens!
I found myself in a situation yesterday where Puffins were shooting past me as they came in to land at their burrows. I managed to catch a few with my Canon 300 f4.0 but there was no open perspective to the image, so there was no alternative but to use a much smaller lens.
I decided to use my Canon ef 17-40 f4.0 mounted on my old Canon 1D Mk2,( which my wife kindly agreed to carry in her rucksack ). This might seem an unlikely solution to the aforementioned problem but I had an idea it might work.
I waited for the Puffins to fly past reasonably close and then I just blazed away at them, while hand holding my kit. I wasn't too worried about focussing because there is such a large depth of field to a wide angle lens. However, I knew even if I was lucky there would need to be some post processing involved.
Later when I examined a few images from this type of shooting I thought I might have one or two images that were usable.
This image was one of candidates;


This is just a jpeg converted from the RAW image out of the camera, nothing done to it whatsoever. Consequently you can see that the horizon is far from level and the image is dim and lacking contrast and sharpness. In short a typical RAW image, but even if they are under exposed and look poor, all the data is still there and as I have said before RAW images can be recovered much better than jpegs.
Using Adobe Photoshop CS6;
First thing to do is to level up the horizon, this can be done by choosing the arbitrary function on the image rotation caption. Then just keep levelling up until you are satisfied and then crop the image. It should be noted that you will inevitably lose some of your original image by doing this. Once you have your cropped image you can process as normal, in this case I isolated the flying Puffin using the magic wand tool and just increased the sharpness and contrast of the bird. I then saved this and reopened the image to proceed to 'liven up' the overall look. In order to do this I just increased the vibrancy and saturation of the overall scene. Then I gently sharpened up the whole image and then using the curves function I added some more contrast and also removed some shadows from the scene, before finally lightening the image using levels.
This is the final image, nothing is superimposed and the only thing lost from the original was the Puffin on the ground, a casualty of the image levelling and subsequent cropping.



I managed to process two images using this method of shooting.

Please see Latest Images, Skomer Island.
Pembrokeshire Parrots.
09th July 2014
It's been over twenty years since my wife and I have visited Skomer Island off the west Wales coast so we decided to take advantage of this lovely weather we are having at the moment and take a trip.
We left early yesterday morning at 06.00 and made the journey in two and a half hours. We thought that we would get on the first boat across but we had forgotten how popular this little island is! The carpark was full and we had to wait for the second crossing on an extra trip that the boat was making. It was a beautiful warm sunny day, the sea was calm and the crossing only took fifteen minutes. We had decided not to walk too far, we were just going to chill out and have some fun with the Puffins - which were everywhere.
What little comedians these birds are, literally walking around our feet, they were totally oblivious to all the people watching them as they went abouit their routine.
We had a picnic on the cliff top and just took a few casual photos of the Puffins.
I only carried my little Canon 300mm f4.0 lens, anything else is just an encumberance. If you are thinking of going I recommend leaving any big lenses at home, firstly because of all the steps up from the boat landing area to the top of the island and secondly you wont need them because the birds, the Puffins that is, are so confident with people.
It was a thoroughly enoiyable day and I recommend it.
Please see Birding sites in the UK, Skomer Island.
Spring in Llangasty reedbeds.
26th June 2014
I was up early again today, I'm on a roll now!
Today I went in searh of the trinity of reedbed birds;
Reed Warbler (A bit awkward to shoot).
Reed Bunting (Quite obliging).
Sedge Warbler (Quite difficult).

I was in the new bird hide at Llangasty quite early and almost immediately I could see a half grown Water Rail in the undergrowth, although it never came out into the open it was a good start to the day, but not my target.
My first bird the Reed Warbler was flitting around the base of the reedbed, however, it's only a matter of waiting for one to sing from a reed out in the open. All a photographer needs are some unobstructed shots, I'm glad to say after a few attempts I managed to pin one down.
One down two to go!
There are a number of saplings dotted around the reedbeds and Reed Buntings like to pitch on these and sing. I was lucky because one of the male birds favourite perches had a clear background behind it and the light was getting better all the time. I have made my priorities clear in previous blogs, in my humble opinion the background of an image is at least as important as the subject and good mellow light is the cherry on the cake. I'm pleased to say the Reed Bunting duly obliged!
One to go!
I knew this would be the most difficult, sometimes they sing out in the open but mostly they are feeding young this time of the year and they fly in and just dive straight down into the long grass. They tend to favour the meadows rather than the reeds at Llangasty and this makes it really awkward. I didn't get one single opportunity for a shot, they were only perching on the vegetation for literally two seconds before disappearing. You have to stay on the recognized pathway because they are a nesting bird and the young come first and walking though the long meadow grass is not really acceptable this time of year.
I decided I needed to changs tack and there was a small Beech sapling at the paths edge and I wedged up tight against it, hoping to make myself less obtrusive. I still spent about an hour waiting for a shot but at least they were now flying around. Finally a bird perched reasonably close and I managed to fire off three shots and that was my only opportunity, very difficult to get the third bird of the trinity.
Please see UK Birds.
Getting up early - Part two.
25th June 2014
Yesterday morning was so pleasant that I decided to get up very early again. This morning, however, was much cooler with no direct sunlight. Better in some ways for seeing birds and other wildlife, less haze and less silhouetting. I didn't mention anything in the previous blog but when I surprised the Tawny Owl yesterday I thought I heard some small squeaking from the same area of the woods. This is the time for young Tawny Owls to leave the nest and fly short distances around the woods on their own, although never straying far from their mother.
I arrived about the same time as yesterday and just waited quietly and sure enough after about ten minutes I heard the sqeaking again. I was now fairly sure there were youngsters there, seeing them however, is another matter. I scoured the canopy to no avail and then I heard the adult Owl hooting and straight away there was a small squeaking, this roughly located where they were hidden away. Then the adult flew across the canopy and landed on a branch and passed some food to another bird, it must have been a youngster but I still couldn't see anything!
I moved my position to view from a different angle, sometimes this is all it takes to reveal a hidden bird, then I saw a little movement tight up against a tree trunk. I couldn't believe it, a young Tawny Owlet was looking straight at me and then an even bigger surprise a second little face peered around the first bird, two Owlets! both looking at me. I managed to take a number of shots of these two incredibly cute little birds, it really made my morning.
It definitely is worth getting up early!!!


Please see Latest Images, Tawny Owls, for more pics.
The reward for getting up early.
24th June 2014
The last few nights have been really sultry and sleep at the moment doesn't come easy to me. I left my bedroom window open an inch last night in an attempt to let some cool air into the house. Some hope, it felt like being back in India! All that was missing was the smell of curry.
I did manage to sleep briefly until a Blackcap woke me at 03.50, singing from the Ash tree near my bedroom window. I could hardly complain about being woken up by such a prolific songster so I decided to get up at 04.30.
I made some tea and forced myself to eat a very small bowl of cereals, I knew I'd be hungry later. I got some kit together and I left home at 05.15, there was quite a heavy dew on the grass and a slight mist over the fields, however, this was burned off very quickly giving way to a glorious morning.
Soon I was walking through a local deciduous woodland, my boots were soaking with the morning dew and the sun was just coming up over the horizon creating a dappling effect through the woods. Suddenly I caught a fleeting glimpse, out of the corner of my eye, a dark shape floating between the trees. I stopped and saw in silhouette an Owl, I knew it must be a Tawny in this situation. Often heard but rarely seen these birds usually appear to a bird watcher in poor light unless they are lucky enough to come across a roosting bird.
However, just in front of me I could now see an adult Tawny Owl perched on a branch just ahead of me. I had my Tripod and Canon 600 over my shoulder but I had a 1.4 converter mounted on it in readiness for some small bird photography. I knew this would be too much lens for this situation so I very carefully lowered the lens and tripod, praying that I wouldn't spook this fabulous bird. I removed the converter and replaced the camera as silently as possible. This is always the time when you can't get the camera mounted back on the lens, thankfully it went on first time. This reinforces my point in a previous blog about an 800mm f5.6 lens not being as versatile as a 600mm f4.0. With the 800mm I would not have made this shot, Too much focal length and too small an aperture!!
There still wasn't great light so I pushed the iso up a little and under exposed by a stop, both to raise the shutter speed a little, you can always recover an under exposed raw image after doing this. This is where RAW has an advantage over jpeg.
Also I had the advantage of a solid tripod and head and a corded shutter release allowing me to shoot at still quite a slow shutter speed. This is where stability is everything!
The Owl remained still, glaring at me, I took a few frames and hoped for the best, after a few seconds it flew up into the canopy and disappeared, I could here it hooting but I didn't see it again.
What a dramatic start to a day!!

A Spring morning on the Brecon Beacons.
19th June 2014
I have been getting up really early during this beautiful spell of Spring weather. It is my favourite time of day just as the earth is waking up from it's short slumber. It doesn't really get dark this time of year there is just a deep 'blueing' of the sky. In the far north, up in the the Shetlands the islanders call it the 'Simmer Dim' - a lovely time of year.
The night before last my wife and I were out in the gartden in the late evening, another lovely time of day, enjoying a glass of wine, everything was shutting down and the Lesser Black Backed Gulls were on their nightly fly over our house on their way to Llangors Lake to roost. Suddenly there was a commotion up high and the gulls began wheeling around and calling loudly. We always keep a pair of binoculars handy and we could then see the reason for the fuss, a large female Goshawk was drifting over, no wonder they were upset she is a top predator. She circled a few times, had a look around and then drifted off towards the local conifer plantation to roost.
At a particular time of the evening the new mown grass in the fields surrounding our house smells so sweet as it cools down after being heated up all day, it is an iconic smell of the countryside. This year there are many Pheasants around the fields and they like to feed among the mown grass, they also come into the garden to pick up spilt seed from under the bird feeders and it is not unusual for one or two to come and look into the house through a window, they are very inquisitive.
Then later on, just as the sun goes down over what we call the 'Allt' this is short for Allt Yr Esgair, meaning the wooded ridge, there is a really 'earthy' smell, as if the earth is shutting down again, I must admit to waiting for it to happen, it only lasts a few minutes but it is so regular and so powerful.
I really look forward to these evenings, just simple pleasures, sipping a nice glass of wine or an ice cold beer while listening to the Blackbirds sing. I get so much pleasure from these simple things and I consider myself very fortunate to live where I do. Over the next few evenings I will be going up onto a local hillside to try and see some Nightjars, I always like to go somewhere around the longest day. What a fabulous bird they are, no better sight on a late evening as they fly against the inky sky, hopefully with some moonlight for extra atmosphere.
Yesterday I was up early walking the hillside above my house and among the gorse and ferns Whinchats were darting to and fro and Yellowhammers were singing their distinctive song. The light was absolutely wonderful, what I call the 'Golden Light', it doesn't happen too often but when it does you pray for a bird to appear so you can take advantage of it. I could see a male Yellowhammer flying around and singing from various perches, they have their favourite trees and bushes and I waited by one of these trees. This wondrous light was still shining when suddenly he flew and perched right in the bush, I thanked the gods of light because they must have been smiling on me. I shot him just as he turned to look at me in absolutely perfect conditions.
I made my way back down the hillside just as the sun began to shine brightly once again, the clouds moved away and the 'Golden Light' was gone, it really is that fickle.

Spring in the Brecon Beacons.
06th May 2014
Spring is fully here in the Brecon Beacons, the weather has finally settled down and the evenings are drawing out. It's a pleasure to be out early in the mornings to hear the birds singing and to see the woodlands full of Celandine, Wood Anenome, Lady's Smock and of course Bluebells. Cuckoos are calling and the Green Woodpecker's 'Yaffle' is echoing across the valley this morning. This is also prime time for Dotterel passage as they make their way north to breed, but there have been no reports as yet and I have myself been out walking the hill tops in search of these enigmatic birds, we live in hope!
This week I have began to hear in numbers the call and song of the Wood Warbler, this tiny little jewel of our woodlands is incredibly difficuly to pin down for a photograph becauae they are so small. They also tend to occupy the tree canopies in their search for insects and grubs and rarely come down to eye level. Although their single note call, a repeated 'Tee' and their 'Spinning Coin' song are quite distinctive it still remains quite difficult to focus a lens on them because they are so restless, they rarely stay still for more than a few seconds and getting an uncluttered background is an achievement. However, today I managed to locate a singing bird and to get a few shots as it very briefly perched on an isolated twig in a clearing as it flew between trees.
These little birds will always for me remain the iconic sound of spring in our woodlands!

Return of the Cuckoos.
22nd April 2014
The Cuckoos have returned to the Brecon Beacons this spring;
I have been out walking all this week hoping to hear their wonderful sound and last Friday I heard it in a local clear-fell. What a surprise though, three males all flying around one area trying to establish a territory. When this happens it is the perfect scenario for a bird watcher as they tend to forget about nearby people because they are so involved with each other.
One bird landed literally five feet away from me in a Hawthorn bush, so preoccupied was he! Another male bird landed about thirty feet away and that is what I was waiting for.
I shot him as he perched on some flimsy Hawthorn branches, they always amaze me with their dexterity as they land on branches that seem to be too thin to support them. The only problem is when they do this you have to wait for the branch to stop moving and hopefully they don't fly off before.
They really are a charismatic bird of our spring and I will never tire of seeing them, long may they frequent our shores!
Please see Favorites, Cuckoos.
Half a million hits.
14th April 2014
Today sees the 500,000th hit to this website, it's a significant milestone for a small and quite specialist website like this where only one person is posting. I could never have predicted this much traffic when I initiated it in August 2010. It's quite hard work getting new images of a sufficient standard and also writing Blog posts that I think will be interesting. Some of the most viewed Blog posts are really quite surprising to me and the most viewed photograph is totally bewildering!
The trip reports and equipment reviews pages have also proved to be extremely popular with visitors.
It's my intention to maintain this site as long as I continue to see that people have an interest, It's certainly not about me, the birds are the focus here, I'm just the vehicle. Therefore, long may we continue and many genuine thanks to all the visitors.
Steve.
Merlin; The pocket rocket.
11th April 2014
The Merlin, the UK's smallest raptor is a rarely seen bird. It is a dashing and mercurial falcon seen typically on high moorland in summer where it breeds, but also at estuaries and tide lines in winter, where it terrorises shore birds.
It is a persistent hunter, pursuing it's quarry with extreme agility and relentless determination. Usually they are seen flying high on a moor chasing Skylarks or Meadow Pipits or harassing Dunlin and other small waders near the sea in winter.
Rarely, if ever, a birdwatcher gets a chance to study this stunningly beautiful bird. However, all that changed yesterday - I was watching some Pied Wagtails and Meadow Pipits feeding in a muddy field when a small bird flew through at incredible speed making a pass at the Pipits. My first thoughts were male Sparrowhawk, but I couldn't be sure because of the speed of the action. Then a few minutes later it happened again, only this time the attacker landed on a small stick poking out of a mound of earth. I was hidden behind a pile of rotting silage and the smell was, shall we say different!
The smell from the silage paled into insignificance when ten yards in front of me I was looking at a female Merlin. I realised immediately that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and my heart rate went up proportionally. I moved the lens a fraction of an inch at a time because she was so wary, she knew I was there, but she remained on the small stick and just stared at me. I focussed and fired the shutter, what a feeling that was! she turned her head to look around and then just took off and flew away into the distance.
What a bird!! - Please see Latest Images, Merlin.
Craig Cerrig-Gleisiad and the Ring Ouzel.
02nd April 2014
There is a small valley situated in the heart of the Brecon Beacons mountain range called Craig Cerrig-Gleisiad.



Literally translated it means, ‘ Cliffs of the Salmon coloured rock.’
Although surrounded by the classic wide-open spaces of the Beacons, it is solitary and self-contained. It is enclosed within a shady, atmospheric amphitheatre created by the aforementioned soaring craggy cliffs of Craig Cerrig-Gleisiad.
Walk up into this valley in the early morning and immediately you have a feeling of isolation from the outside world, noise from traffic and life in general is removed. The surrounding cliffs are near vertical and the lower slopes are covered by Wimberry, Heather and some quite rare alpine plants at the southern end of their range. Hawthorn and Whitebeam trees cling precariously to these steep slopes.
This is the haunt of the iconic Peregrine Falcon and the Raven, that denison of lonely windswept places. It is also one of the very best areas to find the Ring Ouzel, a summer migrant returning from its wintering grounds in North Africa, arriving usually in the last week of March. The Torquatus race of Ring Ouzel is found in the north and west of Europe and they breed on these craggy slopes, feeding on insects, worms and berries.
These birds are very shy and unapproachable and that is what attracts me to them, I like difficult challenges. The male Ring Ouzel will just sit out on an isolated Hawthorn Tree or elevated rock and utter his piping call, a ‘Peep Peep Peep’ series of single notes that are echoing and far reaching. The male’s song, a ‘Clack Clack Clack’ seems to epitomise the lonely and remote areas where they will attempt to raise their young. Both male and female use a low clucking sound, a ‘Chuuck Chuuck Chuuck’ as a contact call and this is usually the only way they can be detected. When this is heard you know they are not far away because this call doesn’t carry any distance.
These lovely birds are unfortunately in serious decline and the thought of not being able to hear their lonely calls or to see them perched out with their bright white crescent contrasting against their dark plumage is quite upsetting to me. I hope their numbers can recover and they continue to frequent this country.
In the hope of seeing some returning birds I made my annual March visit up to Craig Cerrig-Gleisiad. I have been up there three times lately and this week I finally heard that piping call. After some time a male bird flew down and I could see it chasing another male, which had probably just come in. One bird then started to feed among the limestone rocks at the base of the cliff and then flew and perched in a Hawthorn tree. I managed to take a few shots before he flew back up onto the cliffs. What a lovely sight and sound of spring in the Brecon Beacons.

Please see Favourites, Ring Ouzels.
Great Spotted Cuckoo.
15th March 2014
I'm experiencing a mini return to my old twitching days lately, hot on the heels of the Red Flanked Bluetail in Marshfield, my fourth in the UK. I went down to Pembroke yesterday, Friday 14th, to try and see a Great Spotted Cuckoo that had been reported on Wednesday this week.
I remember twitching one of these birds near Southampton over twenty years ago. I have also seen a few on my travels but they are always a nice bird to see.
The fog on the drive down was really dense and this coupled with endless roadworks made for a very unpleasant journey indeed. I was not very hopeful of seeing the bird in those foggy conditions, however, I was fairly sure that the fog would prevent it from flying away. When we arrived we saw the Cuckoo in a hawthorn bush quite near the car park, I think that's where it had been roosting.
After the mist began to lift slightly he began to move about and shortly after he flew onto the nearby golf course. We walked the public footpath through the course and soon after we saw him perched in a bush. It was obvious from the outset that any photographs would only be for record purposes as the mist never lifted much and viewing the bird, was at times, like looking through 'Cling-Film'.
We had a few very good views of him perching out, but the situation was not ideal because we couldn't wander around the golf course because technically there was no right of way and it is there for paying members. Having said this, all the golfers we met were very friendly and accommodating and many showed interest in the Cuckoo.
We had overall a successful day and met some very nice people from as far afield as Newcastle, Stoke and Sussex.
Please see Rare Birds, Great Spotted Cuckoo.
Red Flanked Bluetail; Birding or Trophy Hunting!
10th March 2014
We were in the Forest of Dean on Friday looking at Hawfinches and Two Barred Crossbills. It was a glorious day so we thought as we were quite near the Red Flanked Bluetail site of Marshfield we would pay a visit. When we arrived there were five or six 'Birders' there.
We quickly saw the bird, unavoidable really, as it has been flitting around the same trees for a month or so. I took a few shots as it perched briefly on sticks that people had placed in the ground and then it was feeding on meal worms that had been provided. While we were making conversation amongst the group, I said to one of the 'Birders' 'I see there was an early Ring Ouzel in Gloucester today', he looked at me quizzically and said 'What's one of those, I've never heard of them', That just about summed up the title of this blog post, I'd had enough by then and we said our goodbyes and strolled back up the track.

The Iconic and very Elusive Houbara Bustard.
04th March 2014
Last week we decided to take a winter break to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands to try and photograph, in particular, the Houbara Bustard. I previously had brief views of the Undulata, nominate species, in Morocco, despite a very nasty bout of food poisoning.
Since then I have wanted to get some better views and hopefully some shots in better circumstances. The Canary Islands have the race Fuerteventurae and this is the best place to try and see them.
However, these birds are very difficult to locate and if you do find one, they are, for such a large bird unbelievably good at disappearing. This is very frustrating as they don't fly off or scatter in panic, they just slowly walk away and totally blend into the surroundings and no amount of scanning can relocate them.
We drove many of the remote sandy tracks, nearly getting stuck once, in search of these iconic desert birds. The so called renowned areas, El Rubicon and El Jable only produced brief distant views before the birds disappeared. You cannot walk these areas because of their quite rightly protected status, you can walk the tracks but this is not really an option because the sand is sometimes whipped up to such an extent that you can't see and your optics would also be severely compromised.
The situation is therefore, you patrol these tracks and if a bird is seen briefly and then disappears then that's it you move on, very frustrating!!
As the week progressed It was becoming more evident that photographing these birds was going to be very difficult, just seeing one was really very difficult indeed. One day we went to see the Volcanoes at Timanfaya and we were speaking to the resident Geologist who told us that his colleague was a bird watcher and he radioed her to come over and talk to us. This woman gave us an area to try, as she saw Houbaras from time to time while she was out horse riding, we were at the area the next morning but unfortunately this also proved fruitless.
As a last resort we decided to try one last area we could see on the map, on arriving there we had great views of a Stone Curlew and also some Barbary Partridge. It looked a much better place than either of the more well documented locations. We could see a Goatherd in the distance and as he came nearer he waved to us and appeared quite friendly. I showed him a picture of a Houbara Bustard from our book and he made a gesture that indicated that they were all around the area. He also indicated through signing that it was best to not drive but to walk the plains. This was not an option as I have mentioned previously, to illustrate this, this man was totally wrapped up with protection against the sand including tinted goggles. Also this particular area was a designated site and these people and their way of life are part of the accepted environment but a birdwatcher or photographer is most definitely not!
I then decided to produce my last throw of the dice, a packet of mint humbugs, never known to fail before and indeed once I pressed a couple into his hand he immediately became more communicative and began to point out a particular area where he was obviously seeing the birds. It was still not going to be easy and we said goodbye to our new friend and left the site as the day was getting on.
Next morning we were back there, this time at the Goatherd's indicated site, immediately I could see a male Houbara about 100 yards away, there was a small sandy track that I turned onto and I could see it would take me within shooting distance. I had my Bean-Bag and lens balanced on the car window as I inched closer. I was being watched closely by him but he was staying put, I got quite close and moved the car side on so I could get a shot. He immediately started to move so I shot him straight away, at last I had a photograph!! He didn't walk away though he stayed there and allowed us some great views as he fed and walked around. We felt very privileged indeed to spend time with this very elusive bird. Finally he walked away up and over a ridge, these birds seem to like a bit of elevation so they can see their surroundings. Anyone looking for these birds should find a quiet sandy and stoney area with plenty of medium size bushes and plants which is quite near some elevated ground.
Finally as we were talking about our experience I looked up and saw him looking down at us from the top of the ridge, I couldn't believe it, one final shot which I gratefully accepted, then he just melted away onto the plains.
Please see more in Latest Images, Lanzarote.
Also read more in the trip reports section.