Skomer

Wales’ second largest island sits a couple of miles off Martin’s Haven on the west coast. Skomer is a 15 minute boat journey from the mainland but with little infrastructure and a limit of around 250 visitors a day it feels like a hundred years away. I first went to visit around 10 years ago but managed to miss the last boat and contented myself with a walk over the headland. Fast forward to yesterday and I secured a place on the small boat and found myself squeezed in with 49 other people for the short, undulating journey back in time to arrive at North Haven. Puffins were flying in all directions as we entered the natural harbour and climbed the endless steep steps up to the briefing point. After a quick run through the rules (‘stick to the paths or you may fall into rabbit burrows’ and the classic ‘the island is flat with no trees or bushes and everyone has binoculars or a long lens, so its best to use the toilets’) we were off.

My mission was to get some photographs of the puffins in flight, preferably with a beak full of fish or eels. At this time of year the young have hatched and are being fed by their parents. There are 10,000 breeding pairs of puffins on Skomer so the chances of catching one or two were good. Of course, I’d done my research (including a visit in May) and I knew where I wanted to be.

The Wick is a natural inlet formed by a geological fault which has left a sheer cliff on one side and a spectacular sloping slab on the other. Along the cliff edge, puffins have made their homes in old rabbit burrows. As I arrived, I could see clouds of birds all milling about. The frantic flapping of Puffins as they tried to avoid the more lazy, soaring gulls and Chough. And on the vertical cliff face, hundreds of Guillemots clinging to their precarious perches, squeezed shoulder to shoulder to take advantage of every inch of ledge.

Puffins fly well, but their take offs and landings are a bit rubbish. I watched several attempt to land gracefully in the sea only to give up at the last minute and either drop into the water or hit the surface at too sharp and angle and partially submerge. Here, with as many eels or fish crammed into their beaks as they could managed, landing was even more random. Some managed a reasonable hover-and-drop while others just crunched in, raising a small cloud of dust. If they were carrying food, they had to be careful as the gulls were trying to mug them.

Photographers lined the path. It was like being in an open air camera shop. But this meant that for the puffins whose burrows were on the other side of the paparazzi, their way was blocked. While the puffins weren’t bothered by our presence, they were too polite to push past us and we had been warned that they would wait patiently until we moved to allow them space to cross the path. Quite soon after I got there, a heavily fish-ladened Puffin landed close to me and after I’d taken a few photos, I put the camera down to watch it. It took a few steps towards me then stopped. I took this to mean that it wanted to cross the path where I was, so I stepped back. It took a few more steps towards me so I stepped back some more.

This turned into a game. Every time I backed off, it would come towards me again. I took more and more steps back and each time, the Puffin advanced to stop at the same distance from me. By now I was beginning to think I was being chased in the slowest, most polite way possible. I walked backwards some more and the Puffin darted off the path. But now, from the way the bird was searching up and down the side of the path it was clear that it wasn’t sure where it’s burrow was. I watched as it waddled back and forth before finally deciding on a particular hole and diving in.

I took hundreds of photos of the Puffins, trying to catch them in flight. Focusing was difficult; I’d been having problems with one camera during my visit in May and so I’d taken a different one this time, Although it should have been better, I think a combination of poor technique on my part (keeping the birds in frame was hard) and a difficult background (the sheer rock face gave little contrast between bird and rock). My focus hit rate was less than 60%. Of those, the ones that had a decent composition brought the overall hit rate down to about 50%. Still, I was pleased with the images that survived my editing.

I finally managed to tear myself away from the Puffins, only occasionally looking back to see what fantastic photo opportunities I was missing. The flora and fauna on the island is many and varied. In May I watched a buzzard terrorising the gulls, who were terrorising the Guillemots. I watched a black rabbit scamper about on the cliff edge, and another rabbit get caught by a gull. I managed to see the short eared owl, who skillfully avoided my camera lens by flying below the level of the undergrowth while hunting for it’s favourite prey, the Skomer vole. This time as I walked along a narrow path bounded by tall ferns, a young rabbit popped out in front of me. It was fully aware of me only a few feet away but wasn’t too concerned. As I got close, it would hop a few feet ahead and continue eating. I was more concerned as it was nearing a bunch out fulls that would certainly attack it if the saw it. In the end I stopped, hoping the bunny would disappear into the undergrowth. It finally did when another visitor popped over the hill in front of us and the rabbit realised it had nowhere else to go.

All the while on the paths I was crossing old and collapsed stone field boundaries. Skomer was home to a farming community between 2-5000 years ago and the remains of several circular huts are preserved in the undergrowth. A standing stone, the Harold Stone, overlooks North Haven and may have been a navigational aid for boats coming to the island. More recently, a single farm occupied most of the island with the main buildings now forming the visitor centre and limited accommodation. The farm was built in the 19th century and ceased working in 1949. In 1954, the roof of the farmhouse was blown down in a great storm and the buildings now house shelters for visitors in bad weather.Nearby a lime kiln survives as another shelter. Limestone was burnt here to provide lime for fertiliser and building mortar.

Day visitors have five hours in the island and although that seems like a long time, it goes in a flash. As Puffins flew overhead to and from their fising grounds, and the inevitable gulls tried to catch them, we boarded the Dale Princess for the short journey back. Between the islands, the tide was swirling and rushing and the boat bounced and twisted through the busy water. From within the crush of passengers crammed in the boat, someone explained that this was very much like deep sea diving off Durban.

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Blizzard

We pushed on, blinded by the driving snow which threatened to cut us off from the south east ridge route back to safety. A howling wind made every step a test of stamina and strength. Rufus forged a path ahead whilst I, carrying our meagre supplies, brought up the rear. Slowly we descended through the cloud, the air becoming richer in oxygen with every step. There were no thoughts but the one to keep going; to stop now would mean to stop forever.

Or, at least that is what it would have been like if we were on some 8000m peak. However, we were on Moel Feity, not even an 800m peak, and the sun had been shining moments before. I’d seen the dark cloud coming in and knew we were in for some kind of precipitation. The onset of snow was sudden and although the flakes were large, it didn’t last long enough to stick.

We had set out earlier to get a proper hill under our belts in preparation for some more serious hill walking when the weather improved. But it was a lovely morning, with bright blue sky, a low golden sun and only a mildly freezing wind to contend with. Once we’d been walking for a few minutes and had warmed up, it was pleasant walking. Even the route we followed was relatively dry. The wet bits were clearly wet and the water was mostly on the surface, meaning that deep, sucking mud was easy to avoid.

On the top of the hill, the views were clear for miles around in every direction. Thick frost covered the north eastern face of Fan Brecheiniog where the sun had yet to touch. We had the whole area to ourselves, which surprised me with the glorious weather. While Rufus ranged far and wide, I took photos and enjoyed the open space.

As we crossed over tot he northern end of the hill, the wind picked up and it was cold again for a few minutes, but upping the pace warmed us again and we were soon in the lee of the hill.

I spent a few minutes tidying up one of the two memorials to the US Navy Liberator PB4Y 38753 which crashed on the side of Moel Feity in 1944. I try and visit the site every time I’m on this hill, and always take time to make sure the cairns are maintained. Both memorials are within a couple of hundred yards of each other. One has a large stone and a few scraps of wreckage and this one is where I put my memorial poppy every year. The other is mainly of twisted and melted aluminium pieces from the plane itself. I am told that this marks the actual impact site.

On our way back down to the car, the dark cloud that we had been racing finally caught up with us and there was a brief but heavy shower of snow. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long or heavy enough to stick and there were no snowballs for Rufus to chase.

Later, whilst Rufus snored in the hallway at home, I spent an hour watching birds in the garden as part of the RSPB Birdwatch survey. usually my garden has a large number of birds, mainly great tits and blue tits. I used to have a fairly tame robin, and for the last few years I have hosted blackbirds and house sparrows as they raise their families. I regularly feed them and I don’t think it was too much to expect that they would reward my supportive behaviour with an appearance for one hour in good weather this weekend. But no! The blue tits and great tits stayed away. The sparrows hid out of sight. A single blackbird turned up for a few minutes and there was a single starling (although they swarm in large numbers night and morning). On the plus side, there were two robins present. But for most of the hour, a single collared dove and a woodpigeon gorged themselves on seed and two magpies attempted to eat the fat balls.

Of course, once the hour was up, another 5 magpies showed up, along with several wrens and sparrows and some blackbirds.

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Tits and secrets

Ok, lets get the tittering out of the way. The tits are, of course birds. Feathered birds. The court order doesn’t allow me to keep any other kinds of tits in the garden any more. This morning after I’d had breakfast, I watched as a number of Blue Tits, Great Tits and House Sparrows flitted back and forth between the bushes and my bird feeder. I managed to get some photographs of them too.

After yesterday’s walk, Rufus was struggling a little with his knee. So today, I decided that he should have a rest from walks. I explained this to him but he didn’t seem that impressed. So I had to tell him a little white lie. I said that I was going shopping. Which I sort of did, but then set off to explore a couple of parts of Gower I haven’t been to before. He still doesn’t know and thinks I’m a particularly hesitant shopper. Don’t say anything. It’s our secret.

A book on local history I have been reading intrigued me about a few places on the Gower Way. The book is ‘Real Gower’ by Nigel Jenkins and is worth a read if you’re interested in little histories of Gower told through anecdotes by a local writer. A friend had mentioned Carmel chapel, a ruin near Cilonnen, as being potentially photogenic and I read some of the history of the place in this book. So that became my first point of interest. I thought I knew where I was going and I headed off the north Gower road , past the place where my car was broken into, and on through the anonymous, tree-lined little lanes towards Cilonnen.

At the T junction, I headed west, wondering if I should have turned right instead. About a mile later, I wished I had as I had to negotiate a partially blocked road where a lorry was unloading scaffolding. Helpfully, they had put corrugated iron and wood in the ditch to allow vehicles to crawl past. Unhelpfully, the corrugated iron was ready to slice into my tyres. Helpfully, one of the guys offloading the scaffolding came over and rearranged the wood and I managed to get past. But it quickly dawned on me that I had gone the wrong way. Rather than turn around and risk my tyres again, I drove on along through new parts of Gower and enjoyed the drive despite ever narrowing lanes and pot-holed roads. Eventually, I emerged into familiar territory near Llanrhidian and turned back towards Fairwood Common again.

I left the north Gower road once again and this time stopped at Gelli Hir woods. Here, the book said, were the remains of an old colliery, also called Gelli Hir, which in its last year of production, 1948, brought 15,000 tons of coal to the surface. Spoil heaps lie on the common around the colliery site but trees ease the view. A brief walk through the woods reminded me of how lucky I am to live so close to such an abundance of unspoilt countryside as I listened to the rustle of leaves, the multitude of song birds and the gentle crunch of gravel beneath my boots. Back at the car, a Robin was checking out my wheels and wary of the previous theft from my car I wondered what it’s intentions were. I soon found out as it flew away into the branches of a tree to watch me leave.

Back on the search for Carmel, I turned east at the T junction and within 100 yards, there was the ruined chapel at the side of the road. This chapel was built in 1885 for the workers of the nearby colliery and was considered a satellite chapel of the main church in Three Crosses. I stopped to take photos as it was, as my friend had suggested, very photogenic.

Then it was off through Three Crosses to Dunvant and a portion of the old Mid Wales line that ran through Clyne Valley and which has no been turned into a cycle path. Here, the book told me, we were wandering through an industrial landscape of collieries and brick works. Several paths left the main cycleway, which is also a bridle way here where horses have the right of way over cyclists. I followed one signposted for the brick works, which climbed eastwards out of the railway cutting. In the distance I could hear horses neighing and all around birds continued to sing. Above me, a squirrel lost its nerve and scurried from a low overhead branch onto a tree to my left, where it stopped to look at me watching it. It darted across another branch, demonstrating it’s agility for me and then stopped to check I was still watching. It continued this stop start show off routine until I moved on.

The clouds were gathering now and I was conscious of the forecast of rain for the afternoon, so I turned back for the old railway line. Walking back tot he car, I noticed the old brickwork support for the cutting. Below it an orange stream flowed, where iron ore from the coal seam stained the stream bed. The wall was bulging and in several places trees and bushes grew from gaps in the brickwork.

Back home, I didn’t mention my adventures to Rufus and he seemed content to chew on a couple of carrot sticks and roll over for me to tickle his belly. Normal service has resumed then.

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Kingfisher 2

This morning, despite the threat of rain, I returned to Penllegare to try and get some more photos of the Kingfisher. I was later than I’d planned on being as Rufus and I had a lie in. When I got to the lake, there were dog walkers already around which didn’t bode well for spotting timid wildlife. But fortunately, the Kingfisher felt safe across the lake and there it was, not far from the waterfall.

This time I had a longer lens with me, and a monopod to rest it on. Even so, this was a difficult ask of the lens, an old Sigma 170-500mm zoom, and the light levels were low which meant high ISO and borderline shutter speeds. I snapped away for a few minutes before watching the Kingfisher fly off as a dog charged around me. Frustrated rather than annoyed, I strolled down to the waterfall, hoping that the Kingfisher would return after a few minutes and resume its fishing.

I walked back to the tree I’d hidden behind last week and only just in time, as the heavens opened and the lake turned into a sea of ripples and splashes. I was nicely sheltered under the tree and the enforced wait of five minutes or so meant there was more chance of seeing the Kingfisher again. The rain also meant less likelihood of walkers disturbing us.

Sure enough, as I walked back to the place where I’d first spotted a pair of Kingfishers, ages ago, there it was again. This time I managed to get relatively close, using another tree as cover. I’m sure the bird was aware of my presence, as at one point it was staring directly at me for several seconds. But it was more interested in fishing, and it dived off the branch and back up again is an instant, returning with a little fish in its beak.

I watched for several minutes as it held the fish and manoeuvred it so that it could swallow it whole. Once again, I stopped taking photos so I could actually enjoy watching this colourful bird.

Then a large, boisterous Dalmatian turned up and my viewing was over for the day.

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Breakfast visitors, bubonic plague and disturbing behaviour

I’ve mentioned my wildlife visitors before on this blog. This morning, after a very early stroll around Broadpool, Rufus and I headed back for breakfast. I put out the seed for the birds and almost as soon as I had gone indoors, the feathered guests arrived. I was able to get some nice photos of the sparrow and the wren, and later the fat pigeon. The blackbird family stayed at the top of the garden, and the magpie was a wuss and flew off every time a blade of grass moved. There was no sign of the frog, but he usually only pops his head out of the water at dusk.

Imagine my surprise and the innovate vocabulary that shocked even Rufus, when on returning to the kitchen to wash up I saw a rat on the wall, eating the remains of the birdseed. My first thoughts were of the camera (I am a dedicated photographer – I will probably photograph the inside of my coffin come the time). My second thoughts were of the imminent plague that was sure to start, and the buboles, and the sneezing, and the carts of corpses and the cries of ‘bring out your dead’, all of which were guaranteed to happen because I had a rat in the garden.

My next action was to let the rat know I was there and as soon as it saw me, it ran off towards the neighbour’s garden. I finished washing up and made sure Rufus was in. I started to think rationally, moving from how exactly I’d make a flame thrower to how much ammunition I had for the air rifle and finally to finding out more about Rattus norvegicus (the brown rat – I have to admit to being a little disappointed that I wasn’t faced with Rattus rattus – the black rat – as I’ve always loved the name). I looked out of the window again and Norvegicus was drinking from the bucket of frogs. I grabbed my camera for a great shot but, of course, it disappeared before I could get focussed.

I went searching on the internet for advice, fully expecting to have to get vermin control in.  I’m no amateur at getting information from the web. And I am not naive enough to take the first thing I find as the gospel truth. But the first site I found was entertaining in its panicky postings. It was a forum, and the original poster had seen a rat in her garden. The resulting responses ranged from ‘man-up’ to ‘shock and awe’ with many inventive (and highly dangerous) options in between. I finally settled on a combination of the Royal Horticultural Society site and the Animal aid site which seemed to offer level headed advice and some background information.

Apparently, the brown rat lives outdoors, hates anything new and almost all ‘infestations’ are as a result of humans feeding wild birds; birdseed is a favourite diet of the brown. It is neo-phobic; that means it’s intolerant of anything new. In other words, change it’s environment and it becomes uneasy and uncomfortable. Change it often enough and it will go away. The brown rat is not a plague carrier (that’s the black). You wouldn’t want to come into contact with it’s urine (but that’s true of any critters), but it isn’t the scary bringer of death that rumour and scaremongering would have you believe. And no, you probably are not within 20m of a rat as this is a myth.

If you’ve read my blog before, I hope you will have picked up that I don’t like to kill things out of hand. After all, spiders (I am an arachnophobe) are not out to deliberately harm me. So I always try to seek the least harmful solution to these situations. Rat poison was not an option, particularly with Rufus, next door’s cat and a fox to consider. So I decided on a programme of change.

First to go was the obvious rat run where I put the bird seed. There was a pile of bamboo that I was using to make fence panels as and when required. This was where the rat had disappeared into when it saw me. so they had to go. I wondered whether there was a nest there but I decided there wasn’t, as Rufus would have detected it long ago. It took me 15 minutes to clear them away and there was no sign of rat activity. Next to go was the big pile of pine branches and other trimmings that had accumulated near the house. This was waiting for disposal with my next door neighbour, who has a rubbish collection business. I had left it alone over the winter and in the spring wrens and a blackbird had nested there. Now they had flown the nest, I was happy to disturb the pile.

I was convinced I’d find something beneath the pile as Rufus had shown a lot of interest in the base of it recently. As I moved the branches to the side of the house, ready for collection, I found one of the nests still intact. It was made mainly of moss and grass and was quite solid, even after it had been abandoned for a while. It took me nearly an hour to shift everything through the side gate so that it could be picked up. And underneath – nothing.

During all of this, Rufus made sure the house was guarded against rat infestations by dozing near the front door. We all play our part in this house!

 

I ended the afternoon’s work by cutting up some logs for a friend’s wood burner. I think I managed to change the rat’s environment quite drastically over the two hours I spent in the garden. Combined with not feeding the birds for a while,  expect that the rat will not bother with my garden in future. But if it does, once I’ve got the photos, I’ll be dreaming up some more disturbing behaviours.

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Something wicked this way comes…

I have mentioned previously that I’ve let part of my garden grow wild to encourage the wildlife. I count it as a success as this year I’ve seen ladybirds, frogs, butterflies, a squirrel and I fully expect to have a range of spiders again. This year, I have house sparrows and wrens nesting as well as my returning blackbirds. Pigeons, crows and a magpie have been feasting on the food I put out for the birds too, and I have an occasional blue tit visitor as well.

There is a fox in the area. A couple of years ago when she was young,. I was feeding her but with Rufus now living with me I’ve had to fence off the garden, which has curtailed the fox’s activities there.

Yesterday morning, when I let Rufus out for his morning stroll around the grounds, there was an almighty fuss going on in the garden. Even before he’d gone onto the patio, I could hear the distressed calls of birds. I’m no expert, but I could tell they were warning calls. So I kept an eye on Rufus just in case. He shot off to the top of the garden and I went after him to see what was going on. I found him trying to force his way through a thick jumble of branches and undergrowth, the one point I had not fenced off as it was too overgrown for him to get through. I don’t think he would have made any progress, but I didn’t want him hurting himself in the attempt so I brought him back. That sort of reaction usually means he’s smelled something and I guessed it might be the fox, as I suspect despite the fencing it has found a way in tot he garden again.

Very quickly, Rufus spotted something else in the bushes further down the garden and by the time I’d got to him, he’d found a small fledgling blackbird. Rufus is not used to such things so he was looking at it with some curiosity but not making any move to attack it. I got him away and went back to the little bird, which was trying to force it’s way through the chain link fencing I’d put up. It was going no where and I decided to pick it up and move it somewhere where it’s mother, calling frantically to it, could see it. That done, I left them to it and watched from the kitchen window as the fledgling hopped into the bushes on the other side of the garden, followed a few minutes later by its mother.

I looked up what I should have done on the RSPB website and found that I should have left it alone completely. However, handling baby birds doesn’t cause the parents to abandon them, as bird’s sense of smell is very poor. We left them to it and went for a long walk on a nice high mountain.

On our return, I accompanied Rufus in the garden to be sure he didn’t find the fledgling again, and a good job too as he spotted it at the top of the garden, with its mother near by. Poor Rufus was locked in the house and we left the birds do their own thing. All afternoon and evening, every time Rufus went out he was on the lead so I could keep him away from where the birds were. As I was going to bed, I looked out of the window and saw the fox, now grown much bigger, boldly crossing the road towards next door’s garden. I watched for a while, suing the bathroom light to illuminate the garden, but there was no sign.

This morning, there was no sign of the bird on the ground but there were several blackbirds in the bushes and trees. Rufus didn’t seem too concerned by any foreign smells. Nevertheless, I spent some time making a section of fencing to cover the patch I’d ignored previously. I await events with interest.

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Rhossili

This morning, we went up Rhossili Down. I’ve been meaning to go back there for a while, but one thing or another has meant that I’ve been tempted to go elsewhere. This morning, nice and early, we set off with the intention of walking along the ridge above the beach. It was a windy morning but not cold, and only a thin layer of cloud to the north west spoiled the day.

I’d forgotten how steep the initial climb was (or maybe I’m just a bit more unfit than I realised) so by the time we’d got to the bit where the hang gliders launch (about half way) I was out for breath. The view from there was spectacular across the village on on to Worm’s Head, so I didn’t mind stopping for a minute or so. Rufus was happy for the opportunity to explore his surroundings. We got to the trig point and the wind was blowing quite hard. But it still wasn’t cold and it wasn’t as strong as we’d experienced in the past.

The heather was in full bloom. Mostly a uniform mauve colour, there were some patches of darker purple and some of yellow. And in the wind, the scent wasn’t overpowering. We had the ridge to ourselves and no deadlines to worry about. We took it easy. I was snapping away and Rufus was sniffing away.

Slowly we made our past the Bronze Age cairns to the remains of the old radar station, which kept watch against enemy raids during WW2. From the highest point there, there were fantastic views along the beach and down to the campsite at Llangennith. It was packed and although I like camping, the density of tents wasn’t something I’d be happy with.

We left the main path to head down to the Neolithic burial chambers, known as Sweyn’s Howes. There wasn’t a clear path, so we set off across the heather. After a few minutes, I checked on Rufus to find him hopping gingerly and hesitantly behind me. I hadn’t noticed that in amongst the heather were little thorny plants. They were obviously getting between Rufus’ pads and he was finding the going hard and uncomfortable. So we turned around and I picked him up to carry him to a clearer part of the hillside. He’s a heavy boy, and there was much huffing and puffing from both of us. Thankfully, I didn’t have to lift him far!

We carried on back along the ridge, passing horses and curious foals who were unconcerned by our passage. We were on much smoother ground and too quickly, we reached the path heading down to the car park. I could see three people watching and trying top photograph something and as I looked, I saw a Hen Harrier stationary in the sky. It was being mobbed by other, smaller birds but didn’t seem to be too concerned by the attention it was receiving. I watched and tried to photograph it for about 5 minutes and it only occasionally flapped its wings to move position. Most of the time, the wind blowing in from the sea was enough to allow it to remain hovering over one spot.

We got back to the car refreshed and ready for second breakfast.

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