Ilston

This morning, we set off early for Ilston. Rufus has been there once before when his real owner took him. Ilston woods and the little 13th Century church has been a part of my history for around 30 years. I haven’t been to the valley for several years so when I heard Rufus had been, it set an idea in my head ticking away like a little time bomb. With the weather unexpectedly clear this morning, the bomb went off.

I love the village of Ilston. I can remember years ago thinking I’d love to live there and when I parked the care carefully off the road, I still thought the same thing. It was the first country village I really got to know, and it has always been the measure by which I judge other villages. I love the spread in both appearance and spacing of the houses here.

We crossed the bridge and entered the churchyard. St Illtyd’s church dates from the 13th Century but there are records of a church at Ilston from 1119AD. The ‘new’ version may have been built around a monk’s cell. When I was in school, friends and I were making a horror movie around the village. It started off as a proper horror movie but as we realised our limitations, it became a spoof. We shot a lot of footage on super 8mm film, but never completed the film. We had loads of fun doing it, though. Later, when I was in college, I sued to go to the church to photograph it and I always remember printing a black and white photo taken with my (then) new Pentax K1000 and it’s 50mm lens. The print was pin sharp and showed up the detail in the stone work of the tower. I was really pleased with the [performance of the lens and I wish I had that lens now.

Every summer while I was away in London, my mates and I would meet up during the holidays. Gower was a regular venue and Ilston woods featured heavily. They say smell is one of the strongest triggers of memories and as I walked down there today, the smell of wild garlic took me back to the mid 1980s. There were areas that were familiar and places where nature or my failing memory had changed things.

In the mid 90’s I used to hang around with a different set of friends and we used to go wild camping a lot. We spent one memorable night in Ilston woods, near The Gower Inn, and eventually my route today took me through the area. Although I didn’t recognise exactly where we camped, the little bridge that in the night we thought was miles away from our camp site, but which in the morning proved to be a few tens of yards away, was immediately recognisable.

Nearby were the remains of the Old Trinity Well Chapel, the site of the first Baptist Chapel in Wales, founded by John Myles in 1649. Myles (or Miles, it’s not clear what the correct spelling is) was installed by the Parliamentarians as the Cromwellian Minister of Ilston. The previous incumbent ejected him and so Myles founded the Baptist chapel here. When the Baptist practices were ruled illegal in 1663, Myles and his parish left for America, where they founded the town of Swansea in Massachusetts.

At the car park to the Gower Inn, we stopped and I threw stones for Rufus. A flash of blue and orange passed by low over the water and before I could fumble for the camera, the Kingfisher had disappeared back towards Ilston. I contented myself with snapping a yellow wagtail and a robin.  The weather forecast had predicted heavy rain and the sun that lit our path on the way down had disappeared behind a dark cloud so it was time to turn back. We set off and followed the river back towards Ilston.

Now for the first time I noticed just how muddy the path was. It wasn’t possible to go more than a few yards without having to step on, in or through mud and water. It was slippery and made the going harder as I had to be careful not to over balance. I hadn’t noticed on the way down. Rufus made light work of the mud but even he slipped a few times.

We stopped so that Rufus could swim and catch stones and slowly made our way back. There was no rain, and the sun showed itself again a few times. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the Kingfisher again; not surprising as Rufus was crashing ahead for most of the time. Birds sang in the trees and as we made our way through the church yard, a squirrel chanced it’s luck and crossed the path in front of us., The first I knew was a mighty tug on the lead as Rufus made a bid to try and get it, but it scurried up a nearby tree trunk and left us standing, watching.

Back at the car, I let Rufus paddle his paws clean but when I got home, it was obvious from the muddy patch on the towels on the back seat that a shower was required. As I’m typing this, the leg of my jeans is drying from where Rufus was sleeping on it after his shower (it’s a form of revenge – I shower him, he soaks me) and he is finishing off the drying process on the sofa.

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Still in Clyne d too.

In a gap in the cloud in the morning we set off for Clyne woods again. I wasn’t sure when the rain was going to start, so we set off prepared to turn back at any time.

After yesterday’s deluge, the path was even more muddy than I had expected and while I spent time stepping between puddles, ducking under low branches and generally ensuring I didn’t slip off the path into the river, Rufus plodded on completely oblivious to my problems.

Instead of rain, though, the sun broke through the clouds and the leaves and brighten up the little valley. It seemed to stimulate the birds as well as me because their singing increased and I saw a lot more flying around and scouring the ground for grubs and other food. Two blackbirds let Rufus walk right up to them and he was a little surprised and didn’t know what to do. They flew off with Rufus watching but not chasing.

We came across a junction of paths; each one looked as muddy as the next. Next to one of the paths was a cutting into rock and at the end of this was a small cave. The cutting was clearly man made, it seemed as if the cave was too. It didn’t look as if it led anywhere but there was a lot of debris on the floor. Above it, we took a path the led eventually to the fields we were skirting. Not wishing to cut the walk short, we headed back down the the river and followed it around to the tunnel, where we rejoined the cycle path.

On the way back tot he car we were passed by several cyclists, none of whom seemed to have even the simplest bell to warn us that they were coming. With the wind and birds singing, its sometimes hard to hear a bike approaching, and although I had Rufus in the lead because of this, there is still the potential for an accident. Cyclists – get a bell and use it.

We were soon back at the car and still fairly dry. It was time to head home for second breakfast and second coffee.

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Dawn Chorus

I love the early morning, except when I have to go to work. At all other times, early morning, before people are fully awake, is the best time to take notice of your surroundings without the distractions of traffic and people. If you’re that way inclined, wildlife is more abundant. It’s the best time to photograph insects as they are still trying to warm up in the sun and so are quite sluggish. The dawn chorus welcomes in the day and when the weather is fine, you can’t beat this time of the day.

Today, Rufus and I went out to take advantage of the early morning sun. Off we headed to a relatively new location near Betws Mountain. Despite the sheep, I was able to find an area where I could let Rufus off the lead and we wander slowly through the trees towards the Upper Lliw Reservoir. All around, birds were singing but rather than a cacophony of sound, it was a gentle back drop to the trees, gently swaying in the breeze.

The sun was still low and casting an orange glow on the tree trunks. A curious lamb decided to take a closer look at Rufus (on the lead again) and me but got last minute nerves and bounded off back to its mother. In a small puddle, there were a lot of tadpoles well on their way to becoming frogs, and a number of waterboatmen floated on the surface of the water.

Through a gap in the trees, I spotted what looked like an old picnic table so on the way back we too a diversion through a rough avenue of trees and sure enough, there was a small clearing with three tables. The clearing had seen better days, it was overgrown and boggy in places and the tables were in need of some care too, but we spent a few minutes listening to the sounds of the woods and enjoying the sunshine. Rufus explored the edges of the clearing while I managed to get some snaps of a Mistle Thrush gathering grass for a nest.

Then we tried to find a path out of the clearing and managed to keep reasonably dry as we went back up the hill to the stile and the waiting car. You can’t beat a lovely early summer’s morning.

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Heron

Awake early and with the prospect of wind and rain, I set off for Penllegare woods again in the hope of spotting the elusive Kingfishers. As soon as I saw the river, swollen with yesterday’s heavy rain, I knew they wouldn’t be around. Kingfishers prefer a gentle flow that they can dive into; this would have swept them downstream in an instant. So I headed off along the river bank and was rewarded almost immediately by the presence of a robin, which came towards me and my camera as if it wanted to appear in this blog!

Once again, the birdsong was loud and continuous. I’m useless at identifying birds by their singing but even I recognised the blackbirds, and this was confirmed by the numbers hopping about on the ground searching for food.

But then my attention was caught by a long neck, grey feathers and sleek head and as I looked, the heron leapt into the air and flew off along the river.  I watched it head off over the trees and managed a couple of snapshots as it made off. I love herons and despite seeing quite a few around the area, have rarely managed to get photos of them as they are so shy and cautious.

I carried on into the woods and across a recently restored bridge to walk on the opposite bank of the river for a bit. The Rhododendrons are starting to bloom and I found one tree that had bright red flowers, very much like the ones I saw in Nepal in 2011.

With the first drops of rain, I decided to turn back for the car and I retraced my steps across the bridge and along the side of a small lake. Suddenly, I spotted the familiar shape and colour of the heron again. I was surprised to see it as I thought it would have left the area. I stopped still and it eyed me up from the lakeside. I managed to slowly raise the camera without spooking it, and took a few photos. Then I moved gently so there was a large tree trunk between me and the heron, and slowly crept forward.

As I emerged from behind the tree, I had time for two quick photos before the heron took off but I followed it to see that it had only flown a few yards down the path. So I continued to slowly and quietly make my way along towards it, keeping bushes and trees and other cover between me and it. Had anyone been watching, they would have wondered what I was up to.

And then there it was, eyeing me up as I stood with the camera to my eye. I guessed that the camera partially blocked my face and may have confused the heron, as I was able to creep a little closer. I managed to snap a few more frames before I saw the bird tense up and launch into the air and fly off again, this time high up over the trees opposite where I stood. I decided not to wait around as I didn’t want to disturb the bird any more than I already had.

Still didn’t see any Kingfishers though.

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A walk in the woods

Around 150 years ago, John Dillwyn Llewelyn created a vast landscaped garden at his home in Penllegare, to the west of Swansea. Over the years since his death, the land went to ruin and was forgotten. Now a dedicated bunch of volunteers are working hard to restore the gardens to their former glory.

I walk there a lot and have done for a number of years, so I’ve seen the changes as they’ve been made. Last year, I caught a brief glimpse of Kingfishers on the river and since then I’ve been popping down every now and again to see if I can catch a photo of them.

This morning, before much of the world had woken up, I was walking alongside the upper lake. The work done to clear this part of the garden is immense but I fear the downside is that where the Kingfishers used to catch insects on the river has now been exposed to everyone and his dog, and combined with the activity to clear the area has scared them off. Nevertheless, the walk is lovely and with no one else around, the sounds of a myriad of different birds is great to experience.

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Heron

I’m turning into a bit of a birder. First Kingfishers, now a Heron. They’ll call me Bill Oddie next.

I first spotted it yesterday with Rufus but this evening I went back to see if I could get closer and snap a few more pictures. There was also the promise of a colourful sunset. How could I miss out on that?

My first sighting of the heron was as it flew over me, having spotted me first. It crossed the road and settled in the ferns opposite the lake. I didn’t want to disturb it too much, so I headed back to the car with the intention of using it as a hide. But the heron saw me and flew back to the lake again. I got the photos of it flying then. Carefully, I edged around the lake shore until I spotted the heron in amongst the reeds. I approached it using a tree as cover and took a few more photos through the branches. The heron looked relaxed and wasn’t looking at me.

Conscious that it needed to settle for the night, I turned and walked away.  I managed to get some nice sunset shots, the but they weren’t as great as I’d hoped.

On a technical note, I’ve been using the D600 with high ISO settings in low light conditions and I’m really pleased with the results. Most of the wildlife stuff I’ve posted over the last few months has been at high sensitivity settings either on the D7000, D700 or it’s replacement, the D600. The heron in the reeds was taken at 1600 ISO.

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Kingfisher

Spoiler alert: No Kingfisher Photos!

I have always wanted to see a Kingfisher. They are beautiful, colourful birds and rarely seen as they are nervous, too. Recently, I was told of a place where I might be able to catch sight of one. Around the same time, a friend managed to spot one close to her home. I decided to try and get some photos. I even researched the kinds of camouflage professional bird photographers use. Common sense took over and I only had to imagine the reaction from walkers in the woods to seeing some bloke dressed like a sniper stalking through the undergrowth. After all, we live in a world where photographers are prevented from taking pictures of people and places on city streets.

So this morning, in lieu of my planned hill walk, I went for a quiet stroll in the woods, dressed like a normal person. And I was almost immediately rewarded with the sight of not one, but two Kingfishers perched on two different branches jutting out into the river. One was side on, and the upper blue plumage was bright in the sunlight. As my brain registered the second one, facing me and displaying the lower orange feathers more prominently, they spotted me and before I could blink, they’d disappeared off up the river.

I hadn’t even reached for my camera, which was still in the bag. Poor show on my part. They didn’t come back so I walked on with the intention of giving them time to return. It was lovely and warm in the woods and I managed to get some photos of the insects pollinating flowers all along the river. After 30 minutes or so I headed back, taking much more time to approach the riverbank, and making sure I was obscured by bushes as I did so.

Alas, the Kingfishers weren’t there. Like them, though, I’ll be back.

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Lets go fly a Kite

Yesterday started off with a nice stroll along the tow path of the local canal. The Tennant canal was completed in 1790 to transport coal from a pit at Glan y Wern near Crymlyn the river Neath, where it was transferred to larger boats. It fell into disuse after only 20 years but was restored and enlarged to carry barges of up to 50 tons in 1818 by George Tennant. I pass it often, crossing by a bridge at Jersey Marine, and I’ve equally often promised myself a visit one day.

Part of the path was closed due to engineering works on the nearby electricity pylons, so I was forced to head north towards Briton Ferry. But on the tow path, it was impossible to work out exactly where I was. And that was great. Minutes before I’d been driving through the suburbs of Swansea and suddenly I was transported nearly 200 years back in time.

As I walked, the landscape changed from a valley, in which acres of reeds grew, to a more industrial one with the remains of storage depots and little engineering sheds, now in ruins. I passed under several bridges, ironic symbols of the canal’s demise as they carried rail and road over the water. I passed horses content to graze and watch me with no concern. Eventually, I got to the motorway bridge, a vast modern construction completely out of place in my little world. Just beyond the modern concrete bridge, a smaller stone bridge contemporary with the canal stood, signifying an early track across. I turned around here as I had other plans for the rest of the day.

I went with friends out to Carreg Cennen castle. The Medieval castle sits on an outcrop of rock and is by far the most impressively set fort I have visited. It reminds me of Dryslwyn’s castle near Carmarthen, but is much grander. The views from the top take in the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountain, with Carmarthenshire off to the west.

We explored the castle, and ventured down into the natural cave that winds its way under the castle courtyard. It was dark and narrow, with a slippery floor but we came prepared with torches and squeezed the stooped our way down to the very end. There we found a natural spring, which would have been a useful water supply for the castle occupants during a siege. Evidence was found here of pre-historic occupation and, more recently, finds of two Roman coins suggests at least a prolonged visit by the Romans.

After a delicious lunch in the cafe, we drove along the northern edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park. We spotted signs for the Red Kite feeding centre and decided to take a look. We were so fortunate, because just as we parked, one of the staff told us we were just in time to see the feeding. For the next 45 minutes we watched from the hide as around 50 Red Kites wheeled and swirled in the air currents, dropping en mass every so often to swoop and pick up the meat that had been left for them. It was a magnificent sight, and even more special for being totally unplanned. Definitely one to return to.

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This could very well be the life

It’s 8.30pm. I’m sat on the patio in the back garden. The sun has dropped behind the hedge at the top of the garden and the temperature is perfect. Not too warm, not too cold. There is a very light breeze, not enough to move the leaves and the long grass but I can feel it on my face.

In the tree that my dad planted, there is a robin singing. All evening since I’ve been home, the blackbird has been busking there but he mist have gone for a break. The two songs are distincly different.

Another robin is making its way through the branches of a bush to my left. I can hear it rustling and can just spot its silhouette when it moves.

There is a haze in the sky. It has been with us all day. This morning it was mist in the dips on the way to work. Now it has risen again and over to the north west, it has taken the light from the sun and turned the sky a yellowy pink colour. It is a subtle hue.

The blackbird has returned as in in the bushes ahead of me. He has just started to sing again with a slightly fuller tone. I can hear other bnirds calling now and again as they fly over head. I can even hear their wings flap – it’s that peaceful here.

Next door, my neighbour is watering some plants at the top of the garden. Overhead, I can hear but not see a jet airliner passing by heading east – probably to London. A couple of small clouds are edging their way into my vision from the east. It’s not the normal direction for the wind. They are tinged with pink from the setting sun. As I watch, they have merged and the airliner, now visible, has passed behind them.

A bigger pink cloud is approaching. It doesn’t threaten to ruin the evening, but it is the biggest one I’ve seen for a while.

I’ve been typing what I see and hear in real time. Now the blackbird has resumed his rightful place in the tree and has started to warbled and whistle. There is a general background of birdsong and I can hear a bee buzzing not far away.

This is the life!

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