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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A walk in the park

Yesterday was a washout, both literally (I don’t think it stopped raining all day) and metaphorically (as we had to stay in most of the day). I managed to get lots done on the photobook from our visit to Krakow last year but really both Rufus and I were feeling a little stir crazy.

We woke up this morning to more of the same weather and a forecast that said it would be wet all day. Faced with the prospect of another day stuck in the living room, we took an executive decision to go out regardless of the weather. After a second fortifying coffee, I got ready and got Rufus ready and without knowing what the weather was doing, we left the house.

It was raining, a steady, drab, grey rain accompanied by warm, humid air without a breeze to cool us off. The worst kind of rain in my opinion. We headed off to the local park as I hoped there’d be enough trees to give us some form of shelter for much of the walk. I’d forgotten how difficult the parking was and we circumnavigated the park looking for somewhere to stop. Eventually a space appeared and we dived in.

Usually the park is full of dog walkers and wouldn’t be my first choice of venue but my assumption that the rain would put many off was borne out and we had the park pretty much to ourselves. One or two dedicated walkers passed us with cheery smiles which helped in the grey morning. All the dogs we met were older and slower and like their owners, they were at their retirement age. I liked the idea of having somewhere to go for a gentle walk and it reminded me that Rufus is slowing down a little now, as am I.

The bluebells and snowdrops under the trees were still bright and fresh and some of the purples were strikingly deep and rich. The grass was a bright green too, and like the blades in my garden, were growing fast despite a recent cut. Trees were blossoming and despite my use of the the word grey and drab to describe the day, there was a magnificent range of colours in the park to brighten the day up.

Birds were taking advantage of the lack of activity and singing loudly. Several robins crossed out path, used to human activity and not at all concerned by Rufus’ presence. Crows pecked at the ground to lure worms to the surface and blackbirds darted about the tree branches, taking advantage of the new leaf canopy and the shelter it provided.

I’ve been going to Singleton Park for years. It formed a regular route as part of my daily training for treks and I’d often be seen there with camera and telephoto lens snapping away at the squirrels and other wildlife. I remember watching a man trying to coax a bird of prey out of the trees. When I asked, he explained that he’d made the mistake of feeding it before he’d exercised it and now it was sitting in the branches taking a post luncheon siesta. I’ve played gigs in the park as part of bank holiday events, once drowning out the next door ‘Its a Knockout’ event with our excessive volume. Early band publicity photos were taken at the modern stone circle, erected at the beginning of the 20th Century as part of the Eisteddfod celebrations.

Back home, both of us were soaked through to the skin but only one of us got a reward for allowing the other one to towel dry him. Life is unfair sometimes.

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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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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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Ilston Valley

With the day to ourselves, Rufus and I both had a short lie in before getting up, still relatively early. The cool of the morning, and the solitude, both appeal to me and I know Rufus appreciates not having to walk, run, bark and generally show me who’s the fitter in the heat of midday. So after a quick breakfast, we were out of the door and off in the car to Ilston Woods.

We went there recently and both enjoyed the walk from the little village down to Parkmill. There is a river for Rufus to cool off in and the chance, however slim, for me to snap a Kingfisher. I’d conveniently forgotten about the mud. So much mud!

We quickly negotiated the little church yard and made our way through the gate into the woods proper. The canopy gave us some shelter from the sun for although it was only 8am, I could feel the warmth in the village. The smell of wild garlic was even stronger than last time, taking me back to the summers of the early 80’s when I was here a lot, taking photos of the church and wild camping amongst the trees. Very little has changed, or so it seems in my mind. The birds were competing between each other to see which ones could sing the loudest. There was a lot of movement as blackbirds and starlings flitted about. For a long time there were not man made sounds.

The river is quite low at this time of year, despite some recent heavy downpours, and in places it ran completely dry. I seem to remember reading somewhere that there was a swallow hole and of r part of its course, the water runs underground. Closer to Parkmill there was a health flow on the surface and this is where I saw the Kingfisher last time. There was no sign of it today, though. We must have been making too much noise.

At the southern end of the valley is the Gower Inn, where I celebrated my 18th birthday and, a few years later, passing my degree. We lingered a while by the river here before setting off back towards Ilston and the car. I try to vary the route a little and we inevitably take a wrong turning now and again. Today, I managed to follow the muddiest path back – even worse than the one we started off on.

Back at the car, we both paddled a little in the river to clean muddy paws before setting off home. It is Rufus’ mission in life to get the back of may car as dirty as he can and so as much as I try to clean him off before he gets in, he manages to keep some mud hidden from me!

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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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