A walk in the wild wood

I let Rufus off the lead and stopped to listen. At first, other than his gentle snuffling as he explored the scents I could hear nothing. But as my senses adjusted to my surroundings I started to hear the subtle sounds of the woods. Off to my left there was a rustling as blackbirds foraged through the leaves. Above them, in the skeleton branches their smaller cousins called warnings as we made our way further into the trees. In the distance, a dog barked on a farm.

To my right a stream trickled and whispered over stones and fallen branches. In folklore, streams and waterfalls are supposed to be magical places where the fairies gather, and if you listen hard enough you can hear them calling softly. Listen the next time you’re near a small waterfall, and as long as there is no one else around, you’ll hear them too.

Although there was no wind, there was a lot of movement. Blackbirds taking off stirred the leaves around them into little splashes of yellow, while other leaves dropped to carpet the path in a bright orange or brown layer. Every now and then Rufus would pop out from behind a tree or bush before disappearing again as he found some new smell to investigate. We turned off the main path to walk alongside the stream. Above, the canopy of leaves got thicker as if autumn hadn’t quite made it here yet. Rustling in the branches led to showers of leaves either side of us as we moved; the squirrels were keeping pace with us but remaining out of sight.

Every now and then as we walked, a bright patch of yellow leaves still attached to their trees seemed to glow against the sky, defying the brown decay around them. Green moss coated the tree trunks and ivy climbed up and around where the moss allowed it. The sound of an aeroplane flying high above on its way to Heathrow battered its way into our little world which, until now, had been free of man-made intrusions other than us.

Beneath our feet, the mud thickened and spread out to block out path. So reluctantly, we turned about and made our way back through the trees and out onto a misty Fairwood Common.

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Deliberate Movement

This morning, it was time to get out early before the rain set in. Or so I was told by a wide awake hound at 6.30am, 7am, 7.15am, 7.16am, 7.19am and then, after a short period of snoring, at 7.45am. The wind was howling but despite thick grey skies, there was no sign of the rain that had been promised. So after a brief breakfast interlude, we were off to Fairwood Common.

I had an idea to take some long exposure photos of the trees moving in the wind, so along with me and Rufus and the camera, I took a tripod and an ND 1000 filter. I was picturing images of sharp, solid tree trunks and blurred upper branches but when I got to the woods I was surprised to see how strong the wind actually was. Most of the solid tree trunks were also moving. Woods are not the safest of places in high wind but after checking the trees, I was reasonably happy that nothing was about to fall on us.

While Rufus explored in the leaves and mud, I set up the first of several exposures of between 20 and 30 seconds. The filter is so dense that I have to compose and focus before hand as there is nothing visible through the viewfinder. It slows the picture taking process down, which is fine and is something I need to do. I was pleased with the results in the viewfinder and the previews afterwards. These kinds of photos are hard to plan perfectly as the movement of the trees is random, so for each set up I took several exposures to get some choice over the final results.

By the time I’d take three of four different set ups, Rufus was getting a bit bored. I could tell by the way he sat next to the tripod and stared at me with his much practised puppy dog eyes look. It worked; we moved on and he got a small biscuit treat for his trouble.

Finally happy with the pictures I’d taken, I put the camera and tripod back in the car, and we went off for a proper walk which included barking, running, chasing sticks and following mysterious scents borne on the ever increasing wind. By the time we’d explored the whole area, it was staring to rain and it was time to head off back home.

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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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Kingfisher

With the hound temporarily grounded, I thought I’d pop out to do a little wildlife photography early in the morning. Wildlife doesn’t like Rufus, although as you can read here, Rufus loves wildlife. So If I’m out with him, the wildlife tends to run away and I’m left with photos whose titles are “Branch where the Heron was”, “Very blurred rabbit” and “Deer bums disappearing into the woods”.

One of my goals is to photograph the Kingfishers in Penllegare. I set the challenge last year and although I caught a glimpse of a pair several times, I never managed to get the camera near my eye, let alone a picture. Kingfishers are very nervous – I guess if you were dressed up in bright blue and orange and people kept pointing huge lenses at you, you’d be nervous too. They disappear with a shrill warning cry at the slightest hint of a photographer. So, resigned to a fruitless search with a blurred glimpse of blue and orange and a photograph with the title “Branch on which the Kingfisher perched”, I decided to try my luck once more. Just after dawn, with the birds still loudly celebrating the sunrise, I set off along the path by the lake at Penllegare.

I took some photos of the mist rising from the lake as the sun lit the tops of the trees. Whilst I was distracted by this landscape, a heron took off and flew lazily off towards the lower lake. I hoped this wasn’t a sign of things to come. I walked along the lake, then past the waterfall and down to the River Llan. This part of the river is shaded and there are a number of natural perches for Kingfishers to use while waiting to catch fish. It’s hard to approach this area covertly; I’d have to dress in camouflage gear and crawl.

It was cold out of the sun, and after about 20 minutes, I decided to turn back for the car and head off to Mumbles to try and catch the seals in the bay. I walked quite quickly back along the river and besides the lake. I was taking a few snapshots of the ducks when a movement caught my eye. A blue and orange movement. I looked up to see a small, brightly coloured bird sat on a branch across the lake. Fortunately, I was next to a tree and although it spotted me and flew up into the branches of a bush, it didn’t fly away completely. I slowly moved towards the tree, keeping the trunk between me and the Kingfisher and hoping it hadn’t disappeared.

As I peered around the trunk, camera and 300mm lens in hand, I couldn’t see the Kingfisher. I’d obviously scared it off. I thought it would be worth waiting a few minutes and so I stood motionless next to the tree with the camera hiding most of my face. I used the lens to scan the opposite bank and occasionally looked around in case it had appeared on my side of the lake. It would be somewhat annoying (to say the least) if the Kingfisher was sat next to me and I didn’t check.

After another scan, I looked back and there it was, back in the bushes. It was easy to make out with the naked eye as the colours clashed with the green of the foliage. I raised the camera slowly and started to take photos. The light levels were low as the sun hadn’t risen high enough to illuminate that side of the lake so I was shooting with the sensitivity of the camera dialled up to ISO3200. Even then, the shutter speed was low enough to risk camera shake, and with the sensitivity causing noise in the final image, I didn’t hold out much hope for usable pictures.

At one point, as I was watching with the camera down, the Kingfisher dived into the water and back out again. It was so quick I barely moved the camera. It shifted its perch to a larger branch closer to the water and I got some more images. It was great just watching this beautiful bird and eventually I stopped taking photos and just enjoyed the moment.

Suddenly, something disturbed the Kingfisher and it flew off – towards me. It disappeared behind reeds and grass off to my left and I slowly and silently made my way to where I thought it was. Even though I was anticipating it flying off again, it went so quickly that I was only able to get a couple of snap shots off and all of them show a blurred blue object low over the water.

Next time, I’ll be there with tripod and longer lens.

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The Mountain of the Small Cairn and the Graigola Seam

First of all, a warning. There are two photographs of a spider at the end of this blog. Its a small one, and being on this blog, it can’t jump out and get you. Or can it?

An extended walk was long overdue. Both Rufus and I needed to stretch our legs, get rid of the cobwebs and head out into the countryside. So early this morning, we headed north to Brynllefrith and the hills surrounding it. Today, I decided to avoid the plantation itself, figuring that with all the rain we’d had recently, it would be one long, muddy path with added marsh. Instead, we headed north a little way before striking off west on Mynydd y Gwair and on to Mynydd Garn Fach. It was a grey morning when we set off but the cloud was high and there was a chance it might clear.

Underfoot, it was as wet as I had expected and we splashed along a very faint track left by quad bikes. Rufus ranged far and wide and on one pass by me, I noticed he had a passenger. I always keep an eye out for things on his coat, mainly to remove any ticks (although these are hard to spot). But this time, he had a spider on his head. It was a garden spider and it seemed to be quite happy riding along for free. Rufus must have brushed through it’s web on his wanderings. I’m not good with spiders, but I decided to remove this one and somehow I managed to catch it in my hand, where it retracted it’s legs and waited to see what I’d do. After grabbing a quick arachnid portrait, I set it down in a clump of grass.

After that encounter, I became aware of a lot of webs, mainly floating about and which I felt rather than saw. As we went on, they brushed up against my hands and I even found part of a web and a small spider in my hair. There were a lot of flying insects around too, which would account for the webs – an abundance of free food had obviously attracted the arachnid population.

The quad bike track turned into more of a rough path as it merged with St Illtyd’s Walk, a long distance path that stretches from Margam Abbey to Pembrey Country Park. We followed in the saint’s footsteps for a while, crossing the River Lliw (here a mere stream) before climbing the small hill of Mynydd Garn Fach (the mountain of the small cairn). We spiralled our way to the top by taking an anti-clockwise route around to the west and south. There are the remains of old mine workings here and the views from the top of the hill can be spectacular in clear weather. Although it was cloudy, the visibility was good and I could see all the way to Port Talbot and Swansea Bay.

We lingered a while at the top, with a great view of what is left of Brynllefrith and the Upper Lliw reservoir to the east, and Mynydd y Gwair and the distant wind farm to the north. Several years ago the wind farm was planned to be sited on Mynydd Y Gwair and there was a concerted effort by locals to oppose it. They were successful and the hill remains free of turbines. Part of the reason for not building here was the extensive mine workings discovered during the geographic and geological survey done in the area. Birchrock colliery further down the Dulais Valley was the site of several shafts exploiting the Swansea 5ft seam and the Graigola seam, which was accessed via horizontal shafts or adits, some of which can still be seen. There was a substantial risk of subsidence from the old workings, and of landslips where the Graigola seam reached the surface.

We didn’t know about the subsidence risk as we tramped all over the summit of Mynydd Garn Fach and instead we set off back down one of the tracks that lead from a mine adit on the east side of the hill back towards the River Lliw. Fortunately, we didn’t fall down any holes in the ground and made it safely to the waterlogged moorland opposite Brynllefrith. My car came into view while we were still a mile or so away and I noticed another car parked close to it. Wary of such things after my adventures on Fairwood Common, I checked through my telephoto lens but there was no sign of anyone nearby. But as we walked parallel to the woods on my right, I heard banging sounds that could have been from a shotgun. There are foxes in the woods, although I haven’t seen them since the tress were chopped down, so I hoped it wasn’t to do with them. I spotted someone in the woods wearing a red jacket and instinct made me take a picture. Looking at the photo (below) after, I could make out three men and a car with it’s door open. The car would be on a mud filled path so I’m not sure if it was stuck and they were trying to recover it.

As we neared the car, the first big blobs of rain fell and just as we reached the car, the rain started for real. We just managed to avoid a soaking.

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Here, there and everywhere

If you’ve been following this blog then you may have picked up that I’m trying to capture an image (or many images) of trees in the mist. The forest I’m counting on to provide the goods is Brynllefrith Plantation, and it has featured in the blog several times. This weekend, the weather conditions seemed to be favourable for a nice early morning mist and as a bonus, we’d had some lovely sunrises too. The temptation to catch both was too good to miss.  We dragged ourselves out of bed and fuelled up with coffee, toast and, for Rufus, a ragout of beef and vegetables (he has better taste than I, and expects a different level of cuisine). Then we were out of the door and off to the woods.

Plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy. Ours didn’t. The sun rose behind a grey wall of cloud and only at the very last minute did a small, pinkish patch of sky appear briefly. The mist that should have been delicately entwining the trees didn’t materialise either. Instead, the grey sky produce a flat lighting that was very uncomplimentary. But it was ideal for macro work, so that’s what I started with.

As we walked into the forest along the rough track, cows called to one another from somewhere ahead. But their calls were strange and very unbovine-like. The still air and the tress made them sound alien and immediately reminded me of Jurassic Park. Who knows what dinosaurs really sounded like, but it was easy to imagine being in a world of giant monsters as the cows continued to call out.

The grey skies cleared and between the trees I could see hints of blue which very quickly became larger patches of blue. There was no chance of mist now, so I decided to move on somewhere else and give Rufus a change of scenery. He’s probably getting tired of Brynllefrith.

We ended up in Ferryside and by now the sun was shining and the day had become a lovely, almost summery one. We walked along the narrow stretch of sand that was all that was left as the tide came in. I tried checking on my phone whether the tide was turning but there was no signal. One look at the way the water was getting closer was all I needed and we had to make a rapid retreat back to the car park or risk getting stuck and having to walk along the railway lines, which follow the curve of the estuary.

On Sunday, I was determined to have another go at the mist and sunrise. So slightly later than Saturday, we set off back to Brynllefrith. This time we were rewarded with the latter stages of a beautiful sunrise over Cwm Clydach. There was a vague hint of mist but not enough for what I wanted. I like to pre-visualise photographs as it helps to concentrate the mind. In the past, photographic expeditions have degenerated into snap-shooting sessions with no direction or purpose. The danger with pre-visualisation, though, is that you can miss other opportunities in the quest for the one image.

With no sign of mist, and no likelihood either, we set off to explore the head of the Upper Lliw reservoir that snuggles up to the edge of the forest. It was mirror smooth in the still air of the early morning and although the colours were muted by the clouds, which had appeared after the sunrise, it was tranquil and beautiful. Rufus and I had fine time trying to find a path to the water’s edge without getting too muddy, or cut to pieces by the thorn bushes. Rufus was able to sneak underneath the bushes. I had to crash through them. We both survived and made it back to the car.

By now, the day was warming up as it had yesterday. So rather than head home, we set off for more adventures in the wilds. After a brief stop on Fairwood Common to get some photos of the mist rising in a small river valley, we headed on to Broadpool for a quick circumnavigation of the pool in the now warm mid morning.

Finally, it was back home for a belated breakfast and a snooze on the sofa.

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