Tuesday 23 October 2018

Gigrin Farm And A Viral Tweet

Don't faint, but here's a post about something other than Mull!

Early in October the weather forecasters were saying how warm it would get, and that Wednesday would be the best day for bright weather. In a last minute decision, on the morning, I decided to book one of the photography hides at Gigrin Farm in Rhayader, Powys, in mid-Wales. I have visited the site several times before, and love the sight of all the kites coming in to feed.

I arrived in the area at about midday, and drove on to the Elan Valley first, found a spot high on the hills, and parked up to enjoy my lunch. Plenty of raptors around, with some red kites and buzzards drifting back and forth near the hilltops, and a kestrel, expertly hovering, hoping to drop down on prey moving below.

By 2pm I was parked at Gigrin Farm, and enjoyed a chat with one of their friendly staff, who had guided me into a parking spot. He was saying that they were seeing up to 500 kites visiting the site at times, and that thanks to the great weather this summer, they had experienced higher numbers of (human) visitors than usual.

As well as catering for the kites, the farm has a small area set aside for donkeys, and several small bird feeding stations, attracting typical garden birds, and a few less common ones, that can be found in the area, finches mainly.

On previous visits to the site during spring and early summer, I have explored the site more, and have watched spotted flycatchers, redstarts and treecreepers, all nesting only a short way from the hides. But this was early autumn, so I wandered straight over to the Tower Hide, and set up my tripod. Already there were dozens of red kites circling over the hills nearby, as well as buzzards and plenty of corvids.

I was joined in the hide by three other photographers, of varying experience, but all willing to engage in conversation, and made the wait for the show more entertaining. Then, just before 3pm (this changes to 2pm when British Summer Time ends) we heard the tractor approaching, and out into the arena in front of us, went the farmer. As usual, he parked up on each side of the meadow, and shovelled out large amounts of raw beef (fit for human consumption, according to the leaflet handed out on entry), and then slowly at first, the kites started to drop down from the sky above.

I've seen this spectacle before, but made the snap decision, mainly because of how lovely the weather was, to grab a short video clip on my phone. Just a 15 second clip, using the slow-motion setting would equate to something like 45 seconds of footage.

Then it was back to the camera, and trying to capture images of the kites as they dived for the food.

This isn't as simple as it might appear, as the kites are devlishly quick, and with there being so many present, other birds quite often get in the way of the one you're attempting to track. But there are techniques to employ, and with a fast shutter speed, the camera on its quickest frame rate, I started to get some results.

The kites certainly pull some fancy moves in mid-air before diving.

Capturing them against the sky is considerably easier than against the hillside or trees, but this is what I wanted, as the foliage was starting to show signs of autumn, and was lit up well in the afternoon sunshine.

Often, you have to pre-empt when the kites are going to dive, so you burst off some shots, and only later can you check if you captured the action. Sometimes I did, and others I'd just have a tail showing in the bottom of the frame!

The first frenzy of feeding generally comprises of the mature kites, and dominant individuals. There are also buzzards and corvids, these preferring to feed from the ground. I saw carrion crows, rooks and ravens, the latter frequently cronking as they approached, a call that resonated amongst the high-pitched whistling calls from the kites all around.

And to add something else to the mix, there was a pale, leucistic red kite circling for food, and it certainly stood out from the rest.

Then there is a lull, and it appears the kites have hoovered up all the food, and left. A lot of visitors choose to leave now, but they miss out on several encores from the kites, when the younger or less dominant birds arrive, and pick up smaller bits of meat that have been missed.

This is, I believe the best time for photography, as without the huge numbers of birds in the air, it is easier to isolate individuals, and track them as they fly around.

Those of us who had waited were also treated to much warmer light for this session.

Eventually I had to leave, and dragged myself away, despite there still being kites coming in for food. I left with hundreds of images to sort through, and hoped to have a few decent to air...

But funnily enough, the images had to play second fiddle to the iPhone clip I had recorded, and after airing it on Twitter the morning after, it went viral. Helped by BBC Earth reposting the clip, it went on to appear in the Moments section of Twitter, and people mentioned that they'd seen that #redkites was trending! What it also raised were many questions about the numbers of kites in the clip, why there were so many, and what effect they might be having on the ecosystem of that area of Wales.

After trying to answer the many, oft repeated questions on Twitter, I chose to create a post on my webpage to handle them all, and it can be seen here: Click Here.

Monday 8 October 2018

Mull, Late Summer

After spending the best part of a month on Mull during the middle of summer, guiding clients on bespoke workshops and tours, I was keen to ensure my holiday there later that season would focus on what I wanted to see, and not be so intense that I came home feeling like I needed a rest! Otters are always top of the most-wanted list for clients, so I told myself that I'd concentrate on my preferred birds of prey instead.

The debarcle last year with the usual B&B not having my booking, meant I booked somewhere else this time, though the beds in the new place were only marginally more comfortable than sleeping on the floor! Didn't matter too much, as after a decent breakfast, some shopping, and a quick scan of Oban harbour, we were ushered aboard the smaller of the two ferries serving Mull, and it took just four minutes to see an eagle after arriving at Craignure. A white-tailed eagle soared over the main road as we drove north towards Salen!

With clear blue skies and barely a breeze, Mull was glorious, and reminded me of the weather Andy and I had enjoyed with our clients earlier in the year. The lochs reflect the colour of the sky and the whole place is transformed, to resemble perhaps a holiday island in the Med. By mid-afternoon I'd dropped Dad off at the cottage to settle in, while I zipped off into the hills nearby, in search of raptors. And within minutes of parking up, the distinctive shape of a hen harrier quartering over the hillside grabbed my attention.

A female, looking tired in terms of her condition, from a busy breeding season. She kept her distance from where I was parked, which is something I am well used to! But a joy to see, nevertheless. As was the male that appeared soon after, hunting further along the hillside. Having observed at least four different harriers searching for food in one area, I decided to relocate to a closer spot, and hiked up the hills. Nestling in beside a boulder, wearing camo and coated in Smidge, I waited. The harriers had been appearing every half hour or so. They'd appear soon, right?

No. Whatever mystical, magical, telepathic warning these birds use to avoid me getting images had been sounded, and nothing flew over the hillside for the next two hours. Would my luck ever change with these birds?

As is typical with Mull, after a day of glorious weather on arrival, the first full day on the island was grey and very damp. The picture-postcard blue lochs were choppy and murky, and the tops of the hills blanketed in cloud. And boy did the rain come down! With Dad's health not being great of late, I suggested he stayed in the warmth of the digs, whilst I braved the elements. I didn't struggle to get him to agree! And I wondered why I had bothered after failing to see anything on my first circuit of the loch.

A branch washed up on the tide was serving as a perch for hunting swallows, battling to pick out insects between the droplets of rain, and provided me with at least something to watch for a while.

I didn't hold out much hope of seeing raptors in this weather, but beyond the swallows, in the bay appeared a head... of a fishing otter. It seemed quite content to be catching small prey and eating them out in the water, which suited me, as I didn't fancy getting soaked out of the shelter of the car. Then another head appeared, and started to swim over. A second otter. Perhaps it knew the other one?

Suddenly the second otter started to head ashore, at speed. I tried to see if it had caught something, but it hadn't. It appeared down the shore from me, and sprinted up towards the hills. Naturally I pointed the camera at it, and grabbed some shots, though at an awkward angle to where I was facing (sometimes big lenses aren't the best solution!).

Weird, I thought, until I saw the first otter charging past the car and off into the bracken behind. I could hear squeaking and scanned the undergrowth for any sign of what might be happening. Both otters then burst out of the ferns, and scampered at pace briefly along the road behind my car, then back into the bushes again. More sounds and I worried for what might happen in front of me. I last saw them, presumably an unwelcome youngster being chased by the territory-owner, as they scampered across the "Otter Car Park" and off up one of the streams, going straight up and through a waterfall along the way.

The day ended with me enjoying the sight of at least one hen harrier braving the elements to find a late supper. I didn't envy it, and wasn't surprised to see it perch up after a while, perhaps waiting for the rain to stop before it went completely dark. It didn't...

Despite my intentions of targeting raptors for the break, I kept spotting otters, and certainly wasn't going to ignore any, where there was the opportunity to approach.

Somewhat ironic, that during the summer we struggled to find them for clients, probably due to the number of tourists and the unusually warm weather, yet here I was, hoping to photograph birds of prey, and tripping over otters each day!

With fine weather forecast mid-week, it was time to sail aboard the Lady Jayne again with Martin and Alex. Having experimented a few times recently with using my 500mm prime lens, I opted to use the 100-400mm this time, as it is easier to wield and track the eagles in flight, and I hoped to get some shots showing the agility of these huge predators, as they approach to take the fish.

And boy were we treated to some action.

The eagles seemed to have read my mind, performing some spectacular dives, twisting and turning before dropping down.

Sometimes with the glorious blue sky as a backdrop, and other times against the green hills cupping the loch.

After the trip, we drove around the coast, finding a parking area near Burg, and simply stood around in the sunshine, admiring the stunning views. With buzzards and ravens spiralling up and down on the thermals above us, it was heavenly.

The day ended watching a couple of hen harriers hunting over the marshes in golden light, followed by a serene sunset, full of pastel shades. If I ever suffer a Groundhog Day, please let this one be it...

One of the sounds of Mull at this time of year is the chatter of barn swallows, both young and old, as they gather in flocks, making the most of the harvest of flying insects, before they head south, away for the winter. Nesting under the eves of houses and farm buildings, they often use the wire fences nearby to rest up on, and they can be quite accommodating to photographers. I used the car as the hide, and was able to get very close to one group. Strong light isn't a photographer's friend normally, but it did highlight the blue tones of their feathers.

As is often the case on Mull, after a day of glorious weather, the next is dull and wet, and with no action in the water of the loch, I chose to watch a large flock of finches feeding on the bounty of left-over seeds and insects after a meadow had been cut for hay. There were mainly chaffinches, goldfinches, siskins, meadow pipits and pied wagtails, and every so often, they would lift off from the vegetation, and some would perch on the wire fence nearby. Not the prettiest of perches, but the birds made up for it with their charm.

When the almost inevitable sparrowhawk arrived on the scene, and the birds dispersed in all directions, I chose to head back to the marshes again. By now the light had improved enough there to offer a glimmer of hope of seeing the harriers hunting, but it was another predator that caught my eye. A stoat!

Initially I spotted something moving along the road down from where I was parked, and after getting my bins on it, I could see it was a stoat, and it seemed interested in picking up the shards of bark left from the logging trucks as they thunder by. Then, as only stoats know how, it started to go a bit demented, leaping around, twisting and darting across the tarmac, vanishing into the grass, before peering out, and charging out again once more.

I drove past and parked closely enough to get some shots, but not so close I'd spook it. Even so, I did catch it staring at me from the perceived safety of the tall grass beyond the verge.

Another dreary day followed, and after the local band of stonechats had provided me with something to photograph, I spotted a large shape in the skies above, against the grey cloud.

A golden eagle, and it was soon joined by another. They were circling above the trees lining the hillside, and for some reason, despite the forecast of heavy rain, I chose to relocate to a spot closer, which meant hiking up the slope. Easier said than done, when much of it is lined with broken or cut down trees, holes or bogs, and chest-high sections of bracken, no doubt hiding places for ticks and other nasties. And carrying a 500mm lens over your shoulder on a monopod, when doing such a climb isn't wise... but I managed to get some way up the slope when I glanced up and realised there were now four eagles circling.

Three were of the golden variety, with one, perhaps brave sub-adult white-tailed eagle, that seemed intent on scrapping with one of the adult "goldies". Was thoroughly entertaining to watch though, if not quite close enough. I needed to go higher, and I wished I had done so earlier, instead of waiting lower down for a while, when I realised one of the golden eagles was perched in a tree, not far from where I had intended to head first.

Needless to say, after I scaled the hill to a point where the eagles had been soaring over, and I'd sat down amongst the stumps, camouflaged and still, I saw absolutely nothing for the two hours I was up there. Apart from some sheep. And a wall of rain, forecast, rolling in from the end of the loch. Looking at the rain, and then at my not-so-waterproof jacket, I chose to head back down, finding a much easier descent, and was rewarded, upon reaching the road again, just as the rain started to fall, with yet another otter sighting.

And it was a close one too, filling the frame at times.

I just caught the end of what must have been a fishing session, as the otter sprainted, groomed for a while, before heading out and up a stream.

With Dad having expressed that this trip would be his last to Mull, on account of the long journey time mainly, I wondered if he wanted to finally visit Iona, somewhere we'd often looked across at, but never set foot on. Heading south one of the warmer days, I suggested we perhaps head over, and was met with a rather apparent lack of enthusiasm for the idea! He wasn't bothered at all, and was quite happy enjoying the views of it from Mull, and strolling around the blissful white sand beaches instead.

Suited me, and I left him admiring the views and soaking up the sunshine, while I went looking for Irish mountain hares. And much like the visits earlier in the year, they appeared from out of nowhere, and scarpered, allowing me only a handful of distant shots when one paused to look back at me.

Later that day we caught up with the young otter I'd seen being chased, only this time it was in the shallows, enjoying the shoals of mackerel, catching numerous fish, and wolfing them down. Speaking to a local, this was one of the two tiny cubs I had seen back in November during the Otter Photography Tours, and was apparently the "runt" of the litter. This was both surprising and remarkable, that the smallest, most timid of the two was making a good go of it on its own. Sure, it was small, but it seemed to be finding plenty to eat, as long as it avoided the other larger individuals around the area, and chased off.

The day ended with another otter encounter, and one of the close kind. It was dead calm, without a breath of wind, which of course hinders the approach for photographing such creatures, but I had clambered into a gap between some large boulders and was taking shots ever so infrequently, in the quiet conditions. The otter started to head in, and I expected it to head up the stream along the shore from me. It didn't.

It appeared, right in front of me, heading up the same channel between the rocks where I was sitting! Way too close for me to photograph, and having to play statues anyway, I just looked at it, only moving my eyes in its direction. It was no more than two yards away. It too stopped, looking at me, obviously curious of the strange shape in front of it. Then I heard it sniff, deeply and again a second time. But without any wind to carry my scent, it simply couldn't determine what I was. It took a step closer and just as I thought it would pass within touching distance, a cyclist rushed past on the road behind me, and that was enough for the already wary creature to turn tail, and bound back to the water.

Without moving, I watched the otter looking at me from the water, before it swam along the shore, and up the stream I had assumed it would use before.

While I was getting productive sessions of photography early morning and late afternoon, Dad was struggling to find anything much during the day to interest him, so we arranged another trip out with Mull Charters. Again the weather was calm, and the water like a mill-pond. Whilst waiting for the Lady Jayne to moor up, I realised one of the other photographers queuing was one of my clients from the winter! He and another photographer I follow on Social Media were staying over on the mainland for the pine martens, but had driven over for the boat trip. Always lovely to catch up with such friendly folk, and of course led to amusing banter throughout the trip.

Alex always says folks need to be ready for the eagles early doors, but I think even he was surprised at the speed of the take from the first visiting eagle. The fish had barely hit the water when the eagle decided to dive straight down from over the boat, snatching the fish and heading off to a small skerry to eat it. I reacted almost without thinking, and somehow managed to get the shots, and I was about the only person to do so.

Thankfully for the other punters, the eagles visisted several times, and with some great positioning of the boat, and subsequent throwing by Alex, I managed to get some more unusual images of the eagles, against dark water.

Even with some reflections in the calm conditions. Stunning.

It was interesting too, that because of the almost windless weather, the eagles were having to generate their own pace for the dives, creating enough speed to gain height again after taking the fish, which meant they would fly almost overhead, then twist and dive steeply and sharply to accelerate down. Awesome to witness at such close quarters.

Certainly ticked all the boxes for an incredible last trip for Dad. And gave his camera a bit of a work-out too.

If the success of the boat trip had been almost expected after this year's experiences on it, what happened the following evening most certainly wasn't. As usual, I had decided for part of the late afternoon trip to park up overlooking the marshes, and hoped I might see a harrier or perhaps short-eared owl hunting. With numerous gulls flying around it was a miracle that I managed to pick up the one bird, hunting some distance off, just by the way it was flying. A male hen harrier. "It'll fly off" I thought, as they seemingly always do to me.

It started heading across the marsh and towards where I was waiting. I grabbed some distant shots waiting for the inevitable change of direction, but it kept on coming. Would one finally come close enough for a half decent image?

No. Something caught its attention as it followed the edge of the loch, and it dived down into the vegetation. I considered getting out and creeping closer, but harriers can disappear for a long time if they've caught a decent meal, so I stayed put. Just as I was about to relocate, up it came again, and continued on its way, getting closer!

After taking most definitely my best ever images of a male hen harrier, it must have realised it was me in the car, and promptly headed off across the river, and elsewhere to hunt. But by then I had some shots, and for once, on returning to the cottage, I could answer Dad's usual question of if I'd enjoyed any success with the harriers, with a "yes".

Perhaps the curse had been broken, because the following evening I enjoyed some decent views of a juvenile hen harrier hunting, and that added to a smile that had been brought on first thing, when I had spied a female merlin perched up in the marsh.

Suddenly the last full day was upon us. As usual, I headed out early, and despite hoping to see a raptor, it was another otter that stole my gaze. The light and wind-direction were at odds with each other for any sort of approach, so with the otter moving along the shore, fishing as it went, I managed to get in position and hoped it might bring something ashore nearby, up wind from me. It did, but right behind about the only large boulder on the shore. Sometimes that's the way it goes, but as it was so close, I couldn't move away until I was sure the otter had gone. Then the rock in front of me moved.

A head appeared, and the otter studied me carefully. Needless to say, I froze. The head shrank back into the weed again. I was able to get the camera lined up, and sure enough, moments later it peered out again!

Then the otter did something I've not seen before. It went to sleep under the seaweed. It was clear from my view that the otter was young, perhaps the same individual I had seen several times before, and wasn't keen on sleeping out in the open, in view of other otters. Of course this meant I had to stay on the shore too, waiting for it to wake up and move on. Not the worst place in the world to sit though, with that view all around.

After about twenty minutes, I saw the weed twitch, and the otter headed back out to fish. I watched it continue along the edge of the loch, before it headed in, up a stream.

The day ended with more wonderful views, though never that close, of hen harriers hunting. While I can't always take photos, I just love to watch these enigmatic, owl-like birds quartering the marshes, hills and meadows. Having to drive for hours to perhaps see one at other times of the year, I try to make the most of any chance to enjoy them when I can.

Another trip to Mull was over the following morning, and Dad said farewell to an island he has always loved, since his first visit several years ago. I, of course, will be back in a few weeks, hopefully tripping over more otters, for clients this time, though I won't be ignoring any harrier views, especially if they dare come so close again!