Viewing entries in
Photography

A Rare Day

The Canyon - Terpentwys

A sunny day and I aimed to have a ‘dragonfly’ day at a place called The Canyon, which has a number of cool species like Keeled Skimmer and Black Darter that I like to find each year. Having got there however, the wind was so high, I wasn’t even seeing any butterflies on the wing, so on the way back down the mountain, I picked up good friend Craig Constance and we headed to Llandegfedd to salvage the day. We didn’t have much to report on the bird front but Craig spotted his regular Yellow Legged Gull which was good for me as I could finally get a decent view of a full adult bird right next to both Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gull for reference. I must admit, I’ve always shied away from identifying Gulls like Yellow-legged in the field as I’ve not been confident with the features but I certainly feel more confident now. Our last stop before heading home and we popped into Green Pool hide, which in all fairness, we never do these days as it’s usually overgrown but Welsh Water has cleared a nice channel through the reeds and just as well! as the Dragonfly we had been watching for a while in-front of the hide, ended up being a mega!

We had a male Emperor Dragonfly and quite a few Common Darters on the water but we had two Hawkers coming in close but there was so much blue on the one, it honestly looked like a small emperor at first glance. I said to craig at this point, “you know, there is a really rare dragonfly called the ‘blue eyed’ or ‘Southern Migrant Hawker’… from which seconds later the hawker landed right in-front of the hide and I went completely red in the face in shock. As soon as I saw the thin black lines in the thorax and those bright blue eyes, I went into complete panic mode, trying to get a photograph and my battery died!!! Spares of which were in my car! #schoolboyerror. Craig instantly called Lee Gregory who is an all-round naturalist with great species knowledge and he arrived shortly after I got back to the hide with some spare batteries. At this point I still hadn’t got a picture to confirm the ID! Thankfully it returned right in-front of the hide as Lee got there and the first picture had me dancing like a little kid. Lee Gregory instantly knew that this could be a first record for Wales and today it was confirmed that this is the first confirmed sighting for Gwent and Wales, so this would be my second ‘1st’ for Wales this year. This doesn’t happen very often, not for me anyway.

The Southern Migrant Hawker is a vagrant that’s apparently trying to colonise the Uk from southern Europe and more Mediterranean habitats. It’s been spotted mostly in southern and eastern parts of England but sightings in Wales have been very minimal. To have the first confirmed sighting is nice but honestly I was just glad that I knew what it was as we both could have quite easily walked away without giving it a second glance. The first four pics below are of the Southern Migrant Hawker, showing vibrant blue eyes, blue on the thorax with those thin black lines through the yellow which you wouldn’t see on an Emperor which is of similar colours. It is quite a bit smaller than an emperor but in flight, sizer can be difficult to judge.


I’ve started a project to record as many species of Grasshopper as I can, and in a high sample rate so that I can lower the pitch and slow the recording down so that everyone can appreciate the quality. I thought it was probably wise that I make the most of my ability to actually hear them as one day I’m sure I’ll lose that end of the frequency spectrum and I won’t even know where to point the mic! In lowering the pitch, I hope that everyone can enjoy the variety of sounds we have in our countryside. I used to be able to hear some species of Bats when I was a kid. If I knew how much i’d miss that when I was older, I would have done it more often.

Birthday on Skomer

This week has been a bit overwhelming. For my 30th Birthday my loved ones organised a trip to Skomer Island, knowing that I’ve failed in previous years to get on due to it being so busy at peak season. I wasn’t going to let that happen again, so Jodie and I arrived at 5am. People didn’t start turning up till around 6:30-7 and even then, only around 20-30 people cued up by 8:30, so there wasn’t any need to get up that early. Either way, I’m glad I was, because I got to watch thousands of Manx Shearwaters heading towards Skomer to start the day.

It was my first time on the island so we spent most of the time roaming the shoreline, sussing out where everything was. I should have just spent more time with the Puffins but either way, it’s a little late in the year now so there weren’t many left feeding chicks. The hours flew by quickly and before we knew it, we were being waved off by a Seal waiting in the harbour. It was a fantastic experience, I’ll most certainly make the effort a bit earlier on in the season next year, maybe even organise a few trips as it’s so worth the effort!


Prior to my Skomer trip I had another daytime session on one of my more elusive males that I’ve now named ‘Crossbill’ as his upper mandible slightly curves left. Below him is a pic of his female that I haven’t seen for quite some time, presumably because she’s now sat on eggs or chicks. I did visit a couple nights in a row and I can confirm a new spot where she’s being particularly protective over so another daytime trip is due to confirm.

I assume his female is the same one, in which case, this is her below, just 2 feet from where I found him roosting.

Before the Rain

Spring might have been a wet one, but it’s been great so far this summer for bugs. I usually turn my attention to bugs this time of year as some species have a small window of opportunity before they all disappear again till next year. If you like Grasshoppers and Crickets, it’s worth visiting the north side of Llandegfedd as the meadows are alive with Roesel’s, Dark, Oak & Speckled Bush-crickets, Green, Meadow, Field and Mottled Grasshoppers, Long & Short-winged Coneheads and even Ground Hoppers with more to discover I’m sure.
As you know I like to record the sounds of nature, but as many people cannot hear some species of Grasshopper as they’re too high pitched, I’ve started a project that aims to record as many different species of Grasshopper / Cricket as possible and to slow those recordings down so that you can listen to the finer detail of each and every stroke of the wing cases. It’s not for everyone, but i find stuff like this fascinating as it reveals frequencies that you wouldn’t otherwise hear. Listen back to these insects in slow-motion helps you enter their world for a moment and also highlights how important it is for us to start consider the environmental impact our noise pollution has on species that are dependant on sound in order to reproduce.


I tend not to go anywhere simply for the walk these days, partly because I can’t walk far at the moment as I have gall-stones that are playing havoc, but also because I only walk 2 minutes before spotting something interesting to photograph, record or just appreciate. It doesn’t do anything for my fitness levels this way but I’ve made so much luck this way, slowly walking through the landscape, trying to appreciate everything that I see. If you do this, you’ll be rewarded more and more, and this was evident when I was accompanied by a Stoat that was quite shy, but I would have easily missed it if I was walking with the intent to walk. If you want to see things, you need to slow right down.

A Week for Welsh Bugs!

I’m back on the Nightjar, this time at a completely different location, just to switch things up a bit . So far I have 3 pairs , including this Male that’s switching his roost up every night but does come back to the same ones every now and again. Each roost he uses though is pretty well covered so I won’t be trying to get close photographs of this one, which does not matter to me at all, as once you’ve spent as much time as I have researching them, just finding one without disturbing them gives you such a great sense of achievement and most of the time I just rock up, look at them through my bins from a distance and go straight home.

Male Nightjar

The great thing about searching for Nightjar, it requires similar searching methods to how you would search for rare insects, paying great attention to the small details. I always bring my macro lens with me and this week, I’m so glad that I did, as not only has it been fun photographing a variety of different species in beautiful sunshine, every now and again you stumble upon a gem!


A short walk along the Gwent Levels and upon arriving back at the car, I noticed a very small Hoverfly that was so brightly marked I thought it was a wasp. It just to happened to be a member of the Chrysotoxum family which are ‘wasp mimics’ and if it weren’t for the featherlight flight pattern, it would have had me fooled!.
I’m not going to pretend like I knew what it was in the field, as I didn’t. All I knew was, I’ve never seen one of these before, as I do have a photographic memory. I managed to snap a few different photo angles, trying to get the full back pattern and the antenna which are usually key features in identifying hoverflies. There are around 280 different species of Hoverfly in the Uk, some of which are isolated populations in specialist habitats. In the case of Chrysotoxum, they are described as being ‘The Difficult Five’ as they are very similar and usually requires close examination by an expert in order to ID them. Luckily for me I always take multiple angled pictures when photographing insects as I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not always possible to ID via a photograph. This is why so many bug specialists take home life samples to study under a microscope.
As soon as I got home I looked in my Hoverfly book which I downloaded on my phone, it’s called ‘Britains Hoverflies’ and it’s written by Stuart Ball & Roger Morris. The book was great, and the description / images provided me with enough detail to rule out a few species straight away and it was looking good to be Chrysotoxum Verralli. This is still new territory for me though, so I went straight to my ‘bug friend’ Liam Olds, who has a vast amount of bug knowledge and is very open to receiving the odd ID request from me, which I’m truly grateful for! He quickly checked for key features and as I suspected, it looked good for Chrysotoxum verralli, but he requested I still ran it by the Uk Hoverflies facebook group to be 100% sure, as if it was C.Verralli, it would be a first record for Wales!

The stakes just went up! so I popped all my pics on the facebook group and who should comment, but the co-author of my Hoverfly book! Roger Morris himself! and confirmed that it is indeed Chrysotoxum verralli. I couldn’t have had a better person to confirm that for me so I’m chuffed to bits.

Chrysotoxum Verralli

I shouldn’t get too excited though, as this actually happens quite a lot. In the same week, Martin Bell discovered a Sandrunner Shieldbug in Slade Wood which is another first for Wales! The truth is, there’s probably a lot more out there that we simply have not discovered yet and I am living proof that anybody, no matter how much experience you have, can discover something new, if you just slow down and pay attention to the details.

Shape Conforming

I hope you’re not getting tired of hearing about Nightjar but honestly I don’t care haha. Spending time with one species, learning more about their characteristics and behaviour is what I love and it’s the only way you’ll ever get a chance of photographing this species in the day. I’m now on my 4th pair and my 7th individual (yet to locate the female of the 4th pair). I find it interesting that each pair has chosen a different type of habitat, or at-least the same habitat at different stages.

  1. 3-4 Year Old clear-fell, mostly small-medium sized trees

  2. 1 year old clear-fell, only bracken, grass.

  3. 3 year old clear-fell, mostly grassland, bracken and heath

  4. 3 year old clear-fell, totally rocky habitat with bracken between.

It goes to show how versatile they are, so long as there is suitable habitat around them for moths, they’ll roost almost anywhere there’s suitable cover.
The pair that’s chosen the rocky habitat is the one that I’m most interested in, as he’s also choosing to roost on rocks, rather than logs/sticks. If you look closely, even the shape of his back appears to match the shape of the rock. I wonder if this is strategic? Shape conforming is common amongst species that rely on camouflage to survive and they do appear to match their chosen roost spot. If on the end of a log, they’ll sit tall, short, tail town as if they’re part of the end of that log. If they sit across a stick, they’ll sit in the same direction and flatten themselves out.

As a contrast, here’s the female of pair number 3 showing that typical flattened out pose that matches the long shape of a stick. I loved this chosen roost spot, but it’s doubtful she’ll use it again though as she looks ready to burst. I’m surprised she hasn’t laid yet. Maybe she has and her first clutch failed? I hope that isn’t the case.


I’ve also been studying their vocalisations but I’ve needed a few years worth of field recordings on Nightjar, in order to confirm a theory that you can identify individual males by their song. The way you would do this is to work out the average BPM, length of phrases and also the frequency of both exhale and inhale.
I’ve collected so far at-least 6 different males, though I’ve focused on returning to the same territory for the last 2 years in the hope to confirm it with one individual male. So far it looks like I can confirm this theory, as I’m finding only a 0.8 difference between the BPM recorded in 2017 to present day. A couple more years worth of recording Males and I should be able to give more weight to this theory.
The analysis is actually pretty easy and could even be done in the field so long as you had a laptop to return to. I’ll publish more details about my methods at the end of the season.

Nightjar Identification

Nightjar and Firecrest Progress

Despite having a tough year so far, both financially and with my health, I still feel privileged to spend my free time with nature, and even more privileged to spend most of that time with Firecrests and Nightjar this season. I started the season collecting Firecrest recordings as I wanted to learn more about their mimicking behaviour. There are still many unanswered questions but I’ll update on this soon.

I’ve since got a little distracted, as Nightjar season has well and truly started. It’s almost a full time Job to keep track of the birds roosting patterns. You’ve got to be extremely cautious and committed to find roosting nightjar. Cautious because you don’t want to cause any disturbance, especially now in breeding season but also because they will inevitably see you long before you see them and flushing them is simply not an option if you wish to ever see them again. It’s a huge trust exercise and they need to learn that you are not a threat, so trampling thru breeding habitat hoping to find one is asking for problems. It’s knowing where they won’t be rather than knowing exactly where they are. I’m so glad I read up on these birds and took some great advice off experts as the last thing I would want is for my presence to have a negative impact on their breeding success. As a result I’ve witnessed some fabulous behaviour and characteristics of individual birds.

Meet Blackbeard, The male from pair no1. He prefers to roost in dense cover and as a result I’ve decided to leave him alone this season as there’s no way of approaching him silently. I’ve called him Blackbeard as he’s considerably darker than all my other Nightjars. Not just his throat, but the stripe down his breast, around his lower eye and also down his back is quite dark. He’s generally more rufous with a wider range of colours.

Blackbeard (Male no1)

Blackbeard (Male no1)

This is his current Female that I’ve named ‘bark’ as she prefers tree stumps and has consistent colouration from head to tail like tree bark without any lichen. Not a very feminine name I know but it’s descriptive enough for me to ID in the field. She was my first ever self found Nightjar. She’s now sitting on eggs but is also in deep cover so this pair I tend to enjoy watching at night only, from a vantage point, rather than pursue them in the day time and possibly cause disturbance.

Female no1

The second pair is a complete different ball-game, and are much easier to approach without making too much noise. They’re both roosting close to the ground but he likes logs or even plastic tree guards. She’s about 10 meters away in a small ditch and is now also sitting on two eggs. I’ve named male no2 silverback due to his overall light shade of grey. He was proving to be quite an attentive partner but since we’ve been having heavy rain, he’s taken to a more sheltered part of the forestry 60+ meters away which is very dry. Do you blame him? I don’t. The female however has no choice but to endure the elements till nightfall where the male then brings her food or they’ll swap over so she can feed. I do wonder if Silverback has gone off with another female while she’s been sat on the eggs as there is a female even closer to his current dry roost that’s been landing on the path and wagging her tail in front of him. He has shown interest in her so it wouldn’t surprise me if he did copulate with her too, this is common with Nightjars. Once his original female has hatched her eggs however, he should take over parental duties when the chicks are large enough, at which point he will copulate with her again, and she’ll lay a second brood elsewhere. The saying, ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ is a literal strategy for these birds and in doing this, they increase their chances of survival, even if only one chick manages to fledge.

This pair is a reminder that they’re so vulnerable to predators on the ground, whether it’s snakes, other birds, deer, badgers, foxes, mice, PEOPLE.. there’s so much out there that seek to kill them, which is why they invest so much (or so little) energy into keeping up their ‘log’ act. It’s vital they aren’t seen moving in the day time. Not so easy when you’re soaking wet and cold, or boiling hot in the sun with insects crawling over you.

Below is female no2 which I’m now going to call ‘lichen’ as the contrast of her dark shoulder really makes the lighter wing strips stand out, like a patch of lichen on a branch. She also has quite short wings and a more rounded shorter head than the Male who has a long, flat head shape. Their shape does vary as they manipulate their plumage in different positions but these features are generally unmistakable in the field once you’ve spent some time with them. This is her below sitting on the eggs, it’s a cropped image and from quite far off as I’d rather not disturb her.

Lichen Nightjar Female Sitting

This next bit might make some laugh, but I certainly didn’t find it funny at the time, but a group of young irresponsible adults bumped into me one night while recording Nightjar at dusk. They didn’t bother me at first and showed very little interest in what I was doing but they did turn the music up louder in their car to annoy me. What they did next though questions their insanity.., as they must have drove all the way home, picked up a family members wind instrument (possibly trumpet), with the intent on coming back up the mountain so they could destroy any chance of me getting clean recordings. Take a listen below, you couldn’t have made this up honestly.. Skip to the end..It’s actually hilarious the more I think about it. I just can’t believe the measures some people are willing to take to disrupt other peoples lives.

Between the trumpets, I was watching quite a few bats on the wing while watching the Nightjar and all I could hear thru my headphones were the faint sound of beating wings. I did wonder if my Telinga Microphone could actually pick up such high frequencies and it turns out, IT CAN! After slowing my recording down in Logic Pro X, I was able to pick out each ‘tweet’ that the bats were producing. These tweets are not audible without slowing the recording down but i’m amazed how much detail I was able to capture. It makes me wonder how many bats are in my previous recordings and the only way of telling would be to lower the pitch or slow the recordings down. I’ve always wanted to record bat sound but always thought I would need a Bat detector to do so.

I do have 3 other pairs of Nightjar that I know roughly where they’re roosting but you need to spend weeks observing them before considering yomping thru their habitat. Please be responsible, all breeding birds are protected and I would not be pursuing them if I wasn’t 100% sure I could do so without disturbance.

Born from Destruction

I find it hard to explain just how much I love Nightjars but hopefully by the end of this blog you’ll understand why.

The title sounds a bit dramatic, and that’s because the Nightjar for me is much more than just a cool looking bird that makes an unworldly sound. This bird for me is a reminder that even in a world full of environmental destruction, there are animals out there that have adapted to an ever changing landscape.

The Nightjar has done just this, by using clear-felled woodland to their advantage, as the bare ground, twigs, logs and cut stumps make for a perfect place to blend in and a perfect place to breed. The regrowth of these (often upland) clear-fells bring all kinds of plants, from heather, foxgloves, bracken, broom, gorse and native broadleaf trees, all of which are great for moths and insects which the Nightjar specialising in eating on the wing during the night. In the night they eat and drink on the wing, opening their mouth wide like a Swift and skimming lakes, tree tops and low vegetation for food and drink.

Below is a picture of my first self found Nightjar but hopefully not the last of the season. I have 6 pairs between two locations that I’m keeping an eye on. I hope to record enough male songs to confirm a theory that you can identify males by their BPM. This is a female, so she won’t be using this roost every day, especially once she lays her eggs as she will then incubate on the ground never to be seen again as the ground is mostly dead bracken which she blends into even more! The male was close by. He’s never too far away during this period as he will watch guard over them both. I hope to locate the male later on in the year once they’ve officially began breeding as it’s still early days yet and he’s still copulating with her.

I’ve shared this recording before but it’s still the best one I’ve captured so far, with perfect weather conditions and capturing the song from beginning to end.

If it wasn’t for the new green growth of the green bracken, I don’t think I would have spotted her at all.

I hope to get more opportunities but the most important thing for me at this stage is to ensure I don’t disturb them breeding so I’m going to let them settle in and see how the season goes. I might also continue to look for the other 5 local pairs and may even explore some new clear-fells in the valley to see if they’re attracting Nightjar yet. Either way, it’s quite exciting to finally get time in the day with these birds as I’ve spent so much time watching them in the night, it’s nice to see them in full light.

Marsh Fritillaries

It’s been on my ‘todo list’ for a few years now to make the effort and see the beautiful Marsh Fritillary butterflies at one of our last known breeding sites in Aberbargoed. I believe most of the site is a former colliery, a habitat formed from the scars of industry, but this scar has healed, even when it was thought to never heal again. It’s actually proving to be a ‘win’ in conservation terms, as the coal spoil itself has created a variety of micro habitats because of the way the spoil handles water. Some water gets trapped creating marshy habitats, some completely runs off creating dry patches. This water management has resulted in such a variety of plants occupying the same habitat, which is proving to be just what our insects need, as with most insects, they need a variety of plants to complete their life cycle.

This is why our modern farm practises aren’t good for biodiversity. Fields are drained to turn into dry grassland, replace with poo and chemicals which pollute our waterways. Ground nesting birds still move in, lay their eggs, and then the farmer will cut the grass, killing all that once lived there, Reptiles, Amphibians, Mammals, all dead or injured, which then attracts the predators, foxes, birds of prey, crows and gulls, of which are then blamed for feeding on still-birth lambs, and until quite recently, persecuted for it, because NRW allowed for licensed shooting of these animals who are just cleaning up after our mess.

Specialist species like the Marsh Fritillary don’t stand a chance in modern Britain. We’re so caught up in that ‘human race’ thing called life, that we forget we’re ruining it for our future generations. The exploitation needs to stop. We need more protection for nature. There are good farmers out there doing all they can to minimise their impacts on nature but it’s doing to take more than just the good will of the minority. Wildlife Trusts, Butterfly Conservation, RSPB, they are all doing their part to try and balance the equation but it’s not enough. If our government doesn’t act now, species like this will be lost forever.

Sorry rant over, also included in the photos were some very fast Dingy Skipper Butterflies, a Drinker Moth Caterpillar, some microscopic Gorse Shieldbug Eggs and a scenic shot of an emerging Fox Glove in a field of blossom. All these shots were taken with my Canon 100mm macro which is proving to be good investment. It’s nice to roam around with a small lens for a change. Lugging the telephoto and tripod around can be a bit much all the time.

Discovery

Columbine

The one thing that I absolutely love about the natural world, you’re always discovering new things. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been studying, how old you are, there’s always something you haven’t seen, heard, smelled or touched. It might not be a significant find by any standards, but this week I added two new species, one flower called Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) and though it’s widespread and common, I’ve never seem them before.


Granulated Ground Beetle

The other species came in the form of a beetle which I’ve seen a lot of photographs of, but never actually seen one in person and that’s a large ground beetle called the Granulated Ground Beetle (Carabus granulatus). Seeing one of these large ground beetles makes me want to find the rarer Blue Ground Beetle (Carabus intricatus) which I’ve been told is a mainly nocturnal species of ancient woodland that feeds on slugs and snails. There’s so much to discover, even in the Uk where we have a fairly low number of over-all species on this island compared to mainland Europe.


To keep my birdie friends happy and for anybody who likes to know the ‘how’ behind an image. Below is a pic of me inside a custom made hide, designed by John Marsh of which I’ve made some modifications to suit me. It’s essentially 4 height adjustable spiked poles with 4 cross support beams made out of aluminium. The hide is square and has scrim netting over the main front hole which is the best for being able to still see out of. There’s nothing worse than being in a hide to photograph something that you can’t actually see. Hides are by far the best way to get close to nature. I’ve tried just throwing netting over myself in the past and while it does work, you have to remain completely still, which over extended periods of time is agonising. This hide is small, but it’s big enough that you can still move around, stretch and get comfortable in, even if you are sat on the ground.

My Hide

My Hide

In the making

In the making

Male Pied Flycatcher

Male Pied Flycatcher

Food Chain

I love birds, but the more I learn about the natural world, the more i’m fascinated by the smaller things in life. Despite popular believe, it all starts from the bottom up, without the bugs, nothing else would exist.
A little example of which I found inadvertently while observing Pied Flycatchers and their chosen food prey items. This male Pied was bringing back all sorts of prices for his female who is currently incubating a clutch of eggs. He’s been pretty good so far, though only bringing in single items, which doesn’t seem to go down very well with the female, but it does allow me to ID the bugs. They were mostly catching beetles but also some species of Sawfly, which I believe to be an Oak Sawfly. A quick look under the oak leaves and I did find some Oak Sawfly larvae to confirm their presence. Ancient broadleaf woodland is such an important habitat and one oak tree alone can support thousands of species.

I’ve included some pictures of Spiders of which I know some of my facebook friends have turned their eyes away from. I get that not everyone will come to love spiders but I hope to show them in a different light through my photography. The Zebra spider is quite commonly found on homes and gardens and my home is no exception. This little guy was only 2-3mm long as it’s this years hatchling. I see them mostly on warm days but after a couple of showers, this zebra was sporting a brilliant water droplet hat.

I skipped past the Pied Flycatchers without giving them the attention they deserve. I have to thank Richard Evans at Project Nestbox for introducing me to these birds some years ago. I haven’t gone a single year since without going out of my way to see and hear these birds. Once you do so, it’s hard to imagine a woodland without them. Sadly, that is becoming a reality for many historic breeding sites across wales but thanks to the help of people like Richard, these nest box schemes do help increase remote populations.