400 smiles a day
here's lookin' at you

(Smiles of 2009)

Page:  1  2  3  4('08)

What a gas.......
Follow the pipeline

(click above)
17/05/09 - End game...
(inc. Dodgy City's Hallelujah Trail
   +  Llandeilo's Party in the Park)

The first bulletin here is a repeat of the final bulletin on the home page - the jottings and pictures on view traverse 2009 into 2010.
To skip this particular bulletin simply click
click! Thank you.

6th January 2010 (Happy New Year!)
Scroll down to the end of this particular bulletin for a remarkable follow-up to...
The bird that swallowed a tennis ball

17th December 2009
+ Christmas Day addendum

Oh go on, show us your tits
(and please, can I hold a great one in my hand?)
MORE moons ago than I care to remember I began keeping a scrapbook of those things which catch my eye in newspapers, magazines, etc, etc. Often I would show to those who called at the house an article or picture that had tickled my imagination; sometimes I pinned items up on the notice board at the Crazy Horsepower Saloon bar, little things which regularly amused the locals.
     So when I dipped my toe into the world of the internet and the web site it seemed totally logical that this would now become my scrapbook. I moved from cut and paste to copy and paste ...
lookyou remains fairly faithful to the original concept, except of course I now add my own comments and observations to proceedings.
     Here on 400 Smiles its pretty much a scrapbook of those things I personally observe that make me stand and stare and smile. An appreciation of my own square mile, if you like; in particular what I encounter along my extended early morning walks along the glorious and picturesque Towy Valley.
Hopefully some of this is of interest to those who venture into my world. Indeed, the agreeable feedback suggests that, all in all, it's working reasonably well.
     In effect I'm producing and publishing my very own magazine, albeit an amateur, seat-of-the-pants affair. As I think I've mentioned before, one of the joys is making up headlines to go with any given section.
    I can only dream of even approaching the standards of the professionals - The Sun newspaper being the uncrowned champion of the "wel-i-jiw-jiw" front page - but it gives me lots of pleasure having a go, so I can only hope that just occasionally a pass mark is achieved.
     This brings me neatly to the headline at the top. For nearly a year now I've been dying to write that line.
      So let's get on with it and show you not just the one tit - but a real handful...
A gorgeous but quarrelsome family of bluetits pop in for breakfast at Hubie's
SO HOW do you get from capturing on camera a bevy of beautiful little tits furiously feeding on the bough ... to hosting a great tit - well, not exactly in the palm of your hand - but on the tips of your fingers (as featured alongside)? Well, thereby hangs a tale.
     To recap. Last January, just under a year ago now, I encountered a friendly robin along my walk. It hopped along the fence beside me as I walked past - and it continued to follow me.
     While I've always appreciated the songbirds all around, I've never taken much interest. They are part of nature's rich pattern, so I simply enjoy their presence. A bit like having Oh Holy Night playing in the background at this time of year.
      But there was something about this robin. Someone's feeding it, I remember thinking, so I stuck out an open hand - and it immediately landed and began pecking away furiously at my hand. The following day I brought some feed - repeated the invitation ... and so began a sweet but sadly short-lived relationship.
     One morning it wasn't there. Nor the next. Nor the one after. A victim of predation, I guess. Then I began to wonder, as I tend to do ... what if I were to pick a spot as far away as possible from Towy Valley 'civilisation', and then attempt to seduce totally wild birds to feed from the hand.
     I did a bit of research online and discovered that robins are acknowledged as being people friendly and relatively easy to seduce to feed from hand. Indeed, as I quickly discovered, and have previously written about (in the bulletin below dated 12th July 2009), I got a virgin robin to snatch feed from hand within a month ... another month before it landed and decided it had a bit of time to stand and stare.
     Next, and rather surprisingly, it was a tiny and delightful marsh tit which started taking feed from my hand (covered in my bulletin dated 18th October 2009). But all the while there were blue tits and great tits flitting around - and they were playing hard to get. So it all looked like an uphill struggle.
     What I was ultimately aiming for was to stand clear of trees, hedges, fences - indeed to stand in the middle of a field, say, so that the birds would then have to make a conscious and dedicated effort to get to the goodies in my hand.
     So this is the grand old tale of why...

A tit in the hand is worth two in the bush

After my escapade enticing the 'virgin' robin to feed from hand, the bird that I half-expected to be the next 'easiest' to seduce was the chaffinch. They were always around and would allow me to get quite close to them. So it was with total surprise when the little marsh tit shot to my hand and helped itself. The chaffinch had clearly drawn a line: so far, but no further. Coming up below, a couple of shots showing two separate, but nervous, great tits.

The look the great tit is giving the chaffinch as it helps itself is wonderful.

Another great tit watches nervously as a marsh tit helps itself.

The great tit decides that the feed on the branch looks much too inviting.

A little bluetit adopts a similar strategy to what's on the fence post.

It's one careful step at a time as the bluetit edges ever nearer the goodies.

When a bird makes that first contact - the foot on my finger - it's a truly Magic Moment.

A pantomime moment as a busy bee lands on the flower: "It's behind you!"

The great tit turns its bum to camera, just a few feet away. A critical moment of trust.

Fear slowly but surely dissipates as the great tit claims its prize.

Similarly with the bluetit: "Decisions ... decisions ... what shall I have for breakfast?"

Next comes standing away from the tree: a great tit hovers but decides not this time.

Similarly with the bluetits: two rush in and land at the same time - neither claims a prize.

Several days - and many, many hours of patience ... success. Definitely a Magic Moment.

Actually, of all the birds, it was a bluetit that was first to land out in the field.

With growing confidence the birds now start to get quite cocky about it all. They dive in, land on my outstretched hand - and often take a good look about them before tucking in. When I saw the image, above, what came instantly to mind was the famous Hollywood quote: “All right Mr De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

Just to check out the quote, I googled it - and landed on Wikipedia – Sunset Boulevard (film), where the famous line comes from. As I scrolled down I came upon the above, back-lit picture of Norma Desmond (actress Gloria Swanson), who utters the memorable line at the end of the film.
     Compare the pose, the turned-up nose ... great ... a different sort of Magic Moment, for sure.

Christmas Day round robin

On Christmas Eve the following letter appeared in the Daily Telegraph, from Andy Charles of Newbury in Berkshire...
Rotund robin:
SIR – If robins do not put on weight by eating little and often, (report, December 22), why does the one in my garden look as if he has swallowed a tennis ball?

I submitted the following response...
Round robin: SIR – Further to the robin that looks as if it has swallowed a tennis ball (letter, December 24), it has nothing to do with what they eat but rather the weather. During very cold weather birds puff themselves up to help ward off the cold. And the robin does this rather more spectacularly than most.

And here's one I photographed during the recent cold snap...

Here's definitely lookin' at you, kid.

6th January 2010 addendum...
The curious case of poor little Cock Robin Junior

LISTENING to Radio Wales on the morning of 30th December (I think), a lady called Alex Pollard was a guest. She is studying the effects of artificial light on urban birds - but robins in particular because they have large eyes, relatively speaking.
     Now I like to think I'm an observant person, but curiously not when it comes to superficial things. I can meet someone and immediately afterwards, not only will I not remember that individual's name, but

have no idea of the colour of eyes, hair, clothes, etc ... but I will have registered little character traits, body language, is the person a dolphin or a shark, a pussycat or a polecat, etc, etc...
     Now I hadn't noticed that the robins have particularly large eyes, but here's a strange thing, or rather, here's a couple of photographs. Well, it's just the one photograph, but the second is a tightly cropped version of the robin's eye...

What I'd noticed was my reflection in the bird's eye. Look closely and you can clearly see the sun rising - and alongside, that's me. I was flabbergasted that the reflection was so clear, bearing in mind that, as you can see from the original, above, I wasn't all that close. Armed with Alex Pollard's insight, clearly the size of the robin's eye has something to do with this.
     Since then I've been trying to capture a really up-close photograph to establish just how clear my reflection could be. Trouble is, I can now stick the camera close to the birds without frightening them off, but they never stand still, which makes it impossible to focus and capture a decent shot. But I will keep on trying.

In the meantime, another robin has captured my attention. Now quite a few robins come to my candy shop, but because where I put the food down doesn't appear to be the territory of any one particular robin, they get on reasonably well ... well, except for one little robin, a small one, a teenager I presume - and all the other robins pick on the poor little thing and drive him off quite aggressively.
     I presume it's a he - whatever, I've grown exceptionally protective of the little thing as it dives into my hand to take feed. But it gradually dawned on me that there was something unusual about this robin. A series of pictures coming up ... see if you notice anything odd...

Above, first contact, the little robin lands on a branch to pick and peck .... while alongside, much later, it lands on my thumb to take feed...

Above, the bird settles on my thumb ... and alongside, it squats happily in my hand - a wonderful shot which sums up the trusting nature of the little thing...

And again, above, and alongside, in the company of another of my morning-walk "pals" - the robin gets a bit jittery when old long-face comes too close. Well ... have you noticed something?

A clue: above, another robin ... note how it lands on my thumb ... whereas alongside, our little friend does a delicate balancing act...

And then, suddenly, in the image above, the answer. It is always squatting because it has only one leg.
     Extraordinary. I then returned to an earlier photograph: when I captured the image alongside, above, I had no idea it was our friendly Jake the Peg, I just assumed this particular robin coming in to land had only extended one leg, the other coming down after I'd clicked the shutter.
     How astonishing is that? And how vulnerable does that make the poor thing? I have since noticed that the robin does actually still have most of its leg, or at least it appears that it's only the foot itself that is missing. How could that have happened? I have seen a dreaded sparrow hawk in the area, so do you suppose that it had grabbed the robin by the foot - but the bird managed to escape? Who knows?
     But more to the point, I've always maintained that if you want to understand people, first study the creatures of the wild. In the news just this week has been the dreadful tale a disabled family being persecuted by those in their own community - shocking stuff, and on the local news they showed video footage of their car being ruthlessly vandalised. Quite vicious, mostly the work of youngsters, it seems.

Meanwhile, here in the Towy Valley, I watch the other robins continually harass this little bird because of its disability (I guess). All of nature's creatures clearly have some intuitive need to attack the defenceless. Incidentally, it flies okay. At least it can keep out of the way of the other robins as they chase after it. How long this robin will survive, especially in this extreme weather - well, it's anyone's guess. But it has done remarkably well to survive this far. I mean, how can you not feel protective towards the poor little thing. And it is so loveable as it looks at me and appears to say "Thank you, thank you, thank you..." Or perhaps that's just me getting carried away.
     Yesterday morning, Sarah Kennedy played Julie Andrews' Feed the Birds on her radio show: "I do wish the dear Dame would talk more clearly," remarked Sarah with tongue-firmly-in-cheek after the song had finished. Indeed. Not only is the dear Dame blessed with a truly melodic voice - but her enunciation is top drawer. However, back with the song, it made me come over all goose-bumpy, I can tell you, listening to those wonderful words. Here's just a few appropriate lines...

"Come, buy my bags full of crumbs.
Come feed the little birds, show them you care
And you'll be glad if you do.
Their young ones are hungry,
Their nests are so bare;
All it takes is tuppence from you."

Whenever the robin alights on my hand, I now always think of one of broadcaster Roy Noble's favourite lines: "May only good luck come to your door." Amen to that.
     And finally, for something completely different: on Monday the 4th, weatherman Derek Brockway included a photograph of mine on his Wales Today evening weather forecast.

It's one I captured at the oxbow lake along my morning walk. As the frosts became more severe the lake quickly began to ice over. Slowly but surely Mother Nature pulled the wagons into an ever tighter circle, pushing all sorts of birds - swans, geese, ducks, coots, etc - ever closer together into the centre of the lake.

As the weather got progressively colder there were often hundreds of birds present, but as things get more extreme all the geese have already moved on, just some ducks coming in to land. What is most interesting are the swans. In normal conditions they are happy to share the lake with other birds, except geese, mostly, which for some reason irritate them no end.

However, they do not like any bird invading their own personal space - just like humans! - yet here we are, as Jack Frost tightens its grip, it's a case of "We're all in this boat together!". Again, just like we humans!
     See you soon...

22nd November 2009
Birth ... Passage ... Death
(or, according to word on the street: life's a bitch - and then you die)

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

                                                                                                                                                A Psalm of Life, Henry Wadsworth LONGFELLOW, 1807-1882

A stork comes calling

ONE OF the first things I'd noticed shortly after moving into my new country abode was that my car was always covered in - pardon my slide into the vernacular - bird shit! Especially so the side mirrors.
     I'd registered some pied wagtails forever flitting around. Then one day I'd reversed the car onto the lawn near the door of the cottage to load some things. Blow me, I suddenly felt a bit of a Pied Piper - the pied wagtail had followed, and there it was, larger than life and twice as brazen, perched on the roof of the car and giving me the eye. Clearly I was going to be shat upon. Again! And this time from a very low height. I quickly fetched my camera: click! A handsome bugger, mind.
     Then something most peculiar happened. It jumped down onto the side mirror and began quarrelling and fighting with itself - or rather its own refection. How odd, I remember thinking. Then David, my landlord, and who resides in the big house, showed me something most eye-opening.
     Just behind the cottage is an LPG gas tank. David lifted the cover - and there, a brood of pied wagtails. Now this gas tank is constantly in use so the pied wagtail family are often disturbed. Whenever this happens the parent in residence - presumably the mother - flies the nest and parks herself on a nearby wall until the cover is replaced and she can then rejoin the kids.
     Now this is not an unfortunate choice of location. On the contrary, it was the second brood this year, and for the second year running. Actually, it is as secure a nest as it is possible to have.
     Below, the pied wagtail captured peering at its own reflection, and then launching a fearless attack, but fortunately not at a momentum to do itself any significant damage.

The bird peers aggressively at its reflection
"Who you lookin' at?"

It launches a full-frontal, 'blue-on-blue' attack
"Go on then, put it there, sunshine..."

A home as safe as houses. Just one side-entrance off the street

Grub on tap for Pied Wagtail Junior

Anyway, to continue the tale of the pied wagtail ... Well, as soon as the brood had fledged, everything went quiet and normality returned. Clearly the parent bird(s), with my car and other vehicles in close proximity, was seeing the reflection as a rival bird coming onto its territory - and was attacking it for all its worth to see it off.
     It does make you wonder: I mean, these birds, like all birds, and indeed all other creatures, are exceptionally clever in so many ways, yet the pied wagtails couldn't figure out that they were attacking their own reflections. Bird-brained indeed.
      Self-awareness, a dominant feature of humanity, is known to be shared by the great apes and bottlenose dolphins; also a few years ago researches established that elephants also recognise their own reflections.
     What is more, some of the very latest studies have found the first evidence that non-mammals can recognise themselves. Experts believe animals that live in a complex social world may be more likely to recognise themselves, and members of the crow family are especially interactive. The most recent experiments - all done with mirrors and stick-on splashes of colour - confirm that magpies are very social birds and are able to recognise their reflections.
     Incidentally, I caught part of a recent Horizon programme on TV, which established that children become self-aware between 18 and 24 months of age.
     Back with the pied wagtail family, I just happened to have a camera handy when one of the chicks actually fledged - pictured alongside. I couldn't help but notice how 'ugly' the young bird was compared to how handsome it will look as an adult. A touch of the 'ugly duckling' syndrome. Mind you, the tail feathers are beginning to look like the real thing already.
     Finally, no birds were harmed in the making of this piece - as previously mentioned, the birds launching themselves at their reflections were doing so at low speeds so didn't hurt themselves - but, a dead pied wagtail was recently found in a conservatory-style room, having presumably found a way in and then flown straight into some glass at speed.
     A consequence of man's influence on his environment.

Emergency landing

ALONG a recent early morning walk, the weather rather gloomy and dark, I'm crossing the final field before hitting the town of Llandeilo where I call to pick up a morning paper, when something in the grass catches my eye.
     It's a bird (pictured alongside). One I don't recognise, but that's no surprise for I am not a twitcher. It hardly moves as I approach. I can only presume that the thing is injured, perhaps been attacked by a predator, a bird of prey, and is awaiting its fate. I am at a loss what to do with it, although oddly it doesn't, to the casual eye anyway, appear to be injured or seriously stressed. In fact it seems quite laid-back, even allowing me to get right up close to take photographs.
     It makes no effort to get away or take off. Why, I could even have reached out and grabbed it. I ponder last rites ... then carry on along my walk.
     When I get home I look through the rather basic bird book I've got ... but couldn't identify it. The following morning, with the mysterious bird on my mind, I make a point of going to the same spot. I didn't expect to see it again, but just wondered if there would be any evidence of its demise: some feathers spread about, that sort of thing. Nothing.

Gradually the bird fades from my consciousness - until I'm watching this year's penultimate Autumnwatch on TV. They feature an item from Mallaig, a coastal town on the west coast of Scotland, where a group of enthusiasts go out at night to rescue migrating birds (which are flying from the island of Rum) that crash-land and are unable to take off again.
     As I watch, I recognise the rescued birds ... I check my photographs from that morning of a few weeks back - and which are featured here. Yep, what I'd stumbled upon along my walk was, surprise, surprise, a Manx Shearwater.
     There followed a brief lesson about these extraordinary birds. They are adapted to life on the wing, out at sea. On the ground they are ungainly and vulnerable to predators, so they return to their breeding colonies only at night so as to lessen their chances of being picked off.
     In autumn they make the 6,000 mile migration to South America. However, when they set off they are easily confused by the bright lights of villages and towns they approach and pass over, and they crash-land (quite why this should happen wasn't explained, but a quick Google suggests they are disorientated by lights on the ground, which presumably they confuse with the moon and stars).

Once they're grounded they really are in trouble. So why don't they just take off again? Well, it's the design of the birds: they have short legs and relatively long wings. As they beat their wings for take off, especially if they are young and inexperienced, their wings hit the ground and they are unable to generate lift. At their breeding grounds around the coast they just launch themselves off cliffs, so the problem doesn't arise.
     In Mallaig they had already rescued 255 this year; they simply pick them up, keep them overnight, and then launch them into the air the following morning. And off they go. Over and out.
     Talk about every day being a day at school. The bird I'd stumbled upon was presumably on its migratory path from the nesting grounds of Ireland or West Wales, had become confused by Llandeilo's street lights - a couple just visible in the picture alongside - and had crash-landed. What I'd noticed from the Mallaig feature was that folk could grab them quite easily, which explains why mine never attempted to move away from me. If only I'd known. Ho hum.
     I can only hope that the handsome little bird I feature here, once rested and regained its orientation, had picked itself up, dusted itself off, and started all over again. And that right now it is eyeing the girl from Ipanema as she strolls along Copacabana beach.

Ashes to ashes

ALONG another of my early morning walks I come across what is arguable my most dreaded sight. A deer trapped in a fence. I've experienced it twice before, and it really is one of the most distressing things to experience out there on the wild side of life.
     And here was number three. It happens so easily. The deer comes to a bog-standard, well maintained agricultural fence: pig netting, topped with one strand of barbed wire to stop larger animals attempting to clamber over the fence - the barbs put them off. I guess that millions of miles of such fencing crisscross the country.
     I occasionally come across sheep trapped in the pig net. They stick their heads through a lower part of the fence to get at the green, green grass the other side. Then, they attempt to pull their heads out, but because they naturally pull upwards, the back of their heads catch against the fence. They don't have the sense to simply lower their heads and then pull back - so there they stay. All I do is press their heads down - and they're free...
     However, what happens to the deer is this: it is easily capable of jumping such a fence, but one of its trailing legs, rather than clearing the fence, slides into the gap between the top of the pig net and the strand of barbed wire - wham! - it acts like a snare. There is no escape. And of course the more the poor thing struggles the tighter the grip.

When I came across this one - a young male buck - I did try to release the wire, but had no hope in hell, so tight was its grip. The wire would have to be cut.
     Now I couldn't do anything about the situation, but I know a man who could, so I rang him and said it needed to be put out of its misery as soon as possible, especially as its leg was now cut and the wound was bleeding.
     I hate to see any creature suffer, especially when it is something totally outside their comprehension ... I mean, just look at the poor thing. When I took these photographs I kept my distance using zoom in order to stop it struggling and injuring itself further.
     A couple of hours later I received a call to say the deed had been done and it had been shot. There is no recovery from this sort of incident because the leg is invariably cut and this eventually leads to infection and gangrene. Often the deer will dislocate its hip as it struggles. And even if that is not enough, the extreme stress will kill it anyway. As it happens, this unfortunate animal had also broken its leg in several places.
     There is no one to blame - as I said, the fence was a well maintained, standard fence. Yes, you can blame humanity for the way it has burnt, pillaged, raped and poisoned the world in order to further its own greed - but we get nowhere going down that road.
     While my Manx shearwater is hopefully doing its thing down Rio way, sadly one young fallow buck will not grow into the magnificent adult stag I previously captured on Dinefwr Park (below), or indeed experience the thrill of the rut.
     And as an ironic twist, this incident wasn't a million miles from the wonderful willow stag created by
Pat Bullen-Whatling - see previous bulletin - which currently resides in the grounds of Newton House (see directly below ... note Dinefwr Castle, just about visible on the horizon).


On the sunnier side of the street
I SHALL finish on a brighter note - but with clouds on the horizon. An update on the family of swans I've been following since spring, the young ones slowly but surely morphing from ugly ducklings into beautiful young swans ...

Swan No 1: "I'm shy, Hubie baby, I'm shy..."
Swan No 2: "Keep your hands off my sister, you pervert."

With recent floods turning the Towy Valley into one big lake,
even the six young swans have to navigate a dangerous fence

As mentioned before, the pair of swans which reside on the oxbow lakes at Dinefwr Park - the parents of the aforementioned six young swans - are to my mind the alpha swans of the Towy Valley.
     They occupy the valley's prime spot, probably. And for that reason the two adult birds spend their time seeing off other pairs of swans who fancy the spot.
Not only do they defend the larger lake, where they breed, but also the smaller lake, which no longer supports breeding swans because there are now no 'islands' on the lake which offer the safety the swans demand. It's hard work defending both lakes, and it must take its toll on the physical condition of these impressive creatures.

Over recent weeks I've observed the two alpha swans continually seeing off another pair who are always there or thereabouts. Why, even the young swans join in - I guess they are learning their trade.
     Then just the other day, with the valley one big lake following all the rain, I noticed something rather noteworthy. The infiltrating pair of swans were going after the alpha pair - and their offspring.
And tellingly, the alpha family were not responding, in fact they were moving away - see the first shot, above. Even more dramatic, the next day the new pair were attacking the youngsters - and their parents were not defending them. Now that is hold-the-front-page news.
     I have a feeling that come the spring, the oxbow lakes will boast new tenants... To be continued.

18th October 2009
A view from behind the Stargate - and what a little bird told me

IN MY previous bulletin I introduced you to the “Celtic Circle” at Newton House in Llandeilo – see alongside for a buttonhole reminder – adding, as is my wont, my take on things.  Imagine my surprise then when I received an e-mail from the artist, Pat Bullen-Whatling, informing me she had stumbled upon my web site and enjoyed my particular view of the world through the Circle. Indeed, she asked if she could include some of my pictures on her website, which I was delighted to agree to. Fame at last! Visit...
Pat enlightened me that the 'Celtic Circle' itself was only supposed to stand for the twelve days the exhibition ran at Newton House, but it proved so popular that the National Trust invited her to keep it on display until the end of October. What is more, she has also been commissioned to run a one-week course at Newton House, constructing a series of willow pieces and, she added, if I ventured down to the ponds behind Llandeilo’s rugby ground, I would see a couple of test pieces under construction there ... an antlered stag and an ominously oversized dragonfly!
     However, they are soon to be moved (though the site is not yet decided) so that they can be used to promote her soon to be hosted workshop, where she will be working with the public, building more sculptures in the board-walk area – near the old slaughterhouse, close to Newton House.
     Anyway, I did a slight detour along my morning walk to have a look at her pieces ... I have to say I was most impressed with her work, but sadly it was a dull and misty early morning, far from ideal for taking pictures, so I called back around midday – and there indeed was one lady and her dog beavering away on her creations - if that is the right expression for someone working with willow.
     We had a bit of a chat and I told her I had something of a novelty surprise to do with her deer creation, and that I would unveil it on this site, this weekend.

     Below, a couple of the pictures captured ... the first taken in the gloom of the morning ... the second showing Pat’s dog standing guard over (under?) the deer.

After our chat I climbed the field above for an overall view (below) showing the pond – a routine also carried out earlier that morning when I did something I regularly do when taking pictures...

...I look behind me to check what precisely is there (just in case there’s someone watching and wondering what the hell it is I’m up to!).
     Anyway, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: nature’s very own deer, created in a battered and bruised and rapidly decaying tree - see alongside.
     By a curious coincidence this particular tree had captured my attention over the past few years, ever since I noticed that it was starting to come apart at the seams.
     As mentioned elsewhere on my website, I do not entertain digital manipulation of my images, outside of what is reasonably possible to make the image look better: minor colour cast alterations, contrast, and of course, cropping. Not that there is anything wrong with digital manipulation – but it should always be stated, otherwise the only person you are really fooling is yourself, not the person viewing it.

     Anyway, the "deer tree" image, above, has indeed had some diggery-pokery applied, but only to make the “deer” stand out ... here’s a recent history of this tree, culminating in the image immediately before some branches were digitally erased by me.

Above, captured at opposite ends of the calendar, I'd noticed it following the collapse of one of its main branches, which gave it an eye-catching symmetry.

Above, another major branch gives up the ghost to give the whole thing a lopsided look - and of course, finally, the top end goes. Although the final shot, above right, is taken from a slightly different angle, as well as further down the field (which duly hides the lower part of the tree), the "deer's head and antlers" can be seen in the penultimate picture, directly above, just where the top end of the tree begins its lean to the left, as we look. And of course, in the final shot the remaining branches have been digitally erased to highlight the "deer" effect. The crows supplied by central casting!
      There’s no doubt about it, it’s “the eye”, that is actually present in the tree, is what sets it all off. Magic.


A pretty bird is like a melody that haunts you night and day.
Just like the strain of a haunting refrain,
It'll start up on a marathon and run around your brain.
You can't escape; it's in your memory, by morning, night and noon.
It will leave you and then come back again;
A pretty bird is just like a pretty tune.

                                                                                                                     with apologies to the ghost of Irving Berlin

Or, as they say down the Crazy Horsepower Saloon, a man should always carry a cigar, just in case there's something to celebrate...

NEXT WEEKEND the RSPB hold their Feed the Birds Day. In appreciation I submitted one of my robin pictures to the Western Mail’s Postcard from Wales, which they kindly published last Thursday, 15th October.
     In the few days since, I’ve had a marvellous reaction to it, but as regular visitors here will know, I’ve already shown photographs of Towy Valley robins feeding from hand – click on the bulletin below, dated 12th July:
     “A close encounter of the bird kind..."
Anyway, here is the shot I sent the Western Mail. I'd noticed that this particular robin would often be puzzled-cum-fascinated by either that little orange light that flashes when the camera focuses, or more likely, the melodic beep-beep the camera makes once it has focused. Whatever, something grabs its attention as it peers up. I mean, it can't be me ... I've never in my life had the girls look up at me quite like that.
     However, Christmas has arrived early this year.
     As mentioned before, my ambition is to capture something other than a robin feeding from hand – I’m getting a bit blasé about old redbreast now! I’ve been yearning for one of the various tits, chaffinch, or whatever else that comes to greet me of a morning, to land on, or next to, my hand. Patience, Hubie.

My initial strategy was to leave some feed - there are a few locations where I do this, a couple of them are close to each other and both are featured in the photographs coming up. Once the birds began to realise there really is a Santa Clause they await my arrival with much excitement. I then place the feed, and with each passing day move marginally less distance away so that they get used to me... Finally, I keep the feed in my hand and extend it in anticipation.
     Whilst I was able to get quite close to most of the birds – I’ll have to do a “special” and bring pictures of the various types I've encountered – I’d noticed these very small birds fussing about like little children. I thought they were coal tits, but a quick check confirms that they are either willow or marsh tits.
     It appears they are marsh tits, which, by a curious coincidence, had a mention the other day on the radio because they are apparently becoming scarce, mostly due to loss of habitat, surprise, surprise.
     I've fallen head over heels with these little things, which are not much bigger than a wren. Not only are they handsome, but so fearless and cheeky.
     Alongside is one of them getting used to my presence. And here are a series of pictures showing the countdown to my early Christmas Day celebrations.

I know a bird has accepted my close attention when it turns its bum towards me. Now that's what I call trust! Also, above, as food spilled onto the ground the marsh tit would land at my feet and forage away.

Above, the tit becomes braver and braver - but alongside, it hovers, not yet quite confident enough to swoop down and grab a morsel.

Above, it has its morsel - but alongside, just for the record, it snatches its very first sunflower seed from my hand. A magic moment!

Now it lands on the fence, appearing quite relaxed, which it does a few times - but a last second loss of nerve and it shoots off, captured perfectly in the blurry shot (which, as you've perhaps noticed, is a particularly favoured shot of mine ... my excuse for not being a proper snapper, but these expressive shots are always captured more by luck than judgment). And finally, below, what I call my Christmas Day shot, where my little tit has finally accepted me and my goodies. And when I say little, look at its size compared to my hand, the lethal twist in the barbed wire fence - but most of all, the sunflower seed in its mouth.
     Now c'mon, how could you not love such a thing to bits?

What more can I add? Here's lookin' at you, kid, perhaps? Oh, and proof positive, if any were needed, as to why a man should always carry a cigar.

20th September, 2009
Newton House, a Celtic Stargate - and a little something in red

MAY 2008, NEWTON HOUSE: Trinity College, Carmarthen, put on a performance of Alice Through The Looking Glass. No, I never saw it, but I was quite taken with the paraphernalia the College used to promote the event in the locality, especially the use of red flags in unusual forms.
     Pictured alongside, one of the standard flags used along the drive from the town of Llandeilo to Newton House itself. But more of this later on.

TOWARDS the end of August this year, on a rather misty morn, one of the revised early morning walks I now go on since my move back from townie to country boy, takes me on a bit of a tangent, right past Newton House - and I'm surprised to notice what my admittedly over-active imagination identifies as a Stargate. Heavens above, the aliens have arrived.
     A closer inspection, together with the reading of the first lesson (neatly planted into the ground alongside), identifies it as a Celtic Circle, a Dinefwr Park Land Art Project, created by a Pat Bullen-Whatling.
     When I arrive home I visit her website www.patbullenwhatlinggallery.co.uk - and read the following...

Newton House, at the centre of Dinefwr Park, stands in approximately 850 acres of lush green Welsh pasture and park land, with magnificent views.
     The artist
Pat Bullen-Whatling has long been attracted to this park, which is within walking distance of her home. Much of her inspiration, especially for her ‘Painting - Macroscopic Landscapes’, comes directly from the very ancient trees and stone that can be found in abundance there.
She has recently been commissioned by the National Trust to construct a ‘Celtic Circle’, a piece of outdoor sculpture, which is an evolution of her ‘pierced’ works that have, for so long, been a feature of her art.
     As well as her
‘Celtic Circle’ she is also holding a major solo show in the exhibition hall there (until the end of August) and will also have material explaining the significance of her work hung inside the main house.
     Armed with her own small and portable circle of interwoven twigs, Pat Bullen-Whatling has taken many hundreds of photographs, both to help her position the much larger circle that is to be constructed there and also for use in her digital work. The full sized circle is intended to be as tall as an adult and will be situated just to the right front corner of the house...
     It will direct the view (literally, the light) through from the beautiful folded valley behind the house all the way from Paxton’s Tower on the distant hills beyond and, the other way, will frame an area of the extremely ancient woodland that the park is justly famous for.

So I enter the spirit of the occasion and take a picture of Newton House through the "Stargate" - above. The misty surround gives the whole thing a somewhat ethereal feel. Celestial or spiritual? Take your pick.
     Recalling the welcome for last year's Alice Through The Looking Glass, in particular one of the welcome/directional boards (pictured below), I decide to do a "looking glass" image, reverse the angle and picture the sun peering through the mist...

Below, a couple of images, the first taken before sunrise ... both highlight the magic of the early morning light...

Next, a repeat of the image at the top, but this time, no mist, just the morning sun...

The second image, above, is taken from the really old sweet chestnut tree near Newton House, and captures both the House and the Celtic Circle.

In the explanation for the project by the artist Pat Bullen-Whatling, she says this of the Celtic Circle: It will direct the view (literally, the light) through from the beautiful folded valley behind the house all the way from Paxton’s Tower on the distant hills beyond and, the other way, will frame an area of the extremely ancient woodland that the park is justly famous for.
In the image above, left, there's Paxton's Tower perched on the distant hill. In the final image, I've returned to my initial reaction when I first set eyes on the sculpture: Stargate!

A splash of red

Back with Alice Through The Looking Glass - follow the directional sign below! - I have to say I enjoyed the red flags set out below. Very eye catching.

And then I looked for other images of Newton House featuring a little something in red, after all, the Old Masters always said to put a splash of red in a picture.

Above, a pull-me-push-you tractor - I'll pull, you push - a tractor from the 50s and 60s, one of the most unorthodox tractors ever built, parked ready for a classic and vintage show at Newton House.
     Alongside the pull-me-push-you, above, a balloon takes off on another pleasure flight from nearby Birdshill Farm. At this point I was going to sign off the bulletin...
...except, today, Sunday the20th, it's such a beautifully sunny day I decide to walk across the fields to the Crazy Horsepower Saloon for a lunchtime jar.
     As I pass Newton House I note the Classic & Vintage show in full swing - cars, lorries, bikes, tractors, pumps, all sorts of agricultural equipment - and I'm taken with the splashes of red...

Below, a Jag shines so brightly, the clouds reflect perfectly off its bodywork...

And alongside the Jag, above, a JBA Falcon - a kit car based on the Ford Sierra - looks the part ... I love the burst of sunshine off the top of the radiator grill.

Above, a handsome Triumph Stag draws an appreciative look form a very young admirer - and alongside, the same car in bright sunshine. What a difference a bit of sun makes to its appearance.

Above, a farmer walks away after inspecting a sun-shinny Cropmaster tractor - and heads towards the red thresher. Finally, how could I not finish with a splash of red on the Welsh flag - both mother and daughter up the pole. Only joking, girls.

30th August, 2009
Sex by a nose, plus hide-and-seek with the birds

Cock and bull revisited - junior version
AT THE tail end of my previous bulletin I show what happens when heifers and bullocks are mixed 'n' matched in pastures green, in particular when heifers come on heat and are in desperate need of some TLC, but the bullocks, because they've had their bollocks buttoned up, go through all the motions - their mating instincts remain intact - but cannot deliver the Willie-jiw-jiw moment. The spirit is willing but the body is playing hard to get.
     Along similar lines, very young lambs always amuse - or young male lambs, to be exact. When just a few weeks old they can be seen fighting - well, I say fighting, it's playful rivalry which prepares them for life in the wild with its survival of the fittest and the randiest - for as well as the playschool whamming and banging they also mount not only female lambs but also the occasional male.
     The boyos jump up for the serving on the mount - but then it's all "Um, what happens next?". Their genetic hand-me-downs intuitively instruct what they've got to do, but their physical development has yet to catch up. All very smiley.
     Well now, the other day I witnessed something I'd never seen before, and that's young calves performing somewhere between what young lambs get up to and the aforementioned heifers and bullocks. Walking past the White Park cattle at Dinefwr, I'm drawn to the antics of some young calves (see alongside).
     A young female calf - around six months old - is clearly on heat, and being enthusiastically pursued by several young bull calves, all around the same age.

    It's impossible to directly relate or compare the sexual and/or reproductive age span of cattle to humans. I once asked a farmer how long cattle live: "As long as it takes the truck to reach the abattoir ... seriously though, presuming they live a full life, up to 20 years and more, depending on the breed."
     So working on the premise that we humans live to 80, then the young calves, above, in human terms, are just a couple of years old!
     However, if we translate their reproductive stages to human development, these calves would be around 10, 11 years of age, switched on by their sexual inheritance, but unable to fully comprehend
or breed, obviously. Calves become breeding heifers when around 12 months of age - 13 to 15 years in realistic human terms - but are normally allowed to breed at about 18 to 24 months - probably 17 to 21 in human years.
     When you think about it, nature prefers its females to breed very young. I mean, when did you last hear of a youngish girl having a problematic birth?
     And so it is with nature. Coming up, a series of photographs given the human touch, or a bit of "anthropomorphically speaking", as they say down the Crazy Horsepower Saloon Bar ... not!

Mum: "Honestly, these kids grow up much too quick - where's your dad?    ......    Father, come quick, just look what your children are up to now again."

Nogood Boyo: "Dad! Dad! Look what I'm doing - just like you, eh?"                            But father is not amused and moves ominously towards them...

Merlin the bull rushes in to break them up - and they all shoot off - but there's no escape for the young female as she is chased across the field by all the Nogood Boyos (intriguingly, all the other, marginally younger bull calves - and we're talking just a few weeks younger - show no interest). By the following morning the heat is off and life returns to a sort of normality. In the meantime, it's a man's world out there, so Merlin the bull gets on with the real work. He appears to spend his life sleeping, grazing, ruminating - oh, and sniffing his harem of lovelies for that special bouquet which spells ACTION - see below.

What is obvious from the above is that the bouquet is clearly not right, not quite the Fanny Craddock, so Merlin isn't going to waste his energy, especially as there's no competition - it's a grand life for a horny bull on the Dinefwr Park estate - but the cow that's coming on heat (above, right) is herself getting frustrated and appears to show Merlin what's what and that he needs to get his finger out.
     One of his offspring looks on and wonders: "What's it all about, Merlin?" Not that Merlin is
backwards in coming forwards, so to speak, because he throws out excellent progeny - see the fine young Nogood Boyos and girl above. He even has one pretty rare set of twins to his name.
     Before leaving the rather distinguished looking White Park cattle to do their thing, it's worth pointing out that they boast very distinctive black markings: ears, socks, eyes, teats, nose - oh, as well as on a rather private place at the very opposite end of the anatomy to the nose...

See what I mean by opposite ends of the anatomy.
     The backside picture (above, right) takes me back many moons to younger days. Two characters, both regulars at what was then just the Crazy Horse Saloon, were a council highways worker, Harry Bell, and a farmer Eddie Thomas (or Eddie Glanrwyth, that being the name of his farm), both having died a good many years back now.
     Harry was a small, slight man, who had lost an eye in an accident - obvious from his physical appearance. He was known affectionately as Harry One Eye. Harry liked his drink, and when he got tiddly he would object to some people calling him Harry One Eye: "My name's Harry Bell!" He would also come in for some traditional stick as a roadman because council workers had a reputation for not working
too hard, in fact they could cope quite adequately if they had just the one arm, handy to lean on a shovel (there's the story of Harry finishing work to have some lunch, but first he grabs a shovel and splatters a snail on the road surface. "Why did you do that?" asks a startled colleague. "I've had enough of that bloody snail - it's been following me all morning."
     Anyway, farmer Eddie was also fond of his drink and, like most of us, would speak his mind in all its glory when well oiled, treading on many a toe in the process. When well pissed Eddie had a habit of addressing Harry as Harry One Eye, One Arm, One Arsehole. Harry never appeared to take offence, but I never heard anyone else call him that. To his face, anyway.
     Back with the White Park, black-nosed cattle, here are a couple more smiley examples...

                      "Put that away - we don't know where it's been."                                                           "For every tongue has a tale to tell."

Haydn & Seek along the Towy Valley
BACK in January I told the tale of coming upon a hide in the valley, and encountering Haydn, a cameraman and film maker, who was filming the wildlife for a series of short films for the National Trust, whose property is mostly featured in these bulletins of mine. Everything was going swimmingly, the hide left in place for repeat visits. Unfortunately, and as featured in the last bulletin, the Towy Valley is subject to sudden and extreme flooding. As you will see from the two images below, the hide took one hell of a beating while on front line duty - as the swans and geese nonchalantly floating by testify.

Come the spring and a brand new hide was set up alongside the edge of the
second oxbow lake, and again, everything was going great guns - until cattle,
or more correctly, bullocks, were turned in to graze.
The hide was like a toy from the Gods. I missed the cattle having their first encounter, but I captured a subsequent visit by the bullocks - and they really were like children drawn to a new and exciting plaything...

  "Oh goodie - I wonder what Santa has put in my stocking this time?"  

  "I spy, with my little eye..."  

  "'Ere, pass the salt 'n' pepper, chief."  

  "Sod it, I'm not sharing this with you lot - I'm off."  

Update on the birds

FIRST, the swans. The signets hatched on May 11, and the last picture I posted on July 13 showed that all six youngsters had survived; also, they had taken on the appearance of the ugly duckling made famous by Hans Christian Andersen.

The above was taken on August 28, a couple of months further on from the last picture I posted, and shows the kids 'grazing' in a neat line.
     Reverting to human terms, the youngsters are now gangling teenagers, nearly as big as their parents, and slowly but surely loosing their ugly duckling persona.
     As for the "close encounters of the bird kind", after spectacularly managing to get both Robins of Newton and Dinefwr to feed out of hand, the breeding season duly arrived - and all bets were off. Just as with humans, dangle the promise of sex in front of a Nogood Boyo and food slips right down the
agenda. Well, the breeding season has now finished and the birds are increasingly at a loose end and returning in numbers to feed at my special "Rrrrrrrrt!" tree: robins, obviously, great tits, blue tits, coal tits, chaffinch - that's a female chaffinch feeding, above - hedge accentors, nuthatches - but mostly tits, tits and yet more tits. I feel like the picture editor of Page 3.
     But it means having to start all over again to regain their trust. Oh yes, the "Rrrrrrrrt!" tree: that describes the delightful noise the little birds make as they flit in and out and about the tree. To be continued ere long...

9th August, 2009
"Whose there, besides foul weather?"

JUNE was a month of sensuous sunrises: 30 days of mostly settled weather, but with loads of cloud floating about; indeed, just as you must have rain and sunshine to generate a rainbow, so you must have clouds and sunshine to paint a glorious sky.

JULY, by contrast, was a dreadful month, not so much for the volume of rain that fell but the intensity of the downpours, which does rather confirm that our climate, as opposed to our weather, is relentlessly morphing into something quite nasty. Here are two images which perfectly sum up both months...

YES indeed, beauty and the beast, both taken from roughly the same location along my walks, with the sun struggling to make an appearance throughout July. Which brings me to a notable weather event around the middle of July.
     Throughout Thursday the 16th, the weather forecast warns of heavy rain moving in across Wales, expected from around late-afternoon into the evening and early hours. And it duly arrives, with a vengeance...
     Come Friday morning and the rain is still teaming down. The Towy Valley is in flood, certainly something the forecasters had not forewarned, so I decide to visit the Met Office web site, in particular the rainfall radar which gives a rolling picture of rainfall intensity over the preceding six hours.
     It is the place I always go to when the weather is unsettled and I need to know, not so much whether it's okay to go on my usual walk on the wild side, but what clothes to wear. The radar images paint a perfect picture of the intensity of the weather; not so much where it isn't raining, but crucially the speed at which the weather, whether it be rain or a dry slot, is moving. What surprised me looking at the radar was what had happened overnight.
     A very intense depression approaches from the Atlantic, just as the forecasters had promised, then at around midnight the centre of the depression comes to a grinding halt over southern Wales - but it continues to rotate dropping all its rain.

This is not what the met office had predicted, for they presumed the depression would trundle on along its merry way, as per usual. But something unforeseen happens, as if nature decided to throw out a huge anchor to bring the whole shooting match to a halt. Definitely something the met office computers had not anticipated. Watching it unfold on the radar was akin to taking a huge, saturated cloth, holding it over the sink and slowly wringing it dry.
     By mid-morning the depression hauls in its anchor and off it goes. A dry window appears. Around midday I take the short walk up to Dinefwr Castle, a perfect vantage point from which to view the valley below.
     Now Towy Valley farmers are always wary of sudden floods, which is why you will never see stock kept there over the winter months - or if you do there are fields where the stock can escape to, or be relocated at short notice should floods threaten. But this flood has caught farmers by total surprise. All along the valley stock are wandering pretty aimlessly around their flooded fields.
     Beneath me in the valley I watch a herd of Friesian heifers and bullocks - pictured here - search out dry ground as they attempt to come to terms with their flooded environment. The camera captures the urgency of their movement.
     They begin to go round in circles, and below, a series of images where the cattle come perilously close to the River Towy in alarming and unforgiving mood. Fortunately there's a fence, but there only because the Environment Agency and the National Trust decided to return some boundary land to nature.


At this point something decidedly iffy happens. It is as if the cattle slowly realise that there is nowhere to go, so they gather nervously at water's edge...

Meanwhile, up at the castle, with the rain having now stopped, visitors are gathering, pointing excitedly at the cattle and furiously clicking away with their cameras. Anytime soon I expect to hear the police helicopter approach to investigate following a call from a worried member of the public.
     In fact I explain to a few foreign visitors that as long as the cattle don't panic they are perfectly safe. And anyway, they can swim, but the trouble is if they did somehow find themselves in the Towy, what with its ferocious current when in flood, they would quickly tire and probably drown.

However, they appear to settle down, but the interesting shot is the close-up, above. As with all creatures - a shoal of fish or a flock of birds under attack from predators - an instinct for survival drives them into a tight ball, and you can see the cattle huddle tightly as the water threatens, with pretty much all of them looking inwards as if discussing their options.
     What of course the cattle don't know is that, while the Towy Valley floods with alarming speed following a prolonged and intense downpour, but within a couple of hours or so of the rain stopping the water retreats just as quickly.

By seven o'clock the following morning, when the above picture was taken, the flooding is history and the cattle have all survived intact.
     In the next shot, of the lone heifer, taken 24 hours later again, you will notice something white - a washed up plastic container I found on the field as I earlier walked the valley...

...which I then placed at the precise spot where the cattle had gathered in that tight ball at the water's edge during the flood.
     But it highlights just how rapidly things can change in the Towy Valley. And life returns to normal. Well, a sort of normality...


I've written before about what happens when heifers and bullocks are mixed. The heifers come into season and, surprise, surprise, are in desperate need of some hanky-panky with a friendly, neighbourhood Casanova.
     Now even though the bullocks have had their crown jewels doctored - chop, chop! - their mating instincts still work. They sniff, they acknowledge, they respond, they mount, their penises actually protrude ready for action, but - bugger, bugger! - nothing happens because they can't perform.
     I feel desperately sorry all round: the frustrations of the bullocks, which continually chase the heifers while they're hot - and I mean they queue up - but most of all I feel for the heifers, which are of course driven to distraction by all these lads who can't deliver the old one-two nature demands.

And here I declare an interest because I have, a few times in my life, whisper it, wished I had a pair of jump leads handy to connect to either Old Shaggy or Young Shagwell down at the Crazy Horsepower Saloon - but that's another story for another time.
     However,  just a couple of days after the flood I stumble upon something really unusual and rather weird. I notice one of the cattle lying down and surrounded by other, seemingly concerned, members of the herd.
     I fear the worst. But astonishingly, it's a heifer on heat, seemingly in good health, but clearly pissed-off with the all-talk-and-no-action performances of the boyos. She clearly decides to lie down, just to stop them blackguarding her and giving her a hard time, pardon the pun. Coming up, some images...

Above, the lads gather round in anticlimactic and resigned fashion, but intriguingly, in the next shot, one of the lads is a girl (on the right as we look). As often happens, other heifers get all worked up when a sister is in the mood.

Above, a frustrated bullock tries his rotten luck, but the heifer's ploy works a treat. In the final shot, our heroine stares forlornly at a bullocks withdrawn and shy Willy Won't E - and clearly says to herself: Bollocks, where have all the action-heroes gone?

As a final acknowledgment of the awful weather of July 2009 I couldn't help but be captivated by this curtain of rain sweeping up the Towy Valley...

No wonder we Welsh have adopted The Green, Green Grass of Home as our own. By the way, in the distance, on the valley floor, to the right, that's Dryslwyn Castle being engulfed by the rain.

Just to give an idea what the valley looks like without the rain, here's one I took earlier, during the winter months...

There's Dryslwyn Castle in the valley, with Paxton's Tower up there, top left.

Hopefully back with the birds next time out...

13th July, 2009 - Addendum
Ugly duckling update (see down below...)

12th July, 2009
A close encounter of the bird kind

BACK in January, along one of my regular morning walks through Dinefwr Park, I notice a little robin hopping along the fence alongside me. I’m surprised at how fearless it is, and indeed how close to me it remains. I decide to grab a few pictures...

A bird in the hand...
AS mentioned in previous dispatches, I am no photographer, merely someone who carries a camera with me on my walks, ever on the lookout for images which hopefully capture the essence of life and laughter (and death, sadly) along the wild side of the Towy Valley. I am definitely no photographer of wildlife, unless of course it unfolds spontaneously in front of me and I react quickly enough to capture it, which, more often than not, I am not.
     In other words, I possess neither the aptitude nor the equipment – oh, and a distinct lack of patience – to do the subject of wildlife photography justice. I leave that to the experts.
     Anyway, I click away at Mr Robin – or indeed Mrs/Ms Robin – and capture some great shots of this friendly little bird. I can't help noticing - alongside - that it reminds me of a golf ball. Oh yes, the background appears black because it's before sunrise on a really gloomy morning. And of course I'm using flash.
     It’s there again next morning, and I begin to sense that someone must be feeding it, hence its enthusiastic mateyness. So I hold out my hand ... blow me, it flies off the fence, hovers just over my hand – and gives me a sharp little nip, as if to say, don’t tease, you rotter. I feel suitable chastised.
     When I get home I ponder what sort of grub I can take with me next morning. The only appropriate food in the house is a packet of digestive biscuits, so I crush a few and stick them in a plastic bag.

Next morning arrives on the dot, and yes, old faithful is there too, patiently awaiting my arrival ... I sprinkle my palm with crumbs of digestive, hold out my hand, and just as happened the previous morning, the bird flies straight to hand, alights – pictured alongside - and immediately tucks in with relish.
     The robin effortlessly seduces me into its world. I buy some proper bird seed. So I’m thinking ... I’d like to train this robin to perform a few “tricks” for me – oh, by the way, by now I’ve christened it Robin of Newton (I decide he’s male and the epitome of a legendary hero from history: h
e accepts from those who are willing to share, and shares with those who are willing a magic moment).
     Incidentally, it could well be Robina of Newton, but that rather spoils my little joke. Anyway, over the next week or so I manage to achieve one of the special shots I was after – which I am keeping in my back-pocket for now.
     I am taken aback at how nonchalantly Robin of Newton accepts me. As I only carry a smallish camera, always switched to auto pilot (including auto focus), I’m able to hold and operate it with my free hand. What is more, Robin of Newton allows me to stick the camera right in its face without complaint. Below, just a couple of further shots I was able to capture of this astonishing little bird...

Anyway, I'm halfway through training it for the second shot I'm after when, suddenly, one morning, he ain’t there. He’s not there the next morning either ... or the one after.
     I never see Robin of Newton again. I guess that one of two things has happened. A predator has nailed it: a bird of prey perhaps (there are loads of kites and buzzards buzzing around), or one of the many cats I catch sight of on my morning walks – I mean, it could be Jerry, who I featured in my last bulletin, although I have never seen him lurking around Newton House.
     Secondly, I sort of harbour the horrible thought that someone has captured and caged it. Whenever it landed in my hand I always felt I could easily have grabbed it, so trusting was the lovable thing. All in all though, I tend to come down on the side of predation. From Robin of Newton to Cock Robin, in one brief adventure...

Who Killed Cock Robin?
I, said Super Kev the Kite,
With my nasty little grab and bite,
I killed Cock Robin.

Who saw him die?
I, said Sly Silvester the Cat,
While lying there on the mat,
I saw him die.

All the birds of the air
Fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
When they heard the bell toll
For poor Cock Robin...

AS I mourn Cock Robin's loss, I go on the internet to find out how easy, or indeed how difficult, it is to train a wild bird to feed from the hand. Well, not particularly difficult, and of our British birds, the robin is rated highest as generally confiding with people. But I am taken by the tale of an American girl.
     One day her parents are amazed to find that she has trained some wild birds to feed out of her hand (chickadees I think, which, like our robins are not unduly bothered by human presence). Apparently, every morning as she reached the bottom of the lane leading from the house to the main road where she waited for the school bus, she would scatter a handful of sunflower seeds on the ground. The birds quickly got into the routine and over a period of time (not stated) eventually took the food straight out of her hand.

Then I begin to wonder how easy, or indeed how difficult, it would be along my morning walks to do what the American girl did. I select a handful of likely locations, as far away as possible from civilisation (houses, farms, buildings, etc), to ensure that the birds have had no contact with people at all, apart from seeing farmers, and perhaps walkers like me, passing by.
     So every morning I leave a handful of seed at selected locations, making sure I don’t make it easy for predators to spot what I’m up to.
     Within just a week or so I’m aware of little songbirds hanging around; another week or two and the birds gather quite excitedly on fences and branches, awaiting my arrival. Unsurprisingly, at a couple of prime spots, the bird at the forefront of the queue is – yes of course, the robin.

BUT before I tell you what happened next, I have a query...
     Here in Wales, on Radio Cymru – the Welsh language radio station – every Saturday morning there’s a 90-minute show called Galwad Cynnar (early morning call), a series where all aspects of nature and wildlife are delved into with distinction, indeed they recently discussed old black and white photos of someone feeding birds from the hand. So I have a related question for the experts on Galwad Cynnar: why is it that small birds such as the robin and blackbird – crows even – while wary of humans are actually quite tolerant of us – yet a largish bird like the heron is hugely nervous of human presence?
     Along my walk I come across a number of herons, but as soon as they sense my presence, let alone see me - whoosh! - they're off with a cloud of spray and that dreadful calling sound they make (in Welsh the heron is called a crychydd, a perfectly onomatopoeic name for the bird). By a strange twist, my computer spell-check comes up with 'screeched' for crychydd. Honest! Spooky or what?
     So I find myself wondering if they’ve been hunted or persecuted down the years, and that this red-alert reaction has been programmed into their genetic code. After all, pigeons and wild duck are nervous of people because, I presume, they have been hunted for the pot – although I do seem to recall a ditty about four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
     I’ve had it suggested that herons are persecuted because they have become the curse of those who have ponds and keep fish therein – but that, I guess, is a fairly modern phenomenon and would not have been imprinted on their behaviour.

Anyway, the closest I have ever been to a heron, albeit a dead one, is the one featured in the photo alongside. I came upon this unfortunate soul near a spot on the banks of the River Towy, a stretch of water where a heron was regularly fishing, but would take off in a hurry as soon as I got anywhere near it. I guess this bird was again a victim of predation, a buzzard perhaps?
     Apart from this unsettling encounter - look how clean and efficiently the bird has been picked - the closest I have ever got, and that by deploying maximum zoom, is a particular tree where herons are always hanging out – see the image directly above - but even then they take flight as soon as I move closer.
     However, during the bluebell season there’s a wood I enjoy walking through – and occasionally I come out near a backwater were a heron is regularly seen fishing. This one particular day I exit the wood – and there in front of me, not only a heron, but (I'm fairly sure) a Little Egret as well. I freeze and slowly lift the camera.
     For some strange reason, and contrary to normal practice, neither flies away, although with their keen eyesight they can, without doubt, clearly see me. I put it down to the fact that as I have exited a wood they somehow see me as less of a threat.
     Directly below, the backwater I mention, both birds can just about be spotted at the far end, centre. Alongside the backwater picture below, a
rather splendid shot of both heron and egret together. Mind you, as you can see from the general shot I’m still a fair distance away, and have to deploy maximum zoom.

Then on another day, I exit the same spot, and this time it’s just the heron – and it has caught a real mouthful, a jumbo eel. For 15 minutes I remain mesmerised as it struggles with the eel. The eel continually manages to wriggle free, but because it’s a shallow backwater, it ain’t going nowhere!

Eventually the heron manages to get the head in first – gulp! – and it’s gone. The shot alongside captures the moment immediately after it has swallowed the eel ... it seems startled by what it has just managed. And I found myself wondering what exactly happens inside the heron’s stomach, especially as that eel was alive and kicking as it disappeared down the heron’s gullet.
     Anyway, that’s the heron interlude done and dusted ... I shall look forward to any Galwad Cynnar thoughts regarding the heron behaviour - and I shall pass them on. But now back to my new friend, another robin redbreast.

This one I have christened Robin of Dinefwr. With every passing day he moves closer and closer. I now start to hold the feed in my hand, but he’s reluctant, so rather than stress out the wee thing I leave the seed and walk away.
     Then one morning, he moves ever so close and I have a feeling ... I turn on the camera and focus on my hand ... suddenly, whoosh – click! – a quick snatch and away. As previously mentioned, it’s an unsophisticated camera which I tend to leave on auto pilot – which means that it captures fast movement in a blur – and fortuitously I come up with a serious of atmospheric shots.

Above, this is that first whoosh! as it flew in to take from my hand – and I love it. All you can see is that redbreast, apart from its foot planted on my hand. In the second picture, it’s another day, and this time I've caught it moving away. Then, slowly but surely, Robin of Dinefwr moves with less and less urgency, and the pictures become less and less blurred...

Intriguingly, if I were a carpenter – er, a proper photographer - and had carefully set up the camera to capture the perfect shot, I doubt whether I would have taken a series of pictures which so perfectly capture the fear and uncertainty melt away as I gain its trust.
     Oh yes, from that very first morning, when I left a handful of seed at this particular spot, to the moment when it decided to risk all and come to hand, took – just 28 days.
     One point of interest: on BBC's recent Springwatch they showed a clip of Simon King holding a container of mealworm in front of his face, and all the while remaining totally silent and motionless as a robin flies in and tucks in - and then as the robin departs a huge and memorable smile sweeps across Simon's face. Now I do the opposite, for I always announce my presence as I approach, and I talk continually to the birds - Prince Charles will be proud of me - but for no other reason, really, than I want them to get used to my voice.
     Finally then,
how long will it take Robin of Dinefwr, not to mention all the other little songbirds come along for the ride, to reach the laid-back stage of Robin of Newton?
     To be continued – and therein lies a delicious little twist to the tale, and all to do with sex. What else?

Swans addendum...

Having introduced you (in my previous bulletin, just below) to the alpha family of swans that occupy the prime oxbow lake I pass along my daily circuit – mum, dad and the six youngsters – a progress report.
     All six have, somewhat surprisingly, survived the many predators prowling this area, especially so in those early weeks, and they’ve all come on a treat.

To recap...
The signets hatched on May 11, and the last image I show of them in my previous bulletin was taken on May 30 ... the next picture coming up was taken a month later, at the very end of June – and suddenly, they have taken on the appearance of that ugly duckling made famous by Hans Christian Andersen.

Talk of ugly ducklings brings me to geese, in particular a few breeding families of Greylags which share the oxbow lake with the swans. When the cob has managed to clear all the swans which continually try to take up residence on the lake, he keeps his fighting-eye in by doing his damnedest to drive away the geese, in particular he always goes after what I presume are the adults -

see the image above – but I have to report that, whilst he is ruthlessly efficient in clearing away all other swans, the geese lead him a merry dance, and it's pretty clear that they are going nowhere until the kids can look after themselves. Below, I leave you with a rather splendid image of the Greylag parents leading the kids across the lake...

"By the left ... quick paddle!"

20th June, 2009
Big cats, ugly ducklings and a promise to deliver

HERE'S a starter for ten from First time here? (click More for a wide screen view of this site's roots)...
Now that I carry a camera with me on my regular walks along the wild side of the Towy Valley, and what with all this talk of big cats on the loose in rural Wales, I have hanging on my bedroom wall an empty picture frame which carries the caption 'Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?'."

A seductive killing machine


IN MY posting of 10th May, just a quick scroll down, I tell the tale of being momentarily alarmed by three horses; in passing I also mention being nearly frightened to death by a big cat, with a promise to tell the story next time out.
     Well, here I am, and here's my tale of the unexpected...

THE BLUEBELLS were all present and correct, just like a fitted carpet ... incidentally, the bluebells this year were nowhere near as electrifying and vivacious as usual; neither were the flowering horse chestnut trees, nor the glorious hawthorn blossom come to that. Normally the horse chestnut candlesticks are a quite breathtaking sight - pictured here, one I took a few years back, so just imagine what a tree covered in them looks like - but this year they were nowhere near as vibrant and eye-catching as usual. I guess the under-performing bluebells, hawthorn and horse chestnuts were probably inhibited by the unexpectedly cold winter followed by the unusually chilly, dry and drawn out spring.
     Anyway, back with the bluebells. Even in their reserved state they are still a sight to lift the spirits, so one sunny morning I visit my favourite bluebell wood. I take up a kneeling position (does that make sense?) to capture some shots, so I'm looking down at the camera's screen to line up and focus when suddenly, out of nowhere, something lands with a thud in the bluebells in front of me. Talk about having a fright. God, I really did jump - it's a bloody huge big cat!
     Just as quickly though I realise that actually, I've been accosted by a pussycat. Not just any old pussycat mind, but one of the friendliest little things you ever could wish to encounter way out in the middle of nowhere.
     I call ... and it comes, all purring and friendly rubs, even sniffing the bluebells along the way. I've now gathered my equilibrium and start capturing some images of my guest.

I've come across this tiger before. It's definitely a Llandeilo pussycat for I've noticed it wandering around town very early mornings when I fetch the paper. Not only that, I've encountered it a few times out on the wild side, once even rambling about inside Dinefwr Castle of all places. Its territory appears to cover a radius of a couple of miles and more. It's a handsome and likeable cat, a tom - in fact he comes across as quite eccentric, so I've christened him Jerry - Thomas would be just too predictable - a fairly youngish cat, I guess, ultra friendly, always comes whenever I call. He's in tip-top physical condition, extremely lithe and his coat has a gloss to it - like silk to the touch. And he's exceedingly affectionate, always wants to play (or perhaps that's me). He clearly has a good home, and undoubtedly has the use of a cat flap, which suggests he can come and go as he pleases, but perhaps more alarmingly, can exercise his natural born hunting instincts at will. (Incidentally, loved this quote from an employee at Tory HQ on the party's new computer system: "It's about as much use as a cat flap in a submarine.")

Natural born hunting instinct is a huge problem in pets. I encounter many cats along my early morning walks, and all unquestionably out there with their hunting hats on. There's little doubt that cats are responsible for a vast number of deaths in birds, voles and the like.
    Listening to celebrity cat owner Sarah Kennedy on Radio 2 a while back, she was discussing an article in one of the morning papers detailing the curse of these killing machines. "Well mine don't go out slaughtering wildlife," she responds indignantly, "my cats are well fed." Wrong, Sarah!
What all cats do is exercise their natural hunting instinct, irrespective of how well fed and cared for they are. Just like my pal Jerry, here. What I notice that morning in the bluebell wood is his reaction to what's happening around him in the trees - see the image directly above. With the breeding season in full swing the birds are in fine voice ... suddenly he focuses on a bird in the tree above, his tail begins to swish menacingly, the way a cat's tail does when psyching itself up for a kill. I manage to distract him with a little bit of friendly banter...

Much as I hate what cats get up to in their free time, I simply can't bring myself to give Jerry a good kick up the arse and send him packing - or turn Pussycat the Dog on him! That would make me a hypocrite. So I decide to leave the wood: "Come on, Jerry," I urge, and he follows like a dog - but suddenly, he springs into a tree and bounds along the branches, much like a squirrel on heat. It's an astonishing sight - see above, licking his lips in anticipation. He is now in a world of his own and, in typical cat fashion, promptly forgets me as he goes about his business. The last I see of him is peering out over his domain.com - above! I have little doubt that Jerry, smashing cat that he is, is a ruthless killing machine. But you can't blame cats for doing what comes naturally. We humans behave just the same. Ponder Tony Blair, who took us to war on the back of a pack of lies. Whose to say that he was not obeying his inherent natural hunting instinct, the need to kill things - except that as a lawyer and politician he demanded others do it on his behalf. No, the fault lies with us for keeping so many cats as pets.

A full moon of ugly ducklings

NOW for an up-date on the swans I reported on during their mating season back in April. Unsurprisingly, things have moved on a treat.

Let's do the alpha pair first. Here she is, above, in her final few days of incubation. In fact, I'm as sure as sure can be that, in the next picture along, I actually capture mum taking her little ugly ducklings for their very first swim.
     She appears quite fretful: at any sign of problems her wings balloon - just as happens when swans switch to bolshie mode - but here she does so to invite the little ones to climb aboard should they feel threatened in any way. She may well have become aware of my presence. As the cygnets grow older they climb aboard mum anyway, just for the ride - as you will witness further down.
     But here's why I'm so sure that it was their first swim: what I noted, with hindsight, was that in all the pictures I took that magical early morning, there were definitely only five cygnets ... yet when I caught up with them a couple of days later there were six, so I guess that one egg still hadn't hatched on that launch day. By a curious coincidence, subsequent photos show one cygnet always trailing a little way behind...
     However, as the series of pictures coming up show, it's pleasing to report that, a handful of weeks on, all six are doing well.

The dark side of the moon

BUT FOR all the pleasure the above pictures provide, nature has her shades of dark and grey. Bad news on the pair whose nesting site I featured and warned that that precise spot did not boast a particularly successful record in the family unit stakes. I noticed that, while the nest itself remained high and dry, the incubating period went on and on. I also began to note the female not always sitting on the eggs. It became quickly apparent that something had gone wrong. I couldn't see into the deep nest to confirm whether the eggs had failed, or that the cygnets had died - my guess is that the eggs hadn't hatched.

Whatever, I witnessed one poignant episode. As it became obvious that things weren't right, I could hear the female, as she stood over the nest - captured above - calling out with that distinctive call swans generate.
     Not only that, she would stamp her foot down onto the eggs, a force something between gentle and fierce. She did this repeatedly. It really was a most moving experience.
Also, both cob and pen spent hours just standing over the nest - see above.
     One final observation: during incubation I noticed the pair continually adding material to the nest, so my guess is that they're a novice pair and the eggs were simply too near the water, which would affect their incubation.
     Anyway, as I keep saying, if you want to understand human behaviour just study nature. It's all out there, folks.

What is also worth noting for posterity are the nesting sites that never got off the ground, so to speak. This pair of swans, above, began building their nest in a backwater, but the already shallow water level - note the heron on a fishing expedition - began to drop at a fast rate as the dry spring continued, so the nest was abandoned. Then in the smaller oxbow lake next to where the alpha pair nest, a lower water level means there are no islands in the lake to build a nest, so I observed this swan building a nest on the edge of the lake, in a really dodgy spot - see where the horses are ... just to the right of the stream you can spot the nest - but this too was quickly abandoned, for rather obvious reasons. Yes, nesting really is demanding business for these swans.

So what did happen next......?

BACK ON January 31 this year, I rounded off my bulletin with a tease ... I'd mentioned a magical moment shared with my pal Robin of Newton, the little bird I'd befriended along my walk on the wild side - and I left you with the above picture and posed the question as to what happened next...
     In my next bulletin, if spared, the full story of my encounter of the bird kind - until then here's another tease for ten...


BULLETIN 41, 17/05/09
A starter for ten while singing in the rain...

The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella:
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust steals the just's umbrella.
                                    Charles Bowen, 1st Baron, 1835-1894
            Sichel, Sands of Time

To share the final roundup of the great pipeline project, with a smile or 400 (hopefully),
along the way - click here...

Follow the pipeline

10th May, 2009
Sheeps, crows, cows, horses and a spring blaze

Stone the crows

A couple of years ago, shortly after launching 400 Smiles A Day, I did a short feature after observing some crows - jackdaws, I think - cheekily plucking wool from sheep. Clearly a quality product for nest building. Even though born and bred on a farm, I had never seen this behaviour before; however, several farmers confirmed that it is a common sight come springtime. Back in 2007 I featured a couple of pictures of said event, with a smart-aleck remark along the lines of: "Mr Crow: you have been found guilty of disturbing the fleece ... you are a baaaaa-d bird - and you mutton do it again. An ASBO (Antisocial Bird Order) for you my flighty friend; take him down and clip his wings." I know, I know, I'm not supposed to smile at my own jokes.

Anyway, I feature here three more images captured at the time ... note, above, the casual way the crows approach the sheep - which appears to be snoozing... But best of all, the magical expression on the face of the sheep featured above, as the crow saunters away with a beak full of wool. Say "Thank you!".

Mind you, the exchange of looks, above, is probably even better. Anyway, the point of revisiting this was a most unusual image I captured just the other day while crossing Dinefwr Park - above, right - namely the crows busily plucking hair off the cow's back, à la the sheep shearers. Perhaps it's the same pair.
     Again, I've never observed this behaviour before, neither had a couple of farmers I spoke to shortly after I'd witnessed it. Mind you, t
hese White Park cattle at Dinefwr have quite coarse, thick hair, which explains why they need not be housed over the winter - tough buggers - and why the crows find it perfect as nesting material.
Unlike the sheep though, the cow seems unfazed by it all. Crows have seriously honed and lethal beaks, but this particular cow was unperturbed, didn’t seem to register all the poking and plucking. The birds themselves are not as sharply focussed as I’d like because the shot's been taken on high zoom – as soon as I attempted to move nearer ... the birds would simply fly away. Story of my life!
     The above picture appeared in the Western Mail's Postcard from Wales, and duly generated a generous response, not only from townies who simply enjoyed the novelty of the shot, but farmers, especially older farmers, who confirmed it as a recognised behaviour, especially from some 30 years ago.

Cattle, apparently, welcome the crows aboard following wintering in order to do a bit of grooming - as often seen on wildlife films: birds doing favours for all sorts of animals, and indeed larger fish welcome smaller fish, even into their mouths to do some flossing and stuff. But mostly the crows' behaviour reminded farmers of warble fly, a significant cattle pest in the 1970s and 1980s.
     The larvae of the warble fly live within the body of the cow - see alongside the illustration of its migration through its victim. Their presence may cause distress to the animal and can have severe economic consequences: loss of weight in beef cattle and a significant drop in milk yield in dairy cows. In 1978 warble fly infestation in cattle became a notifiable disease; farmers were required to treat their cattle with pour-on types of organophosphate, an insecticide that many now believe to have alarming side effects, indeed, its use probably having a significant impact on the BSE story (mad cow disease).
     But where do the crows fit in? Well, the warble fly "grub" appears as significant lumps on the cattle's back, and the birds peck and pick them off before they drop onto the ground to begin yet another life cycle.
     Which gives a proper meaning to the famous saying: "You scratch my back..." Truly fascinating stuff from nature.

Which brings me back to Dinefwr Park. I was amused by the sight of the three crows, above, looking as if they're performing a quick tap-dance routine. I was irresistibly reminded of the vultures in Walt Disney's film of The Jungle Book. I get these feelings. Best to look away when I do.

A spring in the step
“The blaze of green which has appeared on Wales’ trees is at least as stunning as the turning on of any Christmas lights. Springtime is a glorious shock, when nature makes a Rocky-style comeback after the pummelling cold of winter...”
     Thus columnist David Williamson began his piece in the Western Mail on the final day of April. It struck a chord because, to my eye anyway, the early spring leaf colours are just as beautiful as the autumn leaf colours – but, like autumn, the magic lasts but a few precious weeks before the tree canopy becomes an amorphous green blanket, excepting the occasional copper leaf tree, of course.
     As it happens, just a few days before I read the above piece in the Western Mail I took a colourful photo of Dinefwr Park, from the castle (alongside), captured just after heavy rain had passed through.
     The following morning was a picture-perfect one, so I returned for another shot, but do you know, that is nowhere near as vibrant as the one in cloudy conditions.
     Just before rain arrives, and again just after rain has passed through, something unusual happens to the quality of the light, as reflected in the image alongside.
     In my last bulletin I did a feature on a nesting swan, and below is an up-to-date photo of the pen still incubating the eggs - but note the colour of the leaves on the oak tree behind her.

Many oak tree leaves take on a golden hue when they emerge, and this curious but beautiful autumnal effect lasts but for a short while before they revert to their traditional summer look. Very eye-catching and well worth capturing. The picture above is a favourite autumn one, again taken from the castle, at sunrise, but looking in a different direction. Dinefwr Castle does indeed offer a glorious panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.

Dream a little dream of...
Scroll down to the beginning of the previous bulletin, and there I did a piece about three wonderful horses I encounter along my morning walk.
    Anyway, just recently, within the space of a week or so, I was actually frightened quite alarmingly by a couple of episodes involving animals. One involved a cat, would you believe, which I will return to in my next bulletin; the second involved these three horses.
     It was the morning I took the above spring-colours photograph: afterwards
I continue my walk, and a period of further rain falls - but I notice the horses just standing motionless, looking really sorry for themselves. Now animals hate rain and always look miserable when caught short.
     There's a saying in Welsh when observing a person looking miserable and sorry for themselves: they resemble a chicken caught in a thundery downpour, meaning, their wings droop and drag along the ground. They really do look a sorry sight. And so it was with these horses.

I take a picture from some distance, then quietly inch closer, hoping they won't register my presence because that will encourage them to move towards me, as is their wont, and the miserable pose will be lost. To my surprise they don't appear to know I'm approaching. I move ever closer, then decide to take a shot from ground level, with the grey sky as a backdrop.
     As I peer down at the screen to frame the shot there's an eruption of sound - which frightens the life out of me. The horses have exploded into life and charge away from me. For some reason they have suddenly become aware of a presence, are startled - and bolt. I call to them, and after a suitable pause to gather composure they recognise me and eventually approach. Later I study the picture - directly above - and they do indeed appear to be asleep.
Now I've read that horses can indeed sleep on their feet as well as lying down - when standing their joints lock to stop them falling over, as would happen when a human falls asleep in an upright position - but usually one horse remains awake and alert (their genetic inheritance warns them to be ever alert of predators).
     The two in the front are clearly asleep (note the closed eyes), but the one behind - a perfect place to guard against predator attack from the rear - while its eyes are open, it obviously hadn't registered me as it was clearly dozing or taking forty winks. Sleeping on the job.
     Yet another delightful experience I serendipitously stumble upon along my morning walk on the wild side.

19th April, 2009
Gee-gees, rainbows, swans, lambs - and another full moon...

As mentioned in previous dispatches, I regularly submit photographs captured along my regular morning walk for publication in the Western Mail's Postcard from Wales spot. Indeed, over the last couple of years or so quite a few have been selected, thank you very much, Western Mail, much appreciated. I tend to give the traditional style of picture of Wales' famous beauty spots a miss - there are those much more talented than I to do these magical images proper justice, although occasionally I can't help but capture such pictures - so I go for the unusual, smiley or offbeat image. Indeed readers of the Western Mail are hugely appreciative of my little efforts, which is a grand feeling for sure.
     And, truth to tell, there isn't a day that passes when I don't capture something which makes me smile. Just recently, I had one published of an icicled horse - but first, some background information to help join up the dots.

Free-range horses in the Towy Valley



One of the joys along my daily walk is meeting up with a bunch of horses, reared by Hefin, farmer, character and rare bird of this parish, and who rents from the National Trust the land where the horses winter.
     Pictured directly above, last year's trio, photographed from up on high on Dinefwr Castle - a fair zoom away - on a frosty, early morn.
     Above, right, this year's crop, again, as it happens, captured on a cold and frosty morning. As tends to be the case with these horses, one is sort of 'domesticated' and rather spoilt, reared by Hefin's teenage granddaughters, while the other two are Hefin's and treated much like all the other farm animals - meaning, reared well, but totally unspoilt and unbroken.
Every year, with the arrival of each new batch, I go through the Horse Whisperer's join-up routine - which is great fun and very revealing of each individual horse's character. Just like people, really.
     But I eventually become their pal, although it is interesting how the 'friendly' horse becomes very aggressive towards the other two as they make friends and fuss around me (I'll have to do a piece on this fascinating behaviour), and as the above picture suggests, I now only have to call out, or indeed just appear, and they come at a gallop. It's a wonderful feeling.
     Right then, now to the published picture - see just below, left - which generated much curious interest. I titled the photo...

Some of my favourite things:
Whiskers on horses and icicles on whiskers...

Folk were curious how these icicles build up on the horse's whiskers. Well, I've noticed that whenever the weather down in the valley hovers around freezing - say there's ground frost about, and then some air frost kicks in, which often happens from first light to shortly after sunrise - icicles appear. Directly above, a close up of one of the horse's grazing during such weather conditions - you can see the frost on the grass - the horse's breath melts the frost and the water clings to the whiskers. Then, as soon as it lifts its head and decides to stand and stare - hey presto - the water freezes again. Magic!

April sunshine, showers and rainbows

Just the other morning, returning from my morning walk, some sudden and really hefty showers develop - and I capture this magical image of an intense shower cloud, with a clear sky and a rising sun behind me, which spotlights Newton House like a beacon, the darkness of the background highlighting both it and the rainbow. At moments like this I think of William Henry Davies... What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?

Which takes me back to last September, when I captured the above image of a double rainbow over the Towy Valley - oh, and some berry-laden hawthorn trees. The colour red never fails to draw my eye. Double magic.

Every swan is an island
Spring, and a young bird's fancy turns to sex - and things - and few things rival the fascination of watching swans at this time of year because everything they do - from initial attraction via courtship, nest building, rearing young to the incredible territorial fights that continually go on - is done in the full public gaze of those who wish to stand and stare. Now watching swans in the wild is different to viewing them in a park or a sanctuary, where by definition, they are domesticated. Out there on the wild side of things, critically, there are only a finite number of places where they can nest safely and away from predators. More of that later. Firstly, the initial attraction and courtship of the swan, followed by the nesting routine.

That looks a promising love nest over there, sweetheart

So, if I said you have a wonderful body...

Romance done ... Mum builds nest, Dad goes scuba diving

Phew! Feet under at last - until the kids arrive, that is

What really caught my eye with the photograph of the nesting swan, above right, is that distinctive pink hue reflecting off its feathers. I am intrigued: is there a trace of pink in the feathers? Or is it the reflection of the sun - image captured just after sunrise - playing tricks on the camera? Whatever, it is very beautiful.
     I mentioned earlier that there are just a finite number of sites where swans can nest in the wild, which explains the endless battles for possession of said territories. Primarily it must be a lake, of sorts, or a backwater. Then
there has to be an 'island' set within that pool of water - to ward off predators - rising marginally higher than the water level because, if the spring turns out to be really wet, then as a consequence the water level rises, and despite the nest's inherent ability to float it will probably die a death.
     The swans featured above are nesting in a really dodgy backwater. Over recent years, with so much rain about, the nesting site has had to be abandoned because of rising waters. This year though, with a memorably dry spring, it has worked out perfectly, as captured by the site images below...

Island in the sun...

Mum incubates, Dad guards

But life is nowhere as peaceful as it appears above. Battles for the nesting sites and the territories unfold all the time. Coming up just below, a couple of images, not from the nesting site featured above, but another, larger site, what I call the alpha site of the Towy Valley. As above, the female is on the nest, but the male is on continual patrol and guard duty. Below, a young pair challenge the old guard. I've noticed that the new pair fly in every morning around sunrise, and there then follows confrontation, consternation and contrition.

In the picture above - that's the resident swan, the alpha male, on the right, defending his territory - the other two are the infiltrators, looking to take over the nesting site - female at the front, looking rather coy and bashful.
     There's a stand-off at first, which can go on for quite a while - and then the alpha male will drive the Nogood Boyo and his woman off the water ... but the shemozzle then continues on the field - see above, right ...
occasionally there will be fisticuffs, and quite fierce at that - I do not have photos of said fights - well, I do, but sadly not good enough for this scrapbook. It all unfolds in a blur of feathers and aggression - but I shall keep on trying to capture a decent image. In the meantime I shall keep a keen eye on the nesting and the confrontations and report any untoward happenings.
     Finally, a couple of images captured over the Easter Bank Holiday...

With the lambing season in full swing, I was captivated by the image, above, of the young lambs on a really cold and misty early morning sheltering in the lee of mum. Just look at those little faces. Nature is perfectly wonderful. And delightfully smiley. And finally, scroll down and the first item last time out captured a full moon over Newton House - see The Moon's A Balloon. Well, on the 12th of April, on another cold and misty morning, there, a rather haunting looking moon, just about to set. More magic. I count my blessings along my country walks.

22nd March, 2009
The Moon & Bluebell - oh, and turn up the heating, love...


The Moon's A Balloon

Back in December 2006, along my regular very early morning walk through Dinefwr Park and beyond - somewhere between first light and sunrise - ahead of me stands Newton House, and just above, a gloriously crystal-clear full moon, slowly setting in a cloudless sky...

By chance my walk places me where the moon is perfectly captured and framed by the wrought iron decoration atop one of the Newton House turrets.
     Click! Loved the image but couldn't quite figure out what to do with it, so I filed it away in the computer's back pocket for future reference - and, as is my wont, promptly forgot about it. Then, last Sunday, the 15th of March 2009, on a glorious spring-like morning, I was returning from my walk when...
...something caught my eye ... a balloon was floating behind Newton House. I instantly recognised it as the one I'd been up in with David Smith (Dai Balloon, to we natives) of Birdshill Farm, Llandeilo (www.floatingoverwales.com). I suddenly remembered the moon shot, so fingers firmly crossed, together with a nifty bit of footwork, I capture the balloon rising out of the turret. Bingo!
     A diptych with a difference.

Spring knocking on the door
As those who have travelled with me along this long and winding road since I launched my 400 Smiles A Day scrapbook two years ago, will testify, at this time of year I am always on the lookout for the arrival of the first bluebell of the year, a perfect barometer of spring.
     I always spot my initial bluebell (which I fondly refer to as
Solitaire - a gem, in this case a bluebell, set alone in a ring of anemones, more of which later) at a particularly secluded and sheltered south-facing woodland spot, a real suntrap. Over the past 10 years or so (excepting 2001, the year of the
Foot & Mouth outbreak, when the countryside went off limits and all visitors persona non grata), the bluebell's earliest appearance has varied between March 23 and March 30 - apart from, curiously, the last few years.
     Spring 2006 was cold and delayed, and Solitaire didn't make her grand entrance until a late April 8; in 2007 it was an early March 18; and of course last year, with its unusually mild winter and spring, the first bluebell appeared, unbelievably, on February 28.
     Would this year's coldest winter for 10 years make a difference?

In the weeks leading up to the bluebell extravaganza the decaying leaf litter of autumn covering the woodland floor morphs into a thick carpet of green foliage – above - as stunning in its richness as the bluebells themselves. Next, the delicate but handsome little anemones appear, though always the bridesmaids never the bride, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the star turn. The agreeable recent weather brought out the wood anemones in force, above.

Then, on Thursday March 19, there she is, Solitaire, lying low behind some anemones, above, pretty much invisible among the foliage, and always at the same spot, undoubtedly the same bluebell. Being an early riser myself, I like to think we share certain traits. I say "her", for she is definitely female – see above - elegant, stylish and proud. She is rather reserved at this stage - the bluebell itself is very difficult to spot at this pre-flowering stage. But within a few days her brothers, sisters, cousins et al will make their grand appearance.



I mention that the bluebell is difficult to spot at this early stage because of the thick foliage. Well, just a couple of days after spotting Solitaire I notice a solitary clump of bluebells - above - and closer inspection shows four flowers emerging from their slumber. I now await the glorious blue carpet... In the meantime my attention is drawn to the delicate anemones, and I notice a bee doing its thing, above. It just has be male bee: it is extremely difficult to photograph because it spends just a second or so making mad passionate love to each flower - before quickly moving on to the next!

It's in the pipeline
At the top of this page there's a What a Gas link - Follow the pipeline - where I record the story of the laying of a giant gas pipeline as it circumnavigates my home town of Llandeilo. I recently brought the tale bang up to date, and all that was now awaited was for the whole shebang to become operational. Friday March 20th was a noteworthy day in this unfolding operation. After six years of planning, protests, court battles, claims and counterclaims, the first liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker arrived at Milford Haven.

The massive 315m long Tembek, above, all 136,000 tonnes of it, carrying super-cooled gas from Qatar in the Middle East, came in to berth at the newly-built South Hook deep water terminal in Pembrokeshire. It is one of 14 such ships built in Korea to transport the Qatar gas to the West Wales LNG facility. These ships are so large it is difficult to put their actual size into context, so I rather like the BBC graphic, above.
     I shall do a little feature on it via the
Follow the pipeline link in the near future.

A bluebell postscript

This very morning, Sunday 22nd March, was a particularly delightful one: sunny, clear, quiet, the birds in furious voice. Walking through the bluebell wood I notice that, just four days after spotting Solitaire, there are bluebells popping up everywhere. I mention earlier in this bulletin that in the weeks leading up to the bluebell extravaganza the decaying leaf litter of autumn morphs into a thick carpet of green foliage. Well, above, left, is a picture of the spot covered in autumn leaves - and alongside, as it looked this morning. Within a few weeks it will be a sea of blue. The wonder of nature.

28th February, 2009
Snow, snowdrops, a little lambsy divey - oh, and Robin of Newton

Following the snows of early February the weather settled down, and although dry, it remained stubbornly overcast and dull. However, on my morning walk I would regularly pass a woodland boasting a generous droop of snowdrops - and I was struck how in the early morning, even from a distance, the snowdrops would shimmer in the gloom - and hopefully the first picture, below, captures that magical glow...

Alongside, above, the same droop of snowdrops photographed during the snows at the beginning of February.

The above was taken at Llandyfeisant church, and I rather like how the snowdrops are neatly framed by snow. Oh, and I couldn't resist the solitary snowdrop patiently awaiting sunrise over the Towy Valley.

Anyway, back with the snow: the above picture is of Llandeilo, captured from Penlan Park - that's the Cawdor Hotel, centre stage.
     Actually, this was taken following a snowfall on the 28th February 2006, and I show it because the tree on the right, which neatly frames the shot, has since been cut down in the name of cosmetic surgery. Given the state of the planet, and that trees are the planet's lungs, it is criminal that they are chopped merely to enhance a view, or indeed that a particular type of tree
doesn't fit in with its surrounds. We perform a right Fred & Ginger (a song and dance routine) when the rainforests are hacked down. What's the difference?
     The other shot, above, is of Ffairfach, taken from pretty much the same spot as the other, and taken this year. Captured at first light, it has a rather magical,  Christmassy feel.
     However, one of the joys of fresh snowfall is observing footprints, in particular how untidily we humans walk...

     Our feet splay quite dramatically, as the tracks in this photograph, alongside, show. Indeed, I have never observed a ‘tidy’ set of spontaneous human footprints. Perhaps someone out there can set the record straight.
     Also, probably many folk, me included, have been somewhat foxed by the other footprints in the picture. Yes, they belong to rabbits, but how does a creature with a foot at each corner make such intriguing tracks? Well, just recently I read an explanation by Derwent May in The Times, and it’s worth sharing.
    I quote: The prints consist of a pair of hollows in the snow side by side and two more hollows in a line behind. If one draws an oval line round them in the snow they look like a face with two eyes, a nose and a mouth. The two prints that are side by side show the direction in which the rabbit is going, but oddly enough they are made by the back legs, while the two prints in a line at the rear are made by the forelegs. This is because the rabbit first puts its two front feet down one after the other and then shoots its two back feet forward in a single movement landing in front of the forefeet.
     Hopefully that concise and delightful explanation will add to your appreciation the next time you observe these curious tracks in the snow - or indeed when you see a bunny hopping across a field.

Above, Dinefwr Castle, captured during a snowfall - and, alongside, with a clear sky, the castle from the other side, the Towy Valley floor.

Sheep and lambs, unsure what to make of it all...

Above, a dramatic snow line. Normally, in this part of the world, the weather forecast warns of snow over 500, 800 or 1,000 feet. In both above pictures that's the Towy Valley floor dressed in green, yet within tens of feet the rain turns to snow, and within another couple of hundred feet or so quite heavy snow, as the cover signifies. I particularly like both the above images. It's the contrast, I guess. Quite beautiful, really.
     At the end of the previous bulletin I left you with a bit of a tease apropos what happened next with the picture of the friendly robin approaching my outstretched hand holding some tasty titbits. All in good time...
     In the meantime, another robin has entered, stage left...

Above is the previously introduced robin - let's call him Robin of Newton - and alongside, the new kid on the block, note the more generous red breast - let's call him Robin of Dinefwr. In due course I shall dedicate a whole bulletin to these couple of characters. See you soon...

31st January, 2009
Hide and seek along the Towy

First things first ... look at the two images below ... what comes to mind? It's an association of ideas thing ...

For me, the above makes me think of a swan. Actually, it's one of those things you never knew you needed, a Power Nap Capsule, based on Nasa technology, "drawing on extensive physiotherapeutic research". And a snip at $25,000.
     Alongside my 'swan', a totally pissed-off family of coots search out unfrozen water during that really cold snap at the beginning of January. A delightfully smiley image anyway, but just as I click, the head-honcho glances at me. Magic! And yes, there's no dispute, it's Groucho Coot - leading the Marx Brothers, Sisters, Boys and Girls, to splashdown.
     But back to the Power Nap Capsule that could be a swan ... swans feature strongly in my January bulletin. During that very cold snap, and while on my regular Towy Valley walk, I suddenly come upon a tent, seen here, alongside. Well, no, it's not a tent but a hide. So I'm intrigued to know who it is that's so keen on bird watching around here.
     What is particularly interesting in this picture is the frozen surface of the lake closing in around the birds. At this time of year there are often hundreds of birds here, many varieties, mostly ducks and geese, but all that's left now is the resident family of four swans, a couple of brave Canada geese, a few ducks and the aforementioned clutch of coots. While swans tolerate smaller birds in their immediate space, larger birds, such as geese, are chased away. Now all bets are off. Needs must.
     Anyway, one morning, out of the hide appears the bird-watcher. It turns out he's filming the wildlife for a series of short films for the National Trust, whose property this is. He will be capturing the unfolding nature of nature on the estate through the seasons. He introduces himself as Haydn, originally from nearby Brechfa. We get to chat. I point out that the two

oxbow lakes, where he is currently filming, are home to what I term an alpha pair of swans because it must be just about the prime nesting and breeding site along the Towy, especially so if the territorial fights I see are anything to go by. The alpha swan is so dominant that one early misty morn I watch him drive around 20 swans off one of the lakes. Here are the images.

Astonishing. I guess these are young swans and therefore easily bullied ... sometimes the alpha pair become man and woman o' war - to drive away the invaders...

Now and again, as below, it's a straightforward fresh pair trying their luck ... and the geese get in the way and create a diversion...

Occasionally it's a lone intruder - above, right - and even the kids get to follow mum and dad and grab a feel for the action. Nothing like starting 'em young. Often fights break out, quite intense affairs, and below, old Alpha has got the better of an infiltrator and has him by the scruff of the neck.

So aggressive are the exchanges - remember, these are truly wild swans, not keen on humans invading their space, although it's interesting to note that old Alpha, above, has been ringed - but so focussed is he that he simply ignores my close encounter of the click kind.
     After a couple of weeks or so of frost, the mild weather returns, the rains come and the hide gets flooded and battered to within an inch of its life. Such is life in the Towy Valley. Finally, over on Look You I recently shared the Magic Moment involving my pal Robin, the little bird I'd befriended along my walk on the wild side...


Well, our friendship came on in leaps and bounds - as shown above, right - but what happened next? To be continued...

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