I had been watching the BBC weather forecasts for a few days before deciding on which day it would be best to pick my daughter up from Aberystwyth University. The plan was to meet her late on in the day after I had managed a few hours photography on the way at Nant y Arian, about ten miles east on the A44. I was then due to drop into the town and photograph the Starling roost at the pier. With a setting sun over Cardigan Bay it would all be set for a well planned and organised days shoot.
We plumped for the Monday as the internet forecast had a lovely enticing full sun in the appropriate box. It stayed thus for three days prior to the day, before suddenly switching to a dark cloud on Sunday evening! I should have known better than to trust the forecast, but you do tend to believe it may give just a hint of what’s to come. In the event even the black cloud was optimistic and they should have gone with the FOG symbol, which is actually not a symbol but just the word in block capitals. I suppose it would be hard to represent fog graphically as it would just be a blank empty white box and that’s just about what Nant y Arian was by the time I arrived at about 10.30am. Never mind seeing the birds around the feeding station I could only just about see the feeding station!
It was clear that a change of plan was needed and I resolved to carry on into Aberystwyth in the hope that the coast might, at least, be free of the FOG that I was engulfed in. The front at ‘Aber’ always offers the chance of a wader or two, the possibility of a Black Redstart over wintering and always the corvids that occupy the far end of the drive by the marina.
Parking up by the beach at Pen Dinnas, it was still raining, but a least workable with no converters on, as I needed all the speed the 500mm lens could offer. There were eight Purple Sandpipers busily feeding on the breakwater and as they are known to fairly confiding I was confident in stalking them to a distance that would enable some close up images. It is a beautiful understated wader that melds into the edge between land and water. They visit the rockier shores around our coasts in winter and are the hardiest of all our visiting sandpipers occupying more northerly latitudes in the winter than any of their close relatives. Some will actually winter within the Arctic Circle, these birds having a larger digestive system than those wintering on our coasts,Â enabling them to process a greater volume of food therefore generating more heat and helping them to survive the more severe weather.
There was a good sea running and the tide was coming in. The conditions under foot were as treacherous as I have ever had to deal with. The flat concrete of the breakwater was covered in a sea slime of mosses and seaweed and it was all I could do to stay upright. I had the 500mm lens on a monopod which had absolutely no purchase on the ice like surface. I enjoy staying with a subject for as long as possible, working until you have the image you think is possible in the circumstances. I would have liked to photograph the sandpipers in flight but it was never going to happen. To begin with they were reluctant flyers, being totally engrossed in rapid feeding. As I approached they would continue to scuttle away always keeping a distance of about ten yards. When, on the very few occasions, they took flight it was always to arc back past me and continue in their pursuit of the larvae and pupa of the kelp flies. I tried to ‘pan’ with them on the first occasion and nearly ended up in the sea, totally loosing the very little grip I had. I was not going to give it a second go! After about 90 minutes with them I called it a day as the tide was still on the rise and the sea was crashing heavily on the breakwater. I had managed to isolate them against a clean background and get low enough to get a sense of ‘being with them’ essential for this type of work.
A few Rock Pipits were working the rocks and seaweed, but there was no sign of any Black Redstarts. Nothing unusual in the small gull flock on the river so I moved on to the end of South beach to have a session with the corvids that are always very approachable, having a regular diet of bread and discarded sandwiches from the constant flow of visitors to the front, even at this time of year. Having a little bread myself ensured they stayed close, at times too close to focus on. I was using the car, not so much as a hide, these birds are not at all phased by walkers, but as a convenient place to position the beanbag and camera.Â To see these birds at such close quarters makes you reassess them. Their plumage is not black, but a myriad of blues. They have a power and a curious grace which can only be appreciated by staying with them for a good while. WhenÂ preening they take on majestic and at times a regal pose. I stayed with them for a couple of hours, waiting for the direct stare or posture that would express the power and beauty of these often maligned birds.
I met my daughter soon after 3.00pm and as the weather was closing in even more and the light fading fast, I decided to give the Starlings a miss. I had not photographed to plan but the day had been a good one. The journey home was full of talk and laughter and crowned off when a Tawny Owl flew in front of the car. The weather had actually worked in my favour and I can always visit Nant yr Arian on my next sojourn to Aberystwyth.