Garden Brambling

The last weekend in November was significant for two very good reasons. Firstly it was cold, seriously cold, hopefully heralding the start of winter proper after a month of seeming indecision which saw weather conditions range from wet and mild to even wetter and milder. About time too as December is now in full flow and no matter what the doom mongers say I’m still hoping for some decent snowfall. Secondly we were out birding and walking for a significant proportion of that final Sunday, the first time that’s really happened since mid October and our week away on Mull (photos and words coming soon). The reason?  Life I guess sums it up best, a combination of finally finishing renovation work on our house (I’m ignoring the bathroom for now – varnished wood ceilings are still fashionable right?) and other ‘stuff’ which needed addressing. With that now dealt with however I’m looking forward to rounding out 2017 in style kicking off with a brand new garden visitor which graced us with its presence for a couple of days towards the end of October.

P1120902 - Garden Brambling

For those not familiar with this attractive little bird it is of course a Brambling, one of those autumn migrants which I see far too rarely.  In fact last year withdrawal symptoms got so great that we actually twitched a couple of individuals which had taken up residence in the Sea Buckthorn at Pembrey, a distinctly prickly venture which resulted in brief glimpses and only minimal blood loss. To have one turn up in our own back garden therefore was more than a stroke of luck, especially considering how tame this particular bird was. After twenty minutes or so of getting him used to my presence I was able to push my advantage and approach within a couple of foot for what easily rank as my best photos of this species to date. They may indeed be my only photos as despite being sure that I’ve got a couple of dodgy record shots hidden away somewhere I’ve yet to locate them. All the more reason to enjoy a few more from this current batch.

P1120897 - Garden Brambling

P1120881 - Garden Brambling

Sadly the Brambling has now moved on but unusual visitors have continued to drop in. Of these a Treecreeper was perhaps the most surprising especially given their rarity factor on patch, though Goldcrest and Great-spotted Woodpecker also rate quite highly. Such success inevitably has my mind wondering towards the recent Hawfinch invasion which has left a few lingering birds here in South Wales. Might one turn up on our feeders? Now that really would be something to write home about.

Anglesey Barracks - Dinorwic

P1120100 - Anglesey Barracks, Dinorwic
The summer already feels like a lifetime ago right now which provides me with the ideal excuse to cast our minds back once more to August bank holiday. Regular readers may recall that we spent most of it crawling over the remains of Dinorwic slate quarry near Llanberis, the world’s second largest such enterprise and a place which captivated me from the start. Abandoned inclines, winding houses, tramways and much more besides, evidence of an industry now very much on its last legs and for some almost entirely forgotten. At the time I remember remarking on how you could almost imagine the place as it was, packed with men and boys alike all working hard to dig deep into the vertical seam which lies just beneath the surface there. Reminders of those people though are scarce, restricted to occasional finds such as an old mess tray, pair of trousers or unknown names scratched into flaking mortar. There is however one location where it’s possible to get a lot closer to the human factors at work here and finding it was our main aim of a second day spent amongst the tips.

We started our venture in Padarn country park, home of the National Slate Museum and a host of restored artefacts including inclines, workshops and aerial ropeways. Climbing one of the former saw us gaining height rapidly through dense woodland only to emerge into daylight with stunning views stretching down across Llanberis.

P1120072 - Dinorwic

P1120076 - Dinorwic

Behind us the curving route of one of the old tramways encouraged us onwards, its bed awash with colour thanks to a thick blanket of Heather. The contrast between austere slate walls and sunlit vegetation was stark but it’s precisely because of this dichotomy that I love these places so much. If my camera battery hadn’t been running so low thanks to a weekend away from power then I’d probably have taken another deluge of images from this area alone.

P1120077 - Dinorwic

P1120078 - Dinorwic

P1120087 - Dinorwic

Following its route we were soon looking across to the main levels, their regimented uniformity broken by occasional gunpowder stores and other structures whose purpose was less clear. We continued climbing for a brief period passing the local Mountain Goat herd from the previous day before arriving at a wide step in the hillside which dropped off a precipice to the tips below. Here the ruins were distinctly more residential in style, small rows of cottages with what looked like yards and perhaps even pigsties attached to some. Most were in a state of disrepair however which is why we were so keen to find the Anglesey Barracks. This double row of cottages is so called because they once housed workers from the island of Anglesey who, unlike the local population, required lodgings during the week. The men typically left home on a Monday morning and went back the other way on Saturday afternoon, intervening time spent in these twenty two one bedroom houses built allegedly to house four men apiece. With no amenities and only a small fire for warmth life would have been harsh, particularly during winter, which undoubtedly led to the buildings ultimate condemnation as unfit for human habitation in 1948. On a warm summer’s day however that hardship doesn’t seem too great with dramatic views across to Snowdon and a delightful sun dappled path stretched between the rows.

P1120100 - Anglesey Barracks, Dinorwic

P1120094 - Anglesey Barracks, Dinorwic

P1120097 - Anglesey Barracks, Dinorwic

Even after all we’d seen, Dinorwic still had one last surprise in store. Our return route took us down a path measuring no more than a metre across, each side lined by a continuous head height slate wall behind which rested thousands of tonnes of slate waste on our right and a perilous drop to our left. As we zig-zagged our way downwards the feeling of being trapped increased but I couldn’t help but marvel at the sheer audacity of what we were walking on. Generations of miners would have passed this way over the years, adding more slate to these tips which they’d then have to negotiate on the way back down. And that for me has always been the biggest conundrum of the slate industry. With a typical yield of one tonne useable to thirty tonnes waste there was a hell of a lot of material to manage and the structures used to do just that are almost, if not more impressive than the buildings to which the good slate went. Take this path as a fine example. Miles of wall, hundreds of steps and all to negotiate an obstacle which had been created by the quarry itself. Other examples include the huge retaining walls seen elsewhere at Dinorwic not to mention the continuous realignment of tramways, supporting infrastructure and even whole villages. That such efforts still left a profit show the sheer value of slate at the time, but also probably shortened the industry’s life by several years when the end ultimately came.

Brocken Spectre from Ben More, Isle of Mull

P1050955 - Climbing Ben More, Isle of Mull
I’ve been thinking a lot about Mull recently, both her place in our future and what a life lived there could be like. Distant dreams for now of course but with another trip planned in the very near future it’s hard not to start day dreaming. Now for some a trip to the Scottish Isles this late in the year might seem like madness, foolhardy even, but let me assure you that it’s anything but. Yes the weather may be a little more temperamental than during summer but as a consolation prize you get landscapes swathed in bronze, bellowing stags and migrating wildfowl. On top of that when the sun does shine the air is crystal clear allowing for some fantastic views, particularly if you enjoy nothing more than tramping up the nearest hill.

Leaping Salmon and Dippers at Cenarth Falls

One thing that's been on my to do list for several years now has been to go and watch Salmon leaping. It's an annual phenomenon occurring each autumn as fish head back upstream to spawn and requires a few key ingredients. The first, a river, is in no short supply around here but the other two, good timing and a suitable obstacle, had thus far eluded us. It was with that in mind that we'd been keeping a close eye on reports from across our area in recent weeks with initially Cardiff looking the most promising option. That was of course until we stumbled across a tweet mentioning Cenarth Falls, not only somewhere we'd been meaning to visit in any case but also a location which looked to offer easy access to the water and a nice natural setting for photography.

P1120622 - Cenarth Falls

Hurricane Ophelia Arrives in South Wales

P1120638 - Hurricane Ophelia at Burry Port
For those of us living in the UK, yesterday morning was definitely a little out of the ordinary. For starters it was dark, seriously dark, with sunrise seemingly delayed until well after eleven. I realise that wasn't actually the case but it sure felt like it with a thick bank of cloud robbing us of almost all light and providing this reluctant early riser another excuse to hit snooze. When I did finally drag myself to the window the colour of the sky was almost indescribable. It ranged continually from deep purple to black through to an otherworldly red tinge which not for the only time that day would have me heralding the coming of the end. For those of you lucky enough to have had clear skies the sun would also have been tinged red thanks to the arrival of a plume of Saharan sand, most of which seemed to end up coating my car and which indeed still does.

Cefn Sidan Portuguese man-of-war

We were back on the hunt for a Portuguese man-of-war come Sunday, our efforts refocussed on Cefn Sidan. The thinking went, rightly or wrongly, that with these creatures moving in from the south-west perhaps a beach facing in that general direction might prove more productive than we'd found Whiteford the day before. Warning signs at the car park hinted strongly that we might be in luck and it only took a few minutes of walking the high tide line to turn up our first ever man-of-war on British shores.

P1120529 - Portuguese man-of-war, Cefn Sidan

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