Wales and the Red Kites - Saturday 5th June 2021June 9, 2021
I had been talking with good birdwatching and photography friend Tim for some time about visiting Gigrin Farm in Powys, Wales. Lockdown had got in the way of our plans initially, but with everything now opening up, we were finally on our way. I had previously visited Gigrin Farm a few years back and had wanted to repeat the experience ever since. Gigrin Farm is without doubt the most well known red kite feeding station in Wales. There are a couple of others but none attract red kites in the numbers seen at Gigrin Farm which can get uptown 500 birds in winter, although 2 - 300 is more likely during the summer months, when food is not so scarce.
Friday night saw last minute phone calls to confirm pick up time and other stops we would make en route, as the kite feeding does not take place until 3:00pm in the afternoon. Tim was to pick me up at 6:15, so not such an early start for me. With alarm clock set for 5:30am and cameras checked and packed I went off to bed. However, as is usual with me, I woke before the alarm went off at 3:00 am, read for a bit and as I was unable to get back to sleep, got up at 4:00am. Having made my sandwiches for the day and had a couple of coffees, I decided I might as well go out and see what I could photograph at sunrise. So around 5:00am I left the house wearing waterproofs and wellies for the 3 minute walk to some private fishing ponds near my house that the owner has kindly given me access to. A quick search around and I had found some azure damselflies to photograph.
Keeping an eye on the time I headed for home just before 6:00am to make a flask of coffee and pack my final bits and pieces, then at 6:15 I was off to meet Tim outside. Fortunately Tim ran through the checklist of items to bring and upon realising I didn’t have my binoculars, it was back to the housee to pick them up before we hit the road.
The first stop we had agreed on was in the Brecon Beacons at a place called Craig Cerrig Gleisiad a Fan Frynych National Nature Reserve which is easily accessible from a lay-by about a mile further down the road from the access point for Pen y Fan (the highest peak in South Wales) on the A470.
Anyway we found the lay-by more by luck than judgement - the directions we found online didn’t really help and we thought we might have missed it, so Tim pulled into a lay-by to turn around and we found that it just happened to be in the right one with the sign for the NNR right there. The reason we had stopped here was the chance of seeing the ring ouzels that regularly breed here. They are upland nesting birds and we only see them in Somerset occasionally on migration. For those who don’t know, the ring ouzel is a member of the thrush family and looks very much like a blackbird with a white bib or crescent on its chest.
The walk up Craig Cerrig Gleisiad is said to be one of the most spectacular and best walks in the Brecon and it certainly lived up to this. There is a circular route which I reckon took us a couple of hours but is very steep to get to the top (even steeper coming down the other side!) but produces some great views across to Pen y Fan and the Brecon Beacons. Here’s a couple of shots taken on my phone.
So did we see ring ouzels? I hear you ask. The answer is almost definitely a no, but we did get fleeting glimpses of at least three blackbirds which probably were blackbirds, oh well! Now I know where this place is I would definitely visit again. We did see some stonechats and skylarks and a had a good view of a Peregrine falcon in flight. We also saw several meadow pipits, including this one that I managed to get relatively close to.
When we got back to the lay-by, it was time for a sandwich and a cup of coffee. It was at this point that I wondered why my stomach had been grumbling and I realised I had forgotten to have any breakfast before leaving home!
Suitably refreshed we headed on to our next stop which was quite close to Gigrin Farm, being just outside Rhyader, which is the first town on the river Wye. We were heading for RSPB Carngafallt in the Elan Valley. Because I hadn’t read the directions properly we drove straight past the turning the first time and then when we returned to take the right road, drove straight through the reserve before realising we had been through it. Eventually, we worked out roughly where the reserve was (there was almost no signage) and parked up. The reserve is beautiful, open, ancient oak woodland that we wandered through for an hour or so. It was great walk and although I didn’t take any photos we did see a good selection of birds that we don’t see much of in Somerset such as pied flycatcher and redstart. I was also hoping to see wood warbler but that eluded us. We did see a family of nuthatches flitting around the trees - always looking like they were just about to come and pose for us, but never actually doing it unfortunately.
Next it was time for the main event, so a quick 15 minute drive back through Rhyader to Gigrin Farm. We had already booked one of the photography hides - last time I visited I had been at ground level, but this time wanted to try the big tower hide which is maybe 20 feet off the ground, so gives a different perspective and the opportunity for more eye-level shots of the birds.
We arrived at the hide about half an hour before feeding time to get ourselves ready. Once set up, I took a few wider angle shots of the tractor coming in with the food as the birds began to gather - they weren’t all there yet but this gives you an idea of the scale of things and the sheer numbers of kites you can see.
There followed nearly two and a half hours of exhausting and intense concentration while we constantly tired to track birds as they came in to take the food. After this I know I really need bigger arm muscles to wield a camera for that length of time! Exposure proved to be problematic throughout the afternoon, with settings constantly needing to be reviewed and changed due to the cloudy/sunny sky and different light levels. There were shots I had in mind of kites wheeling and diving in to take the food that I never really got, but there were plenty of good ones too that I hadn’t planned for. There are always shots that you think will turn out great, but when you get home and examine them, they are not as you hoped for. User error such as wrong exposure or unsharp focus are to be expected; but also with so many birds there are always other birds to get in the way at the wrong moment - as do sheep, fence posts, mobile phone masts and other bird hides! Also kites have transparent eyelids or membranes that they seem to close just as I am taking a crucial shot, such as in this image.
So as I said, nearly two and a half hours later we found ourselves walking back to the car well and truly shattered. I had taken over 1800 shots and my concerns about battery life in my new camera, the mirrorless Canon R5 were unfounded. Overall I was very pleased with the way it performed and will maybe do an in depth review here at some point. I have to say it is great for moving birds, but I think I still prefer the 1DX for macro - but only just - it’s a close run thing though and only time will tell. So to finish up here’s a few more red kite shots, although I still have many more to process, so there could be a part 2!
Lastly, there is this image of a group of kites fighting over food. Not sure why they do this as there is still plenty on the ground. It could be that these are juveniles honing their skills or also that there is some sort of hierarchy in place - there certainly seems to be as the kites will feed briefly (and it is clear that not all of them have fed); following which they will circle again and sometimes disperse before the next feeding frenzy occurs.
Well that’s it for my first blog, please do give me some feedback - whether you liked it or not, what bits you like and which bits you don’t. Also any views on what I should include in future blogs - more technical camera stuff, more on the actual trip itself, more photography tips and techniques - happy for you to tell me anything. At the moment I don’t have the facility for you to leave comments here, but please send me an E Mail here or contact me through my Facebook or Instagram page - links at the top of the page.
Next big trip with Tim will be Skomer for the puffins at the beginning of July, but hopefully I will do another blog before then.
All the best.