“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” –Mark Jenkins

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Tuesday 30th June 2015

Catherine swimming with Puffins
One of the ladies on the trip, Catherine, was training for a charity triathlon in aid of Parkinsons disease and she had been regularly running around the island in the mornings to maintain her fitness levels. Monday morning she decided was the perfect morning to follow up her 45 minute run with a 30 minute swim (mad woman) so I headed out at 7am to capture the event for her.... sure enough I found her at the beach near the jetty around 730am stripping down to her costume ready for the second stage of her training - when she got in she gave no indication how cold the water was and bravely headed off round the island in a cloud of Puffins until she was again out of sight. I hung around for a while shooting the wealth of wild flowers clinging to the rocks and the masses of tangled Honeysuckle cascading down the cliffs. It really is a beautiful coastline.
Catherine on the return swim
After Monday's lesson on birds in flight I was lucky enough to have a family of five Oyster Catchers posing for me to practice on during my walk back to the block for breakfast. I tried again after breakfast on Puffins flying in over the jetty, but balancing the ISO with a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the birds rapid flapping I found tricky - particularly with the adverse weather conditions causing constant changes in light levels. ISO AUTO is of course an option, but this feature will select the lowest ISO to match the lens reciprocal - it does assume hand-holding but it really doesn't care about shutter speed - so I came out of AUTO and re-programmed the conveniently-placed video record button to be an ISO control which made life a little easier.
A few tips and tricks from David also helped.... pre-focusing on something the right distance away to minimise the distance the lens has to move when the bird enters the zone, massively improved my ratio of in-focus to blurry - as did limiting the focusing range of the lens, switching to D9 focusing area mode and waiting that fraction of a section longer before engaging the auto-focus in the first place. AF-C is awesome on the D4, but it's a tricky task for any camera and anything you can do to help will hugely reduce the frustration levels.

I left the evening Wick session early to head back and attempt a sunset time lapse (had the sun ever appeared) but on the way back I stopped off at the hide only to discover Kurt already in there snapping away at backlit gulls in flight - the reflection off the water was harsh and made life difficult for the camera, but it was an exciting and slightly frantic 10 minutes after the tedium of The Wick.
Spent the evening time-lapsing the sky and watching the almost full moon rise over the Trig, sipping red wine - such an eerie yet peaceful place. Solitary and yet surrounded. The island was definitely growing on me.
Dusk at The Wick

Monday, 29 June 2015

Monday 29th June 2015 - First in-camera timelapse

First full day on the island started early with breakfast and a walk out to see what was about - then as soon as the day trippers started to arrive, we retreated back into the common room for our first theory session ... Time lapse. There was a lot more to it than I had anticipated and my notes were rapidly filling the single sheet of A4 I had managed to steal (planning failure number 4).
The video here is my very first attempt outside the common room during the lesson. I love the random materialisation of clouds in the middle of the shot, but recognise that having plants in the shot on a windy day really makes a poor and very jerky timelapse.
Thankfully we had some free time available after lunch so we all set off with our new found knowledge and I attempted to time-lapse the waves crashing around beneath me from my lovely spot at the Garland Stone. It turned out complete rubbish and David was right - he predicted it would be rubbish, but said the best way to learn is indeed to try it on all sorts of subjects... clouds racing across the sky, shadows moving over the ground as the sun journeys etc., - just not waves crashing against the rocks as it turns out.
However I do love the process because it goes something a bit like this....

Step 1 : Set up camera on a tripod, fixed nice and low to the ground, so it is stable in the gusty winds.
Step 2 : Dial in all required settings for the environment and finished lapse that you want (admittedly this takes a bit of calculating and good memory/notes)
Step 3 : Take a test shot and if all good... set the interval-shooting going
Step 4 : Sit back and enjoy the view (preferably with a nice glass of something fruity) for anything from 20 to 50 minutes. Lovely.
A surprising addition to the "my kind of photography" list, but quite addictive and makes a welcome change from crawling around in the mud sneaking up on skittish mammals. I've just got to get the subject and settings right before the results are anything to be proud of.
Weather was lovely all day - fresh and windy, but the wind made it very cold in the evening at the Wick - so cold in fact that my fingers went numb and set themselves onto the camera in a fixed frozen grip - very painful. Packing list now contains winter gloves should I ever feel like returning to the Island.
The evening at The Wick was mainly about capturing hundreds more shots like this one.... things can only get better (I believe that was a song by D-Ream?) I didn't stay up for the Manxies, but chose to try and get to sleep ahead of the other snorers in our dorm in readiness for another early start.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Sunday 28th June 2015 - The journey to the island

After an immense breakfast, I left the car at The Clock House, (on account of completely forgetting to book a spot at the farm nearer the jetty in St Martins Haven, which was actually a bit of a result as it meant I didn’t have to pay.. perhaps I should be more disorganised in future?), and Tim dropped me and our luggage down at the beach. He then drove the mile or so back up the hill to park the car securely at the farm for the next four days. All the other members of the group did the same thing leaving me alone with a pile of rucksacks, camera gear, tripods and coolboxes which had to be ferried from the beach, to the end of the jetty where the boat would soon be arriving. Time for the desk-worker to get some exercise... thankfully it was typical English summer weather and a gentle misty rain kept me nice and cool as I trudged like a donkey back and forth along the steps and down the ramp loaded up with very heavy gear.

The boat crossing was as bad as I had feared – the skipper was a happy chap though and made it slightly more bearable. The boat was lurching in all directions for a full fifteen minutes before we rounded the headland into the quieter bay of the island where we moored up to a waiting chain of people snaking up the steps on the face of the cliff, ready to offload our gear. The skies were filled with birds circling the boat and whizzing past it with the wind. The skipper got me off first and I steadied myself before climbing to the top of the cliff to join the end of the chain and start ferrying luggage once more on to the top of the island where a tiny tractor and trailer had backed down the path to meet us.

By lunchtime we (and all our gear) had made it to the residents block and unpacked our belongings, which for me consisted of simply rolling out my sleeping bag on the bottom bunk and sliding my rucksack underneath. Tim was in the bed next to me and David on the bunk above, then Kurt next to Tim and Gail at the other end of the room by the window. It was clean and basic, but on an island covered in Manx Shearwaters that can only be seen at night, I had not expected to be getting much sleep anyway to be honest. The other 3 ladies shared another room down the hall.

Once all the day trippers had left the island (about 430pm) it belonged to the 12 residents (of which our group were 7), 3 researchers, 2 wardens and a few volunteers. Bliss.
The first place people head to see the Puffins is "The Wick" on the southern side of the island, where they fly in towards you (at a ridiculous speed) with beaks full of Sand-eels for their young and crash-land on the soft daisies sometimes inches from your feet. Amazing experience - you cannot help but smile at the antics of these small comical birds.

Every night at 9pm (very awkward time of day for photographers) there is a "bird log" session which is not actually restricted to birds, but has been going since the 40s when researchers log all bird sightings, behaviour and numbers. Anything significant is written on the chalk board in the common room along with the time and location and all residents are welcome to attend and contribute anything they have seen during the day/night, be it bird, butterfly or paupoise etc.

Following sundown and bird log, there is a fair wait before you start to hear the "Manxies" come back around midnight.... flying back from the ocean down into their burrows with food for their young.... in their thousands... making one hell of a racket! but an awesome one at that.
No flash photography at night and our torches were all wrapped in red electrical tape so as not to blind the birds and ultimately make them prey for the Gulls and Peregrines.  On the walk out in the pitch black to see the birds, it was a surprise to be tiptoeing around hundreds of toads too... not something I expected on a coastal island for some reason but the place is overrun with them at night - probably a good thing for me as they gobble up biting insects too... not that I saw, heard or got bitten by anything the entire trip. Result.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Skomer Island, Wales

So it might be a little late coming since I have been back over a month, but moving house to something requiring a little more than simple TLC is playing havoc with my time availability these days - particularly for blogging - apologies. However, I need to get some things written up before my short term memory replaces the trip with other things!

I had only vaguely heard of Skomer island before I went there. I knew it was out at sea somewhere around Britain’s coastline, but I had mentally stuck it somewhere high up north and pictured it as a windswept, desolate place composed mainly of rock and bird crap and covered in Puffins. I booked the tour anyway, since I knew if David was teaching there, it would be worth it.
After some frantic googling (and FlickR-nosing) a few days before the trip, I quickly discovered it is actually an incredibly green and verdant Welsh island with enough soil that hundreds of thousands of pairs of burrowing birds can make their homes there every season to breed. It turns out the island is also made of mainly volcanic rock and so is of massive interest to scientists and conservationists alike. Stuck out in the sea a short distance from the mainland of south Wales, I was becoming more optimistic about the whole trip – despite the best efforts of work colleagues to convince me otherwise.

Saturday 27th June 2015
Having been to see The Who in Hyde Park the night before at a festival with friends, the trip was not destined to start well. I was thankfully not hungover, just really really tired – never a good condition for one of David’s tours. I had to do all food shopping and packing in the morning too as I had been away for work all week – laying out meals on the floor and then adding spares as instructed in case bad weather caused us to get stuck on the island. We were told there are two cookers and ample shared fridge space as well as all cooking utensils, pans and crockery on the island in the residents block and that all we need take is food and drink for 5 days, some bedding, clothes and of course camera gear. I took only my new Nikon with both lenses (the 80-400mm cheapie and the VRII 70-200mm beast). I later came to realise I had not packed anywhere near enough clothing and way too much food!
I set off on the 6 hour drive after lunch - aiming to arrive in time for a shower before meeting the group for dinner at 7pm in the local pub – “The Lobster Pot”. Once I had got past the boring motorway sections (M25>M4) the trip actually allowed me one of the nicest drives through western Britain I think I have ever had, with a night in the timeless village of Marloes, to kick it all off with. Although in stereotypical Welsh fashion, the rain started just as I crossed the Severn Bridge.
I’m sure the journey would not have taken me so long had I not found myself following David Plummer and deciding it would be impolite to overtake... I crawled along behind him for miles and miles and just as I was about to arrive in the village of Marloes, he turned off into the supermarket… probably to get supplies I thought…. however it turns out it wasn’t him at all – what on earth the driver in that jeep thought of the mad woman in a fairly nippy car, refusing to overtake and waving at him periodically, I don’t know.
Anyway, I finally arrived at The Clock House (B&B in Marloes) run by John and his wife with time for a quick shower and change. Met a fellow “student”, Tim, in the hallway who was also on his way to meet David for dinner – Tim is an ex Director of Britvic (one of my old customers – small world).  Already in the pub, were the two ladies who had volunteered on the island last year, (Leslie and Sally) as well as another two ladies, Catherine and Gail (Both had been on at least one of David’s tours before) and one other guy called Kurt; lovely guy, from Switzerland I believe, who had spent the last week with David on his residential course at Knepp Safaris in West Sussex.
As we ate, the rain continued and the wind picked up, it was looking dubious for a crossing in the morning… or were they simply winding me up? (I don’t do open water very well). There aren’t many things in this world that frighten me, but open water, submerged seaweed and chavs are probably my top three. I knew I had get a good night’s sleep if I was to survive the next 4 days.