My youngest son has recently started a photography GCSE and asked if we could go and try and take some shots of the night sky. We decided to make a trip of it and headed for the Brecon Beacons which has dark sky status. They eldest son decided he wanted to come so a road trip was organised.
I’ve never done any night photography so a little bit of research was undertaken but it was pretty much a learning experience and we weren’t really helped with an almost full moon and scudding clouds.
The first thing you notice is how little we can actually see as there were only a couple of stars visible to the naked eye but when you let the camera look it’s quite mind blowing what we miss.
It was fun snapping the planes that came across while we were out.
Our pictures won’t win any awards but we learn’t quite a bit and also realised it was a work in progress.
Growing up I loved the film Kes and the book A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines on which it’s based. It tells the story of Billy Casper, a young working class boy who’s always in trouble at home and school, but who finds an escape when he finds and trains a kestrel. My dad took us to the cinema to see the film and then later at school it was a set text for our O Level and it’s a book I often revisit. I blame it for my fascination with Birds of Prey.
When Billy was training Kes he stole a book from the library to learn about falconry and made his own jesses and lures. Things have definitely moved on since then.
Falconry has gone high tech! At the National Centre for Birds of Prey in Helmsley the birds now have GPS tracking and can be followed in flight on an iPad!
On this picture the radio tracking aerial can clearly be seen behind this stunning Eagle Owl, and below the GPS unit can be seen attached to the handlers belt. The iPad is used to tack a bird that has left the line of sight and allows the handler to not only know where the bird is but its height and distance away.
I don’t think it would have changed the outcome of Kes but this equipment must really help with those moments of panic when your bird disappears from sight.
If you haven’t read the book I would highly recommend it and the film is a much watch. The title of the book comes from Medieval England where the only bird a peasant was allowed to keep was a Kestrel.
Ever tried Sticky Toffee Pudding? Well if you have you have my wife’s Uncle to thank.
Francis Coulson is my wife’s Uncle and despite the many claims and counter-claims, the original Sticky Toffee Pudding recipe was created by Francis Coulson at Sharrow Bay in the 1970s, and it is said that the featherlight sweet figgy sponge drenched in toffee sauce is ‘still the finest you will find anywhere in the world’.
Francis Coulson’s original, secret recipe is the stuff of culinary legend, anecdotally inspired by Brian Sack’s time as an RAF Spitfire pilot, where he saw Canadian RAF Pilots use Maple Syrup. This was pre Food Air Miles, so necessity became the mother of invention!
Staff at Sharrow Bay have signed a secrecy agreement to not disclose the secret recipe that is held in the hotel’s vaults, nor must ex-staff ever use the recipe at any other business.
I only met Francis once and he was an extremely nice man but unfortunately he never told us the recipe! Just think if we had a £1 for every toffee pudding ever eaten I’d be writing this from a beach somewhere!!
In 2007, an anonymous bidder paid £32,000 to the Children in Need charity in order to stay at Sharrow Bay and be allowed to make the pudding alongside the pastry chef.
C’est la vie as the French would say, life wouldn’t be any fun if it was easy.
So next time you fancy a really sweet delicious pudding grab yourself a sticky toffee one and quietly thank Uncle Francis for creating this superbly sweet treat. And don’t worry I really don’t want to live on an idyllic beach honest!!!!
This weekend the third Tour De Yorkshire came to town. Its a legacy cycle race which developed from the Grand Depart of the Tour De France which came to Yorkshire a few years ago.
The route came fairly close and featured a steep climb up a local cobbled hill so I staked my claim amongst the thistles and nettles and thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle.
This climb was about two thirds of the way into the stage so the cyclists really began to feel the pain. The crowds were amazing cheering the leaders and the peloton up the hill and over the summit.
All the climbs in the race are given a French name for the event and as this was the Cote de Shibden Wall it was no suprise that a certain President of the USA appeared with his wall building friends!!
Brilliant day, superb crowds and a great advert for Yorkshire, God’s own county.
Apart from the sheer spectacle of the wildlife on the Farnes I think the main attraction for most people is to get up close with a puffin. These comical and engaging birds are one of our most popular birds and when you’re virtually surrounded by them its easy to see why.
They’re not sleak and aerodynamic but rather round and pudgy. But their bright colours and incredible beaks mark them out as something special.
The puffin only comes ashore to breed spending the rest of the year floating and feeding out at sea. And their colourful plumage only lasts till their puffling hatches and heads off to sea. They shed the colourful additions to the beak and the triangular shaping around the eye falls off. When out at sea after breeding they’re a very plain bird, but on the Farnes they’re stunning.
They nest in burrows underground laying one egg which hatches around 40 days later. Once hatched the parents begin the continual feeding cycle all new parents go through. They fly out to sea to catch sand eels but unlike the terns are able to collect a proper beak full before returning thanks to a clever expanding section on their beak and ridges which mean they can stack fish without dropping them. Once they have a mouthful they have to run the gauntlet of gulls which try to mob them and make them drop their catch. They may fly round a few times before dashing in close to their burrow and scurrying to safety before the gulls can strike.
Once the puffling fledges it makes its way to the sea and it will be up to four years before it returns to land when it’s ready to breed.
They really are a joy to spend time with but remember to take an extra memory card and charged batteries because you will take hundreds of pictures.
As you make your way up through the Arctic Terns and out on to the top of the island you soon come across a small colony of Sandwich Terns. These are a similar size but are whiter with a black cap which can be raised when under duress into a shaggy crest. For some reason hemmed in together , hassled by gulls and photographers, they always seem to be a little stressed! They have a slim black beak with a yellow tip.
They nest crammed in together for protection and safety and will lay 1-3 eggs. Like the arctic tern as soon as the chicks hatch the parents are continually flying in with single sand eels to feed the growing chicks.
They are one of the earliest returning migrants to the UK generally starting to be spotted around March. Although their migration isn’t as impressive as the Arctic tern they will still cover huge distances with many overwintering as far away as South Africa. There are thought to be around 12.000 breeding pairs in the UK.
Like all terns they are incredible fliers and pull off incredible manoeuvres sometimes with their head the wrong way round.
The final tern seen on the Farne is the Common tern which is more silver with a red beak with a black tip. They also breed in noisy colonies and are graceful fliers and slightly more obvious because of their longer tails which have got them dubbed the “sea swallow”.
Although named Common the breeding numbers of these on the Farnes are much lower than the other two and most of them nest around the lighthouse at the top of the island.
There is one other tern which may be seen fishing around the Farnes but doesn’t breed on the island. This is the Roseate tern of which more later.
It’s taken me a long time to get round to writing about my trip to the Farnes last year but finally the images are all processed!!! I’m going to break the trip down into a number of blogs as I took so many photographs and there is so much interesting wildlife to talk about.
The Farne Islands are just off the coast of Northumberland in the North of England and are a haven for a multitude of sea birds and seals.
The first thing that hits you after you land on the islands is the fishy odour of bird poo, the second will probably be the beak of an Arctic Tern! These fabulous birds nest as close to the path up from the harbour as possible and like any protective parent will try to scare off anyone who gets too close. (Photography expert Steve Race picking up some tips from a local)
It really is a case of minding your feet as you walk while keeping your head covered. All along the side of the path are nests with eggs or chicks and parent birds either feeding or pecking visitors heads.The parent bird will spend a lot of time feeding their chicks as they only ever bring back one fish on each trip. The main food is the sand eel and they will feed themselves and then return with one for the youngsters. They lay between 1 and 3 eggs so will be constantly fishing.It’s hard to believe that when these tiny bundles of fluff fledge and begin to fly that one of their very first trips will be South to winter in the Southern Hemisphere summer close to the Antartic ice! When its parents return to breed again next year they will have covered on average a staggering 40,000 miles the longest migration on the planet. The oldest recorded Arctic Tern was 34 so would have covered in excess of a million miles in its lifetime. Any bird that can do that is welcome to peck my head.My trip to the Farne Islands was a Xmas present from my wife who booked it with Yorkshire Coast Nature. They organise wildlife tours and photography trips around the Yorkshire coast, dales and moors and I would recommend them to anyone with a passion for wildlife. Steve Race is the photography expert and Richard Baines the resident ecologist and between the two of them they are an endless mine of information, tips and facts. It really is like going away with two old friends and coupled with a group of like minded people makes for a very enjoyable fewdays away from the everyday stresses of work and teenage boys.
You can find their website here Yorkshire Coast Nature and I would highly recommend them if you want to see some of the stunning wildlife in this part of the country.
Driving out yesterday I noticed a giveaway sign that there was some filming going on in town somewhere. I followed the signs and came across the film unit near my old school and pulled over to ask what they were filming. They were filming scenes for a new series of Last Tango in Halifax. It’s not something I’ve watched but my wife enjoys it and I thought I might get a few interesting photographs. The series tells the story of an older couple who lost touch in their teens but find love again in their 70’s through social media and is based on the story of the writers mother.
The crew were shooting driving scenes and were circling the local playing fields with the main characters in an open top car on the back of a film truck. The male lead is played by Derek Jacobi who I watched as a kid in I Claudius and the female lead by Anne Reid who I loved as one of Victoria Woods superb Dinnerladies.
It was tricky to get any great shots because of how the car was mounted on the truck and the reflection off a protective screen and the car windows. However it was fascinating to see how the shots were filmed.
I did get a couple of Derek Jacobi pretending to drive.
And a proper paparazzi type shot of Anne Reid being offered a snack in her car after the shots were completed. I did feel a bit guilty though encroaching on her even from a distance.
Sometimes you see something and some distant memory flickers and you know instantly what it is. This happened in Barbados when I saw my first Frigate bird, even though I’d only ever seen them in books or on TV.
One minute the bird is a dot on the horizon and then seemingly within seconds they are overhead skimming the waves looking for a meal. I did a little research as I had no idea what type of frigate bird they were or even if there was more than one species. There are apparently 5 types and these were the aptly named Magnificent Frigate bird. They soar on thermals and small breezes effortlessly covering huge distances without ever seeming to beat their wings.
They are huge birds with a wingspan up to 90 inches across and a wicked hooked beak which they use to pluck fish from the surface or intimidate other birds into dropping their catch. Females are black with a white chest and head while males are black with an irridescent sheen to their feathers. They also have a red throat which can be expanded like a balloon when they are trying to attract a mate.
Amazingly they never land on water and like the swift can spend days and nights in flight catching a sleep whilst flying. Absolutely stunning to see and their effortless flying skills were a joy to witness. True aerial freedom.