Monday, 25 April 2016

Allan Wright - Galloway Sojourns 1

I started doing landscape photography right here in Galloway a long time ago, the eighties in fact, and although I have had to plough furrows elsewhere in Scotland to make a living I have never stopped exploring new places here in my adopted homeland. As most landscape and nature lovers know there are no limits to the experience that can be had from rambling around in new places.

Starting with the present time and working backwards through time I thought it might be interesting to share my journey, in blog sized slices, that I have had with Galloway as my subject over these past years. I'd like to pick out the highlights and test my memory a bit with how the pictures might have come about. There are a lot of pictures so this may take some time.

Ok here we go; last shoot I did was a dusk and dawn assault on 3 locations in our beloved Galloway Forest Park. Feral Goats get my attention, I photographed them 20 odd years ago so felt the need to refresh my files. I understand they have been culled in other parts of the Park which sounds just too brutal to contemplate, so I hope this small but contented herd in the official Wild Goat Park at Talnotry is not all that remains.

1) Quizzical looks and those amber eyes with little black slits - Pan is alive and kicking in there somewhere with this fine young billy.

2) How pleasant it was shuffling around in the dry Heather and warm April sunshine waiting for this nanny and kid to come up with a cute pose - strenuous stuff.

3) Fine horns juxtaposed with The Murray Monument is just across a wee Glen at the Grey Mare's Tail. It beams with pride as it pays homage to the memory of Alexander Murray, a local shepherd boy who later became Professor of Oriental Languages at Edinburgh University, erected in 1835.

4) On such a perfect Spring day I calculated that a sunset across Clatteringshaws Loch might be a worth a go. I trundled up and down the West Shore in anticipation of a good angle but nothing really emerged so I headed back towards the Visitor Centre, just moments before the colour started to fail, I seized on this lyrical little part-submerged willow.

5) Camped out at the top of the Garroch Glen and struck out at 5 am for sunrise on summit of Meikle Millyea, one of the Rhinns of Kells. I got there twenty minutes late but no matter. I did this walk back in about 1986 with Logan Paterson, a man passionate about the Galloway Hills, who sadly left us a wee while back. I recall the exact spot where we stood overlooking Loch Dungeon and cursed the mass plantings of Sitka Spruce sharing nostalgic images of life on the land in days of yore. It looks pretty much the same I reckon.

6) Meikle Millyae is a lovely hill, an easy enough climb, its broad flat summit was a joy in the warm sunshine with not a breath of wind or cloud in the sky. I seemed to spend I fair bit of time just sitting on rocks staring here and there to the sounds of cuckoos, skylarks, ravens and buzzards. One of the pleasures of hill walking is to raise a thirst and quench it with the freshest and coolest of water from a mountain burn. View here looking South the Clatteringshaws Loch.

7) Looking across to Corserine Hill with dyke detail and nice little lochan. I never fail to be impressed with the extraordinarily hard grafting that our forefathers must have expended in building dry stone dykes all across the land. Their presence is always reassuring and their unique shapes and weather-beaten textures lie in complement and harmonise so well with the land, the wee birdies and insects love them too. Such a toil to build them though just to keep out the neighbour's sheep. If only we could hear an ancient echo of Galloway "craik" that those dykers that must have shared during the long days and nights building them, respect! Ah life was so much simpler then - or was it?

Allan Wright

Monday, 11 April 2016

Tom Langlands - Dwindling Murmurations

Gretna Green is famous for its weddings and the huge visitor numbers that descend upon the area as a consequence. Humans apart, there is another massive influx of visitors to Gretna Green every year - or at least there has been up until now.

For decades, and probably much longer, one of the largest gatherings of starlings in the country took to the skies over Gretna to perform their amazing aerobatic displays. Known as murmurations, these swarms begin with the onset of colder weather when smaller flocks of starlings, which are often seen in the surrounding countryside, come together to form bigger groups. Toward the end of October and heading into November the groups get ever larger. The phenomenon starts as daylight fades. Flocks of a dozen to several hundred birds head towards the Gretna Green area. Some arrive from the nearby Solway Coast and farmlands while others have travelled over 20 miles.

As the sun drops over the horizon the display begins. It is a mesmerising show of twisting, turning, swooping shapes. The flock goes one way and then another. Several groups break in different directions before turning and converging again at considerable speed. Watch the shapes and you can see stars, dolphins, dragons and fish silhouetted against the sunset. As the minutes pass the murmuration gets lower in the sky. There is little chatter, only the swish and flutter of over two million beating wings. This is an air show. It is nature’s theatre.

Murmurations begin slowly and high in the sky. The individual flocks merge. Within half an hour the sky darkens as hundreds of thousands of starlings arrive from all directions. At the start of the murmuration season most of the birds will be British but as the cold weather hits other parts of northern Europe and Russia they are joined by huge numbers of foreign visitors. It is estimated that at the peak of the Gretna Green murmurations there would have been between two and three million birds in the sky.

As they drop towards their chosen roost site the swarm spirals and condenses. Then it flows like black ink down a funnel. In minutes the sky empties and from the trees and hedgerows the noise starts; the amazing chatter of hundreds of thousands of birds. In the morning small groups of starlings head off in different directions in search of food only to gather again the following evening. Subject to weather, this pattern continues throughout November, December and January until the birds finally disperse toward the end of winter.

So, why do they do it? In part it is about protection as it is difficult for raptor predators to attack starlings in such huge numbers. It is also suspected that it is about information exchange. Birds returning from good feeding grounds can pass the word to others thereby offering the entire flock the best chance of survival.

Also, starlings are temperature sensitive and in order to retain body heat they like to gather in large groups. When roosting in the trees on very cold nights several individuals will drop off their perches and die simply because they did not get a good enough spot in the thick of the roost or because they failed to find enough food during the day. What many people don't realise is that starlings once disappeared from almost the whole of the Scottish mainland around 1800 on account of a very low and sustained temperature drop. The birds only returned from northern Europe and England when the climate began to warm again.

Despite these historic, massive gatherings starling numbers are falling rapidly with an 80% decline between 1970 and 2010 but with an even more worrying 50% decline between 1995 and 2010. In other words the rate at which starlings are disappearing is increasing and that is a trend that is still continuing. Because of this starlings are now on the ‘red list’ species, i.e. of highest conservation concern.

The reason for the decline in numbers of this once common bird is not fully understood but it is likely that loss of habitat through modern farming techniques plays a significant part while previous generations of city-dwelling starlings were driven out as pests. It is sad to know the numbers are falling, for the spectacle they provide is one of nature’s truly magical moments. I think back to the days of runaway marriages and wonder how many love-struck couples were guided to Gretna Green, in fading light, by the starlings performing above this small Scottish village.

However, this year has brought another change as the ever dwindling number of starlings has now relocated its roost to the Kingston industrial estate in Carlisle. Given what we know of starlings that is perhaps not surprising. With dwindling numbers it gets ever harder to stay warm on cold nights and an industrial estate is a source of heat - from buildings, street lamps and vehicles. Sadly, we may be witnessing the last of Gretna's starling murmurations and the beginning of the end of these incredible spectacles of nature altogether.

Tom Langlands

Monday, 4 April 2016

Roger Lever - An African Experience

Charity challenge events can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. This is as it was for me when I embarked on "The Trail of the Massai” in Tanzania’s Rift Valley for the charity Action Aid 10 years ago.

Meeting new people from all over the UK was in itself rewarding. We shared tents with people we had never met before and formed new friendships that would never have happened otherwise.

We were introduced to the work of the charity and visited some of the Action Aid projects that were ongoing in that part of Africa. In a township on the outskirts of Nairobi we were shown round an 'Aids Drop in Centre' where people, mostly women and children would call in for counselling and help.

Sitting with them, speaking to them and seeing the faces of people living under such great hardship has created an everlasting impression in my mind that will never be erased.

We visited another centre where we were greeted by some 50 or 60 children singing, dancing and playing. They were all Aids orphans. This was an absolutely surreal experience and tears were never far away throughout that visit. Our cameras were a fascination for those children who constantly wanted us to take photographs of them and then check themselves out on the image at the back of the camera.

A sideways glance however revealed others that were not joining in and suddenly you realised the despair and sadness of it all. There were many small shacks built with corrugated iron and plastic sheeting, some of which house adults, often men who were in the advancing stages of Aids. Although we were introduced to some of them I felt helpless and to even consider raising my camera in such a situation was impossible for me. In the media we see so many journalistic photographs of people suffering, I didn’t need to take another one.

Next day, with all this in our minds we were taken out into the bush where we met up with our guides for the trek. Three young Maasai warriors were going to escort us on foot through the bush and savannah in temperatures up
to 40 degrees. They were called Harry, Albert and Andrew !!! Their Massai names were obviously very different.

The next few days were unforgettable, seeing wildlife, visiting Massai encampments and meeting the people themselves, talking to them in baby language, dancing with them and of course photographing them.

Here is a link to an article I wrote for Travelmag.

Roger Lever