I have a strong connection to North Wales. My father was born in Snowdonia and as a family we spent most of our holidays there.
My parents now live there permanently and I enjoy visiting them. The rugged scenery is breathtaking and on a clear day you can see Mount Snowdon from their garden.
My father is as keen on watching wildlife as I am and we’re always hatching new plans to see different creatures during my visits. For over a year we’ve been trying to work out how to get close enough to photograph the local buzzards. Unlike Yorkshire, there isn’t as much quarry in Snowdonia for buzzards so we set up a feeding station on the hill behind my parent’s cottage on a large slab of granite rock that I used to play on as a child.
Over the last year I’ve got into the habit of picking up road-kill and giving it to my father whenever he visits to take back to the buzzards. He soon reported that the buzzards were feeding there on a regular basis and so we planned to position a hide in a nearby tree, four metres from the ground.
I built the beginnings of what I thought would be a sturdy hide and after two days of hard graft carrying the hide and all the wood up the steep rocky hill, it was in situ. The activity seemed to make the buzzards cautious and they didn’t return that week. I headed back to Yorkshire disappointed, only for my father to call the following day to tell me that the buzzards were on the feeding station.
It was this January, a year later, before I got another chance to visit. And then, just as I was getting ready to go, my mother rang to say that the hide had blown down in high winds. As soon as I arrived in Wales I headed up the hill to see the damage. A buzzard lifted off into the wind and hung looking over its shoulder at me. At least they were still feeding here.
It took a day and a half to untangle the twisted hide whilst Wales threw its worst at me: rain, hail and wind. The sturdy coach bolts which were holding the hide to a nearby tree had snapped in two. My father had just had a knee operation so I enlisted my mother’s help. As the hail lashed down she clung onto the tree with one hand and the hide with the other whilst balanced half way up a ladder. “I wish I’d had daughters”, she cried. “I could be back inside baking or sewing now.”
All this activity around the feeding station had made the buzzards wary. I stayed away for two days and only visited the site under the cover of darkness. I planned to try my luck the following morning before dawn but 80mph winds and heavy storms were raging. I set off anyway in the dark. I fell or was blown down three times before I reached the feeding station to peg out a dead rabbit. I got into the hide just as it was getting light. By lunchtime I’d been rocked by high winds, deafened by thunder and even, surprising in winter time, seen lightening. It was relentless and after eight-and-a-half hours of sitting in the hide whilst rain and hail blew in through the cracks, I finally gave up.
The following morning it was still very windy with squally showers. Nevertheless I was in the hide before sun-up. At 8.30am I heard a magpie chatter. I peered through the camouflage netting window and saw that there was a buzzard on the rabbit. The light was terrible, so I scrolled the ASA on my camera up to 5000 ASA to capture what little light I could. And then a storm came in. Hail bounced around the buzzard. It wasn’t quite what I was after but the shots I took were interesting nevertheless.
On the third morning the wind stopped. From my hide I listened to the bird song that erupted as dawn broke. First robins, great tits and nuthatches called, next corvids started. Magpies chattered, a crow called, jays squawked and ravens honked. Then at last the sound of a buzzard mewing reverberated around the valley and another one returned its call. It was only 7.45am and too dark to take any photographs but this didn’t matter because the only buzzard that did come down didn’t turn up for six-and-a-half hours - just as it started to rain.
I put a dead grey squirrel on the ground to attract the buzzards. One came down but rejected my offering with disdain. Squirrels have a tough skin and are difficult to break into – part of my ploy to keep the buzzard busy whilst I photographed it.
On the fourth day I pegged out a rabbit and five mice caught in traps overnight. A buzzard returned midmorning. It preferred this picnic and I took a few shots before zooming in for some close ups. But surprisingly, the buzzard spotted the minute movement of the mechanism within my lens and flew off. Thankfully it returned three hours later. The shots I took of it rate among the hardest-won in my career but they were worth all the hard graft and in time they will form the basis of a new buzzard painting to be proud of.