Morrey Salmon: the father of British bird photography

A few months ago I went to visit Norman Salmon, a retired Army major living in Ashcott. He talked about his life in the military, particularly his involvement in the Korean war; he also told me about his later pursuit of his future wife, which led him to southern Africa and to cross half of Europe to re-unite with her: a wonderful Cold War romance that would grace a movie! As I was leaving, he showed me some photos of his father, Morrey Salmon, who had risen to the rank of colonel whilst serving in World War 2 with the RAF regiment – but whose real passion was as a pioneer of wildlife photography.

I was fascinated and found a copy of his book, which he co-wrote with Geoffrey Ingram in 1934, “Birds in Britain today”. A few weeks later Norman gave me a copy of the biography he and his brother had written about their illustrious father, which gave me some of  his background.

Morrey Salmon, holding a juvenile puffin on Skokholm

Morrey Salmon, who was born in 1891, had a distinguished military career in two world wars. One of his most notable achievements came near the end of the first world war, when he led the liberation of the small French town of Bry. His company came under heavy gunfire, and they lost 24 soldiers in the conflict, but he was determined to persevere and succeeded in taking and securing the town even with a depleted company. Norman visited Bry over ninety years later, and was honoured in a civic ceremony as the son of their chief liberator.

Between the wars he worked in his father’s business, South Wales India Rubber Company, but joined up again at the start of the second world war. He was the Commander of the RAF Regiment in North Africa, and then rose to the rank of colonel for the invasion of Sicily, before ultimately taking overall charge of the RAF regiments for the invasion of Italy.

For all this, it was nature that was his greatest passion. He was avidly interested in photography from an early age, and took his first photograph of a bird in 1909. He joined the Cardiff Naturalists in 1910, and two years later started its Photographic section. In 1914 some of his photos appeared in a major exhibition in London.

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Photo of a red-backed shrike at a nest in Wales. This is of considerable historical interest because this species no longer breeds in the UK.

He used much of his spare time in the inter-war years in the countryside, observing and photographing wildlife. His chief companion in this was Geoffrey Ingram, and the two of them eventually wrote a book together, “Birds of Britain today”. It’s a fascinating record of the birdlife in the UK at the time, and the comparison between the 1930s and now is quite revealing.

For example, I was intrigued to see a substantial entry on the red-backed shrike, complete with a photograph of a male on a nest. It was then a regular breeding bird throughout the UK, although sparsely distributed: it happened that there were several pairs near them in South Wales which they were able to observe at close quarters on many occasions. However, they wrote that “Our own view is that it is becoming, or indeed has become much scarcer, especially in the western districts which we know so well.” This was a perceptive observation: red-backed shrikes ceased breeding altogether in the UK by 1989. There have been a few signs of hope since then – for example with two pairs breeding on Dartmoor in 2010 [ref1;ref2] – but this is still very far from their widespread distribution in the early part of the twentieth century.

Peregrine falcon feeding her youngsters on her cliff-face eyrie

Today, the way for a wildlife photographer to get a close shot of a bird would be to use a big zoom lens – but when Morrey Salmon was active, such lenses did not exist. The only option was to build hides near to where the birds were. This was how he was able to get such good shots of the shrikes, for example. Writing about a hide that they had set up near a peregrine’s nest, he and Ingram were almost lyrical about its location:

Crouched in a hide on a narrow shelf high up on the face of a cliff, all the world seemed open to our sight, and the view stretching away for miles across the hills was almost indescribable. Behind the hide, a little waterfall festooned at its lip with great masses of Saxifraga hypnoides, splashed and tinkled unceasingly, while to its music was added the wild and ringing pipings of the Ring-Ouzels nesting on the screes below… In front, not more than twelve feet away, upon a small ledge fringed with polypody ferns, and separated from the hide by a deep cleft in the face of the cliff, was the Peregrines’ eyrie containing three small young about a week old.

This makes photography with big zoom lenses seem quite tame by comparison!

Twenty years later he was experimenting with flash photography. On one occasion he and a colleague (Arthur Brook) decided to try to snap swifts as they flew up to their nests, realising that early evening was the best time to do it. So they rigged up a camera and flash system on a ladder which they operated below. The experiment was a great success but there was something odd about what they saw. As he describes it:

An extraordinary photo of a swift in flight, arriving at a nest, with cheeks stuffed full of insects it has caught.

We developed the plates while having supper and when we looked at the negatives we simply could not understand what we had got because the head of the bird in each case had the profile of an Otter. When I arrived there next evening Arthur had printed some and the mystery was resolved. The bird’s throat was so bulged out with a mass of flies that it reached beyond the tip of the bill. We had obtained what had never been done before – photographs of speeding swifts flying up to their nests with food for their young and flying out again.

Morrey Salmon’s passion for wildlife and its photography led him to be at the forefront of nature conservation at a time when it was a small minority interest. When writing about the peregrine, he referred to the antagonism of pigeon breeders whose birds were being killed by peregrines. He and Ingram wrote: “When surveying the pros and cons of this question, it is well for all to bear in mind that pigeons can be raised artificially in thousands, annually, but once let a species like the peregrine be exterminated it is exceedingly improbable that it can ever be re-established. It seems an exceedingly unwise policy to allow our native birds of prey to be exterminated for the sake of imported or artifically reared creatures which represent nothing but so much £ s. d.”

It was a theme to which they returned at the end of their book. In a passionate plea to gamekeepers, they urged them to cease their persecution of birds of prey, and in particular to end some of the more barbaric practices that were then used. They conclude their book thus: “…as sportsmen, will you not give the most sporting birds we have, the largest raptors especially, a sporting chance?”.

Their words did not fall on deaf ears, even if change was slow. The work of naturalists like Salmon and Ingram ultimately led to legislative change through the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which – amongst other things – made it an offence to kill any bird (with certain obvious exceptions), with higher penalties for the killing of many of the raptor species, like peregrines and harriers, which appeared on Schedule 1 of the Act.

Morrey Salmon’s distinguished life was given appropriate reward: his military career, for example, earned him two military crosses and a CBE. His conservation work led him to be awarded the Gold Medal of the RSPB, and the honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Wales. The significance of his photography is probably best described by another notable pioneer, Eric Hosking, who described him as the ‘Father of British Bird Photography’. Even now, in the early 21st century, it is clear that he was an exceptionally skilled wildlife photographer.

Birds of Britain Today, by Geoffrey C S Ingram and H Morrey Salmon, published by Nicholson & Watson, 1934.

Footprints on the Sands of Time: the life of Colonel Harry Morrey Salmon, by Norman & Hugh Salmon, 2011

Northumbrian refreshment

Jen and I have had a very refreshing week’s holiday in Northumberland after Easter, doing some good walks and meeting up with friends.

We did two walks in the Cheviots, a range of hills that spans the Scottish border. Compared to the more familiar Lake District fells, the Cheviot hills are much more remote with fewer crowds; the higher levels are windswept and treeless, with rounded tops that somehow look bleaker. Our first walk was an enjoyable trek up Windy Gyl – which lived up to its name – from Upper Coquetdale. The second was to The Cheviot – at 810m one of the highest mountains outside of the Lakes. This has a large plateau at the top, so that there are no views of surrounding hills from the summit trig point.

Jen modelling a signpost on the Pennine Way, with the upper sign pointing us to Windy Gyl.

View of Windy Gyl as we descended towards Upper Coquetdale.

Upper Coquetdale

We were also able to meet up with a number of friends. On the Wednesday we visited Jaybee and his wife Jane in South Hetton; Jaybee’s mobility now limits his wildlife photography, but he’s still managed to become a specialist on hoverflies. The next evening we went to dinner with Satomi Miwa at an excellent Turkish restaurant in Longbenton, who told us about her ministry amongst international students at Jesmond Parish Church.

On Saturday evening we arrived, late and smelly after a long walk up the Cheviot, at Ann and Arthur Pratt’s house. They understood our plight immediately and gave us towels and showed us to the showers! They gave us an excellent meal, and told us about their lives as medics and also about their church in Prudhoe.

With Satomi at the Lezzet Turkish restaurant in Longbenton

I managed to survive without going on a birdwatching trip, but there were still some great photographic opportunities! We spent a day at the National Trust’s Wallington estate, which had a lovely river walk winding round one side of the site. There was a very showy dipper on the river, which performed lots of characteristic antics, like dipping at the knees and running underwater.

Dipper on the river at Wallington, with a beakful of insects and other prey.

There were lots of red grouse when we walked to The Cheviot, with one in particular showing great patience in allowing me to bend down to get a better angle on a photograph before flying off.

Red Grouse

One of the major highlights of the week was on the Sunday morning, when we dropped into Stockton Parish Church, where I’d done my placement from college in 2010-11. The church has grown dramatically in the years after I left, with the congregation roughly double the size, with many from refugee communities. We had a very good chat with Alan Farish, who was the vicar when I was there, and has since handed over the reins to his curate, Mark Miller (who had been at Cranmer in the year below me). I was also delighted to be able to catch up with those who’d been part of the ministry at the Community Church, such as Jon and Sarah Searle, Adam Walsh, Rob and Kath Bailey. Being part of this team was hugely formative for me – and, with hindsight, appears to have been for everyone else involved as well!

 

The Little Grebe: Britain’s most under-rated bird (part 2)

On a cold, grey, windy day on the east side of Lindisfarne, about seven years ago, I sat in a bird hide watching a lone little grebe on a small lake. Frankly, I’d expected a bit more… I was on a trip to the island with the vicar factory, and during the free afternoon I decided to head to the bird hide that I had spotted on the map. As Lindisfarne is well known for its birding, my expectations were higher than just the one bird.

That was the day that I discovered that little grebes are very watchable. They are busy birds, and for the half hour I was there this little grebe was constantly diving for food. I found myself enthralled to watch it.

A few years later I wrote a blog article called “Britain’s most under-rated bird (part 1)“, featuring a couple of decent photos of a little grebe in winter plumage: and I intended to make my case a few weeks later once I had acquired some photos of their breeding plumage… but I’ve only just succeeded. I could try to make this sound like a long and arduous trail with lots of twists and turns of fate – but that would be untrue! The little grebe is a common waterbird – just rather little, so photographing it well necessitated it’s being fairly close in good lighting.

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Little grebe at Ham Wall

Little grebe at Ham Wall: look at the water before and after!

The Tor Hide at Ham Wall provides some good photographic opportunities for grebes. They swim around in front of the hide with the appearance of serenity… but the photo here, showing the calm water in front and the churned-up water behind, shows just how hard the bird is working to move around!

The little grebe is also known as the dabchick, a name that strikes me as a bit patronising on account of its diminutive size – but it’s still a grebe and thus quite specialised, particularly for diving fast after small aquatic prey. Perhaps if it was called the ‘chestnut-throated grebe’ it would be given more respect…

It also has a rather striking call – a loud whinnying call which is instantly recognisable when you know what it is. It featured on Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day in July 2016, and is also listed in their list of top ten strangest bird sounds.

The other day I visited the Catcott Lows nature reserve with Jen and her mum, going to the new Tower Hide. Although it’s a lovely location the lake was bit lacking in bird life – but there was an active little grebe on the lake. Some years after that day on Lindisfarne, I still find little grebes very watchable – capable of redeeming a dull day anywhere!

As luck would have it, only a few days after posting this blog, I found myself visiting the National Trust’s Wallington estate in Nortthumberland. On one of the large ponds there was a very obliging little grebe that was nowhere near as shy and retiring as the species is meant to be. Hence I ended up with my best photo yet of a little grebe in breeding plumage!

An obliging Little Grebe at the NT Wallington estate.

Wildlife surprises on Shapwick Heath

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Jen and Rachel on the replica of the Sweet Track at Shapwick Heath.

Just over a week ago Jen’s friend Rachel visited us from Vienna. They were discussing what to do, so I persuaded them that it would be a great treat to go on a walk on Shapwick Heath, ending at a bird hide. 🙂 This would give Rachel an experience of the Somerset Levels, by going through woodland and around marshland, and seeing the reconstructed Neolithic Sweet Track. The fact that some bird-watching might happen as well was of course pure coincidence… ahem…

When we arrived at the Decoy Hide,  I gave them a rather waffly introduction to the birds on the lake – many of which were wintering ducks. I also pointed out the great crested grebes, and said that they’re well known for an elaborate courtship ritual called the weed dance, which I had never seen before. Shortly afterwards, Jen noticed that a pair of them were looking amorously at each other. To my astonishment, about ten minutes later this pair rushed together with beaks full of weed, and performed the entire dance in full view of the hide!

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Great Crested Grebes doing the weed dance in front of the Decoy Hide on Shapwick Heath.

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Little egret fishing at Noah’s Lake on Shapwick Heath.

A few days later John Linney came down to visit from Cheltenham. This time we went to Noah’s Lake at the eastern end of Shapwick Heath: there seemed to be thousands of wigeon wintering on the lake, along with a small number of pintails and other species. We had a good sighting of a kingfisher fishing, though it sped away before I could photograph it. There was also a little egret fishing close to the hide, which provided a great photographic opportunity.

As we walked back to the car park we noticed a couple of mid-sized starling flocks flying over. Last week, with Jen and Rachel, we had watched the starlings roosting from Ham Wall, but they had moved away from where they had been earlier in the winter, where they had settled close to the path, to somewhere that looked about a mile distant: it was a bit of an anti-climax. I therefore hadn’t mentioned them to John and assumed that the flocks flying over were merely a splinter group. Then it dawned on me: the starlings were re-locating again, and had chosen Shapwick Heath! Indeed there was a small crowd coming in from Ham Wall with the same realisation. John and I turned back and were almost too late for the best display: but what we saw was the best murmuration that I have seen since arriving in the area. John was delighted by what he saw – as indeed were the groups arriving from Ham Wall.

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Starlings on Shapwick Heath

Both of these experiences reminded me of the unpredictability of wildlife watching – which is a part of the essential charm of it as a pursuit!

A red start to a few days around Mousehole

Andrew – Jen’s bro – booked us all in for a few days in Mousehole over the New Year weekend. I was much looking forward to this anyway – but when an Eastern Black Redstart turned up there about ten days’ previously, I started to get a little twitchy…

I don’t normally take that much interest in sub-species but this one is a bit different… it’s much prettier (and redder) than the normal European black redstart, which is present in small numbers in the UK throughout the year; but, more notably, as it breeds in central Asia and winters in the Middle East, it shouldn’t normally be here – so why a small handful have turned up in the UK this winter is anyone’s guess. [A good guide to the black redstart subspecies is here: ref.]

Thus the first morning we were in Mousehole I headed down to the beach where it was residing (having briefly seen it the previous night), and spent a couple of hours trying to get some good photos.

Eastern black redstart, on the rocks at Mousehole.

Eastern black redstart, on the rocks at Mousehole.

Eastern black redstart in Mousehole, peering up to the top of the wall of the garden it also frequented.

Eastern black redstart in Mousehole, peering up to the top of the wall of the garden it also frequented.

As we did during the summer, Jen and I also went in search of some of the ancient archaeoloigcal remains in the area. One of these is the Tregiffian Burial chamber from around the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age. This type is unique to the area, with around a hundred on the Scilly Isles (eg here) and only about a dozen in west Cornwall. It’s bizarrely close to the B3315!

Tregiffian Entrance Grave - similar to ones found in the Scillies

Tregiffian Entrance Grave – similar to ones found in the Scillies

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Rachel’s amazing Thomas the Tank Engine cake for George. Photo by Andrew.

Jen and I had a windswept coastal walk near Porthgwarra on the Saturday morning. We started near the Minack open air theatre, and passed St Levan’s holy well: this is one of the more impressively natural of the wells that I’ve seen, and lies close to the ruined foundations of an early Comish church. Later that day, we had another windy trip to Land’s End with Andrew & Rachel, Sophie & George in the afternoon. Not exactly photogenic weather conditions – but an attack of the flu later on put paid to other chances!

Despite this, it was great to be able to spend a few days with Jen’s family. We celebrated George’s second birthday on the Saturday, so Rachel cooked an amazing Thomas the Tank Engine cake for him!

Jen near Porthgwarra

Jen near Porthgwarra

Jen with Rachel, Sophie, Andrew and George, blown around by the wind at Land's End

Jen with Rachel, Sophie, Andrew and George, blown around by the wind at Land’s End

We did however manage a little bird-watching on the morning of our return…. I’d like to say that the photo of this whimbrel took lots of careful thought with the lighting, shadows and reflections on the beach – but it was just luck…

Whimbrel on the beach at Penzance

Whimbrel on the beach at Penzance

The starlings and the reedbed

One thing which had intrigued me about the starlings roosting in the reeds at Ham Wall was how they did so: did they perch, one starling per reed, in an orderly manner? And if so, did they perch sideways, and was it at the top or the bottom? A couple of weeks ago I found out. slightly unexpectedly.

I was watching one evening from one of the hides, thinking it would provide a better photographic backdrop, but I wasn’t particularly close. Then something spooked them, and they ended up settling just opposite the hide. I discovered that the reeds became thick with starlings, and bent under the sheer weight of them – far more chaotically than I had ever realised!

A section of reedbed, before and after the starlings arrived, taken from the same spot. (Confusingly, the lower photo, despite being lighter, was actually quite a bit later than the first photo).

A section of reedbed, before and after the starlings arrived, taken from the same spot. (Confusingly, the lower photo, despite being lighter, was actually quite a bit later than the first photo).

It had been quite a spectacular roosting already. An early shot that evening appeared to epitomise the area: starling flocks crossing one way while a Great White Egret flew in the other – and Glastonbury Tor in the background. Later it was amazing to see just how many starlings flew in to roost – a couple of times it looked like there were rivers of starlings flying over.

Starlings going to roost while a Great White Egret flies serenely across.

Starlings going to roost while a Great White Egret flies serenely across: Glastonbury Tor in the background.

A river of starlings flows over

A river of starlings flows over

A bedraggled buzzard and a flock of lapwings

My mother arrived for a few days at the end of last week so, as the weather was forecast to deteriorate, we decided to go for a drive around the levels for her to get a feel for the area. What I wasn’t expecting was much in the way of wildlife. I was wrong.

First of all mum noticed a buzzard on a fence post – nothing unusual in that, except that it didn’t move when we parked next to it and I got the camera out. Normally a buzzard would take one disdainful look at the birder and fly off magnificently: this one stayed close by for several minutes. Looking at the photographs it looks like it had had a thorough soaking from the recent rain storm, which explains why it seemed to be hanging its wings out to dry – and why for a bird of prey it looks oddly vulnerable.

A bedraggled buzzard near Westhay, hanging its wings out slightly

A bedraggled buzzard near Westhay, hanging its wings out slightly

Having said that, it still had a keen eye for potential prey…

It still wasn't going to miss a moment looking for potential prey...

It still wasn’t going to miss a moment looking for potential prey…

We drove on a little further when I noticed a field full of lapwings – I did a U-turn so that I could stop by the side of the road. Although I’ve seen large flocks of them in nature reserves, seeing them here was completely unexpected – and they chose a photogenic backdrop as well!

Lawpings near Westhay

Lawpings near Westhay

Lawpings near Westhay

Lawpings near Westhay

We then proceeded on along the Westhay Moor Drove, and a couple of the other lanes to make a circuit before going back to the Vicarage.

A couple of days later we had a more regular experience with birdwatching: seeing the starling murmuration at Ham Wall. Sunday’s show was much the best that I’ve seen.

Starling  murmuration at Ham Wall last Sunday.

Starling murmuration at Ham Wall last Sunday.

Starling  murmuration at Ham Wall last Sunday.

Starling murmuration at Ham Wall last Sunday.