Sunday, 21 December 2014

Too Hot For Hershey's....

Get in the Van Pt 3

We have left behind Yosemite, Death Valley, the Grand Canyon and we are at our
4th and final National Park on G Adventure’s San Fran to LA Express.


The Joshua Tree swelters before me. I look across the scorched Mojave landscape and I feel like I could be in one of three movies.

First a Western. Its to easy to imagine a cowboy on a colt appearing on the shimmering horizon, slowly riding this way, 10 gallon hat shading sweaty eyes from the sun, a six-shooter holstered at his side. An outlaw in the Wild West, a gun for hire, looking for a safe camp for the evening.

The huge rock formations that some of Nando’s Thirteen are clambering across (some more successfully than others) resemble what I imagine dinosaur dung piles look like but super massive. From behind one of them I could well imagine a huge prehistoric monster emerging.

That’s the second movie – The Lost World. There is nothing in view to suggest this is 2014 and this habitat is like nothing I have seen before. The Joshua trees are spectacular, like the bastard offspring of a palm tree and a cactus. T-Rex or Diplodocus would not be a surprise or seem out of place here.

While the more energetic members of our tour party scale the rocks (dino-poop) I have decided to look for rattle snakes. I persuade a couple of others to join me on this reptile hunt. 


I figure it is no more hazardous than the rock climbing the others are doing. We poke about amongst the crevices and folds of the weird rocks. We don’t find any rattlers but we do see some cool little lizards, a distant echo of the dinosaurs that once roamed the Mojave.


A shadow moves across the desert floor. Overhead are the ubiquitous Turkey Vultures, they have been a constant feature on our drives across the desert. Several are circling above us, perhaps hoping we find a snake and come to grief. We disappoint them by staying healthy during our wander about the park.

The sky is an intense cobalt blue and the Joshua Trees look stunning against it, like alien cheerleaders. Long gnarly arms/branches end in spiky green leaves/pom-poms. This place could be another world, not a lost world.


For our third movie we could be in a sci-fi alien adventure, discovering a new world, making first contact. I think we have a pretty decent set of people on our tour and would make great ambassadors for the human race.

I loved the Joshua Tree. It might not have the history of Yosemite, the grandeur of the Grand Canyon or the notoriety of Death Valley but I think it was my favourite park.

All of the films we could have been in would undoubtedly have been filmed in widescreen. As I look out over the Mojave I can’t help but think that I should be seeing this with a black stripe at the top and bottom of my field of view.


The heat is rising and my water bottle is draining fast. I’m feeling hungry too. I reach into my shoulder bag for a snack (regular readers of this blog will know my penchant for munchies while out and about).
I find my chocolate bar between my notebook and map of the park. As I bring it out of the bag it gives a little, well a lot. I should have realised when I packed it that this would happen. Total meltdown. Joshua Tree is too hot for Hershey’s.


We jump back in Lucy for the last time.

Nando pushes the pedal and aims us for LA, a final night with our fellow explorers and a flight home beckon.

In the van I am staring at the passing countryside as it fades into suburban sprawl and reflecting on the trip. Parts have gone as I expected, most of it has exceeded those expectations. I would recommend G Adventures to anyone. Fun, safe, ethical and value. Good people.

It seems I was wrong in my belief that I am too old and cynical to be inspired by new places and new people. The bus was awash with enthusiasm and optimism, as we neared our final hotel I was thinking:

“Don’t stop, keep going, more, now, again, further…”

I want to see it all, I want to travel to the ends of the earth and photograph it all.



I saw the sign shown in the picture above in the departure lounge of Copenhagen airport after a crazy trip to the Norwegian arctic and it felt so true as the van hummed and bumped into town.

While the plane climbed out of LAX I realised I learned a bit about photography too. Since I started taking pictures seriously I have learned all I can about sensors, settings, exposures, composition and editing. This has made me some great pictures but is time consuming and as my wife reminds me, it isn’t exactly spontaneous.

I loved the pictures my fellow travellers were taking. So many pictures, some shot with profile pictures in mind, they were snapped, shared and liked in a matter of seconds. Such spontaneity was inspiring.

I look from the oval plane window and see we are crossing the Mojave once more, this time from the air. In a burst of new found spontaneity I whip out the camera and snap a couple of shots from the window. As I look down on the golden sands it hits me how far we travelled but how much more there is to explore…


So…. Get in the van!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Havasu Stargazers Club

Get in the Van Part II

This story starts at sunrise on the Patch, moves through arctic Norway and finishes under the stars on the shores of Lake Havasu in Arizona.

Sometimes, not always, I get a strange feeling while out on the Patch or wandering somewhere my travels have taken me. For a long while I struggled to put a finger on just what this feeling was. It only happens when a place, landscape, weather, wildlife and occasionally people come together in a special way that feels like more than the sum of the individual parts.

Most often it is on the Patch, specifically Thurstaston Shore. Usually at sunrise in winter and always when the tide is rising. The gutters and creeks in the mudflats fill with gurgling water and wading birds are forced out on to the open flats. The sight of so many birds combined with the sound of them calling and their wings flapping takes my breath.


I get a warm fuzzy feeling in my guts and I want to jump up and down or call someone and tell them how great this place is - or both (see my posts called Yesterday’s Rain and Ain’t That Enough from a while back for more details on this).

I’m not the only one to have these kinds of feelings and many people ascribe them to a spiritual or religious experience. I’m no mystic, I don’t believe and so I don’t agree with them. I enjoyed but didn’t pay much attention to these warm and fuzzies. That was until I discovered Henry David Thoreau. It turns out I was having the odd moment of transcendence. HDT and other members of the American Transcendentalists attributed these feelings to our environment and our response to it rather than to a deity and after reading a few of their works I tend to agree.

The feeling never lasts too long, reality makes an unwelcome return and bursts my Thoreauvian bubble or someone tells me not to be a crazy hippy - having all these “moments” or I fall in a bog (more on this later).

We have been on the road for nearly 3 weeks around the USA and we’ve had a fine old time. We had travelled from New York to Boston on the Greyhound and I was keen to get out to Concord, just a few miles from Boston and home to HDT. In my bag I had my tatty copy of his most famous work, Walden, that I wanted to photograph at Walden Pond. Sadly the curse of railway engineering works is not limited to the UK and our attempts to seek transcendence in the Transcendentalists back yard was scuppered. Walden remained in my bag all trip long. Thwarted.


My transcendence is often thwarted and none more so than in Norway a couple of years ago. We had a day off from collecting data on the Red Knots (Calidris canutus) for our studies on their migration so we decided to go for a walk in the woods (that far north in Norway it was pretty much the only other thing we could have done anyway).

It was warm just 4 layers required rather than the usual 6, there was stunning wildlife (Waxwings, Golden Eagles…) and the landscape was immense. Wind stunted gnarley birch trees and majestic bottle green pines flanked golden sphagnum moss bogs. We were picking our way across one of these, enjoying a bit of banter in the team, when I was caught by a wave of transcendence. I was struck by the pristine freshness and the quiet. The soft vastness of the woods and the delicate song of the Waxwings displaying to each other. The warm and fuzzies hit me in one of the coldest places I’ve been.


I reached a small pool which I jumped across. Sadly the opposite bank was not entirely solid and I disappeared up to my waist in freezing peat coloured water. Transcendence abruptly halted.
Only the permafrost stopped me from being completely submerged and thinking about it now it was probably quite dangerous but instead of rushing to my aid my colleagues roared with laughter and took pictures of me, a freezing peaty mess.


The walk back to the car with no trousers on was a long and chilly one.

Tonight is not chilly. Tonight is unbelievably hot. We have arrived on the shores of Lake Havasu having travelled up from the Grand Canyon. The day at the canyon had started at dawn with a wander around the pinewoods next to the campsite. We found Northern Flickers, Western Bluebirds and three species of Nuthatch. 


After another long drive in Lucy our day was finishing in sweltering Havasu.

Our helter-skelter week around Cali, Nevada and Arizona is drawing to a close. This is our final night under canvas ( we still say this but seriously, who has a canvas tent these days?) and I feel that I need to mark it somehow. Over a dinner of tacos I decide that this evening I am going to sleep out on the lake shore under the stars. When I say this Kat says that she was thinking of doing the same so we agree that it has to be done.


Once the washing up has been done and the camp tidied we take a few silly pictures in the dark. Worn out, we throw our mats and sleeping bags on the grass and settle down. Wow, just wow. The starts are beautiful. I can identify Ursa Major but no others but it doesn’t matter. There are sooooooo many. We lie and stare skywards.


Thus the Havasu Stargazers Club is born. It started with 2 members, but soon I hear footsteps and the sound of a sleeping bag being dragged across the grass. Chelsey walks past says “it’s too hot in the tent” throws down her bag and becomes the 3rd member of HSC. Nando, our guide, de-hammocks and throws his bag on the floor. 4 members. Lois pops her head from the tent and agrees with Chelsey about the heat, exclaiming she has to sleep out as she’s used up all the oxygen in the tent. The 5th member.

I look behind us and Simone has joined us - 6 members. Finally firestarter Nick wanders out and puts down next to Chelsey becoming the 7th and final member of the newly formed and very exclusive Havasu Stargazers Club.

The stars shine with a brightness that I have never seen at home. We point out shooting stars to each other as we slowly drift off. To my right I see Lois in a fitful light slumber, left of me Kat is sat up staring at the sky looking amazed. I settle down but try to stay awake; I want to see the stars as much as I can before I sleep.

Thinking of our trip, the amazing things we have seen and what I am seeing now sense the warm and fuzzies coming on. I surrender to transcendence.

Nando starts to snore. Loudly. 

Pop - the bubble bursts. Then, from nowhere a strong but strangely hot wind blows up. Our empty tent pivots on the bags in the far corner and rears up like a monster on hind legs. Lois dives in to add ballast, to prevent it rolling into the lake. Kat and I secure it with pegs. She then goes around every other tent to ask if they need pegging. Most of the occupants are asleep but Kat pegs them anyway in a humbling display of unseen and unacknowledged kindness. I look around, the rest of the Club have managed to sleep through the drama.

Transcendence well and truly thwarted I settle down again to watch the stars. The warm breeze continues to blow. Eventually sleep comes and a few hours later I am woken by the rising sun. There is one more adventure to come, Joshua Tree National Park stands between us, our final destination and flight home.

But for a while I lie on my sleeping bag watching the sun climb, thinking of the stars and reflecting on the one and only meeting of the Havasu Stargazers Club.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

On The Road....

Get in the Van Part I

Nando, our guide, laughs and stomps his bare foot on the gas, Lucy finds her gear and lurches forward.

(The van all 13 of us travellers are cramped into has been christened Lucy by our Puerto Rican driver as “she looked like a Lucy” to him and we have dubbed ourselves Nando‘s 13)

After a few turns we are on the road, the open road, destination: Grand Canyon. Lucy eats up the miles. She is as white as a comet and like all good comets has a tail, in her case a trailer packed with tents, bags and beers.


We are on the road - like Cassidy and Kerouac, Dean and Sal. Kerouac’s On The Road is one of my favourite books and OK, so we aren’t as innovative or pioneering as the Beats but we are just as excited to be zooming across California, Nevada and Arizona in search of adventure.

Lucy roars across Arizona and away from the suburban sprawl of neat houses and shopping plazas America is just as I had imagined and hoped it would be.

We pass rickety metal windmills and rusty water towers, motels, diners slip by. A small town cinema is showing Tremors, in my opinion, the best film about small town America being invaded by killer worms (admittedly there aren‘t many to choose from but still…). Whether this is the real America or a tourists clichéd view of the States I’m not sure, but to be honest I don’t care much right now. I’m just enjoying looking out of the van window as we zip along.

We stop for burgers in a proper burger bar, wash them down with sweet peanut butter shakes and root beers.


Back in the van and we continue. From the window I see Turkey Vultures and Prairie Dogs. A lone Loggerhead Shrike is sitting on a roadside fencepost. By dilapidated shacks beat up classic cars are left to decay in the sweltering sun.


The whitest clouds dot the bluest sky.


Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” shuffles round on the stereo (sometimes I think i-pods just know…) Overtaken by a wave of Thoreauvian transcendence I find a marker pen in the seat pocket and as we leave the outskirts of another town I scribble the last lines of Kerouac’s novel on the window.


Habitats and landscapes whiz by in a blur. We pass through thinning mesquite woods into proper desert. Low scrubby plants, twisted and spiky, adaptations to minimise water loss, are dotted across the sands looking like a plague of hedgehogs advancing over the desert.

After a few hours in the van we reach the Canyon, stopping for the obligatory “with the sign” shot.


Back in Lucy as we approach the rim I am thinking of books on a bookshelf. Before retiring my mum was a teacher specialising in geography. When I was a kid I remember a set of text books she kept on a shelf in the house. Each one was about some great landscape in the world. I recall looking at the Great Rift Valley in west Africa, the Rockies and the Sahara Desert in these books, but the one that has always been stuck in my head was the one about the Grand Canyon. It seemed made up, like I was looking at pictures of Mars not Earth. It was the one I wanted to visit most. And now it is just minutes away.

Nando gets us as close as he can in Lucy, implores us to hide our eyes then leads us to the rim for the biggest of big reveals.


It doesn’t disappoint. I can’t really do justice in words to what I’m seeing and the widest of wide angle lenses on the flashiest camera couldn’t either. It is somewhere I think that you have to go to yourself. Just go there.

The sun is starting to set and the desert is cooling. One of Nando’s 13, Ben, remarks that he has goosebumps from both the cold and the view.

As the sun sinks the colours in the rock flare into vivid life and the shadows cast by the convoluted canyon walls deepen. It doesn’t look real. As the scale is too much for my camera I decide to concentrate of these colours and shadows.


Darkness falls, we retreat to camp and fill up on pizzas before gathering around a blazing campfire courtesy of Nick from Nando’s 13 to contemplate the day.


Before I go to sleep I watch the stars for a while, the canyon is awesome at night too, no light pollution means an incredible celestial show. I fall asleep not quite believing the day.

In the morning we set off on the road for more adventures in the western USA.

Nando laughs, stomps on the gas, Lucy finds her gear and we hurtle on like a comet across the desert.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Dog Days Are Over....

Autumn has arrived. I am sat on a wall on Hilbre Island enjoying the mellow feeling of the first days of the new season.

The sun is warm but not scorching, the breeze gentle. Everywhere I look it seems the Patch is starting to unwind from the frenzy of summer. The grass is golden, seeds are setting, shrubs are fast becoming what gardeners describe as “leggy”. Things are slowing down. So am I. I am really rather relaxed.

For many the end of summer means a return to school.  Shorts and sandals are being swapped for uniform and new school shoes. Buckets and spades replaced by textbooks and pencil cases. There are still signs of summer here though. Swallows are zipping across the cobalt sky above me. This year I have paid close attention to Swallows.


I have a liking and admiration for this species, the arrival of the first on Patch in March is a happy day. They always sound cheerful, like they know they are the bringing summer, the easy season, with them.

I’ve lost whole afternoons transfixed as the adults hunt insects over meadows that softly sway in a summer breeze, marvelling at their ability to catch flies in daring aerial manoeuvres. I have sat quietly while chicks have waited for a meal to be delivered and watched as one is brought in, the adults depositing food into their young’s mouth without landing.  Is it any wonder that I have developed such a soft spot for this species? Wildlife photography often involves long uncomfortable waits that can all too often end with no results but I have always found photographing Swallows to be a productive, thoroughly enjoyable pastime.

In front of me is a juvenile Swallow sitting on a rusty metal spike waiting for its parent to return with an insect packed lunch. I am waiting for its parent too. I want to get a shot of the exchange of food. As I sit and wait I examine the youngster closely. Its adult plumage is starting to come through although it is not there fully. It is still a little beige where the adults are white and its tail streamers are still a little stubby.


Spending time watching these birds it occurs to me that I have learned much about them, it is as if I’ve been attending Swallow School. Today the curriculum has included the following:

A little Physical Education. I think about the exertions of their long flight from South Africa to the Patch. What strength and stamina it must take to make that journey. Then there is a bit of geography. They pass over many countries, fly across deserts, over rain forests, skirt around mountains and cross seas.

Geography is followed by double physics and astronomy so I can understand how they navigate. They use the earth’s magnetic field and the orientation of the stars to make their way north to our shores. Astounding.

Now for a little bit of maths, never a favourite subject for me; just how many insects can these birds catch in a day? Loads it would seem from my observations today.

Home economics lessons next, how many bugs do they need to power that flight to the southern tip of Africa?

As I ponder these and other Swallow related mysteries an adult swings past with some lunch for the youngster. It screams for attention…


The adult duly obliges with some food…


The juvenile birds hops on to an old sun bleached plank of wood that is falling away from a derelict old greenhouse. It demands more food. It seems to like school dinners…

Again the adult supplies more food.


Then I see something I have never witnessed before. It seems that perhaps this youngster is not as keen on its lunch as I first thought.

It re-opens its mouth, the egg yolk yellow gape is still visible giving away its young age. It has been given a hover fly by mum or dad but it appears to find this fly rather unpalatable.


It coughs the fly back up and it alights on the side of the Swallow’s mouth, dazed, terrified - who knows what emotions (if any) hover flies have.


The Swallow is determined not to eat its dinner and shakes its head until the luckiest bug on the Patch - maybe the world - is flung from its face and flies off.


I suppose we all have foods we don’t like. For me it is shellfish and tomatoes, for this Swallow it seems to be hover flies.

These birds have taught me a lot about avian ecology but I still have a few unanswered questions. Who teaches these birds to navigate using the stars? The adults leave for Africa before the chicks do, so how do the youngsters know how to find their way to South Africa under their own steam? There is no geography A-level for Swallows.

I am finding it hard to imagine that in a few weeks from this moment my Swallow-teen will be many hundreds of miles from here swooping for its own food over African savannahs. I find myself wondering if it knows what it has to do yet. What trip it must make for the winter. Is it nervous? The journey ahead is long and treacherous, with many life lessons to learn.

A parent swoops down and delicately places some more food for its chick. This time it eats the lot.


This young bird has much to discover - just like the children on the mainland heading back to school now the dog days of summer are over.

Friday, 29 August 2014

One Dunlin Flying.... (reprise)

Nordic Adventures Part 3

The Knots had finally arrived and the pages of our notebooks were starting to fill up with numbers, colours, letters and codes. As we had been concerned with the lack of data collected due to the tardy Knots we really went for it when we had birds to study. We even went “flagging” (looking for colour ringed birds to read the 3 letter code on the flag) at high tide when the birds were roosting. The chances of collecting a decent number of sightings of flagged birds at roost was slim but we wanted as many records as we could muster.


There are a number of regular roost sites that are easily observed so as the tide covered the flats on Lille Porsanger we would make our way to one of the best, the muddy puddles and rocky pools of  Viednes. It is impossible to get lost on the way to Viednes, even for the most directionally challenged. There is only one road in Lille Porsanger and it leads to and terminates at Viednes.

As you would expect for a place so remote there is little for the casual visitor to Viednes. There is a shop with fairly limited opening hours and an even more limited range of goods for sale.


This year I saw a sign for an internet café but never actually found the café itself.

There are a couple of farms and a scattering of wooden dwellings. A causeway sweeps across the bay to a small harbour where fishing boats land catches of cod and hang them out to dry. Before the road was built a boat was the only way in or out of this far flung outpost of civilisation.


For birdwatchers in general and Knot watchers in particular Viednes is a super place. The muddy pools created by the building of the causeway are a magnet for passing migrant birds. On these puddles I have seen Wood Sandpipers, Ringed and Golden Plovers, Temminck’s Stint and an Avocet. The latter causing quite a stir as it is a really rarity this far north.


As the pools deepen and merge into a shallow tidal bay there are a network of rocky banks. These are clearly man made as they are in straight lines and some join and bisect to make square and rectangular pools at high water, although I have no idea what their true purpose is, it is on these rocky shelves that the Knot roost at high tide.


It is here that we have arrived on a sunny morning, having come straight here from our base. A forty minute drive seemed like a long way the first time we did it 3 years ago but we have settled into a Finnmark groove and time and distance mean less and less with each passing day.

The birds were well settled and almost all were sleeping with terracotta coloured heads stowed under speckled wing. A few were preening themselves and one was having a wash. First thing we did was count them, twice to get an accurate figure. All three observers counted and compared results to get a really good estimate of numbers. We then scanned all the legs on show for coloured rings.


In a feeding flock this is actually quite easy, the birds are mobile and many can be checked for rings. At roost though it is a much trickier affair. The birds often roost on one leg and can remain motionless for long periods of time.

We decided to have a go, mindful not to disturb the flock. We were keen for data but not to the detriment of our subject.

From the bankside we slowly made our way to the shore. This was tricky as the snow had drifted up along the incline of the bank and was quite deep in places. You could quite easily sink waist deep in snow. Once on the rocky shore we started to creep closer to the birds along the exposed tops of the rocks, each taking a different path. We would take tow steps then wait for a few minutes scanning the flock to see if they ahd seen us and what their reaction was. If we felt we were starting to make them nervous then we would abort the mission and wait for the tide to drop and observe them whilst feeding.

Our progress was so slow and so stealthy that the birds remained totally calm and unruffled while we got within range to read the 3 letter code embossed on the yellow flagged ring on their left tibea.

I took another step and stopped. I adjusted the tripod and scanned the flock again. There is a flagged bird and a Dutch ringed bird (a combination of an unmarked flag and 4 coloured rings) in the flock but I can’t read the letters on our Norwegian bird or all of the colours on the Dutch bird. Hmmm… I will have to wait.

I have no problem with waiting. I like the standing around looking at the flock. I never get bored. In my mind I thought silly thoughts, made lists of things to do. I looked at the scenery, counted clouds. Think. Wait. I noticed other stuff. Like the fact there are no Common Gulls here today when yesterday there were dozens. The flock of Snow Buntings were still on the same field. A blue car trundled its way along the road to the village, tyres crunching through the loose gravel. A Redwing was starting to si…


Boom! From nowhere a Peregine swooped in. It came from over my right shoulder, nearly silent, I’m sure I detected a sort of hiss from its swept back wings slicing through the air. Far too quick for me to swing the camera to my eye and try and take its picture as it hits the Knot.

The roosting birds exploded from the rocks with a panicked chorus of metallic clucks and started to take evasive action. Too late for one individual, the Peregrine had it, neck easily snapped with a quick twist of the head. The hunter adjusted its prey in yellow talons for a comfortable carry and flew off across the bay towards to low cliffs around the headland from the harbour.

The frightened birds continued to fly at speed around the bay. Once they were feeling safe again the circled the bay, gained height with each lap and called constantly - like a tribute to the lost flock member. Eventually they returned to the roost. They came in and flitted about the rocks reorganising themselves ready to sleep again. While they were doing this I managed to find the ringed birds, read the flag and photographed the Dutch bird. I scribbled to sightings in my notebook and looking around I saw the others doing likewise. Traumatic for the Knots but more sightings for researchers.


We decided that the birds had had enough drama for one morning so we retreated back to the snowy bank to reflect on more adventures with Knots.

Fast forward to the date of this post, I am sitting at the computer as the rain ruins another summer day looking through some pictures from the Norway trip. I reach the photos that you have just seen and I remember watching the drama at Viednes. What you have just read is what I remember. I started to look for the pictures to illustrate this post and when I was working a few up to present here I noticed something in the flock that had escaped me on the day. An individual from a species I have been spending some time with recently on the muddy banks of the Dee.

With the terrified flock was a single Dunlin. Just one.


One Dunlin flying.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Copper Blue....

Copper Blue [CuSO4]

It is autumn 1992, towards the end of September if memory serves and I’m wrestling with a small TV aerial to find just the right position to get a decent buzz free signal for the portable TV that is sat on top of an old chest of drawers at the foot of my bed. Yes, we are in my teenage bedroom but don’t be scared, this preamble goes somewhere…

Showing on the 14inch screen is the Late Show on BBC2 and scheduled to appear are a new US band called Sugar. The singer of this band had been in a group that many of my favourite bands listed as a major influence. I had heard a snippet of a Sugar song on the radio a few days before and I was keen to hear more. Eventually they are introduced and they launch into “Helpless”, 2.47 minutes of fuzzed up yet beautifully melodic guitar twangery with urgent, earnest sometimes desperate, vocals. Straight away I knew that these guys were going to be important for me. I rushed out to buy their debut album as soon as I could (there was no internet to simply download the songs, I had to get a bus, find a shop that sold it and actually purchase a CD).

The album was called Copper Blue and it remains one of my favourite records.


About the same time that I was swooning to Sugar records I was studying chemistry at school… badly. I really liked the subject although I lacked the application and finesse to be a true chemist. My chemistry teacher described me as a “bucket chemist” - best left to mix stuff in a bucket to see what happens rather than run more complicated experiments that required precision and accuracy.

He was spot on, doing an experiment with some plain white crystals to synthesise one mole of water was a bit uninspiring for me. I liked whizzes, bangs and colourful solutions bubbling away in test tubes and reduction flasks.

One experiment did stick in my mind though when one afternoon we made copper(II)sulphate crystals. I don’t remember the nuts and bolts of the procedure, but I have a vivid picture in my mind of the stunning azure blue crystals that I had made. It looked like a pile of little blue gems, precious stones from Pluto, Mars or Neptune - anywhere but Earth. In 2008 the artist Roger Hiorns pumped 75,000 litres of copper (II) sulphate solution into a building and encrusted an entire flat in these magical blue crystals. One day I hope to see it; that sounds like my kind of chemistry.


Those crystals and the release of Sugar’s debut album will mean that the words Copper Blue will always be a bit special for me, evocative of my youth, never too far from my mind.

Then the sound of 100 or so Black-tailed Godwits swooping into the pool at Gilroy snaps me from my nostalgic daydream. I have been waiting for them. Patiently I might add, I may not have had the patience for chemistry but birdwatching has given me this skill in abundance.

The sound of the air being ripped apart by so many pairs of wings is surprisingly loud and a little scary. It sounds like a quite apocalypse, a small polite Armageddon. I have heard it on many occasions but it never fails to impress or disconcert.


The tide is flooding the not-so-far away mudflats and the birds have made the short flight from the estuary over Grange Hill to Gilroy where they will see out the inundation of their feeding grounds. Gilroy has been red hot for Blackwits all summer. They were present into May and the first birds arrived back from Iceland in the first week of July.

I have been through the rather unattractive black metal kissing gate and made the short walk along the footpath that would eventually lead you to Hoylake nearly every day to see these shorebirds. Just past the allotments the sign for the nature park would take you off the path to the left, but the real birdwatching treat is on your right in the flooded field that is usually just home to a few horses.

Right now though, the horses have some noisy neighbours and this seems to have puzzled the normally placid occupants of the field.


I wonder what the horses make of the huge flock of Black-tailed Godwits that have turned up from out of the blue and taken up residence on the pool. The birds don’t seem to mind the attention of the horses either. They shuffle out of their way when they mosey over for a cooling drink in the hot August sunshine. As I stand in the hedgerow watching this it occurs to me that a good way of getting close to the flock for photographs would be a pantomime horse costume converted into a mobile hide…

I dismiss this ludicrous idea as some more Blackwits roar in from overhead.

Since the birds started to return to Gilroy in early July the keen Blackwitters on the Dee have been keeping tabs on them. We have got to know their routine and as I write this it occurs to me that I have accidently fallen in synch with them. I work out what I am going to do in a day around when the Blackwits will be arriving in to Gilroy; my attendance at social engagements is dependant on the tide and the resultant whereabouts of the Godwits. At any given moment I reckon I could predict where and what the Blackwits are doing.

This is not a blind obsession, it is more a passion for these beautiful waders, a desire to contribute to the research being done on their migration ecology and the conservation ideas that may result from these studies.

To assist these projects we search the flock for colour ringed individuals and record the colour combinations. We find a few each day, some regulars – old friends – and the odd one we haven’t seen before.


We also look for juvenile birds making their first treacherous journey south. We record numbers and the % that they make in the flock. We spend hours with eyes pressed to the telescope looking for their distinctive speckled plumage.


I enjoy photographing them too. On sunny days I concentrate on capturing their behaviour with my camera. I have spent so much time with them that I know their habits, how they feed, the way they always do a little jump from the water when they are finished washing. The way they preen their feathers. I can predict when a scuffle will break out. I know what spooks them (Sparrowhawk, angry Coot) and what doesn’t (Kestrel, angry Moorhen).


I have seen plenty of other things while shooting the Blackwits. Wood, Green and Common Sandpipers have all come and gone since the flock arrived. A Greenshank hung around for a couple of days. A couple of Snipe joined them briefly. A lone Dunlin once spent a tide roosting with them. So small it was able to stand under the belly of a roosting Godwit. Unusually for a freshwater site we saw 4 Knot with them, one in smart summer plumage.

The plumage of the Blackwits is stunning. Depending on the angle of the sun and the time of day they can look peach, orange, terracotta and/or copper.

And the pool, it appears to compete with the sky for which can be the bluest in a sort of “blue-off”. I stare at the sky for a while, my eyes relaxing after hours at the eyepiece/viewfinder. The blue reminds me of something.... reminds me of a copper (II) sulphate solution. 


Chemistry lessons from long ago drift across my mind. This deep rich blue seems to perfectly compliment the copper colour of the birds. The sun burns off a small fluffy white cloud and the Blackwits plumage shines in the light. They look metallic. Copper Blackwits and Copper (II) Sulphate sky.

Copper Blue.... [CuSO4]


The sun shines, the birds twitter, my shutter whirrs and I hum... Helpless....