Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Smoke That Flutters....

Nordic Adventures Part Two:

What is recounted below all happened while I was waiting for these….


There is a rather hushed and subdued atmosphere hanging over this little fjord that I have come to know and love so well.

Some weather has just drifted over us, I say drifted, perhaps steamrollered is more appropriate.


When the weather hits you in this neck of the woods it really kicks you in the ass. The cloud that now hangs like a low grey ceiling has just deposited a new layer of snow on the hills that flank the fjord. Everything is now black and white or a grey in between these two opposites. The wind has dropped from squally gasps to breathless. All is still on Lille Porsanger.


You might expect the next line to read “there wasn’t a sound” and true, the cloud is muffling things, but the fjord is by no means silent.

Behind me the river that is carrying melt water from the flanking hills gently gurgles away as it flows through a narrow neck. As it reaches the wide, shallow fjord it slows and quietens like an excited theatre crowd hushed as the curtain goes up. To my right there is the metronomic drip, drip, drip of melting ice that I am standing next to on the edge of the marsh that fringes the mudflats.

The soft dove-grey coloured mudflats, dotted with boulders and matted with deep brown patches of bladder wrack are starting to be covered by a slow, silent tide.

The atmosphere in the Porsanger Expedition team mirrors this greyness. We are waiting for Knots to survey and they are late. We have been in country for 5 days and despite much scouring of this fjord and the much larger Porsangerfjord we haven’t found big numbers of our shorebird quarry. Our notebooks are sparsely scribbled in, not much data can be collected if there aren’t any birds. I think doubts that they are going to turn up at all are starting to creep into some of the minds in the team.

I shuffle around on the spot, trying to keep warm. I push pebbles around with my shoes; the squelchy rasp of wet stone on wet stone is quite loud in this muted monochrome. All we can do is wait.


A White-tailed Eagle soars silently over the fjord. On the marsh a lone Redshank calls once then falls silent. I look around. A defiant birch sapling is poking through the just fallen snow.


The grey cloud seems to be lifting slightly. A huge powdery “crump” sound from the northward mountain breaks the quiet. Another avalanche. Spring is coming and that means melting snow which triggers regular big falls of fresh powder.


We wait. We wait. We wait. We wait.

Then…


Fresh from the Waddensea they drop from the thinning clouds. They cut through the greyness and Lille Porsanger turns red.


They bring with them the sun, they must have been riding the coat tails of the weather front that just blasted through and dusted us with snow.

Thousands and thousands pour in, squawking and spiraling to the fjord. Swirling like bonfire smoke, 34,000 wings louder than the avalanches, as loud as a waterfall, as loud as Victoria Falls - the smoke that thunders. It is a truly magical sight. We should never have doubted them. The mental email I was quietly drafting to our sponsors explaining that the birds simply didn’t arrive is quickly deleted. I look around, the team is beaming. Smiles turn to wide mouthed astonishment as 17,000 Red Knot appear before us. The birds are noisy but we are stunned into silence.
Description of this spectacle is beyond me.


We can go to work. Over the next few days we follow the flock, careful not to disturb it, recording its size, location behaviour and collecting sightings of colour ringed individuals. This is important for our research but it is also the most enjoyable pursuit. I get to spend time in close quarters with Calidris canutus. Watching, recording, photographing. Thousands and thousands of them in the Porsanger flock….


…the smoke that flutters.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

One Dunlin Flying.... (After Bertha)

A fantastic couple of days on the Patch. Waders are back in force and I have been there in the thick of it, braving the tail end of the ex-hurricane that has blasted over the Dee. This has made the tides higher and the birdwatching hotter.

Gilroy has been exceptional too, Blackwits in abundance, colour ring sightings continue to mount up and together with some like minded pals much data on arrival and numbers of juvenile birds has collected.

The pool is frantic with the king of shorebirds.


With so many birds crowding the pool it has been tricky to count them and find ringed birds but time spent with these birds is time well spent.


From the shelter of Gilroy to the shore at Hoylake. Autumn passage is in full swing, Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Sanderling are zooming through. The flock in flight over the sands is a welcome sight after their absence for the breeding season.


They seem to have had a good season, there are many, many juveniles in the flock. They are restless, yesterday a Peregrine reduced the flock by one and these birds don't seem to have forgotten that. Eventually they settle...


Once on the shore colour rings are searched for...


...and found. Ringed in Spain, this Dunlin will surly be headed back there for the winter, just a fleeting visit to the muddy banks of the Dee.

The birds are on edge, even pigeons seem to startle them. As they fly up in alarm I try to isolate one for a flight shot.


I get a countdown of Dunlin. 3 in flight.


2 in flight.

Then finally a straggler lagging behind the flock.


One Dunlin flying.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Flying Down to Mono Valley....

Seek shade. That is what I will almost certainly do if the temperature hits and exceeds 25°C. I am not a natural sunbather. Read some of the posts about my travels to the far north and you will see that freezing temperatures hold no fear for me. Stinking hot sunshine on the other hand - scary. Sweating, sunburn and sunstroke are not my cup of tea.

However on this occasion I had to get out into the sunshine, there was no shade where I was headed. I slapped on a hat after slopping on some pore-clogging factor 30 and feeling uncomfortably greasy I stepped out into the sun.

I hadn’t gone south, not out of the country, I was still on the Patch, Thurstaston Shore to be precise - one of my usual haunts. Thousands of waders have returned to the muddy banks of the Dee and I was keen to hook up with them again since the majority of them left at the end of April.


I sloped down the cliffs with camera bag and tripod mounted telescope weighing me down, the effort making me sweat off some of the sun cream and leaving me feeling slightly more uncomfortable. Sand flicked off my shoe and stuck to the cream protecting my legs. Beads of sweat and residue of sun cream coagulated on the binocular strap around my neck. Yuk.

The tide was starting to flood and after a cursory glance at the shore from the cliff top on Saturday I figured I would be treated to a good show of Redshank if I came back on a rising tide on my day off.

As predicted the Redshank are here in abundance but I wasn’t expecting the 2,000 Dunlin that greeted me as I hit the shore. Instantly I forgot all my petty complaints about summer birding and I was plunged back into the world of wading birds on my beloved Patch.


I live and work on the Patch and over the years I have got to know it inside out. I have even started to name bits of it with peculiar nicknames after memorable or funny events. Lots of patch watchers do this and all kinds of nicknames arise with meaning only to the patcher. I love this.

So today I’m walking up towards Heswall parallel with part of the Patch I call Mono Valley.

Mono Valley is not a valley. It is a channel a few feet deep that the tide has carved in to the mudflats and it runs from Tinkers Dell at Thurstaston to Heswall Fields on the fringes of the marsh. Birds feed in and around it, a really small tidal bore can be seen long before the main front of the tide reaches the flats. It fills up rapidly and the birds spill out from roost sites on the channel/valley wall. At low water birds line the valley walls, presumably feeling safer in the valley rather than on the exposed mudflats.

Mono Valley has no audio properties either mono or stereo. A long time ago I saw some birds flying along the channel. At this point I was just calling it the valley but seeing the birds flying down it I recalled an album from early 90’s Liverpool indie bad The Popinjays called Flying Down To Mono Valley and ever since that day….

The Dunlin and Redshank are being pushed around by the tide and some start to fly down Mono Valley towards their roost sites in the marsh.

I have the scope up and the camera out so I get a few shots as the birds take off…


And land again…


I studied them through the scope to see if there are any more unusual small waders mixed in. I found a Sanderling in summer plumage (rare on Thurstaston Shore) and a few Ringed Plovers. A particularly large and peachy coloured bird could have been a Curlew Sandpiper but I couldn’t be 100%, it is a little early for them. I will have to come back.

Wandering on I reached the elbow. This is a bend in Mono Valley close to my final destination and is a good spot for Greenshank (there are none today) and pretty soon Teal will be back loafing on the mudbanks here.

Lots of the Dunlin are moulting, they still had some smart golden plumage on their wings but their striking summer black belly patches are fading to a belly smudge.


I counted the Dunlin (2,000) and the Redshank (4,500) while Whimbrel called from the marsh. I found a single Knot in fading summer plumage. 20 Blackwits spring from Mono and fly towards Connah’s Quay. The hot sun was beating down but I don’t recall feeling it, so transfixed weas I by the birds.

I started to look in detail at the Dunnies, trying to spot the differences between subspecies. Should I be seeing schinzii and alpina at this time? I racked my fried little brains to remember which one has the longest bill and other distinguishing features.

After a while I decided not to get bogged down in taxonomy, plus the birds were a bit too far for frame filling shots so I decided just enjoy the birds.

Six photogenic Little Egrets drifted along Mono and alighted on the edge of the tide to feed. 


More Dunlin flew in.


I get to Heswall Fields and sit on Scotch.

(Scotch is a bench. It is not Scottish. A handy birding snack is a Scotch Egg. Easily portable, tasty and calorific they are usually found in my birding bag. One day I was out with my wife and we ended up walking along Mono Valley. We stopped for a bite to eat on a bench overlooking the marsh for a snack. Lois bit into her Scotch Egg to find that it didn’t contain the boiled egg. It was not a Scotch Egg, it was a Scotch-minus-the-egg. A Scotch. Ever since that day that bench….)

The birds start to populate the creeks and gullies in the marsh, too many valleys to name. They disappear from view as the mudflats disappear under the tide. The birding action subsides and sitting in the sun on Scotch I start to feel the heat again.


I drain my water bottle and seek shade.

Friday, 27 June 2014

The Bumpy Road to Borselv...

Nordic Adventures Part One:

Along the bumpy road to Borselv I found my niche. I say found, I suspect that I always really knew what and where it was, but over the pot-holed broken tarmac and grey gravel it was confirmed.


I like cold, wide open spaces and I like these spaces to have lots migratory shorebirds in them.
Therefore, just like the Patch in winter, I love Porsangerfjord in the Finnmark region of northern Norway. It ticks all the boxes:

Cold. Spring is late this year and since I arrived I have been caught in more blizzards than I care to remember.

Space. Yes, plenty of that. The nearest supermarket to our base is a good 4 hour round trip and our study sites are dotted along the sprawling shores of Porsanger and Lille Porsanger. By the end of our expedition I have driven the equivalent mileage of a trip from Liverpool to Copenhagen and back.

Migratory Shorebirds. We’ve just counted 20,000 Knot all in startling summer plumage. Awesome.

There is plenty of other wildlife here too; it’s just the vastness, the sheer massive scale of this country that makes Porsanger seem empty. This, I think, is what has me hooked. I like “finding” things here because they are not always immediately obvious as an observer you have to be patient and persistant. Wildlife watching here takes time.

I have been lucky enough to spend 10 days in an African jungle and as great as it was, the place and the profusion of life was just too much to take in properly. On every leaf of every branch there was something. A bird, a bug and occasionally a snake. Each one special in their own way, but there was simply not enough time to identify and appreciate them all (and it was way too hot!).

Here I can look on a dozen acidic, shallow boggy pools and see nothing, then on the next I will find something. Here this something is A thing not ANOTHER thing.

I find a thing on the thirteenth pool. A Common Crane.


Once you get your eye in all sorts of things appear. As I stare across the tundra I start to appreciate the subdued colour palette of the arctic landscape. Some might consider it dull as it is made up of greys, dusky greens, beige and maroon that in places deepens to a dense purple. There is nothing gaudy here, nothing that is too showy. These drab colours seem to absorb all the available light, and there is plenty of that, the sun never sets while we are on expedition and we birdwatch long into the “night”. I set my alarm to remind me to take a picture of the midnight sun…


In amongst these subtle colours I find another thing. A male Bar-tailed Godwit is defending his territory.


This brings home to me another reason why I love it here so much. An awful lot of this wildlife is familiar to me. I see Barwits on the Patch in the winter, never in huge numbers but always there. Here I can see them in their summer plumage. So the wildlife here is the similar, but subtly different. The Barwit’s brown winter speckles have deepened to ruddy red and he looks super smart. There is plenty of stuff here that I would never see on the Patch but, in general, sizes and shapes are equivalent giving me time to appreciate things fully once they have been identified.

Now I'm thinking along another track. Am I a lazy naturalist? I like the slow pace of the fjords and my beloved Dee estuary back home. Here days, well daylight, lasts for months and back home everything follows a tidal rhythm. Wildlife is spectacular but it is not as diverse as in other places, so it’s easy to learn what’s about. Am I too idle to learn all the bugs and birds of Africa? Probably.

I am thinking. This place, with the peace, solitude and its vastness does that to me. Space to think big existential thoughts (not that I am any great philosopher with much to say about the world, I just think of tiny, insignificant me in it!). Then again, sometimes in the quiet it is pleasant to think no thoughts at all.
As I sit by the edge of the fjord, thinking big thoughts then no thoughts, the calm, gentle oscillation of the waves lulls me into a comfortable indolence while I wait for the tide to drop. In a couple of hours I can resume collecting data for the Knot Project that has brought me here, but in the meantime... my mind just... drifts.

On a distant hillside I find a thing. Through the telescope I see a bloody stain on the pure white snow. An old reindeer has come to grief over the long winter and its carcass has become visible as the snow slowly melts. A White-tailed Eagle is pulling at a leg while 5 Ravens wait their turn on the carrion. The eagle takes what it needs then retires to digest its meal while the Ravens squabble over the remains. This environment is often described as harsh or unforgiving and this seems at odds to the way I feel about it. It is just impassive, it can’t forgive because it isn’t sentient, it is mountains and tundra not judge and jury. This place just IS.


Another “thing” walks past. A Red Fox pads through the snow away to my right. It’s coat looking thickly luxuriant and warm. Here they are a bit of a problem. They are expanding their range into that of the Arctic Fox and they are taking the eggs of some rare geese that nest close to here. For all of these problems they are no less beautiful so I reel of a few frames as she (I think it is a vixen) trots by.


A shower is coming my way and soon a gentle drizzle starts to fall. The air starts to feel colder too and soon this light rain turns white in an attempt at a snow shower. This low calorie snow doesn’t last long so I just snuggle lower into my parka and wait for the sun to return.

I find another thing. A small flock of Snow Buntings (a rare treat on the Patch but a garden bird here) come twittering down to the strandline on the beach I am perched above. The males are in a quite eye-catching summer plumage. They start to forage along the washed up seaweed. This strandline is Himalayan in comparison to the ones we get on the Dee but it fits perfectly with the hugeness of Porsanger. I have taken plenty of pictures of these birds back home but here they are in different plumage and on a different stage. Snow covers the tundra that slopes to this beach and one male hops on to it. It get to photograph a Snow Bunting on some snow.


So in this cold, cold place I feel right at home, warm and fuzzy in my 6 layers of insulation. The bumpy road to Borselv is like the muddy banks of the Dee, a home away from home.
The tide drops enough for data collection to resume so quiet contemplation and wildlife photography must cease, it is back to work. There will be more to share on this subject soon…

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Chiff-chuffed...


This post is about a Chiffchaff. Eventually...
 
“On the spot!” I yell.
Mike rolls the ball out of the D to my feet. I dink it wide to Si who starts a mazy run down the right hand side of the pitch. Si is tricky, I’m glad he is on our side, he is also fast, outpacing Joel he gets to the corner.
I find that I have drifted up the 5-a-side court and I am near the opposition goal. This is not a common occurrence, any higher up the pitch and I suspect I would become dizzy. I am not used to playing striker.
Defence is where I am more comfortable. I say comfortable, what I mean is I panic less in that third of the court. As a football player I am neither skilful or particularly fit, in fact I suspect that I am here to make 5-&-4-a-side into 5-a-side.
Nevertheless I am going to have a go. I have been playing for a few weeks so I am starting to get the gist of the game and its lingo. I have arrived in the centre of the pitch just outside the goalkeeper’s D shaped area (into which I am not allowed to enter) and I am stood on the orange painted disc that is the penalty spot.
Si is ahead of me and needs an ‘option’ so I yell “On the spot!” I have heard the others do this when they reach this area. Whether this means I am waiting on the penalty spot or I want the ball played into the general area of the aforementioned orange disc I am not certain but Si seems to get the message. Without looking up he thumps the ball against the back wall of the court, knowing the perfect angle of incidence along which to play the ball on to the wall so it arrives in the correct position for me to place a first time shot into the far left corner of Phil’s goal.
In theory.
The reality is what is known in footballing circles as a“shinner”. I can’t blame a bobble from a bad pitch, the court is school assembly hall smooth. No, this is just crushing mediocrity at sport. The ball had arrived at my feet in less than a second but that was long enough for me to think “oh no, don’t mess this up”, to realise that if I score we are back on level terms, to think about who is watching from the gallery, to think that I mustn’t waste all of Si’s running and his precision pass…
In goal Phil is oblivious to my dreadful football ability; he seems to be expecting a left foot BOOM that will shred the net he is guarding. In anticipation he dives full length to his right, skinning a knee in the process. My shinner of a shot dribbles past him to his left and almost apologetically nestles in the back of the net. I’ve scored!
I turn on the spot and run back to my own goal, like I meant to do that all along. Si says nothing. I decide that hanging around “on the spot” is not for me.
Not for me in a footballing sense, but in a bird photography sense I have had quite a bit of joy hanging around “on the spot”.
Today’s spot is on the old shabby bridge that spans one of the ponds at Thurstaston and flitting around in the coppiced willows in front of me is a Chiffchaff.
Now, this is where I feel comfortable, this is much more my pace. Just me and something avian to photograph.
It isn’t the most glamorous of surroundings, a creaky ancient bridge and the whippy, leafless re-growth from an old coppice, but it will do for me and this Chiffchaff.
I had spotted this Chiffy mooching about the willows the previous evening and with a forecast of clouds and a bit of rain through the night with bright sun to follow first thing in the morning I thought I’d take a chance on it hanging around overnight and pop back early doors with the camera.
As usual I have arrived early meaning there isn’t anyone else about so I pick my spot on the bridge and wait. The bridge takes quite a bit of traffic so I figure that the Chiffchaff will be unperturbed by my presence. Plus I am dressed in my finest drab and blend in with the willows and weathered timber, standing still on the spot I shouldn’t be a problem for this bird.
 
My little Chiffy is a Phylloscopus warbler, Phylloscopus collybita to be precise. The scientific names of birds are something I find really interesting and the Chiffy is one of my favourites.
Phyllo is a prefix to a word relating to a leaf and scopus means “one who watches”. So my Chiffy is “one who watches leaves”. Collybita finds its origins in money lending (!) and is used here to describe the song of this species, apparently sounding like two coins being rubbed together.
One Who Watches Leaves is certainly living up to its name. It flits and darts around the coppiced willow with equal amounts of speed and agility, all the while peering at the breaking buds and investigating folds in the bark.
 
It makes frequent darts at something it spots. Its eyesight must be super smart. I have no idea what it is consuming but seems to be finding plenty for breakfast. Perhaps it is finding roosting bugs, already there have been plenty on the wing in this mild spring but the day has started chilly and they are not active yet. One Who… might also be looking for insect larvae not yet hatched. Whatever its doing, it is great to watch and even better to photograph.
Collybita stays silent the whole time we are together; it is intent on refuelling after a mammoth migration rather than establishing a territory. Soon though it will move from this pond pit stop and take up residence on the Wirral Way. Chiffchaffs are the first in a long line of migrants that will be hitting the Patch over the coming weeks and they are one of my favourite to study. My bird is so busy, bustling from branch to branch, inspecting every nook and cranny for a tasty morsel. When the memory card of my camera flashes full I stay to just observe this little leaf watcher, it keeps me rooted to the spot.
 
After a while the first visitors to the park turn up. 2 joggers have arrived for a bracing early morning run along the beach. They look like serious runners, lycra clad with well worn trainers and sweat bands. They swig isotonic brews from ergonomically designed water bottles and set watches ready to start. But first they warm up, while one does a few stretches the other runs… on the spot.
I chuckle to myself, pack up the camera, wish my Chiffy a good morning and slip away from my spot for a spot of breakfast.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

The Sand From Far Away....


I am stood watching a flock of Knot 12,000 strong flying in tight zig zags across the sands at Hoylake shore. It is reminding me of a strange meteorological phenomenon I first heard about in my childhood…

Watching the tea time news one night in the mid 1980’s I saw something that seemed incredible, unbelievable and it wasn’t Jan Leeming’s frizzy perm or her outrageous shoulder pads.

Scary sounding winds had lifted tonnes of sand from the Sahara desert up to the high atmosphere in a huge sandstorm. From Africa it had been blown out towards the Atlanticwhere it had bumped into some moist south westerly winds heading in our direction. The sand was mixing into the raindrops before falling to earth then, after the water evaporated, it would leave a sandy deposit on surfaces such as car bodywork and windscreens etc. The big news was that it was about to drop on us overnight.

Sand from the Sahara desert on our car? Wow! When you are 7 years old and the north of Scotland is as far as you have travelled on this planet that is seriously cool. Actual Saharan sand on our car!

The next morning I was up and dressed early. My parents might have thought I’d had some kind of educational epiphany and decided I liked school after all, but no I wanted to see the sand from far away.

And there it was, on the bonnet and the front windscreen, just like the news story said it would be. The Ford Orion in Maritime Blue looking like a dusty antique. The sand was in little uneven, imperfect circles. Left behind like fossilised raindrops, a reminder of the water that carried it here. I rubbed some of it off (thinking about it now that probably wasn’t so good for the paintwork!) and held some sand from an African desert. Cool. With my finger I wrote my name in Saharan sand on the boot lid before we embarked on the school run. The British summer conspired against me and by the time I was picked up some dirt-free rain had washed the car clean again. The sand may have been transient, but the memory has remained.

When I see big flocks of shorebirds swirling around over the mudflats or think about them high above us, far from view on their huge migration flights, I always think of them being like tiny grains of sand being blown by the winds. Like my Saharan sand.

Watching the Knots at Hoylake my mind transports me to another far away place…

I am standing waiting for a flock of Knot on the shores of Porsangerfjord in northern Norway. Three flights and a four hour drive have brought me here and I seem to have beaten the Knots to their staging post. When they arrive they will feed like crazy before embarking on a marathon flight over open ocean to Greenland and the far reaches of the Canadian arctic.

The Knots are due. The winds from the German WaddenSea have gone southerly and the birds will use this favourable air flow to speed their journey north. So we wait.

Redshanks and Bar-tailed Godwits are displaying on the marsh at the south end of the fjord. A Sea Eagle beats huge wings and lazily flies from one side of the fjord to the other.

They come from the clouds, fluffy, classic cotton wool clouds. A few tiny specks appear, like…. grains of sand. More and more follow, returning to terra firma in a loose spiral. In a matter of hours they have made the huge flight over much of northern Europe and here they are. It is one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen. As I look through my binoculars I realise my heart is pounding, I have goose bumps and a smile is cutting my face in two.
 
More and more tumble out of the clouds and drift to earth like the sand from far away. The migration I have heard and read about is now visible, it is no longer theoretical, no longer an picture imagined – I can see it. It is happening right before my eyes and it is inspiring, humbling and overwhelming. The Knots that I last saw on the Dee have been coloured in, they have changed from muted greys to bright brick red.
 
I am snapped from my daydream by a birdwatcher calling“Sparrowhawk”. The flock is one step ahead of observers and the raptor and they catapult themselves from the beach into frantic aerial manoeuvres.
 
They go zigging left and zagging right, going out over the choppy tide. The Sparrowhawk will only follow them a short distance over the open water and it soon returns empty-taloned and disappears over a garden fence.
 
While the birds are out of range of my camera for pictures and my‘scope for colour ring sightings I drift off on another daydream. I do a lot of thinking when I watch shorebirds. It can often be quite a solitary occupation, just me, the birds and my camera. I have all sorts of ideas and thoughts on the mudflats, like remembering the sand from far away.
 
The flock is well and truly spooked and never returns to the shore. They fly out the remainder of the high tide, circling around Hoylake, high up one second then low over the waves the next. They form into weird and wonderful shapes, at one stage looking like a huge CGI-ed manta ray about to dive into the water.
 
The twisting and turning continues as they disappear away into the distance like a sandstorm. A Sandstorm made of the sand from far away.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Sky is Still Blue....


You wouldn’t know it looking out across the mudflats right now though. The grey cloud looks… impenetrable. An iron curtain is being drawn across the estuary from the Point of Air towards my position at Thurstaston, more rain looms like unwelcome guests at Christmas. I don’t fancy another dousing so I beat a hasty retreat back home. Forty rain soaked minutes later, as the kettle boils, I peel off my wet socks (how good does that feel?) and start to warm up with a brew and a fire. My waterproof (well, nearly waterproof) jacket hangs on the back door, several shades darker and a lot heavier than when I left the house this morning. Every now and then a drip from it drops to the wooden floor. The kindling starts to glow in the stove so I throw on the first logs sip my coffee…. and relax.
 
I cast my mind back a couple of days, away from the cold grey dampness of this dreary Saturday….
My dad and I are enjoying a plate of proper Full English breakfast in areal cafĂ© (by real I mean“old school” because you can’t get a macchiato and nothing comes with a dressed rocket salad) before hitting the Patch with our cameras. Outside the sun is shining and clouds are non-existent reminding us that the sky is still blue, great conditions for a spot of photography.
Full to the brim with breakfast we set off to Burton Mere Wetlands. My usual haunt between Thurstaston and Heswall has been battered by storm after storm so the Blackwits and the Pintail have left for a more sheltered spot leaving me looking elsewhere for a subject to photograph. We arrived on the reserve and had a good mooch about. There was an obliging Snipe close to the reception hide, but through the glass windows I couldn’t really get any pictures to write home about so we sauntered over to the Marsh Covert hide for a chat. There are never really many birds there so it is usually free from people and a good spot for a chinwag. After putting the world to rights but not taking many pictures my shutter finger was getting a little itchy so we trundled around to the feeders where a bunch of small birds were busily feeding away.
Like most people who start on a wildlife watching path it was garden birds that first inspired me. As a young child, in the (now felled and chipped) plum tree in my mum and dad’s back garden we hung a red netting bag of peanuts. As my interest in birds grew those nuts were followed by more elaborate feeders with a range of foods and a homemade bird table with a bizarre Perspex rain cover. Soon we had a fully fledged feeding station regularly attended with a plethora of birds. Here I saw my first ever Blackcap, it was big news when a Sparrowhawk first flew through and I still remember my excitement when a 50-odd strong flock of Redwings and Fieldfares landed in the bare branches of the plum tree. Now I spend most of my time on the mudflats with long distance migratory shorebirds but after just 2 minutes by those feeders I realised that I shouldn’t have neglected these common garden birds.

Reflecting on those early birding days I would always start any list of what I had seen in the garden or on a walk in the same way:
Blue Tit

Great Tit
Coal Tit
(Any thoughts of lists in order of classification, habitat, county etc were non-existent at this point.)
These were the common birds that got me started on natural history study and thinking about it that morning I realised that they are poorly represented in the archives of the many tens of thousands of images I have taken since my dad bought me a silver Canon 300D way back in 2004.


So standing on the path at BMW I resolved to spend more time with the smaller resident birds of the Patch.

A Coal Tit landed on a peanut feeder as a large rat scuttled across the path in front of me. While taking the Coalie’s picture it dawned on me that the year list that I have started for the Patch doesn’t contain Coal Tit! On this list there are migrant birds from the far reaches of the high arctic, the odd rare vagrant blown far off course but no Coalie. Unforgivable.


Siskins, another for the Patch list, arrive in the high branches of the alders and I remember when we had them in the plum tree for the first time. Suddenly I miss that old tree. It was a great climber and I knew every foot and hand hold of its trunk. You could get high enough to see over the garage roof and into the front garden so you were able to see who was playing out on out street (important information when you are 7). The Siskins sing in the sun and I can feel some of its warmth on my back, or is the warm fuzzy feeling nostalgia for childhood summers spent in the branches of the plum tree? Either way it is a good feeling.


A few Blue Tits were taking turns on the feeder now and I concentrated on them for a while. Blue Tits, number one on my list and, looking at them again, as if I had never seen one before they became my new favourite bird.


They are coming in really close and the camera picks up all the detail in the vibrant light. I should be looking at the details of the plumage; working out the coverts from the tertials, but all I was really thinking was... they are kind of cute.


After I had filled several of my own and one of my dad’s memory cards, we all went our separate ways. Dad and I headed to our respective homes to review and archive some of our images while the Blue Tits carried on, well…carried on being cute. That evening, revelling in the familiarity and overlooked beauty of these birds I decided to paint some part of the house in a shade of blue found on a Blue Tit.
If Blue-Tit-Tail-Blue isn’t a paint colour then it should be…