Saturday, 30 January 2016

Welcome to the North...

Everything from the North is just…. cooler.

Low grey clouds cover all of the visible sky and a stiff westerly breeze chops the surface of the Marine Lake. It is hard to follow the small group of Red-breasted Mergansers feeding in the rolling waves. The water is as grey as the sky.

A larger, darker bird resurfaces from a dive. By the time I get the binoculars up and across to its position it has dived again. At least I now know, roughly, the area where it is hunting.

A few yards from where it slid under the waves it pops up with barely a splash. A better look this time, yes, that’s it.

Great Northern Diver.

Just the name lights a spark in me. “Great Northern”. A visitor from the north, from mysterious lands of snow and ice. This is a cool, cool bird from a cool, cool place.

However, not everyone is so enamoured with all things northern.

A school friend moved to the south in the early 1990’s and began a relationship with a girl there. When he said he was heading home to the north west for a weekend he asked if she wanted to come.

“Will it be safe?” she worriedly asked without a hint of irony or sarcasm. It made me wonder how some in the south actually regard us northerners. She honestly seemed to think we were all feral, lawless scavengers existing on benefits, housed in dimly lit ramshackle workhouses feeding at a trough of potatoes boiled in lard garnished with dead cats then sprinkled with coal dust and forgotten ambition. Then, for dessert, we’d steal each others shoes and eat them before finishing off a good night with some fisticuffs and petty crime.

During her trip to the hinterlands in the north, where she wasn’t mugged, didn’t see any burned out cars and didn’t get scurvy, she exclaimed in surprised and mildly patronising tones that it “was actually quite nice!”. Their relationship didn’t last too much longer. He moved back home and she returned south to live on soufflĂ© decorated with the crystallised tears of the poor, shoot badgers and count her money - because that’s what southern softies do isn’t it?

Of course they don’t. I have no such prejudices or issues with the south and those from it. I just prefer the north. Music, food, football, fashion, landscape… In my humble opinion all these things increase in coolness the further up the M6 you travel. Attitude improves with latitude.

The same, I believe, can be said for wildlife. I love northern wildlife and I mean here in the UK and further afield. The experience I’ve had of the arctic confirmed this for me. My compass points north.

Huge landscapes filled with Steller’s and King Eiders, Red Knot, White-tailed Eagles, Orcas, Long-tailed Ducks, Skuas White-billed and Great Northern Divers. These places and species inspire me like no others do.

The Great Northern fishing before me is spending the winter on the Patch. One of these birds would be a good find, usually distant on the Irish Sea off Hilbre; so having one for so long on the marine lake barely a three minute walk from my house is a welcome winter bonus. All the turbulent warm, wet rubbish we’ve had to endure this winter it has made it the worst for Black-tailed Godwits and Knot on the Patch for two decades, so its been good to have something else to point the camera at.

Since mid December the diver has been patrolling the waters of the lake, occasionally drifting on to the sea at high tide but always returning to the confines of the lake as the tide ebbs.

It has been well watched and photographed - it seems to be unperturbed by all the attention it has received. 

It has even got used to the sailing boats and windsurfers that frequent the lake. Right now it is drifting around, confident, commanding, unruffled… cool.

Watching it I can’t help but be impressed. It is sleek but strong - a genuine northern powerhouse. It’s bill really does deserve the description “dagger-like”. The forehead too is impressive, square and imposing, a Great Northern Diver looks like it wouldn’t take any nonsense from anyone.

The sun comes out but it doesn’t feel any warmer. The wind swings slightly towards the north.

A Peregrine swoops low over the water chasing a small flock of Dunlin it has spooked from their high tide roost on the narrow limestone wall that separates the lake from estuary. This puts up all the gulls that are loafing on the boat launching pontoons. Even the Mergansers are momentarily scared to energetic flight.

The Great Northern briefly looks up, casts its sharp, bright burgundy eye in the falcon’s direction then resumes fishing. Unflappable, calm. Cool.

[The only thing that has managed to unsettle the diver was, sadly, caused by lazy human behaviour. One morning it had to be plucked from the waters of the lake with part of a crabbing net wrapped around its bill. In the murky waters of the lake the faded fluorescent pink net must have looked a little like breakfast.

As it was untangled from the marine litter the diver stayed placid allowing it to be released back to the lake in a matter of minutes. It didn’t fly off panicked, it gracefully swam back out on to the water and resumed fishing. Like I keep saying, cool.]

Storms have come and gone, so have the year listers after ticking an “easy” GND. The ‘togs are all off looking to photograph a rare warbler hanging around a local sewage farm. The diver has remained, unmoved, seemingly at home on the lake attached to the little village of West Kirby.

I watch it steadily patrol the lake, sometimes seeming like it is watching the people who are walking around the footpath that forms part of the perimeter of the lake. I wonder what it makes of us?

It drifts in, close to the wall, totally at ease, looking cool in understated scalloped charcoal grey winter plumage - no need to show off. Less is more. I love this bird. I have a lot of pictures to prove it.

It turns, swims and dives away from me, heading to the northern end of the lake, getting smaller and smaller in the viewfinder. I pack up my camera and walk home.

Welcome to the North.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

If on a winter's night a Redshank....

If on a winter's night a Redshank lands at your feet you might think as the sun sets lower in the sky and the distance it's light has to travel through the earth's atmosphere increases thus allowing the blue light to be filtered from it leaving a reddish-yellow glow on everything that a Redshank starts to look even more awesome than usual.

If on a winter's night a Redshank lands at your feet you might think it's legs look even more impressively orange than usual.

If on a winter's night a Redshank lands at your feet you might get to watch its shadow lengthen as the sun sets and think of all the Redshanks you ever watched and the order that you watched them.

If on a winter's night a Redshank lands at your feet you might get to watch it feed in a rockpool and realise that everything's going to be OK.

If on a winter's night a Redshank lands at your feet you might just want to stop everything forever and watch it carefully preen.

If on a winter's night a Redshank lands at your feet you might see it stretch wings that have carried it far away and back again.

If on a winter's night a Redshank lands at your feet watching it run around the sandstone reefs might be the best thing you've ever seen.

If on a winter's night a Redshank...

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Everything is Changed Forever...

Tucked away in a dark corner amongst the wooden joists holding up the roof of Drizzle Cottage a female Swallow sits on her brood of recently hatched chicks.

She looks around nervously as I creep through the damp and dusty space beneath her, her head darts to and fro keeping a close eye on my movements. She has nothing to fear from me, I’m not here to interfere with her nest I’m just passing through on an errand. She leaves the nest and flies around the small room, making worried sounding shrill chirps, before alighting on a large rusty nail protruding from a joist similar to the one she has attached her muddy cup of a nest to. Next to her hangs a set of ancient chimney brushes, thick with dust, stiff bristles yellowing with age. Attached to the wall directly below the nest an old wooden cupboard decays with age it’s door hangs loose, held up by one rusting hinge, the other having rotted off some years ago.

My task completed I turn to leave her and her family in peace. As I depart she is still sat on her rusty nail, it must be a regular perch for her and her partner as there is a sizeable pile of droppings accumulating on the stone floor beneath.

They are still very young. Tiny, helpless. Unopened eyes bulge behind thin fleshy eyelids. A few whispy, downy feathers protrude from their large bald heads. They look odd, only their mother could love them. Many perils and wonders await them once they fledge into the world outside this tumbledown cottage.

I wish them luck as I close and lock the rickety front door behind me. Through a tiny gap in this old weathered entrance I glimpse the female return to brood the chicks. She still looks around, nervously. It is impossible to tell if this is her first attempt at parenthood or if she is an old hand but for any parent raising young is a hard and scary thing to do.

I am finding this out for myself.

We have a daughter.

There has been little activity on this blog for some time. 2015 has been a momentous year. I have been absorbed in the care of our first child. In the middle of April, early one Friday morning, Summer arrived. Not the season - as I write this, looking back on a cool and wet year it seems like summer never did fully appear. No, it is our baby girl that we have called Summer. It seemed the obvious choice, summer is such an explosion of life, joy and excitement - a happy season - and this is all we want for our little girl.

It will be tough though. It is easy to be over-awed and worried. I see so much that is wrong in the world, so many threats to our baby’s future.
Climate change and the impact that will have on her world plus the fact that as a species we, like no other, have the ability to plan and take action to mitigate its effects but we do nothing. A little action in the short term that will see no immediate benefit for us will make a world of difference for our children. This seems vital to me but beyond contemplation for huge money grabbing corporations and the corrupt governments who serve them.

Our own government seems to have been alarmingly successful in persuading a voting public that all public spending is wasteful, unnecessary and ruins our economy while enforcing their own spiteful brand of austerity to “fix” it.
It was public monies that were used to bail out a broken banking system, one plagued by greed and recklessness and as this private debt was made public those responsible walked away unscathed leaving us and my daughter’s generation to balance the books.

One evening while discussing this great swindle and how this government, aided by a biased gutter press, got away with blaming the whole mess on poor people, a friend of mine questioned the wisdom of bringing children into this crazy, often backwards world.


There is so much beauty and wonder out there. Many, many fabulous things that the human race has achieved. I have been so lucky and thankful for the many opportunities I’ve had to see it and be amazed by it…

The sun hitting the sheer face of El Capitan as dawn breaks over Yosemite National Park.

Handling Black-tailed Godwit Chicks in the lush meadows of an Icelandic summer.

Staring at paintings by old masters in decadent European art galleries. Sharing the shores of my local Patch with thousands of dazzling migratory shorebirds.

Holding a handful of fantabulous hawkmoths caught from my favourite hedge (yes I do have a favourite hedge and I’m not afraid to say so).

With all this to experience, protect and enjoy, it seemed a natural thing to start a family to share it with.

I returned to the Swallow nest some time later, after they had fledged. As a new parent I felt concern for those chicks. After a summer of watching them and my own offspring grow I found myself wondering where they were now and hoping that they were doing fine. The empty nest un-nerved me a little.

Until now it has all been about me. What I wanted to see, where I wanted to go, in my own time, on my own terms. Travel, hobbies, absorbing culture and creativity where my only concerns.

Now it will be about Summer. What she can see, what she can do and where she can go. She is free to be what she chooses; I will not force an obsession of moths or shorebirds upon her. But she will know of them and all of the things that make planet Earth the diverse wondrous place it is. The shift in emphasis for my life is huge and palpable.

I think back to that morning in the delivery room. Bewildered by happiness, I see my wife and daughter resting after the exertions of labour and birth, the most breath-taking thing I have ever witnessed. Lois leans over and plants a delicate kiss on Summer’s forehead with the tender love of a new mother. As I stand there watching, about to tell our family that Summer is here, tears burn my cheeks and I realise that everything has just changed… forever.

Happy New Year.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Miles from tomorrow...

I was leaving it late, I knew it would be close. Even the most experienced Hilbre veterans can get a “hurry up” from the tide. The final few steps sloshed me on to my Inspiration Island through about 8 inches of the briney, a little spike of adrenaline tightened my stomach as I looked back. Water flowing from my shoes, I watched the last of the rocks between Hilbre and Middle Eye become engulfed by the flooding tide. Made it. Just.

Shoes and socks set to dry I padded around the island barefoot, like a castaway, feeling a just little foolish and more than a little cold about the feet.

{A long, long time ago someone left a very long microphone boom lying around on a project I was involved with. I offered to keep is safe for them until they returned to collect it. They never did and it has been gathering dust in a cupboard ever since. Stumbling across it a few days prior to the trip to Hilbre I thought about how it could be put to use.}

On the island I screwed my compact camera to the boom and extended it to its full length. I set the self-timer and held it out in front of me. A few seconds later I examined the results of my improvised selfie stick. Underwhelming. I’ve never been a fan of the selfie stick and even the novelty of a massive one in a cool location wasn’t doing anything to dull my scepticism. Far more interesting was turning the tables and photographing the camera itself.

Over the freshly mown paddock hovered a Kestrel. Motionless in the air, held stationary against the clear blue sky by the cool easterly breeze. A breeze just strong enough to keep it aloft without need to flap its wings. It looked like a sticker stuck there by a child in a nature scrapbook sky. Time frozen.

A small flotilla of Brent Geese swam gently down the Hilbre Swash, an adult leading the way followed by two juveniles, then another two adults, a juvenile and so on and so on until I had counted thirty six grown-ups and eleven youngsters. They paddled along the channel until they met a current coming in with the tide. It hinders their progress momentarily, stopping them, like you’ve hit the pause button on a film. Time halted.

Looking at those long distance tundra dwelling migrants and examining the plumages of adult and juvenile thoughts turned towards the arctic. The vastness of the tundra, its treeless wonder. Space. Quiet.

I sat on some rocks and looked out to sea.

Coffee from the flask warmed my throat and guts but failed to spread its heat to my naked toes. A sandwich filled my grumbling belly. After a while just sitting and staring everything seemed to shudder to a stop. The sandwich sat like a pebble in my stomach, I was rooted to the spot.
An Oystercatcher flew past; it seemed to do this in slow motion, like it was flying through syrup.

A Dunlin flew in and alighted daintily on the rocks away to my left. It looked once in my direction then turned its gaze to the sea and stood motionless. The wind dropped and the sea went glassy calm. Stillness. Time frozen.

I stared at that Dunlin for some time.

A movement caught my eye a few dozen metres off to the right. A Ringed Plover jostled another for prime roosting position. With it on the ledge were another two plovers and a further five Dunlin. I stared at them for a while.


…do those birds come here each winter is it their first time here what do they think of when waiting for the tide to drop the sandstone is a slightly different colour on this corner of the island the plovers blend right in is that one crouching down behind a ridge in the rock oh a seal, when it bobs its head above the surface of the tranquil water does it notice the ripples radiate away slowly will I ever see a bowhead whale how many dunlin have stopped on hilbre I mean ever since dunlins became dunlins the sandstone is in layers how many layers is a layer put down in a year or a longer period or shorter it must be laid erratically after floods or  other events how many generations of ringed plovers have used hilbre as a stopover where will they go from here where exactly in western africa six ospreys on a tree in the mangroves of the river gambia why do the plovers squabble for space when there is so much on the rocks like people I suppose they like fighting why do they have orange legs and dunlins have black legs are my socks dry yet dunlins must have been sat on hilbre when henry VIII was on the throne are any descendants of those dunlin here on the island today that turnstone still has a little summer plumage I remember seeing a barwit in near full summer plumage at hoylake last winter the bumpy road to borselv had breeding barwits and that common crane in the pool by the road chris said you could see the cranes working on the new stand at anfield from the lookout my feet are freezing 1250th second at f8 slightly underexposed nudge ISO 640 maybe yes that’ll do so many miles travelled by these birds how many individually and collectively all this goes on while people go about their lives unseen birds traumas and triumphs how many wingbeats to greenland will I ever see a Bowhead Whale will I ever get to greenland knot and sanderling on nests a wide angle lens with the tundra as part of the picture when will the first purple sandpipers arrive on hilbre for the winter tide definitely dropping wind slightly shifting west so many journeys routes like spaghetti dropped on a map criss crossing lines obliterating the details how much does a dunlin weigh ringed plover weigh oycs alarm peregrine hunt no red waterproof bastard there go the dunlin and ringos no one dunnie has stayed…

The Oystercatchers on Middle Eye were sparked into noisy flight as a person walked over Middle Eye, flushing almost everything on both islands. The tide had dropped enough for people to walk over to Hilbre and I was no longer alone.

My daydream broken I put on my damp socks and went home.

Friday, 16 October 2015

The Wonder of the Day

Second compartment, right on the top of the topmost egg box. There is was. The wonder of the day.

Until that moment it had only existed on the pages of my guide books but now there is was, sat motionless on the faded cardboard in front of me.

The Merveille du Jour. MDJ.

Jaw dropped. I went a little giddy with the surprise and excitement. I composed myself and thought "Should I be getting this excited over a moth?"

I have been properly moth trapping for four years and I have a long and impressive list of species that I have caught and an archive of photographs that I am really pleased with. But there are gaps in the list and archive and none larger than the space left by the absence of the Merveille du Jour.

As soon as I saw it in the book I knew I wanted to see one. Its colours and markings are just fantastic. Now I had one.

It is lichen brought to life.
Translated from the French MDJ means Wonder of the Day.
It was.

It even looked impressive on the back of the camera.

As stunning as the marks, colours and patterns are...

... they are equally functional.


Its legs were awesome too.

A glance at the watch showed an hour and a half had disappeared under the oak being used as a makeshift studio. The lichen covered branches a perfect home for my favourite moth.

Wonder of the Day.

Merveille du Jour.

Friday, 31 July 2015

The Other Birds...

I’m standing on the cliff top at Thurstaston looking across the estuary towards North Wales. The mudflats look the same as they always do. A milk chocolate brown expanse rippled with darker creeks and gullies. One thing is different though… No birds.

It is high summer. July has come around with the usual soon-to-be-broken tabloid promises of the longest ever heatwave and bold, possibly optimistic, predictions about English success in the Ashes and Wimbledon. On the Patch, the waders that I so love to watch, study and photograph have long departed for the high Arctic. The perpetual daylight, wide open spaces and abundant food there make them an ideal place to breed so they abandon the muddy banks of the Dee for a short breeding season.

That is all well and good for them but it leaves me to find something else to point the camera at. There are plenty of birds in the hedgerows of the Wirral Way but they are on eggs or feeding chicks and I never feel comfortable poking my lens into their busy world. They have enough going on without me disturbing them.

So it’s not going to be birds that I photograph. I need another subject. Other birds.
The meadows at Thurstaston are in really good shape at the moment. Plenty of wildflowers amongst the lush grasses means a plethora of butterflies on the wing. I lose several afternoons chasing Meadow Browns and Large Skippers across fields and along hedgerows. I’m joined on several occasions by my dad and between photographing bugs we set the world to rights while chugging coffees in the cafĂ©. Good times.

I’m getting some decent pictures but nothing too inspiring, nothing that gives me that excited, slightly nervous feeling of “I think I got the shot, but won’t know for certain until I’m home looking at them on the computer.”
In short the butterfly pictures weren’t giving me butterflies in my stomach.

Inspiration came, as it often does, on the island. Hilbre Island.

The sun was intense but a gentle westerly breeze took the edge off its heat. The same breeze was gently swaying the tall grasses in the paddock. This paddock slopes down to the cliff edge, cliffs that drop to Niffy Bay and in the strong sun it was living up to its name.
Just managing to find enough of a crack in the sandstone to gain a toehold in the cliff top is a patch of Valerian. This patch of pink has escaped from the garden of the old Buoymaster’s House and adds an extra splash of colour to the already orange cliffs.

I am stood leaning on the rickety wooden fence that keeps people, and formerly livestock, from taking a tumble to the stinky seaweed below. The view across to the bustling seaside village of West Kirby never gets boring.

I scan the exposed sand banks on the far side of the Hilbre Swash, sweeping left and right with my binoculars. A bunch of Sandwich Terns are loafing on the sand. There is constant movement in the group. Individuals leave on fishing sorties to be replace by those returning with either full bellies or full beaks. Shining silver sand eels are presented to hungry chicks. All of this happens to the soundtrack of summer: their loud rasping “kirrik-kirrik” calls.

They are too distant to photograph though. The odd Painted Lady butterfly whizzes past on the breeze. Too fast to photograph.

Looking down into Niffy Bay I am searching the brown seaweed for any Dunlin that either haven’t made it north or have returned early after an unsuccessful attempt at breeding.

As I do this something catches my eye buzzing around the hot pink Valerian. I zero in on it and see it is a Hummingbird Hawkmoth. I have been after a picture of one of these moths for ages and almost without thinking about it I have dashed to the camera bag and grabbed the 5Dmk2.

The next few minutes are a bit of a blur. From the bag I get the 100-400 zoom lens. The 500mm will be no good here, the minimum focussing distance of 4 metres is too long. 180mm macro won’t get me close enough especially with a full frame camera.

Next thing is to decide on are settings. Shutter speed will need to be super-fast to try and freeze the moth in flight. The light is superb, which will help, bright sunshine coming over my right shoulder and illuminating the Valerian patch perfectly.

I want a decent depth of field so I want to be shooting at around f8; even with the good light I reckon I’m going to have to push the ISO pretty high. I take a few test shots to get the exposure right. Eventually I settle on 1/3200s at f7.1 on ISO 800.

Then it is just a question of following the moth and getting the shot I have in my head. I want it hovering by the Valerian with the wings extended and its proboscis unfurled ready to feed from the flower head. The 5Dmk2 doesn’t have the fasted frame rate but its sensor is incredible so I’m hopeful that with a bit of perseverance and luck I can get the picture I want.
A second Hummingbird Hawk appears a second “other bird” and I reel off upwards of 150 frames in less than 10 minutes of frenetic feeding and photography. Once the moths have had their nectar lunch they disappear over the paddock towards the cliffs on the west side of the island.

I step into the shade of one of the old buildings and start to review the pictures on the back of the camera. I rate them as I go through, miss, miss, close, possibly, miss, might sharpen in Photoshop, miss, miss, miss and a couple of “oh yeah!”.

There are a few pictures sharp enough that look like the image I had in my head as I first pointed the camera at the moths but I won’t know if they are any good until I get a proper look at them on the computer screen. Quick as a flash I pack up the kit. That nervous feeling of “have-I-or-haven’t-I-got-the-shot” starts in my stomach. I charge back to the mainland with a spring in my step, not even the soft sand around Little Eye can slow me down. Back home I fire up the PC and upload the pictures.

I’m more than happy with the results. A few tweaks here and there and a sympathetic crop is all they need to get them into a state I am happy to share.

The 5Dmk2 and Hilbre Island do it again.

In the absence of my migratory shorebirds I found another stellar subject, Hummingbird Hawkmoths – the Other Birds.

Friday, 27 March 2015

50 Shades of Beige...

I like beige but a lot of people don’t.

I have heard it used to describe blandness, the colour equivalent of the word “nice”. Unimaginative. Boring. People tried to make it more exciting by calling it taupe but ultimately it is still beige.

Many moons ago we knew a guy called Hugh. He was a decent chap, quiet elderly. Reserved, dependable, subtle and unspectacular. You could easily describe him as a “nice” guy.

Wore a lot of beige.

One afternoon on the way home from school I heard my sister refer to old Hugh as a Beige Man. I asked her to elaborate and she replied:

“Oh, you know, boring”.

True, Hugh wasn’t outlandish or leading a jet-set lifestyle and always appeared in smart beige trousers and a camel coloured cashmere jersey, but boring seemed a bit harsh. I liked Hugh.

A good number of years later I find myself languishing in student digs on the campus of a university just outside Christchurch, New Zealand. I should be out collecting data on female limited sexual polymorphism in coenagrionid damselflies but it is raining so instead I am watching some limited overs cricket with housemates Scott and Blair.

New Zealand are playing Australia in Perth and doing fairly well, which is… nice. (As a fan of English cricket I support anyone playing the Aussies!)

The weather in Perth is much nicer and people are slathered in sun block and knocking back cold beers. The camera zooms in on one group of supporters who are rather raucous. Sunstroked or inebriated it is hard to tell which, probably both. They are all, every single one of them, dressed in beige.

Blair laughs loudly and says “Check it out, the Beige Brigade!”

This begs the question: who exactly are the Beige Brigade?

Scott explains that back in 1980’s the New Zealand cricket team were sent out to do battle in various limited over cricket competitions wearing… beige. This kit became a bit of a joke, much maligned and regarded as a little embarrassing. In 1999 a group of Kiwi supporters decided to take back beige and make it cool again. They made their own beige cricket kits and wore them to matches – thus the Beige Brigade was born.

So beige is often seen as boring, a fashion faux pas or something to be laughed at.

Not so, in my humble opinion.  I like beige.

There is a lot of beige on the Patch, especially at this time of year. We just entering the first green flushes of spring but most things about the Patch are still lovely and brown.

I am down on the marshes surrounded by beige. Hedgerows are bare of leaves and stripped of berries, the grasses in the meadows and on the marsh have been desiccated by wind, salt and frost. The remaining straw is, well, straw coloured. Beige.

The morning sun is just starting to have some genuine warmth to it and today it is bright and constant due to the cloudless sky, the first such sky in a while. 
It is now, in this most welcome sunshine, that the beige flares into life. It becomes golden, terracotta and all colours in between – and it makes a great background to photograph Stonechats too.

On a recent trip to the Outer Rim I noticed these Stonechats and resolved to return with the camera when work and weather allowed. Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long for an opportunity.

These birds are feeding on the marsh close to the footpath from Neston to Burton. They regularly use the fence posts and the barbed wire they hold up to watch for prey. Being on the foot path the birds have become used to people and all the stuff that they bring. Dogs, bikes fluorescent jogging tops to name a few. As a result they are quite tame and don’t mind a guy dressed in drab brown and beige colours hanging around taking their picture.

I like Stonechats so I take a lot of pictures and the beige of the marshes grasses compliments their subtle but rich colours perfectly. The delicate changes in tone and shade in this sumptuous light makes the background of the pictures look velvety smooth.

Pretty soon the blank memory cards I brought with me are filling up with regulation pictures of Stonechats in good light. They are nothing out of the ordinary, just portraits really, but it is just great to be out getting pictures on a sunny and still day after so many trips our spoiled by wind and rain.

Its also rewarding to spend a good deal of time with these birds. Getting good close views I can appreciate their colours, calls and behaviour. Over a few visits I learn their routine, become able to anticipate their next moves, learn what their favourite food is - hairy caterpillars. I start to refer to them as my Beige Brigade.

The plumage is wonderful too. Shades of beige smoulder to burnt orange with speckles and patterns on their backs. Subtle not spectacular.

Pure, brilliant beige.