Sunday, 3 December 2017

This Fucus World...

A whole mess of life. Annelid worms, molluscs, bi-valves, crustaceans, thickets of seaweed, wrecks of shells, shattered, outgrown and discarded or pecked through. All heaped on mud, coarse sand and sandstone reef.

Across it stalks a Redshank. Legs brilliant orange in the winter sunshine.

Around this fucus world plods an Oystercatcher. Beak brilliant orange in the winter sunshine.

Tringa totanus, Haematopus ostralegus Fucus serratus Fucus vesiculosus et al.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Monolith...

We are in a very dark place.

I have never been much of a geologist, mountains are just big rocks to me, but even I have to admit the monolith is quite striking. It is described by the guidebooks as impressive but I find it oppressive too, quite unsettling. I’ve never been phased by a mountain before. It is black and blacker, the light disappearing into it, all absorbed - none reflected, like it steals photons. It looms, I can sort of feel it. When I turn my back it is still there, on the periphery of my vision and my mind. It is undeniable and inescapable. It is named Kirkjufell, it means church, but I’m calling it the Monolith. The Monolith rises steeply from the rough cold sea, on the northern shores of the Snaefellsnes peninsula in Iceland. A river empties into a bay beside it, a seemingly dead bay, shallow and cold that in turn releases water to the sea. The water here and in the sea is black as the mountain. I look up from the dark water to the top of Kirkjufell/Monolith. The Monolith reaches a sharp point, it seems that the harshest weather cannot dull this pinnacle, even over thousands of years it has failed to blunt its razor sharp summit. The Monolith is HARD.

I don’t feel like I am of this place, it isn’t somewhere I could survive. I want to go home.

The weather must be a factor too. It is foul. The clouds are only just above the sharp point of the Monolith, the wind is coming from all kinds of directions and blowing over, under and around everything. A waterfall is trying to live up to its name but can’t, the gale blowing it back up the mountain. Spring in west Iceland can be savage. The rock, the black, the wind, the cold. This place feels strong with the dark side of the Force.

A bus load of tourists have stopped to photograph the Monolith and the waterfall that drops into the bay. The falls are a little disappointing today as much of the water usually to be found in them has not made it down the mountain. The party is a festival of brightly coloured gore-tex and DSLRs, the weather is testing the limits of both clothing and cameras and soon they are back on the coach, rumbling around the rest of the peninsula. Up the road is a place you can eat rotten shark if you wish, probably their next destination. We drove past. Instead I have some curious, slightly chewy savoury mini donuts sweating in my coat pocket.

The coach rounds the headland and I am alone with the Monolith again. I walk along the road and cross a bridge where the bay empties into the sea via a short channel. It looks as if a troll could live under here and feels as if any moment a gang of Tolkienesque dwarves might swarm over the tourist bus as it trundles along the coast road. I pick my way along the rocky shore.

In the silence and solitude my mind creeps to dark places inhabited by these creatures, I start to scare myself. I am looking for Knot (or any other wading bird) feeding on the seaweed that fringes the bay but I fear I may find goblins or orcs, maybe some other beast from Viking folklore.

There is a painting by called AsgĂ„rdsreien by Peter Nicolai Arbo that hangs in the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo. It pictures the myth of the Wild Hunt, a horde of supernatural hunters thundering from a firey gash in a dark and foreboding sky. Hundreds of deranged looking warriors on deranged looking horses are in wild, bloodthirsty pursuit. In pursuit of what isn’t exactly clear but whatever is being chased has to be terrified beyond measure. In this place it seems like the Wild Hunt may descend from the top of Kirkjufell at any moment.

Witnessing the Wild Hunt was thought to herald some disaster such as war, floods or at best the death of the one who witnessed it. This nugget of information doesn’t make me feel any better.

Meeting any kind of mythical horde or creature here would not surprise me.

Then I do.

A Harlequin approaches.

Most of us, I would think, recognise a Harlequin as a comic character in plays, a duck or as a rugby team. All fairly innocuous, but it has several, often sinister origins.

One is a story possibly related to the English figure of Herla King or Herla cyning, himself a leader of the aforementioned Wild Hunt, who as King of the Britons led his warriors in raids to the Otherworld and back.

This legend possibly gives rise to an 11th century French folk tale (another version of the Wild Hunt myth), that recounts the story of a monk who was pursued by a mob of demons while roaming the coast of Normandy. The demons in question were led by a masked, club-wielding giant and collectively they were known as familia herlequin – Herlechin’s Troop.

Herlechin, Herlequin, Herla King or Hellequin, eventually became Harlequin who was depicted as a black-masked emissary of the devil, roving the countryside with a group of demons chasing the damned souls of evil people to Hell.

Neither of these tales is too reassuring if you are all alone beneath an imposing mountain by the side of a spooky bay during a storm in Iceland.

(How and why am I thinking all this while photographing ducks in Iceland? Well, despite the remoteness and apparent desolation there is a pretty decent mobile internet signal here and, in a quiet moment, some swift research and a vivid imagination had me filling my head with these myths and legends)

My Harlequin is much friendlier. It is a fine drake swimming in from the choppy sea to the more sheltered bay. The plumage is beautiful and striking, there is nothing sinister about him. He swims easily against the chop, peering under the water and occasionally diving for prey, I cannot fathom what, the water is too dark for me to see. Apart from wandering irregular vagrants the Harlequin never turns up back home, for some birders it is almost as mythical a duck as Herla is a king.

Seeing it here, in this strange creepy landscape seems appropriate. He fits in here as I don’t. Harlequin swims close by, heading down the river towards the bay. He floats under the bridge, into the dark, just the white marks on his face visible – like a ghost and then he is gone.

I wander up to the road and look out across the bay. He is nowhere to be seen. I stop, a little puzzled that I can’t find him on the small, calm body of water below me. I invent a portal into the Otherworld, a star gate to Asgard and imagine he has roared off there with Herlechin and Thor to chase Tolkein’s orcs on the wildest of wild hunts. I quickly banish those ludicrous thoughts. Perhaps it has lingered below the bridge. I fiddle with the camera settings to cope with the darkness I’ll find there then turn to have a look. I think again and decide not to follow him under the bridge.

Who knows what lurks there.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

A Certain Romance...

The breeze ruffles the tide edge into ragged waves that start to creep up the Hilbre Swash, a small channel that runs part way along the east side of the island.

One side of the channel is smooth sand bank where in the high summer hundreds of terns gather. The other side, the island side, is where the sandstone reefs begin. They are a mess of seaweed and barnacles, truth be told you can’t see a whole lot of sandstone close to the swash edge. The crustaceans and vegetation thin out the higher up the shore you climb and that is where I am.

I have selected an inconspicuous barnacle free spot to wait in relative comfort for the tide to push some of the Dunlin currently enjoying a feed in the cool waters of the swash, closer to me and in range of my lens. First though I turn to appreciate the sunrise. Always special, even more so enjoying it from Hilbre with the prospect of some shorebird photography on a rising tide. A tiny point of pale yellow light appears above the docks of Liverpool. Above it the sky is graded in many shades of citrus that fade to indigo the further you raise your head away from the horizon to view the sky.

I lower my view to the Dunlin once I have welcomed the day. They are a little nervous, an unsuccessful Peregine attack twenty minutes earlier still has them worried. It failed but they know the predator is still hungry and may return at any moment. A Lesser Black-backed Gull lazily sways and swoops over them and it’s enough to send the flock up in panic. It is a photo opportunity for me while they are too distant for shots of individual birds.

They land, closer this time, but still too far away for my purposes. I’ll have to wait a little longer for my pictures of these Dunlin.

To my left I spot a movement in a patch of gloopy mud between two reefs. It is darting mouse-like around its muddy puddle. A Ringed Plover. I swing the camera around. Something to have a go at while the Dunnies dawdle at the tide edge. It too is nervous, keeping one eye on the sky in case the Peregrine returns.

I always think this species looks worried anyway so it’s expression fits the foreboding of the flock. The mud in its puddle is particularly slack and soft. It runs a few paces then stops in usual plover style. After a few seconds its feet have disappeared, sunk into the slop.

Another movement catches my eye, a little further out this time, between the Ringo and the Dunlin. The tide is rising but it hasn’t yet built the momentum to breach the top of the first reef. The Dunnies remain fixed to the tide edge.

The movement I have seen is a Whimbrel. This is a bonus. There are always plenty of Whimbrel around at this time of year but they are usually very skittish and it is only on chance encounters like this one that you can get pictures.

Sitting still for some time I have obviously escaped its notice and it has drifted closer and closer. Another one calls from the other side of the old lifeboat slipway and it looks up, over its shoulder, and takes off heading in the direction of the sound.

The Dunnies are still too far away. I won’t go chasing them, I might disturb them and that wouldn’t be fair play, I want to get these pictures with a clear conscience. If I did spook them the pictures would be tainted, I would feel like I’d failed. They may be nice to look at but I’d have a little nagging guilt each time I saw them until I wouldn’t be able to view them at all. I have too much respect for these birds.

There is just a little something about these long distance migratory shorebirds. What it is I often can’t quite put my finger on.

I think of their journeys to and from breeding grounds in the far north… That is it, it is the mystery, the daring adventure. There is a certain romance to their life, so much of it spent unseen, high above us on epic flights or hidden away on inaccessible arctic tundras. Mysterious treeless lands bathed in perpetual light in summer then shrouded in total darkness for months. I know in a couple of weeks once these birds have refuelled they will be away from Hilbre, landing in places I can only imagine for now and hope to visit myself one day.

All this quiet contemplation while waiting for the birds to get closer is now an essential part of the fun for my photography on Hilbre and the Dee. As is the wonder of imagining where the bird whose image I will look at on the computer screen this evening is going next, where will it nest? How will it do? Will it pass through Hilbre on its way south in the autumn? Questions, mysteries.

It is time to stop being so cerebral and to actually get some pictures. Birds are now in range so I snuggle (is snuggle the right word for such an uncomfortable perch?) down into the crevice in the rock I have selected and start shooting.

As usual with this plan it all happens very quickly, the tide here can be swift, although with today’s high pressure weather system it doesn’t zoom in with its usual gusto.

The Dunlin scurry over the rocks, a lone Turnstone whizzes past with them. The camera starts to click with activity after a dormant hour waiting for tide to usher the birds in.

I see the Dunnies just being Dunnies. They haven’t noticed me, my drab clothes, unassuming manner and uncomfortable hiding place have seen to that. I can observe their natural behaviour. Some clearly have their minds on the imminent breeding season. Males bump and barge into each other showing off to prospective mates. Some are mindful of the miles that lie ahead and spend time preening feathers in preparation for the flight to come.

A few decide a rest is required, conservation of energy for the flight seems to be their priority.

A handful sing, it is beautiful sound.

The show is over in no time. I don’t see what spooks them, it may have been the Peregrine, it may have been a false alarm. Whatever it is all the birds go up in a rush, I don’t feel a whoosh of air from their wings but I expect one, the noise is huge. They twist and turn low over the water and wheel around the north end of the island where I lose them from view. The enigmatic flock.

The rocks are silent before me. I don’t move, I remain and sit for a while thinking about the Dunlin until the tide starts to lap at my wellington boots. Only then do I pack up the camera and return to the sanctuary of the island.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Cool Dawn...

Hilbre is a dark shape on the horizon. The gloom and a light mist have stripped it of any detail. The mist had made me think twice about making the trek over, if it comes down dense then you can get hopelessly disorientated very quickly with predictably dire consequences in this tidal zone.

But the weather forecast is set fair, unseasonably warm if it is to be believed so I decide to carry on. Confidence in my decision grows as the dawn breaks and Hilbre becomes clearer. A slight breeze nudges the mist out towards Liverpool Bay. The clouds over the mainland are starting to get a pinkish tinge, sunrise is close. I love the dawn. The beginning, the freshness, expectation. Dawn is cool. Cool Dawn. Connections and memories perk up in my mind as I walk. Cool Dawn…

Back in the late 1990’s (when music and football if not fashion was better) I was a poor(ish) student. Even though my education was unencumbered by exorbitant tuition fees I still needed some vacation employment to make ends meet. For a while I had a part time job in a betting office. I had no prior interest in horses or horseracing and I have not followed it since I left, it just seemed like a decent job for my schedule and bank balance at the time.

Over a few months I learned how to read the form and work out that this had little bearing on successfully picking a winner. As a general rule I didn’t place bets, I knew the odds of actually making money was non-existent. There is a reason why bookies drive around in flash cars and have fancy houses – people are bad at picking winners.

It was March 1998 and the Cheltenham Festival was in full swing. Posh people had taken a break from hunting foxes and shooting Hen Harriers and were instead racing horses below Cleeve Hill.

The festival was working up to the Gold Cup in the afternoon and I was casually looking through runners and riders over a brew when I saw Cool Dawn was running at 25/1. I had seen this horse a couple of times before and it had run really well, true it had been pulled up in its final race before the Gold Cup - but 25/1? Really? I fancied some of that. At lunchtime I nipped out with a crumpled fiver and spent £3 on a disappointing sandwich and stodgy cream bun leaving £2 for a bet. I placed it in a rival turf accountant on the way back to my shop. All the regulars were on See More Business so when that was carried out by a loose horse at about halfway there was much swearing and screwing up of betting slips.

I stayed quiet and watched as Cool Dawn had an untroubled passage around and, under a little pressure from Strong Promise, crossed the line into racing history, in the process making me £50 better off. I’ll never forget Cool Dawn.

On this cool dawn I fumble with the settings on the camera and eventually settling on something that seems appropriate and start the intervalometer for a sunrise time-lapse sequence.

The sun is rising over the Royal Liverpool Golf Course, it’s light spilling across the sands to Hilbre. Oystercatchers and the odd  lingering Bar-tailed Godwit are preening in the channel that runs along the east side of the island. It is almost silent, a fuzzy hushing noise is just about audible from the water at tide’s edge, but that quickly fades as my brain filters out the white noise. It catches the occasional Oyc call and Redshank whistle.

As the sun climbs it starts to burn off the mist and things come into sharp focus. Clear skies overnight with a mist forming in the early hours had first encouraged, then grounded migrant birds. Two Song Thrush and a handful of Chiffchaffs are on the island. There are Wheatears too, 5 if I have counted correctly. These are what I want to photograph.

They flit up and down the west side of the island, in and out of the shadows of the slopes and outcrops. They stop every now and then to look around. I’m not sure if they are looking for danger or surveying the ground for food. Either way they are still and it is a chance to photograph them.

It is cool in the shadows, a reminder that despite the sunshine that looks set to last all day, we can’t really call time on winter yet. But the presence of Wheatears hints at a shift in season.

Spring is coming. I find a small hollow and settle into it. I poke my head up to see if the birds have come any closer. They seem to pop their heads up to see what is looking at them.

They skip and jump after flies that go buzzing past and dart at any buggy movement in the grass. Dashing on long legs towards anything that looks like a meal.

There are still deep shadows on the west side of the island, it won’t be fully illuminated for a while. One bird is flying from sunny patch to sunny patch stopping occasionally to look for danger/food on a protruding sandstone perch. It comes closer to my hollow. I put down the cinnamon bun I had been scoffing (wiping my hands on the baby wipes I remembered to add to the bag – see the Mudflat 3K mkII post for an explanation) and pick up the camera. The light on its perch is wonderful, an orangey glow, cooler than sunset light, it is dawn light. Cool dawn light.

The birds wander in and out of the grass, occasionally disappearing in the new growth. The sward greening and lengthening as the growing season slowly starts.

Click, click, click. Picture after picture of the harbingers of Spring on the island.

The shadows shrink, the air feels warm for the first time, Wheatears whirr past in pursuit of prey. I pull myself up to a sitting position, satisfied with my pictures I put down the camera and swivel to allow the sun to hit my face. I close my eyes in the glare and feel the warmth on my cheeks. Winter has been vanquished, Spring has carried the day.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

low tide is the new high tide...

I take a lot of pictures of Purple Sandpipers at high tide.

Not so many of Turnstones at low tide.

The conventional wisdom would have you watching and photographing birds on the rising to full tide. This seems reasonable as when the tide floods the birds become corralled by the enveloping waters on to a narrower and narrower stretch of beach, getting closer to shore each minute. There they roost and as they assemble and settle they are easier, in theory, to watch and photograph. Thurstaston Shore on a rising tide is spot on for photographing Blackwits and Hoylake on a big spring tide can be breath-taking.

Stumble across a roost on Hilbre Island and you can have a prolonged period with the birds at close quarters for great viewing and a decent stab at getting some pictures.

As I dawdled towards the island this particular morning I was wondering what to shoot. I was on early and I followed the tide out, stopping at Middle eye to wait for the safe route to become visible as the tide dropped. The tide was receding much as my hairline was – slowly but with a creeping inevitability.

Once on the main island it was clear that the hoped for slew of early spring migrants was a wildly optimistic idea. A couple of Meadow Pipits chased each other over the paddocks and a White Wagtail called overhead. No Wheatears bounded along the west side and the skies were bereft of Sand Martin. No matter.

I wandered down to the cliffs overlooking the whaleback in the hope of finding a colour ringed Brent Goose. Down on the edge of the tide Turnstones were picking their way through the rocks looking for food.

With not much else to point the camera at I thought I’d give them a whirl. I started the steep descent to the shore at Shell Bay thinking this was a good idea as there is a small gap in my Hilbre catalogue that I could fill with Turnstone pictures.

The going was treacherous. Still wet seaweed was so slippery I thought about abandoning the idea after a couple of wobbles. Camera and attached lens don’t bounce.
The beach at Shell Bay gives way to rocky shore with some pretty large boulders so I had cover to sneak towards the breaking waves. The birds were foraging on the edge of the tide, enjoying the freshest seafood. I found a suitable rock and hunkered down behind it so the birds could carry on undisturbed while I fired off a few hundred frames in the intermittent sunshine.

Over the course of a couple of hours I grew more and more fascinated by the world these birds occupy. I am more than familiar with these islands but I will admit that I have been too ignorant of the rocks and all that lives on them.

To watch and record the Turnstones is to be taken into this glittering post-tide world. The sights, the sounds and the smells. The textures too; slime like seaweed, granular shell sand, calcareous – chalky barnacle shell. This place is smothered with life. Every possible space has been occupied by something. Look around and whatever surface you see there is some creature or plant adhered, cemented, fixed in defiance of the roaring sea. When I first arrived I thought it looked messy and chaotic, everything on top of everything else. These creatures were living all over each other, like the most overcrowded city on the planet.

After no time at all I was hooked. This glistening world, refreshed with the tidal waters of Liverpool Bay thrived and heaved in front of me. It seemed so fresh while smelling a bit like off fish. Fresh like a baby out of a bath. The birds moved through it peering into empty barnacle shell, flicking seaweed fronds and poking at periwinkles. To my left I spot a Sabellaria alveolata reef.

These colonial worms make sandy burrows like a honeycomb, the Turnstones climb over them, inspecting chambers for a meal.

I shift my position as the sun moves and as I do I come across a beached jellyfish. I take its picture and afterwards, looking at the image on the computer, I see my reflection in a bubble in the pool it is stranded in. I nudge it with a wet welly boot then settle in to get more pictures of the Turnstones.

I am struck by how out of place I am here. I feel… really… terrestrial. These creatures are so different but utterly amazing. The dropping tide had revealed wonder I had, until now, unforgivably ignored.

The pictures stacked up and soon the tide turned. It isn’t wise to linger longer than you have to on the rising tide so I retraced those treacherous steps to the island then worked my way back to the mainland wondering where I had just been. 

 A new world on the small island I know so well.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

After Hours...

The hours that everyone else throws away...

2016 has been reviewed, chewed, swallowed then digested and although some political and cultural upheavals left a sour taste in the mouth the Patch and places visited because of it didn’t disappoint. They never do.

Updates to the blog were sporadic and not great in number as photo opportunities were limited due to the most inspiring distraction, my daughter Summer. I do not resent being drawn away from the Patch by her care, I would swap a hundred Patch hours for just one with her innocence and enthusiasm. She has torn up the Patch with me on a number of occasions and I look forward to introducing her to more of its weird and wonderful wildlife this year.

So if I do get out with the camera I have to make it count. This is no bad thing as it has taught me to try and get the best out of the camera and the Patch in short order, often at unusual times. It was almost like I was treating time on the Patch like a lock in at the pub – photographing after hours.

Looking back there were some obvious highlights in 2016.

great northern

A long staying Great Northern Diver on the West Kirby Marine Lake, a few minutes walk from my house, meant a couple of opportunities for pictures during Summer’s nap time. While my wife waited in I snapped this effortlessly cool juvenile as it sauntered around the lake.

cool dawn

This and similar pictures will make up a full post to this blog when I get round to it. Photographing migrating Wheatears on Hilbre Island at sunrise? What could be cooler than that? And I was back in time for Summer’s breakfast too.

unlimited Knot

Another trip to Porsanger with a quick visit to Varanger saw more encounters with red Red Knots, and other stunning arctic wildlife. Seeing them in breeding plumage never gets old. Not seeing Summer for a week got pretty old pretty quickly.

small copper

Grandparents keen on exclusive access to Summer meant an afternoon in the meadows with butterflies and other bugs. The sway of a summer meadow seems far away as I write this but the pictures take me right back there.

at the river

More dawn manoeuvres allowed time with the Blackwits on Thurstston Shore, the place it all began. It remains the muddiest part of the muddy banks of the Dee. Beautiful.

archipelago eagle

Summer was present for this picture. Her first trip north was to the forests of the Stockholm Archipelago it was full of wonder, adventure and this eagle. We climbed a hill through lichen clad sweet smelling pines. We reached the summit with stunning views across the water to the mainland. The White-tailed Eagle was rising on a thermal effortlessly cruising its Patch, it flew right over us. We received a cursory glance, Summer dropped the stick she was carrying, I grabbed a handful of pictures. It banked away, swept broad wings back and sped away covering miles in minutes until it was lost from view.  Magic.

running over owls

As Summer slept soundly I left the cosy living room and full control of the TV remote to my wife and headed over to Hilbre to photograph the stars. A wildly inaccurate weather forecast had meant I was expecting clear skies and I found 100% cloud cover. However, bumping into this Short-eared Owl on the chilly return to the mainland banished all the ill-will I had cultivated towards weather forecasters.

purple sandpiper

I decided that being marooned on Hilbre over high tide in February was preferable to a trip to the in-laws so as Summer was spoiled by grandparents I sat in the cold and damp on the island with only the Purps and my thoughts for company.

What will 2017 bring? It has started with some foggy encounters with Pintail and a trip to photograph Red Squirrels in a deep dark wood, so the signs are good. Will I head north again? What “rares” will we get on the Patch? Will Summer sleep through the night?

Stay tuned, I’ll let you know…

Thursday, 10 November 2016

eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.

Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.

I don’t just go to watch and photograph the birds, but that is main reason. There is more. It is the routine, the preparation. Selecting what coat to wear, what snacks to secrete in one of the many pockets it has (all my coats have plentiful pockets). The notebook and pen. The ritual of recording the date, time, weather etc. It is all of these things that make me…

Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.

Most of the time the Patch is fairly predictable. High then low tide. Birds roosting then feeding. It is reassuring in its certainty. On the whole I know what is likely to happen and what I have a chance of seeing when I set out on another Patch manoeuvre.

Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.

But then there are those moments. The little events and happenings that keep you returning for days when nothing much happens because there is always that slim chance that you will have another of those moments. For some Patch watchers it is something rare turning up, an addition to a life list or a Patch list. For me it is those moments that seem too crazy to be happening, the "Am I really seeing this?" moments.

Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.

Hilbre stands at the head of the Patch, the furthest point you can go finishing at Liverpool Bay and the wider Irish Sea. Today it is the same as usual for this time of year. Redshanks and Turnstones scurry over the low seaweed covered rocks in front of Middle Eye, the newly arrived Brent Geese are grazing the weed on the west side and the Oystercatchers long running and noisy disputes are continuing as normal.

Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.

While things may be run-of-the-mill on the Patch today I am seeing it a little differently, well, hardly seeing it at all really. It is dark.

Now I wouldn’t normally recommend a trip to a tidal island on one of the fastest tidal estuaries in northern Europe at night but I saw the forecast for clear skies and thought it’d be a good evening for a spot of night sky photography on the Patch.

Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.

It seemed like a good idea. Reality was a little different. As I gazed upon the screen of my phone showing a wildly inaccurate and overly optimistic weather situation I knew it was going to be a bust as far as star photography was concerned. There was some clear sky, trouble was it was several miles away over the big city lights of Liverpool. Above us only clouds.

My companions were putting on a couple of brave faces and making the most of the uniqueness of a trip to Hilbre in the dark. Testing set ups, exposures, making mental compositions for when we could return under a clearer firmament.

Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.

The birds were still active. The Oystercatchers continued to “pip-pip” in disagreement, a Curlew called but didn’t receive a reply. Redshank piped lonely whistles every now and again. I think I heard Grey Plover too.

After a couple of cups of coffee and a bun each we decided to cut our losses and head back to the mainland. As we were preparing to go the clouds started to part. Perhaps we were going to get one small window to shoot some stars. The Patch always delivers.

Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.

We jumped in the 4x4 and headed over to Middle Eye to get a shot looking back on the island with the starry sky above. Clouds rolled in. Thwarted and further delayed from a return to the sanctuary and warmth of home.

We re-embark the vehicle and I flick on the headlights illuminating the path home. The lights aren’t fantastic and I think I may have to make good on my boast that I could find my way off the island with my eyes shut. It’ll be an adventure, I think to myself.

Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.

We bump over the rocks past Middle and emerge on to the smoother sands that lead to Little Eye. There are a few scattered rocks that poke out from the blanket of sand and I zig-zag the truck through these. After a hundred yards or so of manoeuvring something unusual catches my eye on one of the rocks. It looks a little different, beige and speckled rather than seaweed covered reddish-brown sandstone.

Our path through the rocks takes us straight in its direction, our headlights illuminating it. As we inch closer the beige blob becomes discernible. That’s when I know the Patch has done it again.

Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.

There on the rock, tearing at the bloody carcass of a careless (or unlucky) Redshank sits a Short-eared Owl.

Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.

A while ago I encountered a Shortie on the island. It was soon after dawn and I was the first to arrive on the island. It had roosted on the footpath along the west side of the island and as I walked along hoping to find a Wheatear it looked up and fixed me with what could only be described as a “hard stare”. At the time I remember thinking this is why I dragged myself out of bed and walked across the muddy shore as dawn broke, for one off moments like this.

Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.

I thought “This will probably never happen again, so make the most of it, get the settings right and get the picture”.

But it has happened again and this time in even more unlikely circumstances. Who could have predicted this?

Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.

In shock I call out what I have seen so the others can see too, I think there was some swearing involved, but I think I can be forgiven the foul language due to the unique and unexpected events that are unfolding in the beam of our headlights.

The Shortie seems unfazed by a car appearing at its dinner table. It also seems unwilling to give up its prey. I can’t blame it, catching a nifty Redshank in daylight must be tricky enough, let alone after nightfall. It stays in the glare of the lights while we collectively fumble to reassemble kit that had been stowed away in mild disappointment and try for a picture we never thought we would ever get.

Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.

High ISO, wide open lenses, slow shutter speeds, the odds of a great shot are slim, but the Owl obliges by staying still and we have several goes at getting it right.
I get all carried away and start saying sweeping statements like “once in a lifetime”, or “never as long as you live”. The tinge of disappointment at missing out on the stars is swept away on a tide of owl-in-the-dark photography.

Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.

After we have our pictures I carefully reverse away and take a longer drive around the rocks so that we don’t disturb the owl’s meal (the following day I return and find our tell-tale tracks in the sand and look at the rocks where we encountered the Shortie. There are plenty of droppings and no sign of any Redshank remains so I figure it lingered there long after we had left).

As we round Little Eye and I point the vehicle at the lights of West Kirby I say to my companions that we could repeat the trip a hundred times or more and we’d never see that again. Later on it occurs to me that yes, while we would not see a Shortie on prey in our headlights we would see something else, another golden Patch moment.

Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.

That’s why I return the next morning, and why I’ll keep thrashing the Patch. It always delivers. Therefore I…

… eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.
Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.
Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.
Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.
Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.
Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.
Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.
Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.
Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.
Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.
Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.
Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.
Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.
Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.
Eat, sleep, Patch, repeat.