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 café. 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.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

The Outer Rim...

A glance at the tide table shows big tides predicted. The online weather station shows the pressure dropping. Slowly but surely the graph is trending downwards, soon we should be below 1000 millibars of atmospheric pressure. The wind is rising too and swinging from a north to a westerly direction. All the signs are there for a flood.

This will not be a flood on a biblical scale, not one you would need to flee from, in fact many people will be flocking to the muddy banks of the Dee to witness it.

The huge amount of water being dragged towards the land will cover the usually peaceful marshes and force thousands of birds from the mudflats to seek refuge anywhere not flooded by these monster tides. The usually secretive Short-eared Owls and Hen Harriers will be flushed from the cover of swampy grasses and, hopefully, be easy to see and - even more hopefully - photograph.

I have a few days off work that coincide with these large tides (that is not a happy coincidence, it was carefully planned in advance) and I plan on getting out there to catch the great flood.

My usual place on Thurstaston Shore will be no good for this; the rushing tide will swiftly engulf it and, in the blink of an eye, sweep away any birds feeding there. To witness the tidal spectacle at its peak I’m going to have to go off-Patch again (see my previous post about venturing away from my usual haunts).

I’m going to head south. South of Riverbank Road to the Outer Rim of the Patch. There are several possible watch points and I have to decide where exactly to go, this means I will have to guess how far the tide will come in – not an exact science. The last thing I want to do is pitch up somewhere that doesn’t flood. Also I want to steer clear of Parkgate, that is going to be waaaaaaay too busy and I like to avoid the crowds. I much prefer it when birds outnumber people.

I figure I will start at Cottage Lane as, given the predicted tide height, that is almost 100% certain to flood. Then if it looks like being a mammoth tide I will leapfrog Parkgate to the Harp Inn at Neston. At least if it doesn’t flood here I can have a pint.

Rather pleased with my cunning plan I set off with charged batteries and empty memory cards (and snacks).

Cottage Lane is disagreeably busy but I see a few familiar friendly faces for a chinwag.

The tide teases us, looking like it isn’t going to make many in-roads to the marsh. People are starting to glance at watches, refer to tide tables and say “Hmmm, bit late now, doesn’t look like its going to make it…”

But the tide is just building the momentum in needs to breech the outer rim of the marsh where it ends and the mudflats begin.

It rushes in all at once.

(I like the word pandemonium and I have every right to use it here.)

Pandemonium ensues.

Everything is moving in all directions.

Oystercatchers leave in their thousands, up and away from the leading edge of the tide. The Blackwits go high, some splitting from the main flock and heading inland, the rest flying down the estuary towards Burton. Redshanks are moving in innumerable small flocks, most in the same direction as the Oycs but some are heading back towards roosts on the north Wirral coast. The Knot have disappeared altogether. Shelduck and Pintail drift in on the current, Teal anxiously zoom past in wader-like flocks, the smallest duck making the biggest fuss.

Meadow Pipits, Skylarks, Linnets and Reed Buntings congregate on mats of seeds that the tide is collecting and transporting towards the shore. They fly off in all directions, some over our heads to the golf course behind us. A nervous Water Rail calls from the reeds. Someone has spotted a Short-eared Owl and calls out directions to find it in the chaos. The bird is being mobbed by crows and gulls while it escapes as the water floods its roost site.

The crows and gulls quickly turn their attention to the hundreds of small mammals that are literally swimming for their lives away from the flooding marsh to the sanctuary of the old sea wall and the golf course.

Many don’t make it, scooped up as lunch by the swooping corvids and gulls. The Owls aren’t close enough for a decent set of photographs and it is a little too hectic here so I initiate the second phase of my Outer Rim plan.

Up at the Harp the marsh is starting to flood nicely and it is much quieter, more relaxed. Looking down towards Burton there is a Great White Egret and further out a Peregrine is harassing some already harassed waders. The Blackwits I saw flying over Cottage Lane a few minutes earlier are attempting to roost on an island of vegetation. A little flotilla of Teal are swimming with the tide in front of them – looking a lot more relaxed than their counterparts from Cottage Lane. The same mix of small birds is feeding on the washed up seed mats now pushed up close to the old quay.

Not so close are the owls. We get good views but there is close and then there is getting pictures close. These birds stay just out of range so I aim the camera at the rather gruesome goings on closer to shore. Having made the effort to visit the Outer Rim I am not keen on going home picture-less.

A good number of voles, rats, mice and shrews are being mercilessly picked off by gulls as they race for the shore. Every now and then you’d spot one swimming like mad to get to safety, the people on the shore willing them to make it to shelter unseen by the birds, only to gasp with dismay as a bird swoops in to pluck it from the water.

Inevitably, as the tide starts to recede the action starts to slow down. The birds settle to roost and the mammals have either made it to shore or perished on the way. Seeing as I am outside the pub it seems silly not to initiate phase three of the Outer Rim plan. I call in for a pint.
The rest of the afternoon is spent here…

Sat outside the pub with my pint glass and the tide slowly draining away, calm returns to the estuary. I notice some Stonechats mooching along the fence line separating the footpath from the marsh. They seem fairly tame too. The light in the morning would be perfect for…

Another plan starts to form.

It’s not so bad around the Outer Rim.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

South of the border, east of the sun...

Other people's patches.

I rarely stray from the muddy banks of the Dee. Most of my birdwatching and photography is done within a few miles of my home. It is my Patch, my little slice of the birding pie.

It was entirely by accident that I developed this parochial approach to nature. Some people will travel long distances to see birds, and that is cool, it is just I never liked the urgency of the chase or the faff of the travel... etc.

From this laziness came an appreciation of what is right on my doorstep. The Patch. What I call the Patch is not one small defined area, it is a loose collection of sites that I like to spend time at, and during the course of many hours on these sites I have come to know them so, so well.

Currently patch watching is really popular (I suppose it always has been, but it does seem to be increasing at the moment) and patches are popping up all over the place.

As a general rule people are pretty cool about sharing the birds on their Patches but I have met the odd one who doesn't seem happy with people encroaching on their territory. For some it seems, there are borders and boundaries, lines that shouldn't be crossed.

When I was a kid I had boundaries. I was allowed around our  capital "I" shaped close but wasn't allowed along the footpath to the large grassy roundabout behind. The main road just south of the close was out of bounds too. They were other people's playgrounds.

Now I have self imposed borders. I will cross them on occasion but on the whole I tend not too. Anything to the east of Gilroy and south of Riverbank Road I consider to be alien country - The Outer Rim.

I don't consider my Patch to be any better or worse than other people's patches, its just I like mine like I like my favourite pair of trainers. Comfortable, it just 'feels' right in my Converse/on my Patch.

There have been a couple of Snow Buntings close by all winter. Not on my Patch though. I have resisted the temptation to go and photograph them, hoping that I would get one or two visiting me, most likely on Hilbre, maybe on Thursatston Shore. Alas, as we plodded through January there were no signs of Patch Buntings.

So here I am. Off-Patch. With my dad on Wallasey Beach looking for Snow Buntings.

That's him in the picture, crouched behind the tripod mounted camera.
The Bunts were easy to find, 2 of them feeding and mooching along the tide line close to the busy embankment.

We spent a chilly couple of hours with them on a sunny Monday morning. While most people were opening emails at the start of the working week, we were getting sandy shots of  these obliging Snow Buntings.

The birds fed on seeds and vegetation plucked from the strandline on the busy shore. This species is renowned for being tame, and these two birds have obviously become very used to beach life on this corner of the Wirral, a corner that they could rightly call their Patch.

That is something that we do not forget, this is the bird's territory and they will exploit it so they can survive the winter. It would not be on for us to disturb them at all.

Keeping a safe distance, we can see the birds do not alter their behaviour while we are there. We get some images of them scrabbling around the washed up vegetation, appearing and disappearing amongst piles of seaweed.

Dog walkers come and go, flinging sticks for excited pooches. Cyclists whizz by on the embankment. A tractor/trailer and JCB combo clear wind-blown sand from the adjacent road and the birds don't flinch.

Three kite surfers brave the freezing conditions to take advantage of the stiff breeze that is blowing, these too are no bother to the two intrepid Bunts. We get more pictures.

The same chill breeze that is propelling the surfers is fluffing up the thick feathers of our Bunts. I lie down on the sand to get a low angle on our birds. They continue to feed and turn my way. They hop closer and closer, I can see the grains of sand on their bills. Eventually they come within the minimum focussing distance of the lens and I can't take any more pictures until they hop away again.

To be able to appreciate these birds at such close quarters without disturbing them is a treat. As fast as the memory cards are filling up my stomach seems to be emptying. I'm burning breakfast at a rate of knots in this cold weather. We decamp to a local cafe to warm up with a cuppa.

I have a couple of regular Patch cafes that I patronise before or after some birdwatching, but I'm off Patch today so this choice is a shot in the dark. It is a palpable hit! A steaming mug of tea brings feeling back to frozen fingers. A second breakfast is quickly polished off.

Warm, full of full English and with a stack of Bunting images I feel contented with the day on another Patch...

... south of the border - east of the sun.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Olaf's Oaks...

From October – November time last year…

It is good to be still again.

In two senses I am enjoying the calm. The trip across the States, 6 cities and 4 National Parks in a little over 3 weeks, was awesome but non-stop, almost too much to absorb in one go.

Back on the Patch and the weather has been unsettled to say the least. High winds have been battering the Dee, everywhere there is turbulence.

But not today, at last it is calm.

I am in the woods, Stapledon Woods to be exact, to enjoy a mellow autumn day. As the Patch slouches through autumn towards the stasis of winter I can feel the pace slowing, and nowhere more so than here under the trees.

Things are just different in the woods. For one thing, you are IN the woods, you have to enter the woods. Unlike on the wide open spaces of the Dee mudflats where the feeling is much different. You arrive ON the shore where sometimes you will be the tallest thing there, standing out, obvious. Not so in the woods, around me ancient oaks loom over me (not on the scale of Yosemite’s redwoods but still impressive all the same). You can disappear in the woods if you want to, it surrounds you.

I don’t find this feeling claustrophobic though, it’s sort of comfortable.
Around me are the signs of the season. As chlorophyll decays to xanthocyanins in drying leaves they turn from lush greens to gaudy yellows, each leaf a chemistry set, the woods a laboratory, the autumn a huge experiment.

I like the woods because of the slow pace, accentuated by the current season, of life here. It takes years and years to grow a tree to maturity, seeds can lie dormant for generations, just waiting for a gap in the canopy to provide enough light to start germination. I like the harmony too, the sharing of resources. As I watch Blue Tits searching the crinkled bark of an Oak for food I hear the calls of Redwings overhead. The resident and the migrant will live side by side here for the winter.

This tolerance and the longevity of the woods is a welcome antidote to the short-termism, greed and xenophobia that I have seen so much of in life and politics recently.

Yes, in the woods I briefly feel insulated from all the bad stuff in the world. I switch my phone to silent, then off altogether, unplugging myself from the digital world.

After my trip to the USA with the ride around the parks with some cool people I decided to dip a toe into the pool of online social networking and get busy with Facebook and Twitter (if you like you can follow me here). It is kind of cool but for now I like the solitude of the woods.

I kick some autumn leaves around. I examine a yellowing leaf up close, count the berries on a Holly branch and sniff the strange sweetish not-exactly-pleasant-but-not-entirely-unpleasant smell of damp decay that permeates woodland at this time of year.

The odd mushroom pushes up through the moss of a rotting log.

These woods are named after the author Olaf Stapledon who lived here for a while when he worked at Liverpool University. Although he is well regarded by other more famous sci-fi authors, Olaf is not as well known as he should be. I have read one of his books, Last and First Men, I even read a chapter or two sat on the bench that overlooks the fields adjacent to these woods. The story, first published in 1930, stretches over vast tracts of time and the predictions of the near future are startlingly prophetic. Ages, nations and civilisations come and go. The timescale and themes in his book again underline the trivial nature of the fear-mongers of modern politics and squabbles over religion, lines in the sand and money.

But none of that matters here in the woods. All I am worried about here is getting the exposure correct to photograph the aforementioned Blue Tits in flight. The right combination of ISO, aperture and shutter speed are eventually found and I get my pictures.

My next challenge is the Nuthatches that are flitting along the branches deeper in the woods. It is darker here so a slower shutter speed is needed to capture all the details. I love figuring these settings out. Reading the instruction book for the camera was the best thing I ever did, and although I am trying to be a little more carefree with some of my pictures I still can’t totally trust the camera to get it right on its own. Again, after a little experimentation, some test exposures and a bunch of blurry shots fit only for the recycle bin, I get my pictures.

Before I leave I sit for a while under Olaf’s Oaks and soak up the tranquillity of his woods. Still singing despite the end of the breeding season is a tiny Wren. Its huge staccato song belying its diminutive stature.

After half an hour listening to the Wren I have to wander off, the real world beckons and I boot up the phone to plug myself back into the matrix. It flashes and chirps with texts, emails, likes, tweets and the occasional retweet.

As if in reply to this electronic chatter the Wren launches into his song again and I smile to myself as I leave the sanctuary of the trees.

It’s all good in the woods.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Port Effect.... #2014

It must have been the port. Maybe the combination of the pâtè, the cheese and the port.

Whatever, I find myself sunk low in an armchair in that familiar, satisfied, comfortably reflective mood as we approach the eve of a new year. So I’ve had a good trawl through the memory banks and hard drives of 2014 and after a bit of deliberation I have found my five favourite pictures of the year from along the muddy banks of the Dee (and beyond).

1 The Manta Ray

It was a cold, drab day on Hoylake Shore. The tide and the assembled birdwatchers were a little subdued by the unpleasant weather. The waders were in a fight flock hugging the edge of the tide, not really giving us the usual spectacular show. That was until the Peregrine swooped.

An unlucky Dunlin bit the bullet, its neck snapped in front of the shocked crowds. The rest of the flock took to the air in panic, weaving fantastic shapes against the dull grey sky. This was my favourite.

2 The Flutter

The start of 2014 was a tempestuous affair. Storms battered the Patch relentlessly for the first few weeks leaving the estuary empty of Knot, Blackwits and Pintail. I had to find something else to point the camera at. I came across a feeding station with a sunny aspect and a distant background (this was good because it appeared blurry on the pictures) frequented by some boisterous Chaffinches.

I had a fine time messing about with the camera settings to get some flight shots. The sound of the fluttering wings as the birds vied for position on the feeder was great to hear too.

3 The Death of a Fly

In the spring, after work, I would head down to the bench where Gordon sat to relax with the camera. A pair of Chiffchaffs was nesting close by and would feed in the old Oak tree opposite the wooden seat. The bench is popular with resting ramblers so the birds become quite used to people and if you sat still they would come reasonably close.

Sitting there quietly with the big lens I was able to get some close ups of the feeding Chiffies and I even managed to capture the demise of a small fly…

4 The White Out

May saw my third trip to Porsanger in the far north of Norway. As usual I was there for the Norwegian Knot Project to do a bit of fieldwork. This year Spring and the Knots were late so I had a bit of time to look for other wildlife. Snow Buntings were still in large flocks around the few small farms that eek out some limited agriculture in the frozen north.

Occasionally some would fly down to the shore to feed on the seaweed strandline. Here I was able to photograph them and was lucky enough to get a summer plumaged male on the snow. White on white, snow on snow.

5 The Great Escape

On Hilbre in early autumn I spent some time with a family of Swallows as they prepared for their migration to southern Africa. The details of the extra ordinary story of a lucky hover fly escaping what looked like certain doom is detailed in the post “Dog Days Are Over”.

As always, time spent with these birds continued to grow my respect and admiration for their efforts. I hope the family made it safely south, they certainly had enough fuel.

That’s my top five; they are in chronological order as I couldn’t pick a Number One. Each photograph reminds me of days spent in my favourite places surrounded by my favourite birds with my camera in hand. Good times.

2015 fast approaches and promises much, but in the meantime, where’s the rest of that Port?

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Christmas Bandits...

It comes around awful quick. I have been a little distracted of late, there are several posts about adventures on the Dee (and beyond) waiting to go up on this blog, but the festive season is upon us and that can only mean one thing:

Johnny and Matt’s Festive Walk.

This is now a well established and most welcome Christmas tradition. We just grab our cameras, some munchies and hit the Patch. Thinking about it, the Festive Walk is just one of our normal walks with the addition of mince pies.

We have added a third rule for 2014:

Christmas jumpers must NOT be worn.

(for a summary of the rules see the 15000 Seconds of Light post from about this time last year)

Today is our Christmas “do”. However there will be none of the usual Christmas Do misdemeanours. Today nobody will get drunk and do something stupid in front of the boss, no one will fall asleep on the night bus and neither of us will wear novelty reindeer antlers.

The weather is a bit sketchy, blustery freezing showers are being blown along on a keen wind and it is dark, really dark. Not an ideal day for wildlife photography but that doesn’t matter at all, today is more about just being out on the Patch and having a good, festive time.

We tear off across the Patch like a couple of Christmas Bandits. Starting on the Wirral Way (where the Wood Pigeon Tree is reassuringly full of Wood Pigeons) we are greeted by hundreds of Thrushes. Redwings and Fieldfares dot the hedgerow like baubles on a Christmas tree. “tssseeeee” calls and angry “chack”s can be heard as they strip the branches of the ripe red berries. Loose flocks are almost always in the air, moving along the Wirral Way.

We climb up to the Dungeon where we have our first food stop.

One chicken tikka baguette, 3 cups hot apple, pear and cinnamon cordial, 2 mince pies and 2 apple & cranberry pies.

We look for the Little Owl but it seems a Grey Squirrel has evicted it from its usual hole. We see Great Spotted Woodpecker and on the stream a Grey Wagtail is bobbing along.

We try a selfie but it takes a couple of goes to figure out the self timer.

The second attempt is more what we had in mind.

From the Dungeon we head to the shore via Heswall Fields.

Topics discussed:

Life (marriage*, jobs – the usual)
Cameras (full frame the way to go?)
Camera bags
Best charity shop find 2014 (easily Johnny’s posh Timberland waterproof for £10)

* Johnny’s wife has recently vetoed his attempt to purchase a set of night vision goggles. Shocking.

We reach the shore and scan the estuary.

We also polish off the rest of our supplies.

2 Plum, Pear and Cinnamon pies, 2 Rhubarb Pies and the rest of the cordial, hot from the thermos flask, cold from the hip flask.

In Mono Valley some Teal are mooching around in the water and some on the muddy banks. As usual Oystercatchers are having a noisy dispute.
Behind us a rainbow briefly brightens the sky over Oldfield Farm. The fleeting sunshine shows up a good roost of Knot straddling the gutter up by Thurstaston.

We head in that direction as the rain sweeps over us again. By the time we get closer to the roosting Knot it has gone really dark again. For a moment it looks like the birds have fled with the passing shower but they are still there. Without the sun on them they fade into the muddy walls of the gutter.

Above us a Kestrel sits in a gnarled old Hawthorn. The tree isn’t very tall and an odd shape due to its constant exposure to the prevailing wind. It seems defiant. I WILL grow here it is saying.

We wait for the tide and in due course it starts to push the Knot from their resting place in Mono Valley out into the open. We watch for a while as they feed, squabble and squawk before flying down Mono towards the marsh.

We are almost back at our origin but regular readers will know that we can’t finish yet. We need a picture of a Robin. Trouble is, they are being more than a little uncooperative today. I nearly had one at the Dungeon but it disappeared just as I hit the shutter. Back at our respective cars we wonder what to do about the Robin situation. It would be breaking our rules to go now, but it is nearly dark…. It is hard to even spot the birds. If only we had night vision goggles….

We stick around for a while and in near darkness a Robin finally turns up. It is photographed but I am almost ashamed to present it, but, rules are rules!

Dodgy Robin pictures in the bag we set sail for our respective homes – anyone struggling for a present for a birdwatcher might like to consider night-vision eyewear… Just a subtle hint…

So that is it for another year, our seasonal walk here is done. We can warm up, relax, stuff a turkey and focus on the festivities.

Happy Christmas.