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.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Marvo Ging...

“I feel it again. The call to light.

Kylo Ren sits before the deformed mask of his grandfather Darth Vader and, masked head in gloved hand, has an existential crisis. Strangely, I sort of know what he means. Every so often I do feel the need for illumination, to head north and revel in the light of an arctic summer.

I am watching the latest Star Wars film at the cinema with my best buddy from school. I’m loving it, but then I am a fan and have been since I was four years old. I won’t grow out of it and will never tire of the Tie Fighter’s scream or the clash of lightsabers. I still have some of the childhood toys my mum got me after enduring freezing Christmas queues outside a well-known catalogue shop upon learning via the mum grapevine that a delivery was due.

On the train home from the cinema I am thinking about travel to the light of the far north and the adventures I have had chasing Red Knots hundreds of miles above the arctic circle. As the train clatters along the tracks back towards the Patch from the big city I feel that urge to move, to travel, to head north. I feel it too Kylo. A call from the light.

It turns out I have a case of Zugunruhe. This is not as bad as it sounds. The Knots get it too, as do all migratory animals. Zugunruhe is the restlessness that migrants feel before they set off on their journeys, usually triggered by hormonal changes in response to altering day lengths (there is so much more to migration triggers than this but it would not be possible to present it all here – it is truly fascinating though and worth some research if you have the time and inclination).

Okay, so my case of itchy feet is for selfish reasons, excitement and adventure rather than the imperative to breed, but even so I am self-diagnosing an acute case of Zugunruhe with the only cure a trip to the frozen north of Norway to photograph Red Knots.

Tickets booked, bags packed.

I’m on the train again - this time to the airport. My headphones are in and I’m staring at the countryside flashing by the window. I love the change of landscape as you move, either watching it from the train or seeing it for the first time that you step off a plane. That newness, the feeling of exploration, of finding something different. That display I once saw in Copenhagen airport looms large in my mind’s eye again. “To travel is to live”.

The MP3 player shuffles round from some Teenage Fanclub (the best band in the world) to some fuzzed up American alt rock by way of some classic Bob Dylan. I feel the outline of my passport in my jeans pocket, triple checking it is there. My e-ticket and boarding pass are stored on my fully charged phone. It’s the first time I have used this electronic pass so I have made sure it won’t let me down and leave me stranded. I’ve even turned down the screen brightness to save power.

The MP3 player selects a new track. Marvo Ging by the Chemical Brothers. As it plays I sense that feeling again. The persussion of the song fall in synch with the beats of the train over the tracks. The loops and samples, the slidy sitar guitar loop. It amplifies the sense of movement, the travel, the prospect of adventure. It is an irresistible feeling. The ear worm works its way into my brain. I start to tap my feet.

The Knots will be feeling the Zugunruhe right now. They will be fuelling up for the trek north, to our rendez-vous in Porsanger. As I recheck my passport pocket again they will be having no such thoughts about borders and customs. They seem like much more relaxed travellers, they enjoy truly free movement.

I’m meeting up with others in Norway but I am making my way there on my own. I quite like solo travel. I sit in the airport café drinking surprisingly decent coffee and watching people scurry around the departure lounge. I love this, spotting holiday makers, hen parties and businessmen, seeing real lives being led by people from all over the globe.

Doing this reminds me that whoever we are, wherever we are from and wherever we are going we are all really just the same. Eat, sleep, move, repeat. As trite and clichéd as all the “one world” stuff sounds, fundamentally it is true. Our differences are only superficial and actually make things a lot more interesting. Ignoring the duty free, I people watch before boarding my flight to the light.

The Knots beat me north. I encounter my first flock on the way from the airport to our digs for the first night. I catch up with many thousands more over the next week, literally catching some on two occasions. The chance to contribute to the colour ringing project on these birds is great; the accumulation of knowledge feels as good as the travel and adventure. I take pictures too, many thousands of these inspiring travellers before I have to head home to the muddy banks of the Dee.

Back to today and I’m on a train again, this time returning from a catch up and a bite to eat with an old buddy. The light is fading and it’s hard to see much from the train window. I push my earphones deeper into my ears to obliterate the inane chatter from some xenophobic and ill-informed idiots in the seats opposite. There are all fashion shirts, fashion beards and that awful confidence in their own ignorance.

A Charlatans song fades out and Marvo Ging comes on. The beats match the train and I get that feeling again. The north beckons once more, this time with my family. The excitement builds, I start to tap my feet.

I feel it again, the call to light.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Me In Time...

There were only brief moments when I saw the birds. Shards of clarity.

The dew on the grass soaks my boots and the bottom two inches of my jeans before I reach the cliff top path. As usual I ignore the warning signs and start the climb towards the beach. There is enough light from the breaking dawn for me to see where I am going and besides, I know these cliffs like the back of my hand. This is a personal, well-worn, if unofficial route to nirvana. I disturb a Blackbird from one of the Hawthorns that just about manages to grow here. It flies off with an alarm call that is piercing in the morning quiet.

Slung over my left shoulder is my telescope topped tripod and on my back is a camera bag filled not just with optics, breakfast is in there too. Binoculars swing around my neck as I work my way shorewards, bashing against my chest on the steep descent. In the pocket of my camouflage combat jacket are my notebook and pen. All I need.

Well, nearly. I need some migratory shorebirds to complete the list of ingredients for this recipe.

I find a suitable spot close to the toe of the cliffs and settle in for my breakfast, enjoying the sunrise, silence and solitude. Hot coffee from the flask and a couple of homemade muffins baked with leftover pick-your-own raspberries. I’m careful not to drop crumbs into the eyecups of my binos.

Fast broken, I open the notebook at a fresh page, write the date, location and time across the top. Under the date I give a brief account of the weather.

It is cloudless, the sky clear save for a pair of con trails from a jumbo jet heading north west. The air is cool, wind almost breathless.

The tide builds momentum; I can see its leading edge down the estuary, just passing the golf course, rolling this way. Not long now. I take the final steps from the cliffs to the sand and pebble shore. Oystercatchers are noisy and I hear a Curlew call. Another answers. Redshank are piping excitedly, like they sense the water is coming. Their feeding becomes a little more earnest.

I walk towards the marsh a little way, I get close to the point where the sand turns into mudflat and pause among the shells and seaweed of the strandline.

The channel cut into the mudflats has filled and over spilled, the flood has begun. The sun shines.

500 Blackwits stitch the mud at the edge of the tide. Pintail and Shelduck drift in behind them. I stop look, listen……………………….

Blending into the shore. The sounds on the beach seem to be flowing from the mudflats to me - the bird’s calls, the spattering of bills and feet in super saturated gloopy mud and the gentle waves of the rising tide. All soft sounds building to a crescendo of white noise that would, if there was any other noise here, drown it out. The notes are flowing off the flats and into me via my toes as well as my ears. They start to fill me up.

The sights are mesmeric. The frantic feeding of the birds, the gentle paddling of the Pintail and Shelduck. Tiny Teal, chestnut head, morning sun, irredescence. Splashes of mud, Dunlin scurrying. They all come to me through my eyes and my feet and my gut, filling me from the toes. When the sights and sounds reach my belly they turn to butterflies. Then my limbs start to ache in a pleasant way. Being pulled downwards, into the sand. The sights keep on. Blackwits in flight, morning sun, glowing bills.

Redshank roosting, total peace, still.

Oystercatcher feeding in slow motion, things starting to get sluggish, creep towards tidal height. Feeling blooms like algae, ink drops cloud in water, feel the diffusion – a slow-mo explosion of biological. Waders line up on the shore, Dunlin, Knot, Redshank, Curlew’s eye, Curlew’s bill, bubbles.

The sights pile up in me, filling me, the sounds too, I am connected to the Patch, totally, not umbilically but close. I’m at capacity, but still it comes, I start to swell. I grow, I’m ten feet tall on Curlew calls. Knot in flight over rushing waves only two centimetres tall. Now I’m over the ground, held aloft by a stream of many golden strands flowing from the mud to my guts another explosion of slow motion, I catch sight of detail for a moment then it is gone, re-entranced.

Birds fly in all directions, dispersed by the tide, I see them, but not fully, like I’m looking through a jam jar, it is all a little fuzzy except for shards of clarity where I see an Oystercatcher find a cockle.

A Redshank run then fly, a Pintail tuck its head under wing, a boat swing on its anchor as the tide lifts it. Still in the air I am held by the river like a fly caught in amber. Slow motion. Mud, water, sea and sky. The tide nearing full height, waves catch the light. Crystals and the smell of vanilla and salt. All the Knot leave for the roost. They fly past in sharp focus.

My stomach is burning with the feeling of it all, I watch, once removed, in an hour or in five minutes or both. The Blackwits leave too. Limosa limosa, mud mud. Flesh and bone and feather. They are swept away, we are engulfed. I am set down on the sand.

I walk down the shore a little way, my steps have a matrass spring lightness and I feel like running home. Normally I would not run to catch a bus. I continue walking. A different type of calm returns. The flats are covered. Shelduck drift towards the marsh, everything else is already there. My experience was never out of body, those feelings were rooted in evolution by natural selection, a connection. The Patch is where I will raise my daughter and I should feel like this about it, it should be precious and transcendent and vital. No hallucinogens were involved. Just muffins, coffee (decaf), a few thousand birds, a few million gallons of mud and as much water all in beautiful dawn light.

The tide, the pull of the moon. The pull of the Patch, its hooks in me, talon-esque. I look at the notebook, I have added nothing since the weather report. I decide to leave it blank. A hundred yards down the shore a Greenshank calls.

I look up. It stretches its wings and flies off. I put my notebook away and walk home.

Sunday, 14 August 2016


Petrichor     /ˈpɛtrʌɪkɔː/
1.    A pleasant sweet, earthy smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather.

Summer is sleeping. This is not a metaphor for recent weather, no, it is not the season that is asleep, it is my daughter. She has gone to bed full of strawberries and love after another day of playful adventure. Now we start the tidy up of a toddler smashed house before we have a good sit down.

Toys are returned to the toy box, pencils to the pencil case and I attempt to rub off the yellow crayon that now adorns the wall by the living room door. While doing this I notice one of her books on the floor, left open at a rather prophetic page…

It’s been an unusually busy week and I’m looking forward to a few hours on the Patch tomorrow, I head up to bed with the words from that page of Summer’s book rattling around my cluttered brain. All week I had been looking for a story to write on here but in my muddled state I couldn’t find one. I wanted that to change today.

I am out early, partly due to Summer’s penchant for an early start and partly to get a jump on the dog walkers, joggers and cyclists that will soon be on the Patch.

Grandparents have Summer to themselves for a few hours so they can enjoy her company without me watching how many sugary treats they are feeding her and I get some time on the Patch. A win-win if ever there was one.

There had been some rain overnight, the first to fall on the Patch for some time and this morning it feels fresh and smells lovely – sweet-ish, the soil almost good enough to eat. As odd as it sounds the Patch smells green today. Raindrops still linger on the flowers swaying in the meadows, adding a sparkle to the already impressive colours.

Not even a “mechanical” on the cycle ride from home can dent my enthusiasm. The Old Gooch patched up I continue towards the 5ive Fields* and the hedgerows of the Wirral Way.

Steller’s Field is quiet, a few pigeons are having a set to in the hedge at the back of Humboldt. These fields always do the trick, I feel myself becoming un-muddled by the reassuring calmness that is ever present here.

[* The 5ive Fields are a mosaic of pasture and arable fields that straddle the Wirral Way and form part of my favourite area of the Patch between Thurstaston and Heswall. Steller’s Field, Humboldt, Exhibition Field, The Yarnsie and Manhattan. They are names that only I use and those names really only have any significance for me.]

Opposite Steller’s is a field that I never pay much attention to. It is usually quiet save for the time I watched a Barn Owl hunting over it. Today there are a heck of a lot of Carrion Crows in it. With not much else planned I stop and count them. 336. A weasel zooms across the path into the crow field. I decide to name this field too. I call it Crow Nation.

On to The Yarnsie. The hedges twitch with recently fledged second brood Chiffchaffs and in the larger gaps between hawthorns Rose Bay Willowherb sways in the breeze. Still in a naming mood I rechristen this plant Rose Sway Willowherb, it seems more appropriate today.

I stop in one gap and look out across The Yarnsie, still with no idea about what today’s story is going to be.

A Cinnabar Moth caterpillar slowly climbs some Ragwort. The wheat is tall and ripe; every now and then a sorrel stem protrudes from it, looking like it has rusted in the sun to a shade of burned terracotta. Out there are hares, partridge, Skylarks and Lapwings, all unseen today, obscured by the fecundity of summer.

The spot I have selected in the hedge is agreeably shaded, the sun is high now and yesterday’s rain has evaporated in the heat. I decide to stay in the shade, I think I’ll always be a sun-dodger. The butterflies are not afraid of a few rays though and many flit by my shady glade investigating the yellow flowers tick-tocking in the breeze.

Something to point the camera at.

Small Copper, Gatekeeper and Speckled Wood oblige me with pictures.

The hedge hums with the buzz of bees, hoverflies and the clicks of my camera.

A Brown Hawker drifts past, working the hedge for its lunch. It briefly lands close to me then repeats its patrol another two times while I am there. It glides along then investigates a portion of the hedge, stopping to hover roughly every five metres. On each run it investigates a different spot, after three cycles it is satisfied it has 100% coverage of this section and moves further along out of sight.

I sit down for a sandwich and watch a small beetle climb a stem.

I lie on the sweet smelling ground to get an idea on its perspective of the meadow.

A goldfinch pulls at the head of a Thistle a few yards into the field. Some of the seeds drift off on the warm breeze, floating over the wheat and the bobbing yellow flower heads.

Soon enough I realise the Patch is the story and stop looking for a narrative and just enjoy it, a couple of hours slip by. By now I’m missing my little girl and I have a card full of photographs so I jump on the Old Gooch and pedal for home.

I arrive to find Summer buzzing around the yard, playing in the sand pit and watering the pots. She’s a real livewire - probably due to too many sugary treats. We spend the afternoon messing about with paints, toys and books and by her bedtime the house is trashed again. There is more crayon on the walls, little blobs of yellow like the flowers of The Yarnsie. This time I don’t rub them off.

We put away her toys and have a good sit down.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016


For most of the morning a steady drizzle had been falling on the muddy banks of the Dee. Around lunchtime it got heavier, proper rain tinkling on the roof of the pale green Fiesta in the driveway, water running then dripping then running again from the ill-fitting guttering on the side of the garage. It spattered noisily on the ground, just missing a small grid. Steam rose from my cup of coffee, there was no wind to take it or the rain away so it just hung there before evaporating in front of my eyes.

Johnny and I are leaning on opposite sides of the open garage doors sheltering from the unwelcome precipitation. We had planned a day on the flats with our cameras and several thousand wading birds but the weather had put paid to that particular adventure. So there we were supping brews and watching the rain fall on a deeply grey day.

With Atlantic influenced weather dominating the Patch, getting rained off the Dee is not an uncommon occurrence. In that event we usually head to a greasy spoon for a bite to eat and a chinwag but, both a little skint, we had drifted back to Johnny’s to work on a project that had, indirectly, come from heavy rain. The story goes a little something like this.

The frayed corner of blue coloured crash mat was just protruding from the sunflower yellow corporation skip on the road outside a local secondary school. I had noticed it a few days before and one evening after work had decided to go and fetch it.

Some seriously heavy rain had breached the school’s flat roof and pooled in the cavity beneath. Unseen for a few days the puddle had grown until its weight became too much for the plaster board ceiling to bear. A torrent of water had then flooded a store room adjacent to the assembly hall and damaged many items putting some them beyond reasonable use, hence the skip.

The waterlogged gym mat was ludicrously heavy and just as smelly when I wrestled it in to the Mint Mobile and dropped it off at Johnny’s. Now dry and less smelly it was a little easier to work with. I was never a fan of PE at school so you may be wondering why I was going to such lengths to get this mat…

We were designing and building a photography hide. I say designing and building, really we just made it up as we went along using only what we found lying around garages or sheds of people we knew and whatever we came across in skips. Classy aren’t we? Like I said, we were both a little strapped for cash so this build had to be zero cost. There was a basic design in our heads. We wanted to be able to lie undetected on the mudflats for some time, whatever the weather, so we could photograph the birds at a low angle as they fed. Therefore we needed something to keep us warm, dry, comfy, reasonably clean and concealed from our quarry. A decent floor, waterproof roof and camouflage were essentials.

When I saw the discarded gym mat I had a light bulb moment. The mat was a mix of fabric and foam encapsulated in thick blue plastic. It looked pretty waterproof, fairly insulating and not too uncomfortable - perfect for long periods in a hide. We needed these features because the idea was to deploy a few hours before high water and wait for the birds to get close as the tide rose. It is no use trying to get in position when the birds are on the move, you’d only scare them and what is the point in that?

The idea of shooting on the rising tide also threw up a couple of issues that we had to address, namely disturbance and flooding. If you were close to the birds as the tide was nearing its full height you were running the risk of scaring the birds off when you had to stand up and leave to avoid being flooded out. We would need to engineer and install a covert retrieval system, in other words, a rope.

This was not easy to scrounge. We soon came across a length but on closer examination it looked alarmingly frayed and prone to failure at an inopportune moment. After much searching we located some in better condition that was easily long enough. We then bolted a short piece of 4x1.5 inch timber to the rear of the mat and attached the retrieval system (rope) to it. Once deployed the rope would be uncoiled and the second operator would wait on the beach to gently pull the hide and photographer back to shore as the tide advanced, keeping cameras dry and birds undisturbed. Large cup hooks were screwed into the wood to coil the rope around when not in use.

Next we needed the roof. From the dark recesses of my dad’s shed we found some butyl pond liner, thick with dust and home to a few dozen spiders. We looked at it and decided it was a perfect roof for our hide.

We evicted the arachnids, much to the delight of a pair of Wrens, and continued to rummage through the old paint pots, plant pots and lawn mower parts for anything useful. I found an old cricket set that kindled a few childhood memories… Some odd black fabric, possibly to line a flower bed and prevent weeds was discovered and we decided to use that to carpet the mat, wrapping the blue plastic cover. It would make the floor of the hide a little less obtrusive and non-slip, well, you know, health and safety and all that…

Next, a small frame was fabricated out of some offcuts of flexible fencing wire and stapled to a couple of roofing battens left over from the re-slating of my roof. These battens were attached to the mat with small coach bolts and the liner stapled in place over the frame. The liner had been cut to fit the mat with enough slack allow a person to crawl underneath the wire frame, lie down and poke a telephoto lens out of the front.

Now, how to conceal what we had come to call the Mudflat 3000? Cammo netting is not something most people have lying around so we thought we might have to shell out for some. However after a quick text message exchange we managed to trade a couple of bags of seasoned logs for 6 square metres of the stuff from a buddy of mine who does a bit of outdoor education. That too was stapled to the battens.

We stood back and admired our handiwork. The Mudflat 3000 was born.

On the field test in the back garden we came across a couple of issues so we returned to the garage to modify the hide. The wire frame was a little cumbersome and in places where the end of the wire poked out, downright dangerous. It was removed in favour of a flexible tent pole and guy rope. To be frank, we pinched those from a tent we found in Johnny’s loft.

We like a snack and a brew so we added two optional extras to help with this. A pouch was glued on to the liner to keep munchies to hand and dry. Next to this a small cup holder was attached to the right hand batten. The second field trial was altogether more comfortable.

That was that, the construction was finished, testing phase had been completed and the Mudflat 3000 mark 2 (MF3K mkII) was ready for deployment. We gazed at our hide, our excitement building, we felt sure we would be able to get close to our subjects in it.

First stop: Hilbre Island for Ringed Plovers.