Thursday, 21 July 2016

Round Are Way...

My Raleigh Strika BMX thunders around the top of our cul-de-sac and over the milk crate and plywood improvised ramp… Bah-dumph! Another jump safely landed, I finish my daring manoeuvre with an exaggerated wheelie in a vain effort to impress Colin from number 7’s older sister.

It is heading towards the end of another peaceful day round our way in the mid-80’s and, as the sun begins to set, Blackbirds start up the sound of the suburban summer.

One male always used to sing on the TV aerial of our house (satellite dishes were still the exception rather than the rule then) and I think it nested once in the ivy that covered our back fence.

That liquid lyrical song of the Blackbird was occasionally punctuated by the screams of Swifts swirling overhead. One of my earliest birdwatching memories is lying on my back watching the Swifts wheeling around high above the back gardens of our close.

Mum is cutting the grass in ours, the latest must-have Swedish made hover mower sounding like an angry bee caught inside a hairdryer. There is a small bare patch near the top of the lawn: the crease for our back garden cricket games. With flower borders for boundaries and the small size of our plot, scores in excess of 200 not out were frequently recorded. Well, if England weren’t going to beat the Aussies in a test match, I would. A no-bounce-over-the-fence was automatically out.

Beyond that ivy covered fence where the Blackbirds once nested is the large village green. It is circled by a quiet road that unlike our other road off our cul-de-sac, the busy Townfield Lane, we didn’t need permission to cross. Here we would play footy until called in for tea. 20 kids chasing a flyaway football with no thought for positions or tactics. Good times. I don’t recall it ever raining either.

What has all this feel-good nostalgia have to do with Dunlin on Hilbre Island?

I am in the new hide, the homemade Mudflat 3000 MkII. It has been dropped at the eastern side of the island on a flatish, bare expanse of sandstone between two ragged patches of frilly dark brown seaweed. Even though I say so myself, it is beautifully camouflaged and later in the day it will totally fool a couple of gossiping Lifeguards whose feelings about a colleague I will not repeat here.

The origin and specification of the Mudflat 3000 mkII together with early results from it will be presented in an upcoming post, right now I’m concentrating on the Dunnies.

I am ensconced in the MF3K mkII when a brief shower of rain passes overhead. It has been a largely fine day with just a little high cloud so this turn in the weather is unexpected and a little disappointing. It doesn’t last long though, but long enough to remind me of rain on tent roofs during holidays when I was a kid. From there my mind wanders to endless summers on BMXs and results in the opening passage to this story. Although such is the fickle nature of young love/infatuation I can no longer remember the name of Colin from number 7’s older sister. It may have been Susan.

I have reached an age when I can be genuinely nostalgic and this happens most often when I am waiting patiently for something to wander close enough to my hide to photograph. Then, for better or worse, those thoughts often find their way into the stories I post here.

Some Dunlin are approaching and I banish the childhood memories and concentrate of the camera settings and exposure for the pictures I’m about to take.

They scurry over the barnacle strewn rocks, investigate periwinkles and pick at the seaweed. They seem happiest in the puddles of mud that accumulate between the reefs of reddish sandstone.

The mud is the colour and consistency of a good chocolate custard and the Dunnies probe it with a swift stitching motion. A successful stitch sees the head thrown back and the unlucky prey item hungrily swallowed. They look in the rock pools too, I wonder if they catch their own reflection.

This group of Dunlin wander past and out of range and I’m left looking at the puddle of custard-like mud. I have a rather Pavlovian response to that thought and reach inside the hide for some munchies. My wife’s banana loaf with toffee frosting. Once I have wolfed that treat down I’m left with uncomfortably sticky fingers from the frosting. Stuck in the hide and not wanting to spook the next set of approaching birds I wipe my hands of the backside of my trousers and mentally add baby wipes (of which we have a huge amount now we have a young daughter) to my camera bag kit list for next time.

More Dunnies drift in front of the MF3K MkII and I take further pictures, swivelling dials, thumbing buttons and scrolling through menus to adjust the exposure again. The sun is shining now and the shutter is whirring, images accumulate on the memory card. Good times. The Dunlin still seem to prefer the mud puddles although the mud has dried a little in the warm sun, it is now more Angel Delight-ish than custardy.

As I shoot the Dunlin, a thought kindles in the back of my mind…

Will I, in the years to come, look back on these untroubled days with warm and fuzzy nostalgia for time spent in the hide with just Dunlin for company?

I think so, I hope so.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Reds and Blues

Jan Molby has possession in midfield for Liverpool. The ball at his feet he looks up, sees Ronnie Whelan breaking forward and plays the perfect pass into the space in front of him. The game has become a little stretched, Everton are searching for an equaliser and gaps are appearing in their defence. Whelan runs on to Molby’s pass and drives forward towards the edge of the Everton penalty area. Kenny Dalglish makes a run across his path into space, the Blue defenders aren’t sure what to do or who to mark, they’re back-pedalling now. Whelan uses King Kenny’s run as a dummy and clips an exquisite ball over the Everton defenders into the path of Ian Rush who is hurtling into the box. Everton fans start to grimace, Reds fans sense a goal. Rush, from the angle of the six-yard area, wallops the ball past Bobby Mimms into the far corner of the goal. The net bulges and in doing so knocks over a camera placed there by a photographer hoping to get a shot of the winning goal in the 1986 FA Cup final. The camera somersaults backwards a few yards from the power of Rushie’s right-foot shot and lands with (possible broken) lens pointing skywards. Who knows if they got the picture they were after? That makes it 3-1 to the Reds. Liverpool see out the game to win by two goals and, with the League title already wrapped up, complete the first League and FA Cup double in the club's history.

Where I’m from you’re either one or the other. Liverpool or Everton. Red or blue.

(Well, almost. I do know a couple of Tranmere supporters and in geographical terms they are my team, but to follow Rovers these days is a brutal form of masochism that I’m really not up for.)

Me? I’m completely Red and became so the precise moment Ian Rush sent that camera cart-wheeling across the Wembley turf when I was 9 years old. I still wear my 1992 centenary edition kit when I occasionally run out for a game of five-a-side.

Since those footy mad school days my interest in football has waned a little, due mainly to the effects of all the money sloshing around the modern game. It has spawned the arrogance and disloyalty that curses many of today’s overpaid, over-hyped, under-performing and under-talented players. Players that are more concerned with image rights, WAGS and sports cars than providing trophies for fans. These days football fans are constantly milked for hard earned cash so the super-rich can turn a profit from the clubs they are buying up with a voracious appetite.

My old obsession has been replaced with a new one. Wildlife photography. I still follow the Reds and nights like this…

… remind me why; a passion and adventure that no other club can come close to matching, but now my biggest buzz comes from capturing images of wild things in wild places.

Red Knots roost on the rocky reefs and sand banks of the fjord. They are fast asleep and out of range of my camera and telescope. I have bagged a few hundred pictures of them in their bright red summer plumage and recorded plenty of data for our colour ringing project but, at high tide, there is a lull in Knot activity.

It is now that things turn, momentarily, from red to blue.

Among the more polite but still derogatory terms that Liverpool supporters have for their rival Everton fans is the term “Bluenose”.

There are no Bluenoses in Lille Porsanger but there are Bluethroats.

I hear a call that I am not familiar with. It is in part melodic, partly scratchy buzz, quite unique. I have a little think as to what it could be. The list of suspects is not long and I decide it is probably Bluethroat. I scan the tops of the bursting birches at the side of the road.

My suspicions are confirmed when I see a male singing his song from atop a tall-ish tree.

I wait a while, listening to the call and watching him flit from branch to branch. Soon he drops to the floor and starts to feed amongst the sparse vegetation of the gravely roadside verge.

The sun is shining again and I step from the shade of the hire car into the light. To get a better angle I lie on the tarmac, it feels surprisingly warm. The Bluethroat hops closer. The road to Veidnes is a quiet one so I’m happy to lie on it for a while, I don’t fear getting run over or scaring an approaching motorist by being prone and motionless on a road by a seemingly abandoned vehicle.

The Bluethroat hops to a perch on the mountains side of the road, backlit by the burning sun.

Before swiftly switching to a sunny perch on the fjord side.

His singing seems to pay off as a female appears from nowhere in a low scrubby birch just to my left, his right. She is more subtly marked than he is; her collar and bid not as brightly marked or extensive as his. She is unmistakably Bluethroat though. The male and female plumages do not differ like a home and away footy kit do.

He wastes no time, straight into full on display mode. The song is ramped up to maximum volume and he pulls out his best moves.

His blue throat patch shines with a metallic iridescence in the afternoon sun. He flashes orangey red tail feathers in her direction and wiggles his wings, his song becomes quite shrill, he’s obviously pulling out all the stops.

She seems unimpressed.

She flies off. He resumes singing his song, his chant, the Bluethroat’s own terrace anthem. She doesn’t reappear so he goes back to feeding on the roadside verge.

Looks like he’s missed out.

The Blues get that losing feeling again.

I reel off some more pictures as he darts and scurries in amongst the grass, hunting the bugs and beetles emerging at the start of the brief but spectacular Arctic summer. Bluethroat on my Patch would be a real rarity so it's ace to get close to this individual and take his picture. I shoot away until a car speeds by and spooks him back to the birch tops.

I look at my watch, a little over an hour has passed and the tide has dropped enough for the Knots to wake up and fly to the refreshed flats to have a feed. They are back in range for a bit of colour ring data collection.

The Blue diversion is at an end, the Reds are on the march. I pack away the camera and go looking for Red Knot.

As cool as the Blues were today…

I’m forever Red.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Arctic Dream...

The cool waters of Lille Porsanger quietly engulf my position on the leading edge of a group of Knot flaggers. There are 8 of us with eyes pressed to the eyepieces of our telescopes searching the flock for colour ringed birds. The birds are feeding before us on a gently rising tide, resplendent in summer plumage.

I am back on the fjord, Lille Porsangerfjord. After a year off for paternity duties I am back on my off-Patch Patch. A place I have come to love, second only to the muddy banks of the Dee.

I have never seen it so green. I didn’t know the arctic could be this green. On my last visit here in 2014 spring was late and snow drifts and blizzards greeted flaggers on that occasion. Not so today. There is little snow cover on the mountains that flank the mudflats, it is strange to see these slopes naked, snowless. In shady nooks and crannies some pockets of pure white persist and the mountain tops still maintain a blanket of snow, but by and large the snow has gone. At lower levels the charcoal grey scree gives way to thin birch woodland. I’m used to this being leafless, with the buds only just starting to break during the time that I and the Knots visit the fjord for a couple of weeks in May. Today verdant new leaves are unfurling to catch and harness the 24-hour daylight.

The huge arcing sky above us is cloudless. It is pleasantly warm and I can feel the sun’s warmth on my back. The hood of my hoody is up, this time it is to protect me from the sunburn rather than the biting northerly wind of previous years.

And the light. The light. The light. The light.

It is getting towards evening and the sun is lowering, it will not set, but for a while there is a rich golden cast to everything it is illuminating. The gentlest of breezes hardly ripples the waters of the fjord as the steadily rise. The mirror like surface is tones of warm brown and fertile green, a reflection of the burgeoning woodland.

The Knots look beautiful. Their summer plumage glows in the delicious light like the embers of hot coals. Some are feeding in the inch-deep flood, probing at the potter’s-cley-grey mud. Here it is a sort of blue grey colour, back home on the Dee it is more of a brown grey. A variety of prey, none of it looking at all appetising, is deftly plucked from the gloop.

Others are full enough to take up roosting positions early, finding high spots on rocks to keep their feet dry. Their reflections double the number of birds in the flock.

I’m thrashing the camera a bit. Afterwards I work out I was taking a picture once every five seconds for just over an hour. The light is so good and the birds are cooperating so I just go for it. On several occasions I fill the cache of the camera, its RAM exhausted, its flashes “busy” warnings at me through the viewfinder and I have to wait for it to catch up, to burn the images to its memory card. These images are also being burned into my memory. I will the camera to keep up, I don’t want to miss a thing, I want to record it all.

By now the birds, as well as the water, surround me. I have Knot on all sides. Feeding in lines, marching in small groups in all directions.

Their metallic tinkling calls, like robot chicken clucks are the loudest sound on the fjord.

In the distance I can hear the rush of a waterfall, swollen with meltwater. I’m close enough to the shore to hear the buzz of a Brambling calling in the woods. Soft song of Willow Warbler drifts on the evening air, Bluethroat display over the birches. A Sea Eagle glides in to land on an enormous black rock in the middle of the fjord. Lille Posranger in the spring is quite stunning.

As the tide rises further some of the Knots fly off to the regular roost. They zip past me, mere feet from my position. I’m sprawled across a couple of large boulders, trying to stay low enough to get a good angle on the Knots and high enough to stay dry.

Once they have all flown I wade back to shore, the inch deep water when the session started is now over my knees and perilously close to the small puncture in my thigh waders. I make it back to the muddy bank dry and climb the slope to the road.

The roost has assembled at the head of the fjord, six, maybe seven thousand birds crammed on a rapidly shrinking sandbank.

A small flock, about 50 birds, takes flight. It spirals upwards, ragged, not a tight flock. It gains height, I press the binoculars hard to my eyes to keep on them. They are tricky to follow against the snow free slopes. A couple of times I lose them but soon find them again as they pass the white splodge of a small drift of un-melted snow. They are almost at the mountain top. Then they break the skyline and I see them against the clear blue. The spiral widens and gains more height. Then it breaks, the flock forms into a long line, the Knots evenly spaced. They fly away from us, over the mountain, slightly to the north of west.

A small and entirely insignificant circle is completed. I have seen them arrive from their wintering grounds, pouring from the clouds to feast on the fjord, but until now I hadn’t seen them leave. I had always returned south before they continued north. It means nothing to the Knots or anyone else but it was the missing piece in my Porsanger puzzle.

The flock is really high now and moving fast, diminishing in my field of view. Another small flock takes flight and does the same lose spiral up to the clear the mountain top. They too form a line and head off. Over the next hour group after group leave.

It is time for us to leave too. I watch my final flock go. Over the mountain.

Their course is set. Greenland awaits.

I follow them with the binoculars until they are lost from view.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Fifty Shades of Hedge...

I wouldn’t call it intuition, it was just experience.

I know the Patch and what it does to and for me. I can recognise the signs in me and it. Maybe a subtle shift in the weather, a change of wind direction perhaps or the sun coming out from behind thick rain laden clouds, there are many triggers. Those first fuzzy, transcendent feelings bubble up from my sub-conscious, at that point I know I need to get outdoors.

When I saw the distant gaps in the clouds I knew it was a good time to head out. The weather had been hit and miss all morning, heavy squally showers zipping over the Patch interspersed by some bright sunny spells, followed by some grey rubbish for most of the afternoon. But those gaps in the cloud, currently far out over Liverpool Bay, would be on us in no time.

It is the very beginning of March and there are the first suggestions that spring might be around the corner. Temperatures are still agreeably low – I like the cold. Hovering just above freezing meaning a thick coat and a woolly hat are required if you are venturing out.

From the cupboard under the stairs I reach for the parka, my biggest coat, with the deepest pockets. Pockets I can gleefully fill with my birdwatching paraphernalia. In goes the notebook, my favourite pen and tally counter. I glance at it as I drop it into my right chest pocket. It shows 56. This will be 560 as I count in tens and more than likely is a record of the number of Knot I counted last time out on Patch.

Next is the mobile phone. I’ve switched it to silent rather than off all together. Sometimes I like to go “off grid” completely but I must admit that I like to know what is going on elsewhere on the Patch.

Finally a dubious looking Bakewell tart is selected for Patch munchies and is placed in the last remaining empty pocket.

And I’m off.

I’m heading along the hedgerows of the Wirral Way towards the Dungeon footpath and the farmland that surrounds it. I have a couple of hours to myself, just me on the Patch.

Time. Right now time is an oxymoron. It will feel fast and slow at the same time. These two hours will slip by in what feels like the blink of an eye. During them though it will appear that time is passing slowly – like nothing is happening. Nothing here is in a rush, life has been paused by the winter. To stop and stare you might think that nothing is happening. But if you immerse yourself in this strange wonderful nothingness then time slips by quickly and you eventually see that there is a lot going on. I never get bored by this perceived lack of action, I like the quiet, this apparent nothingness, because after a while you see that it is not nothing, you are seeing all the small run-of-the-mill normal things that happen, the inner workings of the Patch.

The colours of the hedgerows and fields are restrained by winter. Leaves flared into bight colour, faded and then were shed leaving the brown/grey of the bare branches. Where the hedge consists of mainly blackthorn it appears almost purple – a hint at the colour of the fruit they will bear next autumn. Some have off-white blossom buds preparing to burst.

The straw stubble left from the harvest has faded to beige in a field left fallow. A couple of Wood Pigeons nonchalantly cross this field I call Humboldt, a Moorhen stalks the muddy margin of the pond in its centre. (I used to call it the Shelter Field until I read a book about the great explorer Alexander von Humboldt – the field names are explained in a blog post from a while back, search the archive if you want to know more).

There will be nothing rare here today, I don’t expect to find the unusual or the exotic. No NFY’s (New For Year) will be scribbled next to species names in the notebook but it isn’t about that. Today will be a collection of moments. None of them spectacular, most brief and many seemingly dull. But add them together and they equal much more than the sum of their parts.

I push through the branches of the hawthorn hedge, the unbroken buds a deep maroon colour. I look across the Exhibition Field to the pasture beyond.

At the top of Manhattan a fox is trotting along the field margin, below the thicket of leggy gorse. Without the binoculars I can see it is carrying something but can’t tell what. Pressing the optics to my eyes and rolling my gloved index finger along the focus wheel I determine what it is. A dead rabbit, limp ears flapping with the motion of the fox’s gait. The Fox disappears from view into a well-worn path amongst the undergrowth.

Cold hands are thrust deep into lined pockets and in the left pocket my frigid fingers find a small piece of paper. I drag it out, a few crumbs from a previous cake come out too. It’s a receipt from a toy shop. I think for a moment – yes my niece’s 7th birthday present and with it the uncollected return train ticket from the journey to town to buy it.

Over the village, geese are flying, breaking my daydream about shopping. They come whiffling into the Exhibition Field in front of me. From another pocket I fish out the tally counter. I click the dial around to zero and start to count them in tens. When I’m done the counter says 12 so 120 plus an odd six. 126 is a good number of Pink-feet for the Patch.

A Carrion Crow mooching in the middle of the field finds, rather appropriately, some carrion. Another rabbit. A dose of myxomatosis has galloped through the local population making the dead and dying rabbits easy pickings for the scavengers on the Patch. It pecks and nibbles at the carcass while a Magpie sits on a dead branch by the pond, waiting its turn. The Pinks wander lazily along the field, nibbling at the autumn sown crops. The odd one sits down.

I spot some Long-tailed Tits approaching in a large family group. They make frequent soft buzzing calls between them. The colour of their plumage, soft pinks and delicate lilacs compliment the purple hue of the hedgerow, making the better camouflaged than you’d think.

I watch them, standing motionless in the hedge until they pass. Still in a counting mood I total them up too. 12 of them. There is a thirteenth bird accompanying them, a Goldcrest.

They are picking at the lichen that coats the crinkly branches of the hawthorn, looking for any scrap of food on this cold winter’s-end night. Once they’ve passed and their buzzing fades into the distance I dwell on the pastel colours of the lichen – soft grey-green tones, almost powdery. Some are a yellow colour like that of dried egg yolk. How old is that lichen? I know they are really long lived, how long has that lichen been on that branch? Is it older than me?

Behind me a squall is bearing down the Patch, driven across the estuary by a gusty wind. Hood goes up; hands are thrust even deeper into pockets once I’ve pulled my scarf to my nose. I’m going to sit this one out.

It passes quickly. Then it happens. The sun appears, low and quickly lowering towards the Welsh hills, its light won’t last long. Drops of water caught on the fur trim of my hood start to sparkle.

The tree trunks turn from grey to gold. The fox reappears from its den in the gorse thicket, its ginger coat almost iridescent in the evening glow.

This is all to do with physics. As the sun drops its light has to pass through more of the earth’s atmosphere to reach the Patch. As it does this the light from the blue end of the light spectrum is preferentially filtered out leaving more red and yellow light causing the warm glow of the sunset. Untangling and understanding the science behind this sunset scene, talk of filtration, angles, spectra etc doesn’t unravel the magic and the mystery of what I’m seeing – if anything it looks further illuminated to me. I can detach myself from the physics and just appreciate the beauty for a while.

There is a colour palette for winter, softer than summer. More than fifty shades, shades of hedgerow purple, fallow field beige, winter sown crop brown, blackthorn blossom white and dusty lichen grey. All of them subtly beautiful but all too easily overlooked.

A Curlew undulates across the furrows of the Yarnsie, picking worms with graceful efficiency.

The moments are fleeting but sharply beautiful. Now we are losing the light. I’d better head home, my boots have finally let in, their gore-tex defences breached. Just standing still watching the Patch tick along not even the big coat can’t keep me warm indefinitely. A little activity will warm me up. I swing a leaden leg over my bike and pedal for home, binoculars swinging pendulum like around my neck. Another squall approaches, the anticipation of an ice cold soaking is tempered by the thought of a hot shower on my arrival home.

As I head north along the path I encounter the 12 Long-tailed Tits again, still working the hedge for food, still buzzing to each other. They’ve swapped the Goldcrest for a Blue Tit and picked up a female Chaffinch since they passed me in the hedge earlier.

I pedal on, the hedges of the Wirral Way running to a vanishing point that is getting steadily foreshortened by fading light. Further along, close to home, I hear a Tawny Owl hoot from the hedge, the deep bottle-green winter flowering ivy covered part of the hedge.

I turn the corner into our road, it is nearly dark now – the street lamps casting an orange glow over everything. Another colourful adventure on the Patch is coming to a close. The light is on in our living room, a welcome sight.
I lock my bike in the shed and go indoors.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Fifty Shades of Purple...

The Purple Sandpipers and I are waiting.

The incoming tide has us stranded in benign isolation on Hilbre Island. I say benign isolation because in a few short hours the way back to shore will be uncovered again, so while cut off from civilisation we are not so far removed for it to be a problem if I run out of snacks. Hilbre is agreeably remote, but not Greenland glacier remote.

The Purps are waiting for the tide to recede so they can resume feeding amongst the seaweed covered, barnacle encrusted rocks that fringe the island.

I am waiting for the tide to rise to its full height, high enough for them to be pushed in range of my telephoto lens.

We are all perched precariously on the sandstone cliffs on the north end of the island. Reinforced in places they are still quite sheer and although not all that high, they are high enough to quicken the pulse as I peer over the edge at the murky swirl of water sloshing around Shell Bay some 30 feet below.

I'm also waiting for the light. I have an idea of what I want to record today. I want to see the purple iridescence on the feathers of the sandpipers. At first glance these birds look a dour grey but in the right light they shine with subtle indigo brilliance.

The clouds are thick and as grey as the birds in places, but they are broken allowing the sun through for brief periods. I just need the tide to continue its steady rise and pretty soon the birds will be close enough.

The tide obliges and the birds skip from the lower part of the cliffs to just in front of me.
Now I just have to wait for the light.

The Purps hunker down, each finding a sheltered spot to see out the tide. The eroded ripples, fissures and cracks provide a myriad of sandpiper sized nooks and crannies where they can rest in safety while the tide covers their feeding areas. They settle in for the wait.

I settle in to my nook, or is it a cranny? Is there a difference between them? Thoughts like these often occur to me when I am in quiet mode, close to my subject, away from people and noise. Whatever I am sat in, I adjust my position to get as comfortable as possible and manipulate the settings on the camera to get a decent exposure. Now I just need to wait for the light.

Some have a quick preen before adopting the classic head-under-the-wing roosting pose and have a sleep. It is then that the sun emerges from the clouds and the grey shines violet, just what I am after.

It is not a massive change but it is enough to make you realise why these birds are called Purple Sandpipers. It is not too showy either, not at all over the top - less is more. I love these birds.

I reel off dozens of pictures then take a break and just observe as the Purps wait for the tide to go out. As I watch I think about other conundrums similar to my earlier nook/cranny debate and it occurs to me "What do Purps think about while they wait for the tide to drop?" They must think. They must. Perhaps not abstract or massive profound existential thoughts (like the difference between a nook and a cranny!) but they must think about what matters to them. Food, shelter, sex.

The sun warms me a little, sitting for a long time crumpled into a nook/cranny has made me cold and I'm getting pins and needles in my left foot.

I have enough images of the Purps so I just sit and wait for the tide to drop. If I leave now I will scare them from their perches and that really wouldn't be on. We all sit on the cliff, thinking. Waiting.

As soon as the tide has dropped enough the birds are off to the water's edge, picking at barnacles, flipping seaweed fronds. I am free to move.

As I climb the cliffs I notice one has remained roosting on a small ledge. The sun shines, it glows indigo and I can't resist a last photograph before I start the long walk home.

Hilbre Island - benign isolation and subtle brilliance in shades of purple.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Welcome to the North...

Everything from the North is just…. cooler.

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

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

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

Great Northern Diver.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My compass points north.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the North.