Friday, 27 June 2014

The Bumpy Road to Borselv...

Nordic Adventures Part One:

Along the bumpy road to Borselv I found my niche. I say found, I suspect that I always really knew what and where it was, but over the pot-holed broken tarmac and grey gravel it was confirmed.

I like cold, wide open spaces and I like these spaces to have lots migratory shorebirds in them.
Therefore, just like the Patch in winter, I love Porsangerfjord in the Finnmark region of northern Norway. It ticks all the boxes:

Cold. Spring is late this year and since I arrived I have been caught in more blizzards than I care to remember.

Space. Yes, plenty of that. The nearest supermarket to our base is a good 4 hour round trip and our study sites are dotted along the sprawling shores of Porsanger and Lille Porsanger. By the end of our expedition I have driven the equivalent mileage of a trip from Liverpool to Copenhagen and back.

Migratory Shorebirds. We’ve just counted 20,000 Knot all in startling summer plumage. Awesome.

There is plenty of other wildlife here too; it’s just the vastness, the sheer massive scale of this country that makes Porsanger seem empty. This, I think, is what has me hooked. I like “finding” things here because they are not always immediately obvious as an observer you have to be patient and persistant. Wildlife watching here takes time.

I have been lucky enough to spend 10 days in an African jungle and as great as it was, the place and the profusion of life was just too much to take in properly. On every leaf of every branch there was something. A bird, a bug and occasionally a snake. Each one special in their own way, but there was simply not enough time to identify and appreciate them all (and it was way too hot!).

Here I can look on a dozen acidic, shallow boggy pools and see nothing, then on the next I will find something. Here this something is A thing not ANOTHER thing.

I find a thing on the thirteenth pool. A Common Crane.

Once you get your eye in all sorts of things appear. As I stare across the tundra I start to appreciate the subdued colour palette of the arctic landscape. Some might consider it dull as it is made up of greys, dusky greens, beige and maroon that in places deepens to a dense purple. There is nothing gaudy here, nothing that is too showy. These drab colours seem to absorb all the available light, and there is plenty of that, the sun never sets while we are on expedition and we birdwatch long into the “night”. I set my alarm to remind me to take a picture of the midnight sun…

In amongst these subtle colours I find another thing. A male Bar-tailed Godwit is defending his territory.

This brings home to me another reason why I love it here so much. An awful lot of this wildlife is familiar to me. I see Barwits on the Patch in the winter, never in huge numbers but always there. Here I can see them in their summer plumage. So the wildlife here is the similar, but subtly different. The Barwit’s brown winter speckles have deepened to ruddy red and he looks super smart. There is plenty of stuff here that I would never see on the Patch but, in general, sizes and shapes are equivalent giving me time to appreciate things fully once they have been identified.

Now I'm thinking along another track. Am I a lazy naturalist? I like the slow pace of the fjords and my beloved Dee estuary back home. Here days, well daylight, lasts for months and back home everything follows a tidal rhythm. Wildlife is spectacular but it is not as diverse as in other places, so it’s easy to learn what’s about. Am I too idle to learn all the bugs and birds of Africa? Probably.

I am thinking. This place, with the peace, solitude and its vastness does that to me. Space to think big existential thoughts (not that I am any great philosopher with much to say about the world, I just think of tiny, insignificant me in it!). Then again, sometimes in the quiet it is pleasant to think no thoughts at all.
As I sit by the edge of the fjord, thinking big thoughts then no thoughts, the calm, gentle oscillation of the waves lulls me into a comfortable indolence while I wait for the tide to drop. In a couple of hours I can resume collecting data for the Knot Project that has brought me here, but in the meantime... my mind just... drifts.

On a distant hillside I find a thing. Through the telescope I see a bloody stain on the pure white snow. An old reindeer has come to grief over the long winter and its carcass has become visible as the snow slowly melts. A White-tailed Eagle is pulling at a leg while 5 Ravens wait their turn on the carrion. The eagle takes what it needs then retires to digest its meal while the Ravens squabble over the remains. This environment is often described as harsh or unforgiving and this seems at odds to the way I feel about it. It is just impassive, it can’t forgive because it isn’t sentient, it is mountains and tundra not judge and jury. This place just IS.

Another “thing” walks past. A Red Fox pads through the snow away to my right. It’s coat looking thickly luxuriant and warm. Here they are a bit of a problem. They are expanding their range into that of the Arctic Fox and they are taking the eggs of some rare geese that nest close to here. For all of these problems they are no less beautiful so I reel of a few frames as she (I think it is a vixen) trots by.

A shower is coming my way and soon a gentle drizzle starts to fall. The air starts to feel colder too and soon this light rain turns white in an attempt at a snow shower. This low calorie snow doesn’t last long so I just snuggle lower into my parka and wait for the sun to return.

I find another thing. A small flock of Snow Buntings (a rare treat on the Patch but a garden bird here) come twittering down to the strandline on the beach I am perched above. The males are in a quite eye-catching summer plumage. They start to forage along the washed up seaweed. This strandline is Himalayan in comparison to the ones we get on the Dee but it fits perfectly with the hugeness of Porsanger. I have taken plenty of pictures of these birds back home but here they are in different plumage and on a different stage. Snow covers the tundra that slopes to this beach and one male hops on to it. It get to photograph a Snow Bunting on some snow.

So in this cold, cold place I feel right at home, warm and fuzzy in my 6 layers of insulation. The bumpy road to Borselv is like the muddy banks of the Dee, a home away from home.
The tide drops enough for data collection to resume so quiet contemplation and wildlife photography must cease, it is back to work. There will be more to share on this subject soon…

Saturday, 22 March 2014


This post is about a Chiffchaff. Eventually...
“On the spot!” I yell.
Mike rolls the ball out of the D to my feet. I dink it wide to Si who starts a mazy run down the right hand side of the pitch. Si is tricky, I’m glad he is on our side, he is also fast, outpacing Joel he gets to the corner.
I find that I have drifted up the 5-a-side court and I am near the opposition goal. This is not a common occurrence, any higher up the pitch and I suspect I would become dizzy. I am not used to playing striker.
Defence is where I am more comfortable. I say comfortable, what I mean is I panic less in that third of the court. As a football player I am neither skilful or particularly fit, in fact I suspect that I am here to make 5-&-4-a-side into 5-a-side.
Nevertheless I am going to have a go. I have been playing for a few weeks so I am starting to get the gist of the game and its lingo. I have arrived in the centre of the pitch just outside the goalkeeper’s D shaped area (into which I am not allowed to enter) and I am stood on the orange painted disc that is the penalty spot.
Si is ahead of me and needs an ‘option’ so I yell “On the spot!” I have heard the others do this when they reach this area. Whether this means I am waiting on the penalty spot or I want the ball played into the general area of the aforementioned orange disc I am not certain but Si seems to get the message. Without looking up he thumps the ball against the back wall of the court, knowing the perfect angle of incidence along which to play the ball on to the wall so it arrives in the correct position for me to place a first time shot into the far left corner of Phil’s goal.
In theory.
The reality is what is known in footballing circles as a“shinner”. I can’t blame a bobble from a bad pitch, the court is school assembly hall smooth. No, this is just crushing mediocrity at sport. The ball had arrived at my feet in less than a second but that was long enough for me to think “oh no, don’t mess this up”, to realise that if I score we are back on level terms, to think about who is watching from the gallery, to think that I mustn’t waste all of Si’s running and his precision pass…
In goal Phil is oblivious to my dreadful football ability; he seems to be expecting a left foot BOOM that will shred the net he is guarding. In anticipation he dives full length to his right, skinning a knee in the process. My shinner of a shot dribbles past him to his left and almost apologetically nestles in the back of the net. I’ve scored!
I turn on the spot and run back to my own goal, like I meant to do that all along. Si says nothing. I decide that hanging around “on the spot” is not for me.
Not for me in a footballing sense, but in a bird photography sense I have had quite a bit of joy hanging around “on the spot”.
Today’s spot is on the old shabby bridge that spans one of the ponds at Thurstaston and flitting around in the coppiced willows in front of me is a Chiffchaff.
Now, this is where I feel comfortable, this is much more my pace. Just me and something avian to photograph.
It isn’t the most glamorous of surroundings, a creaky ancient bridge and the whippy, leafless re-growth from an old coppice, but it will do for me and this Chiffchaff.
I had spotted this Chiffy mooching about the willows the previous evening and with a forecast of clouds and a bit of rain through the night with bright sun to follow first thing in the morning I thought I’d take a chance on it hanging around overnight and pop back early doors with the camera.
As usual I have arrived early meaning there isn’t anyone else about so I pick my spot on the bridge and wait. The bridge takes quite a bit of traffic so I figure that the Chiffchaff will be unperturbed by my presence. Plus I am dressed in my finest drab and blend in with the willows and weathered timber, standing still on the spot I shouldn’t be a problem for this bird.
My little Chiffy is a Phylloscopus warbler, Phylloscopus collybita to be precise. The scientific names of birds are something I find really interesting and the Chiffy is one of my favourites.
Phyllo is a prefix to a word relating to a leaf and scopus means “one who watches”. So my Chiffy is “one who watches leaves”. Collybita finds its origins in money lending (!) and is used here to describe the song of this species, apparently sounding like two coins being rubbed together.
One Who Watches Leaves is certainly living up to its name. It flits and darts around the coppiced willow with equal amounts of speed and agility, all the while peering at the breaking buds and investigating folds in the bark.
It makes frequent darts at something it spots. Its eyesight must be super smart. I have no idea what it is consuming but seems to be finding plenty for breakfast. Perhaps it is finding roosting bugs, already there have been plenty on the wing in this mild spring but the day has started chilly and they are not active yet. One Who… might also be looking for insect larvae not yet hatched. Whatever its doing, it is great to watch and even better to photograph.
Collybita stays silent the whole time we are together; it is intent on refuelling after a mammoth migration rather than establishing a territory. Soon though it will move from this pond pit stop and take up residence on the Wirral Way. Chiffchaffs are the first in a long line of migrants that will be hitting the Patch over the coming weeks and they are one of my favourite to study. My bird is so busy, bustling from branch to branch, inspecting every nook and cranny for a tasty morsel. When the memory card of my camera flashes full I stay to just observe this little leaf watcher, it keeps me rooted to the spot.
After a while the first visitors to the park turn up. 2 joggers have arrived for a bracing early morning run along the beach. They look like serious runners, lycra clad with well worn trainers and sweat bands. They swig isotonic brews from ergonomically designed water bottles and set watches ready to start. But first they warm up, while one does a few stretches the other runs… on the spot.
I chuckle to myself, pack up the camera, wish my Chiffy a good morning and slip away from my spot for a spot of breakfast.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

The Sand From Far Away....

I am stood watching a flock of Knot 12,000 strong flying in tight zig zags across the sands at Hoylake shore. It is reminding me of a strange meteorological phenomenon I first heard about in my childhood…

Watching the tea time news one night in the mid 1980’s I saw something that seemed incredible, unbelievable and it wasn’t Jan Leeming’s frizzy perm or her outrageous shoulder pads.

Scary sounding winds had lifted tonnes of sand from the Sahara desert up to the high atmosphere in a huge sandstorm. From Africa it had been blown out towards the Atlanticwhere it had bumped into some moist south westerly winds heading in our direction. The sand was mixing into the raindrops before falling to earth then, after the water evaporated, it would leave a sandy deposit on surfaces such as car bodywork and windscreens etc. The big news was that it was about to drop on us overnight.

Sand from the Sahara desert on our car? Wow! When you are 7 years old and the north of Scotland is as far as you have travelled on this planet that is seriously cool. Actual Saharan sand on our car!

The next morning I was up and dressed early. My parents might have thought I’d had some kind of educational epiphany and decided I liked school after all, but no I wanted to see the sand from far away.

And there it was, on the bonnet and the front windscreen, just like the news story said it would be. The Ford Orion in Maritime Blue looking like a dusty antique. The sand was in little uneven, imperfect circles. Left behind like fossilised raindrops, a reminder of the water that carried it here. I rubbed some of it off (thinking about it now that probably wasn’t so good for the paintwork!) and held some sand from an African desert. Cool. With my finger I wrote my name in Saharan sand on the boot lid before we embarked on the school run. The British summer conspired against me and by the time I was picked up some dirt-free rain had washed the car clean again. The sand may have been transient, but the memory has remained.

When I see big flocks of shorebirds swirling around over the mudflats or think about them high above us, far from view on their huge migration flights, I always think of them being like tiny grains of sand being blown by the winds. Like my Saharan sand.

Watching the Knots at Hoylake my mind transports me to another far away place…

I am standing waiting for a flock of Knot on the shores of Porsangerfjord in northern Norway. Three flights and a four hour drive have brought me here and I seem to have beaten the Knots to their staging post. When they arrive they will feed like crazy before embarking on a marathon flight over open ocean to Greenland and the far reaches of the Canadian arctic.

The Knots are due. The winds from the German WaddenSea have gone southerly and the birds will use this favourable air flow to speed their journey north. So we wait.

Redshanks and Bar-tailed Godwits are displaying on the marsh at the south end of the fjord. A Sea Eagle beats huge wings and lazily flies from one side of the fjord to the other.

They come from the clouds, fluffy, classic cotton wool clouds. A few tiny specks appear, like…. grains of sand. More and more follow, returning to terra firma in a loose spiral. In a matter of hours they have made the huge flight over much of northern Europe and here they are. It is one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen. As I look through my binoculars I realise my heart is pounding, I have goose bumps and a smile is cutting my face in two.
More and more tumble out of the clouds and drift to earth like the sand from far away. The migration I have heard and read about is now visible, it is no longer theoretical, no longer an picture imagined – I can see it. It is happening right before my eyes and it is inspiring, humbling and overwhelming. The Knots that I last saw on the Dee have been coloured in, they have changed from muted greys to bright brick red.
I am snapped from my daydream by a birdwatcher calling“Sparrowhawk”. The flock is one step ahead of observers and the raptor and they catapult themselves from the beach into frantic aerial manoeuvres.
They go zigging left and zagging right, going out over the choppy tide. The Sparrowhawk will only follow them a short distance over the open water and it soon returns empty-taloned and disappears over a garden fence.
While the birds are out of range of my camera for pictures and my‘scope for colour ring sightings I drift off on another daydream. I do a lot of thinking when I watch shorebirds. It can often be quite a solitary occupation, just me, the birds and my camera. I have all sorts of ideas and thoughts on the mudflats, like remembering the sand from far away.
The flock is well and truly spooked and never returns to the shore. They fly out the remainder of the high tide, circling around Hoylake, high up one second then low over the waves the next. They form into weird and wonderful shapes, at one stage looking like a huge CGI-ed manta ray about to dive into the water.
The twisting and turning continues as they disappear away into the distance like a sandstorm. A Sandstorm made of the sand from far away.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Sky is Still Blue....

You wouldn’t know it looking out across the mudflats right now though. The grey cloud looks… impenetrable. An iron curtain is being drawn across the estuary from the Point of Air towards my position at Thurstaston, more rain looms like unwelcome guests at Christmas. I don’t fancy another dousing so I beat a hasty retreat back home. Forty rain soaked minutes later, as the kettle boils, I peel off my wet socks (how good does that feel?) and start to warm up with a brew and a fire. My waterproof (well, nearly waterproof) jacket hangs on the back door, several shades darker and a lot heavier than when I left the house this morning. Every now and then a drip from it drops to the wooden floor. The kindling starts to glow in the stove so I throw on the first logs sip my coffee…. and relax.
I cast my mind back a couple of days, away from the cold grey dampness of this dreary Saturday….
My dad and I are enjoying a plate of proper Full English breakfast in areal cafĂ© (by real I mean“old school” because you can’t get a macchiato and nothing comes with a dressed rocket salad) before hitting the Patch with our cameras. Outside the sun is shining and clouds are non-existent reminding us that the sky is still blue, great conditions for a spot of photography.
Full to the brim with breakfast we set off to Burton Mere Wetlands. My usual haunt between Thurstaston and Heswall has been battered by storm after storm so the Blackwits and the Pintail have left for a more sheltered spot leaving me looking elsewhere for a subject to photograph. We arrived on the reserve and had a good mooch about. There was an obliging Snipe close to the reception hide, but through the glass windows I couldn’t really get any pictures to write home about so we sauntered over to the Marsh Covert hide for a chat. There are never really many birds there so it is usually free from people and a good spot for a chinwag. After putting the world to rights but not taking many pictures my shutter finger was getting a little itchy so we trundled around to the feeders where a bunch of small birds were busily feeding away.
Like most people who start on a wildlife watching path it was garden birds that first inspired me. As a young child, in the (now felled and chipped) plum tree in my mum and dad’s back garden we hung a red netting bag of peanuts. As my interest in birds grew those nuts were followed by more elaborate feeders with a range of foods and a homemade bird table with a bizarre Perspex rain cover. Soon we had a fully fledged feeding station regularly attended with a plethora of birds. Here I saw my first ever Blackcap, it was big news when a Sparrowhawk first flew through and I still remember my excitement when a 50-odd strong flock of Redwings and Fieldfares landed in the bare branches of the plum tree. Now I spend most of my time on the mudflats with long distance migratory shorebirds but after just 2 minutes by those feeders I realised that I shouldn’t have neglected these common garden birds.

Reflecting on those early birding days I would always start any list of what I had seen in the garden or on a walk in the same way:
Blue Tit

Great Tit
Coal Tit
(Any thoughts of lists in order of classification, habitat, county etc were non-existent at this point.)
These were the common birds that got me started on natural history study and thinking about it that morning I realised that they are poorly represented in the archives of the many tens of thousands of images I have taken since my dad bought me a silver Canon 300D way back in 2004.

So standing on the path at BMW I resolved to spend more time with the smaller resident birds of the Patch.

A Coal Tit landed on a peanut feeder as a large rat scuttled across the path in front of me. While taking the Coalie’s picture it dawned on me that the year list that I have started for the Patch doesn’t contain Coal Tit! On this list there are migrant birds from the far reaches of the high arctic, the odd rare vagrant blown far off course but no Coalie. Unforgivable.

Siskins, another for the Patch list, arrive in the high branches of the alders and I remember when we had them in the plum tree for the first time. Suddenly I miss that old tree. It was a great climber and I knew every foot and hand hold of its trunk. You could get high enough to see over the garage roof and into the front garden so you were able to see who was playing out on out street (important information when you are 7). The Siskins sing in the sun and I can feel some of its warmth on my back, or is the warm fuzzy feeling nostalgia for childhood summers spent in the branches of the plum tree? Either way it is a good feeling.

A few Blue Tits were taking turns on the feeder now and I concentrated on them for a while. Blue Tits, number one on my list and, looking at them again, as if I had never seen one before they became my new favourite bird.

They are coming in really close and the camera picks up all the detail in the vibrant light. I should be looking at the details of the plumage; working out the coverts from the tertials, but all I was really thinking was... they are kind of cute.

After I had filled several of my own and one of my dad’s memory cards, we all went our separate ways. Dad and I headed to our respective homes to review and archive some of our images while the Blue Tits carried on, well…carried on being cute. That evening, revelling in the familiarity and overlooked beauty of these birds I decided to paint some part of the house in a shade of blue found on a Blue Tit.
If Blue-Tit-Tail-Blue isn’t a paint colour then it should be…

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Fourth Stair....

The ability to get in and out of somewhere undetected was something I always thought of as being pretty cool. Although please be aware that I have not used this particular skill for nefarious purposes! I have never been tempted into house breaking or other clandestine crimes. I have always fancied my self as a stealthy individual, indeed, one of my proudest achievements is being Cub-scout hide-and-seek champion 1984; in fact I think that Stuart Watson is still looking for me.
My point is, stealth is useful for wildlife photography and it is here that I found an outlet for my impulse for undercover operations and developed a penchant for the drabbest clothing I can find (more about “saltmarsh chic” in a forthcoming post).

I can trace my covert abilities back to my early childhood, specifically for late night snacking. If I was still a little peckish after my tea and had gone to bed I would sometimes go back downstairs to ask for my favourite snack, a biscuit, preferably two. Quite often I would be detected and stopped in my tracks before I had gotten halfway down the stairs, the creaky fourth stair giving the game away. A parent would appear at the living room door and usher me back to bed downcast and biscuitless.

Eventually I learned to bide my time and to use stealth to outwit my trusting parents and claim my biscuity prize. I would wait for the ‘rents to go to bed and then embark on my crafty confectionery mission. I made a mental map of how to get to and from the kitchen unnoticed in total darkness.
Firstly I would ensure that my room door was left ajar as the handle made a sort of springy metallic rasp if you had to turn it fully. Then I’d peep out to see if my kid sister’s door was shut over far enough that she wouldn’t see me and blow me up as any pesky younger sibling would. Until her adenoids were removed it was easy to tell if she was sleeping, such snoring you have never heard… If the coast was clear I would set out across the landing. One normal stride followed by an extra big one to avoid a cover-blowing squeak from a loose floorboard.
At the top of the stairs I risked detection from the parents but their door was usually shut fast so nothing to really worry about. Stairs one to three were fine but that fourth stair was tricky. Any foot fall on it would release a noise somewhere between a groan and a loud fart. So stair number four had to be missed out making a risky long stride from 3 to 5 essential. Number six was a creaker too, but if I stood on the extreme left of it I would be okay. The rest of the steps were fine. That brought me to the living room door.
This had a Perspex panel in it that wobbled when it opened making a horrible parent-waking judder. Extreme caution and a measured, slow approach were needed, but once it was open I was home and hosed as the kitchen door could be opened silently, leaving nothing noisy between me and the biscuits. Stealth, I realised, is the key to success. Although in my late teens I learned, whilst sneaking back into the house and up to bed, that stealth is inversely proportional to the amount of beer consumed. But anyway, I digress…
Recently I had stealth and this nostalgic story in my mind as I was sneaking up on some Purple Sandpipers on Hilbre Island. The tide was dropping and the birds were returning to the refreshed rocky shore on the north end of the island. What is left of the old lifeboat slipway slopes down to the foamy edge of the tide and it is here that the Purps were mooching around the seaweed for food after roosting and preening in the nooks and crannies of the channel cut into the sandstone for the now redundant tide gauge. These birds, there were around 14 of them, are usually quite confiding and are intent on their pursuit of food but I plan on using some stealth to get close enough to get some pictures. Plus I don’t like to disturb my subject unnecessarily and as discussed above I love the stealth…
The first part of the approach was easy. I sneaked down the steps on the left hand side of the slipway. Then it started to get tricky. The bright green seaweed here is treacherously slippery and the camera and lens combo I’m carrying doesn’t bounce if dropped. Slowly I shuffled nervously to the next obstacle. I have to take a step down on to some lower rocks and the drop is quite steep, just like stairs 3 to 5. Once I’ve negotiated this the going is a little easier. The rocks here are covered in barnacles and are much grippier compared to the slick seaweed I have just traversed. However there is a gap in the slipway about 20 feet long that was caused when a huge storm washed part of it away many years ago. I have to cross this open ground to get to the bladder wrack, limpet pocked rocks where the birds are feeding.
I go into hyper-stealth. I lie down and sort of flop/flap my way across the gap trying to look like a seal would if it was making its way to the waters edge (I was the only person on the island so I was not worried that this ludicrous manoeuvre would be observed by anyone else).
It worked a treat! The Purps didn’t bat an eyelid. An Oystercatcher did fly off screeching but I don’t think that had anything to do with me, many others remained, feeding and squabbling amongst themselves. The usually nervous Redshank continued to feed as if a guy with a camera pretending to be a seal was an every day occurrence on their little island.
Amongst the seaweed and the shellfish I settled in to take some pictures of the Purple Sands. Feeding, bathing and preening. They moved along the shore, all hustle and bustle, flipping over rocks and pushing aside fronds of wet, leathery seaweed. They poked at the odd barnacle, bumped into feeding Turnstones and ran away from angry Oystercatchers. I just love every minute I spend with these little waders.
I soon filled both the memory card in the camera and the one I’d stuffed into my top pocket before the seal impression. As sneakily as I came I went back to the derelict lifeboat building happy that I’d got my pictures without disturbing or distracting the birds. As I looked through the pictures on the back of the camera I remembered the origins of my stealth and with a warm, fuzzy feeling of nostalgia I packed up the kit and returned to the mainland to warm up with a brew and, of course, a biscuit, well, two biscuits.
Bring the stealth!

Friday, 17 January 2014

Yesterday's Rain....

A kind of suffused electric blueness is developing at the eastern horizon in an otherwise black sky. The marsh and cliffs in that direction have no detail yet; they are un-illuminated for the time being.  In the distance, across the estuary, I can see the tiny points of amber-ish light from streetlamps. The long evenly spaced line of lights is the A55, the higgledee-piggledee clumps are the various villages that it connects. There are some red lights at Mostyn Docks and bright white ones at the oil refinery closer to Point of Air. Further out to sea are the lights of a few ships, their movement appears almost imperceptible at this distance. I can only detect it from their change in position relative to the static wind turbines (lit with small amber bulbs). A gas flare from a rig burns bright orange, a turbulent wind whipped flame next to the steady brightness of the lamps.
Alarms will be sounding in the villages I can see across the mudflats. I can imagine the grumblings of reluctant schoolchildren, the pleas for “just 5 more minutes”, the hiss of showers and the click of kettles going on for the morning cuppa. The day is just beginning but I’ve been up for a while now. A combination of mild insomnia, a falling tide, several thousand birds and a sunny weather forecast had me dialling back my alarm clock so I could be here, on Thurstaston Shore, well before dawn.
At the moment I cannot see any of the birds that have drawn me here, but I can hear them. Loudest (as usual) are the Oystercatchers. It is two hours after high tide and the birds are starting to return from their roosts in the marsh to the tide-refreshed mudflats. Piercing piping calls are coming from all directions, clearly their ongoing disputes have yet to be resolved. The call of the Shelduck is brilliant. It is a guffaw, a chuckle. They are being noisy too, but whatever is enraging the Oycs seems to be amusing them. A gentle “prooot” call tells me the Pintail are on the move. I can’t hear any chattering Black-tailed Godwits though.
The light is improving with each passing minute and I can start to see shapes to accompany the sounds. It is cool, but not January cold, and for once it isn’t windy. The calm is, well, calming. Lazily I attach the telescope to the tripod, splay the legs and waggle my feet a couple of inches into the shelly sand to get a firm stance. It is light enough to put some names and numbers to those shapes.
Feeding in front of me are 56 Redshanks. Small flocks of between 30-80 birds dash over the channel they are feeding in on their way up the estuary. These are mainly Redshank but I can pick up the odd smaller Dunlin mixed in with them.
There is still much water in the deep channel that cuts into the mud about 100 yards from the beach. In it are 175 Shelduck. Some are bathing off to my left and as the sun rises behind them it illuminates the splashes their wings are making in the turbid water. The splashes sound woolly, muffled somehow. Stood on the bank of the channel by the Shelduck are two Dunlin, to the rear of them a lone Curlew probes at the wet ooze then flies off.
The regular Kestrel is patrolling the cliffs behind me and I turn my back on the mud to look up at it for a while.
Gazing skywards I see clouds. There is a long, tall gunmetal grey one that is being illuminated from underneath by the sunrise, giving the bottom edge a brownish-orange cast. It looks rusty, as if the water it is carrying has corroded it. Higher up are some thin, wispy clouds. These have started to go pink. A really bright pink, as pink as an embarrassed salmon.
Looking back down to earth I notice the cliffs. A combination of rainwater and the low winter sun is giving them the colour of baked terracotta. I am at Tinker’s Dell and here a small stream flows out from the cliffs. It is gurgling away with yesterday’s rain that it has carried from the farmland that lies beyond the cliffs. It was heavy rain so it is babbling like a classic babbling brook. Where this stream meets the channel the pintail meet. Here they bathe in the freshwater before floating serenely off to feed. There are just 200 here today, disappointing as there had been record counts of 1,300 just a few weeks previously.
The Blackwits are also conspicuous by their absence. Numbers of these have fallen from that of the Pintail to.... 8. I think they have had enough of the recent storms that have battered the Patch and have drifted off to more sheltered spots. I am not at all downhearted by the disappearance of two of my favourite Patch regulars, I remain optimistic and have a look at what else is around, perhaps a Greenshank. This is a good spot for them. No, well I was being optimistic.
A closer look turns one of the Blackwits into a Bar-tailed Godwit. Further out 4,000 Knot are flying around in a panic. The Peregrine must be around again.  18 Mallard swim up the channel. I count 31 Teal. 150 Golden Plover are mixed into a big flock of Lapwing. They are sticking to the fringe of the marsh, where it thins out into the open mud. 2 Curlew are feeding on the mud between me and the channel.
One is being particularly extrovert, walking and calling earnestly.
These birds are usually shy and will not come close. These two are either supremely confident or very hungry. The sun is getting higher and I realise that I have lost all track of time. I have been under the estuary’s spell, just watching and counting the birds. The estuary is so peaceful at this time and I feel that everything, all my senses are running in slow motion. I am shaken from this muddy stupor by what looks like a shark swimming down the channel. I fumble with scopes and binoculars and eventually identify it as some shark-shaped driftwood, but for a minute...
It is light enough for some pictures so I stow the scope away and deploy the camera. I snap the Woody Shark to illustrate that I was perfectly reasonably confused by its appearance then look for more conventional subjects. The closest are the Curlew and I hunker down in amongst the boulders at the border of the sand and the mud. They continue to feed and I take their picture.
It is late enough for the first visitors to be arriving on the shore. I have been coming here before dawn regularly and I am getting used to having it all to myself. So much so, that I am starting to think of this place as my own. Of course it isn’t and I am perfectly happy to share it with people. However, I do prefer it when it is just me and the birds. So as the sound of a wet tennis ball thudding onto wetter sand reaches my ears, closely followed by the noise of a dog pounding across the beach, the estuary spell is broken. The Curlews fly off and I decide to go too, it must be time for some breakfast.