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.