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!


  1. The 'stealth' training certainly paid off here. Cracking series of shots.

  2. Quite a lot to digest there Matt ;) like Keith says, great shots!

  3. Thank you once again for your love and willingness to share your feelings..