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.