The wet and windy edges of our land are calling me. It’s hostile territory for us but out there on the bleak mudbanks and salt marshes is the best place to be if you are a bird with a long beak and have flown south from the arctic to find food. So, I pack my warm clothes, food, cameras, lenses, tripod, phone and laptop for the last trip of the year. For the next 5 days and nights home will be my old Citroen Relay campervan. I will be living in about 6 square metres of space and I can reach almost all I need without leaving my seat! That’s never a problem during the day when I am out walking and watching and taking pictures. But now at the arse-end of the year, unless it’s sunny it begins to get dark at 3:30 and there’s barely enough light to see at 7:30 am. That’s 15 hours of darkness in a small space! Sometimes I’m in a campsite, sometimes a lay-by on a quite country road.
Really it’s not that bad. I turn the heating on, put up the thermal blinds, lock the doors and forget where I am. I can easily spend a couple of hours editing pictures. If there is a phone signal I can tether the phone to the laptop and do some emails and read the news. The meal takes a while – finding places to put things while cooking, assembling the washing up, organising hot water. I put my feet up and read for a while, and if I have remembered to download some films I can watch them on the laptop. Sleep is seldom more than 7 hours, with breakfast around 6, but the remaining 90 minutes of darkness is when I am at my most alert for writing and editing.
On this trip I’m heading north, up through the marches of Wales towards Chester. My first destination is actually Conwy, but soon after leaving home I find the space heater is playing up. I know this temperamental beast by now having pandered to its foibles for the last 5 years, and I soon find what the problem is: the heater exhaust is kinked. In Llandrindod I buy a new Mole Grip spanner and get to work. Heating restored! However, by mid afternoon the light is fading and I’m still on the route towards Chester so I change my itinerary on a whim and next morning find myself looking, in the low golden light, over the estuary of the Dee. Here are the birds, and here, as so often in these places, is the heavy industry. I don’t know this area but in many of my more familiar nature reserves the marshland or saltmarsh has been reclaimed from industry. There is to me a satisfying bleakness about both.
In the afternoon I find myself at a place called Parkgate. There is a long straight road with posh houses on one side and a huge area of saltmarsh – which belongs to the RSPB – on the other. The road was once the seafront but the channel moved away, the silt moved in and “The Parade” as it’s called is now a viewing area for the bird people. At the point where the road turns away from the saltmarsh there is a pub, and just beyond it a car park with a height restriction. It is by the wall of this car park that most of the bird people congregate. Since I can’t get in, I park by the roadside and use the van as a hide. The birds are a long way off but I can use “focus magnify” and lens extenders to use the camera like a telescope. There are certainly lots of birds out there and I take lots of pictures. Some are of geese coming in to land, but I’ve got many better pictures of similar subjects so relegate them to the two star “just worth keeping” category. The same applies to my Harrier pictures, and only the Kestrel, positively glowing in the golden light, is really good.
Having traded a meal in the pub with a night in their car park, my next destination is one of my great favourites: the city of Lancaster and the area just to the north – Arnside and Silverdale. It’s limestone country, the rock jutting out of the fields and the soil chemistry producing a distinctive mix of trees and plants where butterflies flourish. At Gibraltar Farm campsite the stony fields sweep down to the tide flats of Morcambe Bay, and just around the corner is the great Leighton Moss reserve which has it all – tidal lagoons for the waders, and a huge area of marshland edged and infiltrated by scrubby woodland. As well as all the ducks and geese, harriers and herons, egrets great and small, there are deer and otters lurking in the woods and the pools. It even has a railway station – just one stop on from Carnforth, the location for “Brief Encounter.”
In the morning I watch a spring tide slowly submerging the patches of land amongst the pools by the estuary. My hope is that all those distant swirling flocks of waders will move in closer as the waters rise. Not so. They have better places to go, and when I leave there are few birds to be seen at all. So to lunch in the van and on to the opposite end of the reserve where I park by the roadside and walk the mile or so to the most remote hide on the reserve. This is where I have several times seen otters, but I’m still hoping for the best shot yet of a Marsh Harrier.
The light was so special that even common birds look as if they are posing in a studio: Now back home at the big screen I am disappointed. Did I get my shot? Not quite, but tracking birds in flight at a distance is very difficult and the thrill of pressing the shutter when the little green square shows on your subject is unbeatable. This will do for now:
The other great thrill of digital wildlife photography is finding, during editing, an image you hadn’t expected. As I pored over the dozens of pictures from Parkgate, I realised I had captured two really special birds. The ordinary geese turned out to be Pink-foots, who breed in Iceland and come here in small numbers for the winter- the dark neck is the clue, plus small beaks when you can see them.Even more gratifying were the Harrier pictures. Fifty years ago I used to watch Hen Harriers on Salisbury Plain, and have seen them more recently in Orkney and in France, but thanks partly to persecution by gamekeepers they are now rare in England and Wales. The males are a gorgeous pale grey with black wingtips, and the females brown. Marsh Harriers were almost extinct in Britain when I was a boy but thanks to the conservation organisations they are now common in many marshland areas. The bird I was tracking was brown, but to my surprise and delight I found when I came to edit the pictures properly that the bird was a female Hen Harrier. Here she is with the kestrel. Who says brown is dull?