Steve Young Birdwatch logbook

This autumn, Steve Young is hoping for some extremely wild weather on the shore line of the River Mersey as sets out to capture shots of migrating seabirds... Every autumn on the north-west coast there is a small army of birdwatchers and bird photographers, including myself, who sit and eagerly watch the local weather forecast in the evening. We are not hoping for clear blue skies and sunshine, but for gale force northwesterly winds with lots of heavy rain showers; the stronger the winds the better, and if the squalls are as heavy as possible that will be perfect.

bird photographersDon worry, we donform part of a strange cult that enjoys wandering around in the rain and wind (although thinking about it, that is exactly what we do), but we are all hoping for lots of migrating seabirds to be blown close enough to the shore so they can be watched and photographed. Autumn is a prime migration time for breeding skuas, shearwaters and petrels to start moving south from their northerly breeding ranges, but they are usually far out at sea. Bad weather with lots of rain and those hoped-for winds pushes them nearer to the shore; stronger winds sometimes force them down the Mersey that divides Liverpool from the Wirral coastline, and it is here that the best opportunities for close views occur.

On a weather day, the petrels are blown in to the mouth of the river by the strong north-westerly winds, particularly over the high tide period. As the tide recedes, the birds try to fly back out of the river to the sea to carry on migrating, but are again hit by the wind when they leave the relative calm of the Mersey mouth, and this is when they can come close to the shore. The stronger the wind and the heavier the rain the more birds there will be, and the better the chances are for photography. When weather conditions are right, birdwatchers will stand in the shelters along the seafront, protected from the worst of the elements, and it is possible to take some images from these relatively luxurious viewpoints. Unless you are incredibly lucky, however, they are too far from the birds for any good close-up images; to get those you have to abandon any thoughts of warmth and shelter, and, instead, brave the wind and walk out to the tideline. Leachpetrel is the star photographic prize, and the best place to try for a sighting is on the Wirral side of the river. From here, the light is better with whatever sun there is behind you and there are a number of places where the birds can be followed as the tide recedes. Therea strong chance of seeing petrels anywhere along the coast in a good year, but the shores at New Brighton, Wallasey and Leasowe are the favourites. The problem is that the same weather conditions that bring the birds in can be a nightmare to take good images in, even with modern day image-stabilised lenses. As well as the rain soaking you, and the wind threatening to blow tripods over at any given opportunity, there is also the sand to contend with. Swirling sand can be a disaster; as well as hurting like hell when it gets in your eyes, a few grains can easily find their way inside your camera equipment. A few years ago, my 500mm lens fell victim to the dreaded sand and the autofocus refused to work when I next used it. This was despite the fact that I had a lens cover on it; sand can get everywhere. bird photographersIf you are tempted to head to the Mersey this autumn, then you need to be prepared. Be aware of the strength of the wind and always keep at least one hand on the tripod, no matter how stable it appears to be in normal working conditions. The winds can be so strong that tripods with lens and camera attached can easily be blown over on to the wet sand; Iseen this happen a few times and itnot a pretty sight. Despite all the challenges, the photographs that can be taken are worth all the effort. Autumn of 2010 was a particularly good one, with many Leach s petrels hugging the shore, while a couple of Sabinegulls and Manx shearwaters were also photographed. Last autumn was poor, despite there being a reasonable wind one day, and only a couple of petrels were seen and none were close. So, it can be a bit of a hit and miss affair. As well as those migrating seabirds, autumn is the best time to see the juvenile/first winter plumage of gulls. Among them are three very similar-looking species; Sabinegull, kittiwake and little gull, all of which have an upperwing pattern that can cause confusion. All three species have a  W -type pattern across their wings and a white underwing. Kitti wake is the chunkier-looking of the three and the slowest flyer, and also has a broad black neck collar with a grey back. Sabine s gull is the rarest and has an all-dark brown back extending on to the head, which is lacking on the other two species. Little gull is the smallest of the three species, which is useful for identification if they are seen together. It is daintier in flight, also having a grey back, but mottled with brown marks. This juvenile little gull shows the  W  wing pattern, brown on its head and the back; this will become patchier as the bird gets older. Note the grey mantle on this juvenile kittiwake, compared to the Sabine s gull. Also note the dark neck collar on kittiwake. One of the prize birds on a sea-watch. This juvenile Sabinegull is in pristine plumage —a completely dark back blending into the wing pattern. Also note the forked tail compared to the other two species.

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