It took us about an hour, in the dark, to set up the hide. Amber and I fumbled with the poles and then the netting that stretched over the frame. Once inside we arranged our small canvas stools and had coffee from the flask, our breaths and the hot coffee producing wisps and curls of steaming fog. We got out the binoculars and notepads and guides, and then we waited for morning.
Dawn stole across the sky. Looking up we saw the cold blackness of the night draining away, slowly chased by the unstoppable morning, the un-containable dawn. We gradually realised the imperceptibly changing hues of greys, then blues. The darkness of the night, unable to comprehend the light of the morning, was slinking away, rolling over the great sphere of the Earth, waiting for another chance to shroud the world in mystery.
The morning came up from behind us and we could see that a fine mist sat over the estuary. It lay like a duvet on the mudflats, waiting for the warming call of the sun to peel it back, and wake the inhabitants of that great muddy bed. We could see the golden glow of the sun beginning its slow descent of the hills on the opposite side of the estuary, inching slowly towards the mist-hidden mudflats.
After an hour the crepuscular rays of dawn had given way to the softly diffused light of morning. The sun rose higher and its light finally reached the estuary. The mist thinned and within another hour had gone. The moon hung high in the sky above the waking birds. Its brilliance now outshone by its burning rival. It seemed to be jealous, like a warm up act hanging around in the audience after his part in the show, watching the performance of the headlining star, hoping that his own efforts would not be forgotten in the limelight of the main event.
Amber was growing restless. “What are we doing here John?” she asked.
“You know very well why we’re here” I said, “I wanted us to see the Bar Tailed Godwits before they disappear again for the winter.”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it!” she snapped, “I mean what are we doing here, I meant you and me, us.”
“Why” I said.
“It’s just that I don’t feel we’re going anywhere.”
“Oh,” I said.
I picked up the binoculars and looked out over the estuary. The tide had turned in the last hour and was beginning to push the birds further up the sodden and shimmering mud. Oystercatchers in their noisy groups, stooping low and running across the mud, dipping and ducking their heads incessantly, pecking into the mud, bright orange-red beaks picking out the hidden gems of blood cockles. Redshanks strutting proudly, stalking with an air of arrogance on their thin pink legs, their long bills like fine daggers piercing the mud. Ringed plovers, smaller, more compact, concise in their size and movements before suddenly rushing from one mud mound to another, small legs furiously flicking in a frenzied blur.
And then there it was, the Bar-tailed Godwit. A beautiful bird, red-brown belly like brick, speckled cream and brown back, an oriental slant to the eye markings, blue-grey legs and a long dark bill with the hint of an upward curve giving the impression that this bird is pleased with himself. And he has every right to be pleased with himself. The migration flight of this bird is superlative. It undertakes the longest non-stop flight of any bird some 6000 miles in 9 days. A journey of incredible length requiring incredible stamina.
We sat in silence, watching the birds. I photographed the Godwits using the zoom lenses Amber had bought me for Christmas. The tide swept in, pushing the birds closer together as the sea reclaimed the land, if only for a few hours, leaving them less space to feed. Birds began to squabble, small groups would rise as one, swirling black clouds, morphing and pulsating above the mud before finding a new place to land and feed. The tide pushed on, cramping the birds, packing them into every tighter pockets. The sun rolled on, reaching its zenith and beginning to fall. The daily quotidian journey of the sun on its rounds, producing the diurnal fluctuations that dictated to the birds below us.
The Godwits would soon leave, journeying to their breeding grounds in the far north, following ancient migration routes that their countless ancestors had forged, routes that had been followed year on year by each successive generation. I would be sad when they left.