I remember a winter sun burnishing the reed beds, ice and biting cold. We were staying in a guest house on the front at Morecambe Bay. ‘Why come to Morecambe?’ a local asked, bemused. The sea froze that winter, chunks of ice clunked on the shore-line. A peregrine killed. Our leader followed its flight and we drove along the front, stopped to watch the raptor pluck its prey. Bristol Ornithological Club in the North West. February 1986 I think it was.
Water-levels are high at Leighton Moss. It’s February fill-dyke and ditches are brim-full before Storm Dennis brings more rain, much more . Water laps the causeways and the hides feel like house-boats, shuddering in the wind, anchored in water astir with waves. Water-logged willows creak and groan in the wind. I hear willow tits, glimpse them in ivy -dark trees. The weather forecast is precise and, on cue at mid-day, a pall of rain reaches the hides. Few visitors today. Fewer tomorrow. How might it feel to be out here in Storm Dennis?
From Lilian’s Hide we see early signs of courtship display in marsh harriers over the reed-beds, the male dark and silver-white, russet beneath as if dipped in blood. A flock of twenty snipe flies over the water and comes down close to the water’s-edge. St Valentine’s Day and birds are smart in breeding plumage, if there’s light enough to see it. Hard to focus as the wind stirs the woods and the reed-beds and there are waves over the open-water. Birds are pairing, so it’s a chance to compare male and female of a species. And, when they come close enough, plumage detail is exquisite. Females are less distinctive but the courting pair swims together and there's no mistaking that shoveler bill or the bluish bill of widgeon.
A group of teal stands facing the wind, close enough to see patterns of plumage on breast and belly. Teal is a small duck but, out of the water, males look portly. A male in breeding plumage is designed to attract. Attract females, confuse predators with plumage of cryptic colouring and pattern. Close- up, the flank of the teal dazzles with irregular pattern, merging into breast and belly pattern of asymmetric brownish spots- nothing is sharply defined. Look at wave-patterns on the water and see how mantle feathers mirror shape and colouring. The breast is the warm brown of winter reeds when the bird rests.