I think every budding naturalist or wildlife enthusiast has had this experience. A well meaning individual tells you that a species you have been wanting to see for a long time is easy to see. Not only that but they know a spot where it can without doubt be seen. In my search for the Ghost Hunter I was lucky enough to experience this three times. Unfortunately I was also unlucky enough to come back with no sightings on all three occasions.
Gerry (from the Image Circle) was now the fourth person to promise a sighting, claiming to have seen three earlier in the year when scouting for landscape shots. I had been to this spot before (Farlington Marsh Nature Reserve) with no luck. So I think quite understandably my hopes were not too high.
The day got off to a positive and peaceful start. The light was golden and captivating, with a sea mist rising from the outgoing tide, revealing a variety of fascinating wildlife. There weren't many people around at the time ( 7:00AM to be precise, which may in itself explain the lack of people ) which is always surprisingly freeing.
Me and Gerry strolled along the path that circles the reserve, eyes constantly scanning for movement and shapes that seem foreign or in any way different. We stopped first at a small spit of land that pointed in the direction of a small island just off shore. At first it seemed of little interest. But at second glance it appeared to be moving, in a foreign manner and different to anything I had seen before.
We soon realised that it was full of small wading birds that we later identified as Dunlin. They were packed tightly together as if it were the last piece of land on the south coast. Similar to Londoners packing themselves onto tube trains despite another being due in minutes. Unsurprisingly this mass seemed to burst intermittently. Flocks of birds fired into the air as one, before circling back round to do it all over again. One of these times I was able to get the shot you see below. But sadly, still no ghost hunter.
Whilst photographing the Dunlin I noticed a Brent Goose off to the side, quite a distance away that seemed to have its head underwater. This is not usually the sort of thing you see Brent Geese doing, but the natural world is full of curiosity's. So, mildly amused, I focused back on the squirming and bubbling mass of Dunlin. About 2 minutes later I noticed the Goose still had its head under the water. So I spun my camera around and took a shot... As it turns out, when seal is backlit and at a distance, it can be very easily confused with a Goose.
So most of the morning had drifted past by now and hopes were again fading fast. I was more convinced than ever that I was destined never to witness this particular animal in all its glory. That was until we stopped for lunch. As I sat on the bum numbingly cold sea wall to have my lunch, a soft shape glided silently past me and Gerry. I shouted to Gerry and we both sprung up and to our cameras. Missed it. It was gone.
It was Gerry that had so fittingly described this beautiful animal as a ghost hunter. I had seen it only for a second (if that) and I couldn't agree more. It was gone as effortlessly as it had arrived, just as I imagine a ghost would. We waited another hour or so before, finally, this ethereal creature put on a show I could only ever have dreamed of.
A short eared owl. For around 40 minutes in total we watched as, without a sound, the ghost hunter stealthily stooped and swooped its way around clumps of bramble looking for any unsuspecting little mammal that may be unfortunate enough to be in its path. Owls have specially evolved feathers that allow them to fly without making a sound. It's no wonder then that we saw it take more than one small rodent by surprise.
It really did feel like a privilege. Watching this perfectly tuned machine doing what it was born to do. Made that bit more miraculous by the fact it was in the shadow of a large city and surrounded by people who were all showing it the respect I often wish everyone would show towards wildlife.
Of course, a lot of these people were photographers themselves. But all were sticking to the path that circled its hunting ground. It really was amazingly refreshing to see. It actually left me wondering how some people can say they don't care or that they are not interested in wildlife. Personally I think those individuals are examples of people who have not had an experience like I had today.
Having a desire to see something that isn't simply a case of pay for your ticket and choose a date to suit you. Wildlife is rewarding so often it seems because its exactly the opposite. If someone told me that to see another I would have to try twice as hard, for the next three years as I did for the last three. I would. Because nothing can top seeing an animal you have been fascinated with, doing all you had imagined it would.
So if you are not that interested in wildlife, or have simply never got into it as much as you had once hoped then think of that animal. That animal that as a child you thought was awesome, or pretty, or funny, or just bizarrely intriguing. Then go out and find it. Odds are it is much more possible than you think.
Oh and if you were wondering what this blog would look like on video, I now have a YouTube channel. So you can see it for yourself !