My first set piece WILDlife photography expedition of 2020 was a trip to Tom Robinson's Pond Hide, to see the amazing deep mid-winter night-time animal activity on view.
What I hadn't expected was an astonishingly impressive (and loud) feat of monster machine engineering, performed by Network Rail in the very dead of night ... more of which later!
Regular readers, who have followed my previous visits to this super set up, will know that Tom has created a wonderful natural environment for Kingfishers and a place where some iconic British animals can visit under the cover of darkness.
A great lighting set up allows the photographer to witness and record visits from Tawny Owls, Herons and Otters all benefiting from both the natural and supplementary feeding provided, making the spot a valuable asset for wild creatures in the difficult winter months.
An unremarkable and remote wedge shaped sliver of land, bordered by a small river on one side and a steeply raised mainline railway embankment on the other, might not be the first place you would choose to visit in search of wildlife.
It just shows what some smart habitat management, wildlife sympathetic behaviour and a determination to share the wonders of British animals with both enthusiastic amateur and professional photographers alike, can do!
What Tom can't control it seems, is Network Rail deploying the biggest array of massive engineering machines to upgrade or maintain the crumbling rail infrastructure that our country 'enjoys' !!
It appeared to be our misfortune that they chose the very evening of our visit and the precise c 400m of railway directly above our quietly concealed hide location, to bring what sounded and sometimes looked like ... armageddon!
Fortunately, the early evening had been quiet and we were soon joined by a beautiful Tawny Owl flying in silently to snarf a juicy mouse on the perches set up to allow us to witness the action from the warmth and comfort of our seats.
Whether perched and fixing you with a stare (acknowledging but ignoring the click of your camera shutter and the brief flash lighting up their presence), or flaring their wings to balance as they secure their tasty prize, the Owls are a wonderful and privileged sight.
I know how much time and patience it takes to get the Owls comfortable with visiting to feed and how important it is to always consider their welfare as the priority when doing so, from my own set up at home in our woodland and meadow.
Other early evening visitors were two Grey Herons; initially a juvenile preceding an altogether more elaborately decorated adult bird, feathers stylishly ruffled by the breeze, both pursuing the juicy fish in Tom's pond.
A hunting Heron is also constantly on its guard for potential predators and when the huge bird froze momentarily erect and facing the direction of the river, it was time to get ready for action, as in my experience Otters were likely to appear.
A sudden flurry of wings and feathers, a vertical take-off and an alarm call squawk, was duly followed by the apparent materialisation of one of the countrysides most charismatic of mammals ... an Otter!
An explosion of spray as the Otter emerged from the water with it's prey, heralded a magical time where we were treated to a close view of Otters doing what Otters do, their super sensitive whiskers helping them locate and pursue fish and a superb sight of them feeding in the shallows created in the pond, to allow us humans to peek inside their world and behaviour.
The arrival at about 10 o'clock of (literally) the biggest piece of rail mounted machinery I have ever seen - I would estimate that it was at least the length of 3 Inter-City trains, with various components that ripped up the rails and sleepers, carted them away and then replaced with new at breathtaking volume, must have put paid to the chances of quiet engagement with wildlife ... surely ??
Whilst it's true that the Heron seemed to have departed to find somewhere experiencing quieter times, to our astonishment and in the midst of all the cacophony of noise, the huge light flare arc of giant machines welding the rails together, the men shouting and wielding flashlights all only metres above the pond surface, who should appear but a HUGE dog Otter as if it was tea-time at The Ritz, rather than some dystopian version of Dante's hell!
My assumption is that, already habituated to the noise of passing Inter-City trains thundering by above, he wasn't phased by the extra disturbance (incredible as this was) and his instinct to hunt and feed overcame any off-putting human disturbance.
Positioned a mere 4 or 5 metres away and with an eye-level view of this impressive animal, I'm also tempted to believe that he felt he could take an all-comers if it came to it, as he reeked of wild confidence with the unmistakable swagger of a creature perfectly evolved to dominate its natural environment.
What an experience!
Eventually of course, the Network Rail workers shift came to an end and the line was cleared to make way for the return of the commuter community, leaving a chance to grab some sleep disturbed only by the return of a rather solemn Tawny Owl, picking up where it left off before all the kerfuffle.
Thanks again to Tom for a great wildlife experience and also to Del, my trusty accomplice on this particular expedition for some great company.
Here's to the next visit, hopefully accompanied by the quiet sounds of the great British countryside, MINUS Network Rail ha ha!