The Hide

5 November 2017 // Photography

Wildlife photographer Mat Bingham chases the perfect kingfisher shot, and finds himself in deep water

The footpath from the road to the hide was made of a series of concrete slabs that sank unevenly into the gloopy mud every time I took a step. Partway along the path there was a gap between two of these man-made stepping stones. I assumed there was something firm between them to take my weight but I couldn’t see through all the mud. As I took a step forward the mud swallowed my wellie. I shifted my weight onto the other leg whilst I still had purchase on the slab behind. Now the mud had me firmly in its grasp, it was reluctant to let go. It made a sucking, gurgling noise as it tried to drag me into its dark depths. Using the tripod for support on the opposite slab I levered my heel upwards to try and break the suction. With a gasp and a belch the mud released me and up slid my foot, half in and half out of the welly, covered in grey-green slime. The fetid smell of rotten eggs emanated from the hole as water rushed in, obscuring the man trap, ready to catch its next unwary victim. Ten minutes later my walk ended, when I reached the hide.

It reminded me of my granddad’s old garden shed. The hide was clad in a mixture of materials, whatever had been to hand. In places it was held together with frayed orange baling twine, bent rusty nails stuck out at all angles and half-crown hammer blows were indented in the mouldy timbers. Rather ominously there was a tide mark about two thirds of the way up the plywood door. The owner had confidently said to me “It will be fine, if you wear wellies you won’t get wet!” High tide was at three in the afternoon and on the basis of his advice I planned to stay in the hide long after that, until it was too dark to shoot.

The openings in the hide faced the river. The front elevation was covered in a mixture of hessian sack and army scrim net for camouflage. As I stood at the side entrance in full view of the river, I could hear the rush of water and the wind in the trees. Above this background noise, the twitter of grey wagtails and the single note – almost whistle – of a kingfisher gave me goosebumps.

I unwound the twine which was the makeshift latch on the hide door and let the light spill in as I stood there for a few moments, letting my eyes adjust to the dark interior.

The hide was about eight meters long and about three meters wide. The low ceiling a refuge for spiders, their cobwebs helped bind the timbers together.

I stepped into the hide, making my way along the uneven muddy floor. Focussed on keeping my footing, I banged my head on one of the roof beams. Rubbing my sore temple I set up a camera at the far end, on a beanbag. I love the feeling of sitting in a hide waiting for that fleeting, magical moment; dreaming that today is the day the light will come good just as the action unfolds. I hoped that today I was in the right place at the right time. But it was raining hard, the skies were leaden, and the sun struggled to lighten the mood. It had been raining since about two thirty in the morning, when I had woken to the drumming on my tent and the flexing of the carbon fibre poles as the wind tried to flatten my temporary home.

The camera was set up now – nothing to do but wait. I glanced at the shelf in front of me, where I had placed a flask of hot coffee and a packet of fig rolls for safe-keeping. A robin kept me company, hoping I would give him some crumbs from the biscuit stash.

It poured with rain all morning. Around noon the river paused, broken tree branches and leaves swirling around in gravy-coloured eddies. Then the river started to flow inland, rising at an astonishing rate, assisted by the wind and the rain. At two o’clock in the afternoon it started to flood the hide. A mouse scurried across the scrim net, trying to escape the deluge.

Within minutes I had to sit on a bench to keep my feet out of the water, which was already two feet deep. I manoeuvred along the bench, trying my best to keep out of the water, and attached a radio trigger to the camera – I would now be able to fire the camera remotely if I needed to. The bench was uneven, and at its highest near the entrance, so I shuffled along the smooth timbers to the door, banging my head again on the roof in the process.

At ten minutes to three, the water was chest-height from floor level, and I was stood on the tallest bench, with my back wedged against the roof. My legs had gone to sleep and I couldn’t hold my camera bag above the water any longer, so I climbed out through the scrim net and flung the bag onto the roof.

At last three o’clock came, and with it, high tide. I climbed back inside the hide, water pouring into my wellies as I watched my fig rolls float out of the door which had been forced open by the water. The flask bobbed around like a piece of flotsam, but I managed to rescue it with one hand and put it on the roof with the camera bag.

I had been busy looking at the water level in the hide and hadn’t noticed that it had stopped raining. I sensed the dark interior of the hide lightening as the sun broke through the clouds and it was at that moment that a kingfisher made a dive right in front of the camera. I pressed the trigger button on the remote with my right hand whilst holding onto the roof of the hide with the left. As the kingfisher broke free of the water it showered the camera with sparkling droplets of water, backlit by the fleeting sunlight as it launched itself skywards in a shimmering blur of turquoise green, orange and deep blue. Within seconds the clouds closed in and I didn’t see the kingfisher or the sun again that day. But leaving the hide in the twilight, I was content with that one fleeting moment.

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See more of Mat’s stunning wildlife photography on his website.

Mat Bingham on Caught by the River

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