As habitats go, a river is a particular favourite of mine. Not only does it make one of nature’s most soothing sounds, but it’s usually a hub of wildlife activity.
When I arrived, the first bird to catch my eye was a blue tit, which was loudly serenading everyone around it with its ‘tea-tea-lily-lily-lily’ call. Beneath it, flickering from rock to rock, was a grey wagtail. Similar to other river-dwelling birds, grey wagtails have a high-pitched call that cuts through even the chattiest of rivers.
On the calm pond beside the stream, a pair of mallards swept around in slow circles. Surely one of our most under-appreciated beauties, the male mallard shimmers in direct sunlight.
I’d come to the river especially for dippers. This patch has a Rocky Road structure of stones, logs and twigs jutting out of the water, providing countless opportunities for perching and dipping.
On some occasions, I’ve had to settle on the bank and wait a while for the flash of brown and thrum of stumpy wings as a dipper zoomed by, but today I timed my visit perfectly. Just as I was peering along the water channel for a white bib, a dipper came zipping past me and landed several feet away.
I crept closer and watched as it ducked down behind its perch until only the top of its head was visible. It emerged holding an enormous clump of moss in its bill. With another dip, it sped back downstream, returning minutes later without its foraged cache.
For the next hour I watched a pair of dippers gather moss almost continuously. I’m always heartened and impressed by the diligence of some bird parents. Chicks were obviously on the way, and they would have a luxuriously cosy nest ready for them when they arrived.
Good weather may not be as forthcoming during winter, but I’d argue that winter light is the best of the year, if you can find a break in the clouds.
I checked the forecast and saw a long line of sun symbols, so I donned my thermals and headed out to see what wildlife I could photograph. First I tried for hares at sunrise, but they were otherwise engaged. Frustratingly, golden hour was flaring bright and I was itching to get photos of something, anything, in those syrupy hues.
After several hours with a numb bum, looking at diddly squat, I visited the library to return a book and warm up. When I came out, a flock of tufted ducks were bobbing in the city pond. The light was still fantastic, so I lay on the ground and got snapping. Like mallards, tufties have stunning iridescence if you catch them in direct light. I hadn’t set out for ducks, but it was a happy accident and I loved photographing something so closely for a change.
Rejuvenated by my unexpected success with the ducks, I moved on to one of my local lochs, where there’s always some sort of activity. As usual, the feeders were swept up in a feather storm: chaffinches, dunnocks, robins, great tits, long-tailed tits, blackbirds, woodpeckers and song thrushes all muscled in in for a mid-morning snack.
As my eyes snagged on each passing bird, I realised I couldn’t remember the last time I photographed a blue tit. I’m always looking for rarities and don’t appreciate common birds as much as I should. When I actually paid attention to the blue tits that were zinging in the bright sunshine, I appreciated just how multi-coloured they are. A British bird of paradise!
The sunlight may look warm in my photos but it didn’t feel it, and after a while I was ready to retreat for tea. Before I headed home, a small gaggle of greylag geese swept over the loch, dipping in flight until they skidded to a halt on the surface. Luckily for me they were facing the sun, so I caught some high-contrast shots of their smooth landing.
After an uncertain start, my trip became a common bird appreciation day, which I probably needed. I get blinkered looking for the rare and exotic, but with winter light as special as this, every bird looks superb.
Painting always takes a backseat for me. Writing and photography take up all of my creative time and energy, and as a result I barely ever get round to painting even though I love it. The second I actually set out my equipment and get started, I spend hours doing it!
The other obstacle is the fact I’m a raging perfectionist. I aspire for photorealism on every piece and it just doesn’t happen. What I should be more concerned with is that my worrying is stopping me from doing what I love.
So, determined not to get bogged down by perfection, I painted a few sketches with my usual combination of watercolour and fineliner pens recently. Sure they’re a little rough round the edges but isn’t creative expression what art is all about? If we could all paint a bird to look like a photo, every piece of artwork would look identical. Naturally this is just me making an excuse for my lack of technical skill, but joking aside I think art should be about having fun no matter what the end result looks like. And everyone knows practice makes perfect.
I’ve been a busy, quite tired bee recently! April has gone by in a flash and no matter how long I spend at my desk, the length of my to-do list never seems to change. This month I’ve been hard at work on a few different projects which I can’t wait to share. Fortunately I still managed to squeeze in some much-needed nature time, so here are some of my recent highlights.
I was thrilled to have a second article accepted by Oceanographic magazine. In July last year I visited Troup Head near Aberdeen, which is home to a vast colony of gannets. Soon afterwards I met Tim Marshall, who first visited the site in 1988. Back then there were just four gannet nests – by 2013 numbers had reached 2885 occupied nests! I was so excited about seeing these gorgeous seabirds up close that I wrote a story about them, which is now published on Oceanographic’s website alongside my photos.
There’s been a running joke for a while that I have awful luck when it comes to seeing roe deer. For many people, in Scotland at least, roe deer seem to be ten a penny. They’re one of my favourite animals but for some reason my sightings are very rare – I’ve actually seen more crested tits than roe deer! As for photos they’ve been disastrous, either dark and noisy or almost indistinguishable behind a thousand branches.
So managing to photograph not just one buck but two simultaneously was an exceptional bit of luck for me. I’d been strolling along the river when the first buck appeared on the far side. Moments later a second buck joined him. It was intriguing how one still had all his antler velvet and the other had none. With the river between us they seemed comfortable grazing out in the open, giving me the clearest daytime views I’ve ever had of this gorgeous animal.
I shared my frankly miraculous encounter with a hare in my last post. That same morning, I also had a run-in with a very handsome male pheasant. I’ve heard pheasants call hundreds of times – that screeching grate echoes through open fields everywhere. But it was only the other day that I discovered what a pheasant does while it calls.
This male was foraging right next to my car window. Every so often he’d stand up straight and lift his head to release that banshee scream, scaring me half to death each time. After calling he would flap his wings, almost like he’d startled himself too. As I hadn’t taken the time to notice pheasants calling before, I hadn’t realised what an excellent opportunity to train my reflexes it was. I had great fun photographing these glamorous poses. Say what you like about pheasants but they’re suave looking birds!
I’ve saved the best wild encounter until last. In fact, I’d say it’s one of my most exciting bird encounters ever, and it happened only 200 metres from my front door. As I was having dinner I got an alert from a fellow photographer telling me there was a Slavonian grebe in the harbour!
Pasta forgotten, I raced down and lo and behold there it was. A harbour was the last place I thought I’d tick off my first Slavonian grebe. About the size of a moorhen, these birds are extremely rare in the UK. They can be seen on a few Scottish lochs but spend most of the year at sea. I felt incredibly lucky to have seen one at all, let alone a stone’s throw from home.
Keep an eye out for my next post, where I’ll be sharing photos from my first trip out of Moray this year. The day featured a trio of herons, a serenading grey wagtail and a mallard making a splash!
Last week on one of my many coastal walks I glanced down to see a pair of fulmars perched on an earthy shelf on the headland. Fulmars are one of my favourite seabirds so I was delighted that there was a possible mating pair setting up shop on my daily walking route. They were cackling to each other and looking like adorable mini albatrosses. I got a couple of shots but the light was fading so I decided to return when I had a little more sun.
The next day I wandered back to the spot but they were gone, perhaps on a fishing trip or maybe they’d decided on another nesting spot. Not wanting to waste the trip out, I scanned the water for dolphins and birds. Just at the mouth of the harbour was a group of dots too small for herring gulls. On closer inspection through the binos I discovered they were long tailed ducks – another favourite of mine!
I hurried down from the headland and made a hasty loop around the harbour, peeping over the wall to see where they’d got to. I’d never seen more than a pair together before, and now I was out of the wind I realised they were making an absolute racket! There was a single female among all the males and she was flapping her wings and whipping the males into a frenzy. All the while a constant stream of three-note quack calls overlapped each other as the males jostled and squabbled around this one female.
The long tailed ducks near me are usually shy little cuties, but today there really was something in the water. By the looks of the female’s upturned bill and the twinkle in her eye it seemed as though she was egging the boys on! Well, we all need to let our hair down every now and then, and at least the long tails are allowed to have a party right now…
Elsewhere in the harbour there was more activity. Up until very recently the only redshanks I’d seen were far out and nearly impossible to photograph without the risk of breaking my leg on the slippy rocks – something I actually saw happen last year! I noticed a gathering of both redshanks and turnstones hanging out on top of the sea wall. Knowing they could be skittish, I stayed still and watched.
After a while another redshank popped up from behind the wall, surprising both me and the gang already stood on the edge. There was a great flurry of wings and I had the camera pointed at just the right spot to capture the near collision!
My intention had been to look for fulmars and I’d nearly headed in the other direction to walk further along the coast path, but after such a dramatic (and noisy) display I was relieved I’d stayed where I was! I love those surprises in nature.
For the past few weeks I’ve fallen in love with photography even more than I was before. My new camera has now arrived but the adapter I need to attach it to my lens has been out of stock for weeks, so the camera’s still in the box for now!
Luckily for me I’m still borrowing my friend’s camera and I’ve had it slung across my back on every one of my walks. Winter is my favourite season – wildlife is still abundant in the colder months and there are some particularly special overwintering birds to enjoy.
A prime example of a stunning winter bird is the brambling, and I was absolutely thrilled to see one this week! As I scanned a crowd of coal tits, robins and chaffinches my eyes casually brushed past this special winter visitor minding its own business. This resulted in a comedy double take from me. I only had time for a couple of shots before the brambling hopped off the branch. I scanned around but didn’t see it again, although I was more than happy to get even a brief glimpse.
Soon after that the light started to fade and it was nearly time to turn the camera off for the day. I was making my way back to the car when I spotted a last minute red squirrel bounding across the clearing. Luckily despite the gloom of late afternoon there were some lovely sunset colours behind it which complemented its fiery fur.
It’s easy to get a bit jealous of all the snowy wildlife photos buzzing about social media at the moment. I’ve had a few dustings but nothing like the drifts that have settled further south.
But even these light snowfalls are stunning to see and still manage to transform the landscape with both sight and sound. The pristine white is the most obvious change but there’s also a very specific silence that accompanies snow, as if nature is pausing to admire it too.
Over the past week or so, long tailed tits have suddenly become one of my favourite birds. They’re ridiculously photogenic and for such tiny fluffballs they have so much character! I usually hear long tailed tits before I see them.
After a combination of high pitched squeaks and cheeky raspberries from above they suddenly all appear at once, barrelling around in one group. The other day I saw a group of twenty individuals in the same tree and they made an absolute racket!
And most recently, I had a fantastic sunrise walk down to the harbour to see some overwintering ducks. Sunrise wasn’t until 8:45 (another excellent thing about winter) so I could saunter down to the harbour in time for golden hour.
Waves were crashing against the sea wall so all the gulls and ducks had come in to shelter in the calmer water. As well as a very vocal heron and a gang of eiders there was this beautiful pair of long tailed ducks, which only visit Britain during winter.
I lay down on my front – no doubt getting funny looks from the fishermen – so I could get almost eye level with the long tails. I’d seen a couple of distant males before but never a female so it was fantastic to see them both so closely.
Isn’t winter just the most magical season? For me this is the highlight of the wild year, where walks are filled with crunchy frost, golden leaves and with a bit of luck, some snow. Even without snow though, there are some stunning birds to see during winter and I can’t wait to see what the next few weeks bring.
I was determined to make the first day of the year full of wildlife so I headed to my favourite woodland spot to try my luck seeing red squirrels. As usual I was met by a gust of coal tits, brazenly unafraid of me, and once I’d settled down the more timid characters began to emerge. There were blue tits, great tits, siskins, dunnocks and chaffinches. Blackbirds rustled beneath the trees and a plucky robin perched within arm’s reach of me, gazing with that analytical expression typical of its species. I was soon in my element: enjoying the peace and quiet, tucked up warm against the cold and surrounded by birds.
A black and pink troop of long tailed tits caught my eye as they appeared one by one, hanging together off the branches. Mike Tomkies described them as “flying crotchets escaped from nature’s music sheet”, which I think is an impeccable piece of writing. And so true – long tailed tits have crotchety proportions with a golf ball body and a huge staff of a tail. But what enchants me most about them is their tiny little faces. Eyes and beak are all crammed into the exact same place, giving them a ridiculously cute expression. I love how they always travel in packs too. Despite being such dainty looking birds they soon dominate a space with both sights and sounds. One of their calls reminds me of a raspberry being blown. The next time you see long tailed tits listen out for it. A cheeky raspberry from an even cheekier bird.
Then I heard a different snap of sound on the breeze: the trill of a crested tit. I’ve only recently learned what a crestie sounds like and now I hear it regularly, often in places where I would never predict them such as over the most heavily pressed forest trails. I don’t always see them, but the beauty of recognising birdsong is it gives you the ability to meet a bird without actually clapping eyes on it.
And suddenly there it was. I’m hesitant to use the word “icon” because it’s become a cliché, but in the case of a crested tit there’s no other word for it. Found nowhere in the whole of the UK apart from the Scots pines forests of the Highlands, it’s a really special bird. I find cresties are also a real challenge to photograph on account of the ants in their pants. I’ve got a few photos of them now, but I’m still waiting for THE crestie shot.
As I sat marvelling, a bigger bird appeared and I almost clapped with happiness. A great spotted woodpecker landed right there in the open, which I’ve never seen before. If they’re not fifty feet up a tree they’re concealed behind so many branches that there’s no hope of a decent photo, but it seemed that today was my lucky day.
Although of course I was pleased to see so many birds, I was secretly hoping for a glimpse of red fur too. I waited patiently, watching countless tits and finches come and go, until eventually I turned to see what I thought was the robin again but was actually a red squirrel, standing two feet from my boots. It hopped leisurely across the pine needles to the tree and shimmied up the trunk, pausing just long enough in the crook of a branch for a photo before heading off. A very fleeting visit, but I was thrilled. When wildlife comes to me (rather than the other way around) I get an overwhelming feeling of acceptance. Both squirrels and birds alike must trust that I won’t hurt them and feel relaxed enough to come close, and that is a really special thing.
Well that was an interesting one. I always like to write a little summary at the end of each year, reflecting on what I’ve achieved since last Christmas. This year is no exception, but like everyone else on the planet I couldn’t have anticipated what was about to happen when I wrote in my last yearly summary: “I have a great feeling about 2020.”
The truth is, despite the obvious uncertainty and difficulty that came with COVID-19, I’ve actually had a really productive year. I count myself very lucky to have been able to continue plugging away at my writing during lockdown, where I had little choice but to open the laptop and type something. I combined my daily exercise with photography and took some of my best images so far.
It was so much fun keeping a species list for the first time this year, which has since become my “nerd list”. I planned to just keep a record of the birds I saw on the stretch of shoreline by my house but the nerd list soon became a record of everything I saw wherever I went. Now, at the end of the year, I’ve seen 156 different species of bird, mammal, amphibian and fish, including 55 lifer species! If you’re also a nerd then you can see the full list at the end of this post…
The most significant change this year was the move to Scotland. I’d been considering it last year, but it took the company I worked for going into administration and being made redundant to force me to take the leap. And that was the best decision I could have made. I’ve been in Moray for ten months now and I’m here to stay. I could see myself settling a little further south in the Cairngorms National Park – those ancient pinewoods are way too tempting – but living by the sea for the first time has been so special.
I received my first writing commissions at the end of 2019 and this year my portfolio has continued to grow. I was thrilled to be asked to write two book reviews, a TV review and a website article for BBC Wildlife magazine and several of my photos were featured on their social media and online articles. I have also been invited back to the Wild Intrigue family as Writer in Residence and I can’t wait to get more involved with this in 2021.
I first met my friend Steve while I was admiring a group of waders on the backshore and he hurtled by in his van shouting “Look up there are dolphins!” Since then we’ve gone on lots of wildlife excursions and I got my first experience of van life. I love the nomadic nature of living in a van – eating breakfast in one place and then being somewhere completely different by dinner. My favourite trip has to be when we journeyed to the west coast in October (between lockdowns) to see the red deer rut. I’ve wanted to hear stags bellowing for ages and this year I succeeded. Friends of ours have a beautiful wood cabin on the edge of a loch, which was the perfect base for a deer photography trip. As well as that, we were visited nightly by badgers and pine martens!
One of my most treasured highlights of the year was Norway, which very nearly didn’t happen but after lots of nail biting I managed to get there. Norway’s restrictions meant we had to quarantine for ten days and get a COVID test that involved a cotton bud going way too far up my nose… It was all worth it though and I’ll never forget the experience. After an incredible first half spent watching northern lights and white tailed eagles soaring over the house, the second half featured my first humpback whales and orcas. I was very happy to have my article and photos from the trip published by Oceanographic magazine too.
Winter is probably my favourite season and I’ve been in a particularly wintery mood this year. As they say, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes! I loved wrapping up and seeing both local wildlife and a couple of special visitors. In early December I was very lucky to see some waxwings that had arrived in my local town. I was also fortunate enough to see redwings and fieldfares this winter. My plans to photograph mountain hares in the snow were put on hold when Scotland went into Tier 4 on Boxing Day, but hopefully there will be an opportunity next year.
After the year we’ve had, I’m a little reluctant to make any New Year’s resolutions but there are some things that are luckily still in my control! Last year I had a real buzz for art and started a nature journal and the Instagram Inktober challenge to keep it up. Sadly these fizzled out and although I still love drawing and painting, it’s my photography that’s really soared this year. When I was living in Hertfordshire I went for months without taking any photos, but since moving to Scotland I’ve used my camera almost daily. I’ve vastly improved my portfolio and take great pride in some of the shots I’ve taken.
Sadly, my trusty old Canon DSLR bit the dust on Christmas Day! So it was time to upgrade. I’ve deliberated over what camera to get next for ages and whether to go mirrorless or not. When Steve recently bought Canon’s latest professional mirrorless – the very swanky R5 – I can’t deny I was won over. The quality is incredible but perhaps the clinching factor was the silent shooting. No mirror means no click, and when it comes to capturing the shyer animals such as deer and otters, camera clicks can spell disaster.
So this week I ordered my own R5 and I can’t wait to see just how much it can improve my work. Although writing is still my main focus, photography has developed into an even greater passion this year and is such a great visual accompaniment to my articles. While I have no idea if I’ll be able to achieve this in our current climate, in 2021 I aspire to photograph my first otters, British orcas and pine martens. No pressure!
There are some other (some might say more realistic) things I’d like to achieve in 2021:
Learn to recognise at least ten tree species – my tree knowledge is pretty shameful and considering I spend all my time in forests this needs to change!
Write morning pages every day – lots of writers swear by morning pages and I’d love to try free writing each day and see how it affects my work
Have all my writing notes in one place – I have an awful habit of jotting down notes and observations in a dozen different notebooks, so finding something again is hopeless. I want to get more organised and put all my writing in one place moving forward.
As I write this, snow is falling in quite a dramatic fashion and I’m like a little kid all over again. I’ll probably pass on making snowmen this time, but I can’t wait to see all my furry and feathery neighbours in the new white world. Who knows what will happen in 2021, but all we can do is carry on. The word I chose for myself last year was “improve” and I can say with confidence that I’ve done that. I’ve found where I want to live, earned some money from what I want to do and seen some incredible wildlife.
It was definitely a wellie day. After almost a week of rain, the ground squelched and sloshed with each step. The thickest tussocks of grass were dry, but most of the ground was speckled with puddles. That wasn’t a problem though, and by the looks of the oranges and yellows appearing to the east, the sunrise was going to make some welly wading more than worth it.
Slinging my camera across my back and clutching tripod and camping chair in each hand, I threaded my way around the deepest puddles, leaving indentations in the grass behind me. The chattering babble of thousands of geese easily crossed the still bay, and in the gloom I could just about see them packed tightly together on a skinny sandbar. The tide was coming in so they didn’t have long. Neither did I, so I hastily set up the tripod and waited.
In minutes the sunrise had transformed from a haze of yellow to a blaze of scarlet and bruised purple. That was where the geese would soon be heading – taking off in swathes and moving inland to browse in the nearby fields. As if someone had turned up the volume, the honking increased drastically and a number of them took to the air, triggering others around them to follow. Most stayed behind though, leaving the ambitious few to form a loose skein that blew across the sky like a stray ribbon. They crossed from the pale navy light into the fiery sunrise and shrank to dots. A little while later another group took off, then another, and for the next hour and a half the crowd on the sandbar slowly diminished. It was lucky for me that they left in shifts because I had plenty of opportunities for photos.
Although I’d come especially for the geese, there was an unexpected bonus display from a large group of knot that was murmuring like starlings over the water. The tiny waders climbed high into the sky, and each time they twisted back on themselves the sunlight caught their white bellies and the whole murmuration flashed like a torch. As the tide continued to sweep in, the knot were pulled further and further towards us until they settled on the receding sand and began to forage among the oystercatchers.
Eventually, all the geese had departed for the day, and an unseen distraction had frightened the knot back into the air, where they circled several times before settling far across the bay and out of sight. In a fairly short time, the thousands of birds and their incessant chatter had gone, leaving the bay smoothed over by silence.