Recent Rambles


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.

Day One


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.

2020 Wrapped Up


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…

My favourite photos of 2020 – all taken in Scotland apart from the orcas in Norway!

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.

One of my paintings that accompanied a Wild Intrigue blog

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.

An excellent year’s progress.

Taking Off


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.  

Winter Wishes


For the past few weeks I’ve been in such a wintery mood. I’m so excited for Christmas and have been itching to get outside into nature and see some new faces. A particularly exciting winter sighting this week has been the arrival of waxwings in my local town. I’ve been lucky enough to see them three times so far. I just love watching them gobble up the berries and seeing their crests blow in the wind.

Around the size of starlings, waxwings are winter visitors to Britain, arriving from as far away as Russia to spend the season feasting on berries in the UK. Although populations fluctuate each year, there are often gatherings of hundreds of waxwings, which are called irruptions. So far I’ve seen two so it’s been a slow start to the season, but even seeing a pair at close range is special. Before this week, I’d only seen waxwings once before and they were far off in the distance. This time, I could approach carefully and watch them right above my head.

This month I’ve also been looking for other winter specialists. I started a species list for the first time this year and so far I’ve recorded 114 birds, 29 mammals, two amphibians and two fish. And with seventeen days of 2020 to go there’s still plenty of time to tick off a few more! I’m particularly hoping to see mountain hares, snow buntings, fieldfares and maybe a ptarmigan if I’m really lucky. This weekend I tried to find my first mountain hares and snow buntings from the base station of Cairngorm Mountain but didn’t manage it. Still, these near misses will make eventually seeing them even more special. Who knows, maybe I’ll get to see mountain hares on my birthday on the 28th. That would be an incredible present!

The Forests of Home


It goes without saying that I had an incredible time in Norway. I love being by the sea – it’s part of the reason why I moved to the Moray coast. Although, I also have a strong love for forests, and during the first few months in my new home I found myself drawn away from the coast and towards the sprawling Scots pines. I walk the dog along tangled trails and she amuses herself with sticks while I gaze up into the trees, camera slung on my back. It’s not that I’ve lost touch with the ocean, but I lose all awareness of time in the forest and wander for hours until eventual hunger pulls me back. Trees and the creatures they shelter provide endless fascination to me – I become immersed in the forest in a way that I can’t by the sea without the hassle and expense of scuba diving.  

So although humpback whales erupting out of the water and orcas cruising alongside the boat were encounters that I will never forget – and there was a tangible feeling of sadness among the group as we made our way back to the UK – I can’t deny that I sat quietly containing my excitement. I couldn’t wait to see how the forest had changed while I’d been away and how wintery it had become.

It took us two days to drive from Gatwick airport all the way back home and I watched with growing eagerness as barren fields blended into mountains. Unfortunately I was bogged down with deadlines for the first few days, but at the weekend I made time for my first forest walk in a month. I roamed for three hours, and was reminded yet again how nature can constantly surprise you.

The first bird I saw was a goldcrest, which was flicking to and fro through the undergrowth just out of sight. I crept forwards until a particularly irksome branch had shifted and I got a clear view, but I knew getting a photo would be next to impossible. Not only do goldcrests love staying concealed, but they also never stop fidgeting. I stood still and turned on my camera, realising my settings were still adjusted for the northern lights from earlier in the week.

The goldcrest leapt up and clung to a twig with its back to me – just enough light for a photo. I pressed the shutter, hoping it would turn and show me its face and crest, but naturally it bombed back into the shadows. I left it to its foraging and pressed deeper into the trees.

Sunset was at 3:30pm and at 1pm the light was already vibrant with gold, hitting the trunks low in diagonal shards. It was blinding in some places and almost dark in others. I heard the delicate bell’s chime of another goldcrest high above me and saw the bulkier bodies of their regular companions, the coal tits. To think I’d been watching willow tits in snowy Norway a few weeks before!    

I hiked up one of the many sloping hills – mountains in miniature – and admired the view from the top. My breath tumbled upwards in a white cloud turned gold in the light. After following a narrow column for a few metres it was time to slide back down to ground level and my eye caught on a treecreeper as it crept up the trunk. What a perfectly named bird.

Up ahead was a clearing, which was especially lovely in the spring when full of yellow gorse but rarely revealed anything of real interest. The birds stuck to the protection of the trees. I stopped to push numb fingers into gloves when behind me I heard a sound like a plane engine at scarily close range. Startled, I spun round and saw a brown bird come rattling around my head and land with a crash on the ground.

Without a second thought I lifted my camera and just as I pressed the shutter the bird lifted its wedge tail and took to the air again, disappearing immediately. I quickly checked my photo and was relieved to see I’d caught it. A barred head, mottled brown plumage and wings that made a sound like something caught in a fan. My first woodcock!

I was stunned, barely believing what had just stormed in front of me and barrelled away again almost within the blink of an eye. The epitome of “right place right time”. Even the goldcrests and coal tits had suddenly gone quiet, as if equally surprised at the encounter. I felt the familiar flutter of excitement in my chest and was hooked all over again. It was good to be home.

Red Squirrels and Cresties


It has become a running joke that I’m pretty unlucky when it comes to seeing certain species. Examples include otters, badgers and deer, despite the fact that I now live in Scotland, which is essentially the deer capital of the UK! But, if there’s one animal that I have an affinity for, it’s the red squirrel. There’s something irresistible about their fluffy tails, tiny hands and beady eyes. And of course they all have completely different personalities. I will never not be excited by red squirrels, no matter how many times I see one. I must have thousands of photos of them by now but I always take more, and this weekend was no exception.

My friend Steve and I visited Lossiemouth for some wildlife watching in a beautiful patch of coniferous woodland by the estuary. Within ten minutes of arriving I was gazing down my telephoto lens at a red squirrel as it clutched a monkey nut in its paws. Despite the flurry of coal, great and blue tits, I would happily have just watched the squirrels until a particularly special bird caught my eye: the crested tit. In Britain, these birds are mostly confined to the Caledonian forests and Scots pine plantations of Scotland. The punky hairdo is perhaps the most striking feature of the crested tit but their bright red eyes are pretty amazing too! I couldn’t believe I was so close to such an uncommon and beautiful British bird.

Coal tit

As well as squirrels and cresties, we were surrounded by dozens of other birds including another favourite of mine: the long tailed tit. The proportions of this bird are what I love most about them. They have a body like a golf ball with a spoon handle sticking out one end and the sharp nib of a bill out the other. What a bird! And where there’s one, there are nearly always more and I often hear them before I see them. Their alarm call sounds frog-like and the trees erupt with soft ribbits whenever I pass by.  

I am in my element in the forest. It’s my favourite wild place to visit and I absolutely loved getting such close-up views of some fantastic species. After a couple of hours the afternoon sun began to fade and a chilly breeze had us packing up and heading home, though I’d definitely be back soon.

A Charm of Bramblings


With the bitter cold of winter often come unexpected and welcome surprises. Two years ago, flocks of waxwings graced us with their presence as they passed through from Scandinavia. The following year, hawfinches could be seen crunching hard seeds with their formidable bills. In 2019, it seems to be bramblings that are turning heads as they gather en masse across the UK. While they have been known to breed in Scotland in previous years, this is very rare. However, bramblings often visit the UK during the winter months, with this year being no exception.

At a quick glance, bramblings could easily be mistaken for a male chaffinch; these birds are of the same size and have very similar colouration, if a little more diluted than our more common garden inhabitants. Both male and female bramblings have an attractive orange blush on their sides and a white belly. In summer, males have black markings on their head. Bramblings can be found in beech woodland and close to other wooded areas, often joining flocks of chaffinches to look for food. Like many finches, bramblings prefer seed, so providing a good seed mix could attract them into gardens. There are several collective nouns for finches, including a “charm”, “company” and “trembling”. I couldn’t find a specific term for a gathering of bramblings, but as the birds themselves are so charming to look at, a “charm” seems appropriate.

It is thought that the reason behind this year’s explosion of bramblings is beech mast, or fruit, that falls from the trees, dispersing seeds for the birds to eat. If the beech mast fails in European countries such as Scandinavia, species including bramblings will move south and west in vast flocks to find more food. While impressive gatherings of five hundred bramblings can currently be seen in areas of the UK, earlier in January there was a flock of around five million in Slovenia. This number of birds could seem difficult to comprehend, but even that pales in comparison to the flock seen in Switzerland in the winter of 1951, which was up to 70 million strong.

As with all winter visitors, the bramblings’ time here could be short. Despite the plummeting temperatures, wrap up warm and head outside to find some of these beautiful finches. For more information on wildlife winter sightings, check out the BBC Winterwatch page. I for one would love to see a charm of bramblings before the winter wanes.