Last week I took part in my first ever retreat. Back in June I met Kim Grant from Visualising Scotland when she attended my event in the Moray Walking and Outdoor Festival. Afterwards, she invited me to run a writing workshop in her upcoming Mindful Creative Retreat in Moray. Also helping out was Jen Price from Mindful Routes. I’d just got back from a six week trip to England so the retreat came at the perfect time for easing me back into the wild Scottish landscape I’d missed all summer.
The retreat began in beautiful Forres. As well as writing down our intentions for the next few days, Jen led us through some breathwork exercises. Several ladies in the group had yoga experience so were used to noticing their breathing. I, on the other hand, was a complete beginner so initially found it challenging to ‘belly breathe’ from the diaphragm. One of my intentions for the retreat was to notice my breathing more and to hopefully see a change in it.
After a peaceful morning session we walked back through the forest, listening to woodpeckers and spotting fungi and red squirrels along the way.
In the afternoon we had lunch at Logie Steading and visited Randolph’s Leap – a dramatic river surging through a hilly valley just outside Forres. Kim led us on a mindful photography walk, encouraging us to experiment with light and notice how the water changed from crashing to standing still at different points along the river.
After breaking for dinner, we met in the evening at Findhorn, where the sky tempted us with silky clouds and hinted at an impressive sunset. Here we did some more mindful photography. Kim asked us to explore different parts of the beach and take more creative images. I loved inspecting the barnacles and mussels attached to the rocks exposed by low tide.
The evening was so lovely we had a sea swim! Seeing the scarlet sunset rippling on the water while actually in the water was a totally new perspective. Oystercatchers flew over our heads and terns dived just a few metres away.
Swimming at sunset was such a peaceful and mindful way to end the first day of the retreat. Have a read of what happened on day two here!
Last week I made my debut as a wildlife guide! As part of the Moray Walking and Outdoor Festival I hosted a woodland writing workshop in my local patch in Moray. My own writing is always enhanced when I incorporate all my senses so during the workshop I encouraged the participants to pick up on sounds, smells and textures as well as sights.
For three hours we roamed through the forest, which on that sunny morning was full of birdsong and the last few coconutty whiffs of gorse flowers. I think the highlight for all of us was spotting a wood ant nest right beside the path. On closer inspection, we saw an individual ant carrying a feather three times its size!
I loved sharing my patch with new people and hearing some really beautiful writing. I was particularly pleased that two of the ladies, Suzy and Elizabeth, became completely immersed in their own conversation. Suzy has since spoken about the workshop and her chat with Elizabeth on her podcast.
As this was my first guiding experience I was nervous about how it would go but I received some fantastic feedback. “I enjoyed your walk and workshop very much,” Elizabeth told me. “It was so good to slow down, listen to birdsong and look at trees and flowers. It was a memorable few hours.”
Elizabeth’s friend Martina also said that she felt absolutely no pressure when it came to the writing task, which I was delighted to hear. She described the new pine sprigs as “chandeliers”, and when she pointed them out to us it made complete sense! I think it’s far better for a writer to describe something they say in a way that’s unique to them, rather than a technical term that not everyone would know. When I see pine branches that look like this again I’ll think of Martina!
I was thrilled that the workshop went so well. I shall be running similar events in the next festival, taking place in September. As a writer who spends a lot of time working alone, it was a refreshing change to wander with like-minded women and share work and perspectives. What a rewarding morning!
I’m so excited to share what I’ve been working on for the past few weeks!
Things are difficult for us all at the moment. Trapped at home with very little to do besides work, I decided to start a passion project and create a mini magazine of my recent writing and photography projects. On The Wing magazine features a range of stories from autumn and winter 2020 including waxwings, orcas, red squirrels and a surprise woodcock.
I love designing magazines and it was so exciting to see all my recent work in one creative showcase. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed creating it. I’d also really appreciate any feedback. Was there something you particularly enjoyed? Maybe there’s something you’d like to see in a future issue! Let me know in the comments.
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.
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.
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.
Recently I was very pleasantly surprised to see an email in my inbox from the editor of Pay Our Planet magazine asking me to write a feature for them. I hadn’t heard of them because it was going to be the very first issue. I leapt at the chance and decided to write about red squirrels, which are an animal very close to my heart. During my time at university I was lucky enough to have some very up-close encounters with red squirrels in Lockerbie, and can now spot them quite regularly in the forests near where I live.
I was particularly taken by how environmentally aware Pay Our Planet is. Studies have shown that mangrove trees store carbon at a rate of four times that of mature tropical forests, so Pay Our Planet have partnered with the Eden Reforestation Project to plant mangrove trees in Madagascar. For every subscriber of the digital magazine, Pay Our Planet plants 15 trees each month. This makes that subscriber carbon positive, meaning their actions remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they put into it.
It’s been such a privilege to share the story of one of Britain’s most well-loved species to an international audience. I’m so grateful to Pay Our Planet for giving me the opportunity to not only write a feature for the magazine but also for putting my photo on the front cover!
With all the dolphin excitement recently, I’ve been sticking closely to the shore on my walks and neglecting the forest. I’ve always been worried that I’ll walk for miles and then get an alert saying there are leaping whales in the complete opposite direction.
But, the other day I decided to take a chance and walk the dog in the forest for a change. Within five minutes, I saw a flash of rosy red and my heart did the familiar jolt that happens whenever I see something unexpected. And this was certainly unexpected: a pair of bullfinches not twenty feet away from me.
I’ve been trying to get a decent photo of a bullfinch for years. They’re one of my favourite birds but I’ve only seen them a handful of times. On every occasion they’ve either kept their backs to me or been concealed behind branches. I’ve taken a few blurry shots that prove they were there, but they’ve never been good enough to post. Now I was being treated with both male and female. While the male is more conventionally striking, I find the dusty brown plumage of the female just as beautiful. I just love their short, stubby bills, which are perfect for cracking hard seeds.
During the entire encounter my dog was amusing herself elsewhere, completely indifferent to my excitement. I stayed with the bullfinches as they hopped around logs and fluttered up to low branches. I could have sat and watched them for hours, but after a while I left them in peace.
Still buzzing from my sighting later that day, I decided to go back to the forest for an evening walk. There would be fewer humans and hopefully more animals to see. Roe deer were another of my favourites and a few weeks ago I saw a flash of brown fur as a doe pelted past me. I was keen to get a good photo of one – they were another animal that I’d never managed to get a proper glimpse of. So, despite the warm evening I wrapped up and headed out again. The sun wouldn’t be setting until 10pm so I had plenty of daylight left. In fact, it was prime golden hour and the broom – a shrub similar to gorse but without the spines – was glittering.
It seemed I hadn’t run out of good luck. After walking for less five minutes I saw movement through the trees. Four of the skinny saplings weren’t trees at all but slender brown legs. I froze where I was, conscious of every snappable twig by my feet. She was moving slowly, leisurely. I dared myself to tread up a grassy mound for a slightly higher viewpoint. There was so much dense ground foliage that I couldn’t see her very well. She headed to my left, straight towards a clearing between two columns of trees where I’d be able to see her perfectly. I lifted my camera slowly to my face and waited. When the moment came, the click of the first photo caught her attention and she turned to face me. For about ten seconds we stared at one another. Her pricked ears were huge satellite dishes on an otherwise skinny face, punctuated by large eyes and the characteristic roe moustache. The light was fading and I stretched to a slightly higher ISO than I would have liked. I knew the images were going to be a little grainy, but my deer was posing magnificently.
Eventually, human voices cut through my moment (of all the 1700 acres they could have chosen!) and the deer darted back the way she’d come. With such a slow shutter speed I had no hope of capturing her at that pace, so I just watched her springy legs disappear into the trees.
Inspired by such an early sighting, I pressed deeper into the woods, keeping my ears open for any unusual sounds that I wouldn’t hear during the day. The fantastical idea of pine martens popped into my mind but I pushed it away. To see a wild pine marten on my first evening forest walk would something close to miraculous. But a fox or perhaps an owl might be more likely, so I stayed as quiet as I could and did my best to avoid noisy leaf litter, although my stealth skills left a lot to be desired.
It’s astonishing how soothing a forest can be, if you let yourself align to its peace and quiet. I regularly stopped to listen to the birds, which at 9pm were still going strong. Far off, a blackbird perched on an overhead wire. If I closed my eyes, I could easily have been sat on my garden porch in Hertfordshire. A blackbird used to sing in the holly tree every evening without fail, and the sound became a firm part of my childhood. Elsewhere in the forest tonight was a chaffinch’s downward running tune, a wren’s bolstering trill and a chiffchaff whistling its name. I took recordings on my phone of all the assembled voices.
I walked and sat in the forest for three hours, until eventually at 10:15pm I began to feel the chill. Even so, the light was close to what it had been when I arrived, just without the bright sun – everything was lit with a milky glow that carried on long into the night. Moray is situated on the same latitude line as Gothenburgh in Sweden so during the summer months, the days last much longer and nothing goes completely dark. It’s a phenomenon I haven’t gotten used to yet. Many nights recently I’ve gone to bed and it’s still been light outside.
I decided to call it a night. Looping back the way I’d come, I headed down the straight track that was lined on both sides by thick clouds of broom. I glanced briefly through a gap in the foliage and saw a face. Freezing, I stepped slowly back and came eye to eye with a male roe deer. My fingers itched for my camera, but there was no real chance of getting a photo. I could barely make him out with the naked eye. Most of his body was shrouded in shadows cast by the trees, but his face and antlers were dimly lit enough to spot. Again, we stood eyeing each other for a few moments before he took off, bounding down the ditch and up again. Then a sharp, gruff bark broke through the trees, which I realised was the deer! I’d never heard their barks before and couldn’t believe how canine they sounded. I wondered now if perhaps I had heard it and just dismissed it as a dog. It was haunting, especially in an ever darkening forest, but I loved it.
When I broke out of the trees and onto the open field, the spell broke. I felt a physical difference between the forest and civilisation. For hours I’d immersed myself in a place where people weren’t the most abundant presence and it was unbelievably refreshing. I decided, during the summer at least, to make my evening forays a regular thing. Daytime walks are good – I’d seen my bullfinches that morning after all – but there’s something far more mysterious and captivating about the night.
It’s Nature Journaling Week! I’ve taken on the challenge of writing and illustrating a page in my nature journal every day from the 1st – 7th June. I always miss the international weeks and days but luckily I caught this one the night before it began. I’ve kept a nature journal for about nine months now, but recently it’s become more difficult to make time for it with my masters and other work commitments. So, Nature Journaling Week couldn’t have come at a better time for me.
As well as daily prompts, the week includes workshops and virtual events with nature journaling teacher and author John Muir Laws and author and artist Tim Pond. There is a huge amount of information on the website, so if you have a flair for journaling or even just a curious interest then get involved!
For day one I visited my local forest, which has always been a great place to relax and reflect. As well as birds and butterflies, there are furrier creatures to be spotted too. I’ve glimpsed a roe deer dashing through the gorse on previous visits, but I had a particularly special sighting yesterday.
What a brilliant morning. Before we’d even entered the forest I saw a juvenile robin, house martins sweeping up under rooftops to reach their nests and a female blackbird with a mouthful of food. When we left the road behind, the natural soundscape took over: the whispering “whoo whoo” of wind beneath a crow’s beating wings, the scuds and crunches of pinecones underfoot and a distant chiffchaff singing its name.
The branches of young conifers were like apple green hairbrushes, still soft with youth, while the thick knots of spiderwebs twisted around twig tips resembled silver microphones. Elsewhere, the fine gossamer hung between papery trunks shone golden in the spots of light seeping through the canopy. A dunnock was singing – its pink mouth open wide. Fluttering leaf-like was a speckled wood butterfly, basking on the dry earth with lazy blinks of its wings.
We looped back towards home, relaxed and at peace after a little forest therapy. Just as I glimpsed the first row of houses, a branch rustled overhead and revealed the tiny body of a red squirrel! It stared at me for a moment before taking off over the treetops, lost in greenness and silence.
It was so lovely to take time out to concentrate on creative writing and art. It’s easy to get distracted with pressing deadlines, but it’s also important to break that routine and reset yourself. I returned from my walk more relaxed, (thrilled after the squirrel sighting!) and ready to begin the day. I hope Nature Journaling Week will inspire more people to not only visit wild places (ensuring appropriate social distancing of course) but also to record their interactions in a journal to reflect on them for years to come.