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.
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!
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.
Take a break from Christmas shopping and get outside for an icy breath of fresh air. In the latest instalment of my monthly series for Bloom in Doom magazine, I’ve shared some of the British wildlife highlights that can be seen during December.
Wader season is in full swing and estuaries are packed out with overwintering ducks, geese, swans and other water-dwelling birds such as dunlin. In the fields there’s still plenty of activity from finches and buntings including yellowhammers and, if you’re lucky, the occasional brambling or hawfinch. Owls and raptors such as hen harriers can also be seen more regularly at this time year – numbers of short-eared owls can increase dramatically as resident birds are joined by others overwintering from Europe.
Contrary to popular belief, not many British mammals actually hibernate during winter. Some, such as badgers, reduce their levels of activity during the colder months and sleep for longer periods, but this is known as dormancy. None of the changes that occur during hibernation happen during dormancy. The only mammals in the UK that truly hibernate are bats, hedgehogs and dormice. While sleep is essential for every animal, hibernation is an adaptation to changes in climate. It’s optional and actually quite a dangerous undertaking. The body temperature drops significantly and blood circulation, heart rate and immune function slow right down. The body temperature of some species of bats has been recorded as low as 2°C.
While some mammals slow down during winter, others are at their most active. It’s the breeding season for foxes and you might see them moving around in pairs while the male waits for the female to come into season. December is also the time for the rut of the Chinese water deer, a curious-looking fanged species that escaped from captivity in the 1940s and has now become well established in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and East Anglia.
Lots of festive plants such as holly and mistletoe spring to mind in December, but there are other wild plants to look for this month too. The aptly named scarlet elf cup fungus can be seen growing on rotten wood in small, round bowls of bright red. Also take a look at the lichen, which can often form beautiful shapes especially when coated in frost. Lichen is the result of a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae – while the algae produces sugars for the fungi from photosynthesis, the fungi provides protection for the algae against the elements.
Although I’m so happy to be back in Scotland, I can’t help missing Norway. Obviously the humpback whales and orcas were the highlight, but the northern lights, eagles, sunsets and even the cold were all so special too. There are already whispers about going again in 2021, but for now I’m still reminiscing over the incredible sightings I had during my trip this month.
If you’d asked me a month ago if I thought I’d be this close to wild orcas, I’d have replied with a straight no way. But somehow this is what happened. Within ten minutes of leaving the harbour we were surrounded by orcas. We kept our distance of course, but there’s no rule against orcas approaching boats and that’s exactly what they did. A pod of males, females and even calves cruised tightly alongside us. As much as I was itching to take photos of the entire encounter, I forced myself to glance over my camera too because I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.
It’s the word every whale watcher wants to hear. On our fourth day on the boat one of our group screamed and pointed. I ducked below the cabin and glanced through the window to see a white splash as large as a circus top. Humpback whales often breach more than once so I darted around to the other side of the boat and lifted my camera, finger poised on the shutter. Seconds later the whale leapt again, flipping in mid-air from its front onto its back. I shrieked into my viewfinder as water streamed off the whale’s huge pectoral fins. The sound of the whale hitting the water was like a thunderclap. Seeing a forty ton animal erupting into the air like that left me with my jaw on the floor!
This is a moment that will stay with me for a very long time. On one of the calmer days we found this beautiful pod of orcas. As well as males with large triangular dorsal fins and slightly smaller females there were also some calves breaking the surface for air. Making sure we kept our distance, we drove the boat slowly alongside the orcas, which were framed by stunning snowy mountains. After a while they dived and disappeared, leaving us spellbound in their wake!
What a bird! Known as the “flying barn door”, white tailed eagles are the largest bird of prey in the UK. In the early 20th century they were hunted to extinction but were reintroduced from Norway in the 1970s. Now these huge birds can be found from the Isle of Mull to the Isle of Wight and are doing well in Britain. I’ve seen them a few times in Scotland but at a distance – in Norway they came so close that they soared right over my head!
I had an absolute blast in Norway with the best group of people! Nothing like being housebound in quarantine together for ten days and all going for a Covid test to break the ice. It was a trip of a lifetime for me and although I’m pleased to be home and looking forward to my first Christmas by the sea, being back in “the real world” has made Norway seem like a distant dream.
It’s been a while since my last post – the past couple of months have been a whirlwind of planning, packing and stress! Earlier this week I came back from a trip of a lifetime to Arctic Norway, but it nearly didn’t happen at all.
For the past three winters, my partner and his friends have made the journey to Skjervøy, a three hour’s drive north of Tromsø, to go whale watching. Large shoals of herring have been drawn into the fjords of northern Norway, attracting humpback whales and orcas. Every year my partner hires a boat and takes the group out to find them. As soon as they returned in 2019 they booked the house for 2020, obviously unaware of how the year would progress.
In the lead up to our departure, our flights were cancelled and rearranged three times. What was originally a trip for eighteen people split over three weeks shrunk to just six of us because we all had to arrive at the same time to do our ten day quarantine. Eventually we made it out there and settled into our beautiful house right on the water’s edge.
It was the best quarantine I could have wished for: white tailed eagles flew directly overhead every morning at 10am sharp; willow tits scooped up the seeds beneath the feeder; velvet scoters cruised across the fjord and best of all, the northern lights shimmered in cloudless skies on most evenings. I felt incredibly fortunate to have reached Norway and had such an enjoyable quarantine!
The first ten days could have been a holiday by themselves, but after we were cleared to leave the house it was time to do what we came to Norway for – head out on the boat to look for giants. More coming soon!
In November, many mammals are preparing for hibernation while some new faces are arriving on the scene. In the latest instalment of my monthly series for Bloom in Doom magazine, I’ve shared some of the British wildlife highlights that can be seen during November.
Winter is an excellent time for birders because of all the overwintering geese, ducks and waders that have arrived. It is thought that around 50,000 barnacle geese travel from as far away as Russia to reach our shores, which may seem chilly but are far warmer in comparison!
All those birds attract the attention of raptors, so also keep an eye out for peregrine falcons and harriers which are looking for a possible meal. Short-eared owls also travel south for winter and are often seen near the coast.
Many mammals are now looking to start their hibernation in November, including our special but now scarce hedgehogs. They search for large piles of branches and leaves, which sadly often include bonfires. Please always check bonfires for hibernating hedgehogs – the best thing to do is build it just before you light it. Also, it’s a good idea to leave fallen leaves on the ground instead of raking them up because they provide important hedgehog nesting material.
In November there are usually lots of baby hedgehogs handed in to wildlife rescue centres because they are born late and therefore too small to survive hibernation. For more information on what to do if you find an injured hedgehog, check out this link.
November is usually the peak of the salmon run – a dramatic and impressive feat. Mature fish are swimming upriver from the Atlantic to their spawning grounds, having waited in estuaries for the rains that raised the water levels enough to allow them to travel back to where they were born.
As if leaping several metres into the air to pass thundering water wasn’t impressive enough, during this time the salmon don’t feed at all and concentrate solely on their mission to breed.