Today was the first day I’ve missed my woolly hat while out walking. I should have anticipated this from the sound of the moaning wind down the chimney, but I saw diluted sunshine and overestimated its efforts. We’ve hit that indecisive time between summer and autumn, when dressing for a walk becomes a series of deliberations.
This morning I saw a couple of swallows swirling over the shore, still lingering after their long summer holiday. Further out, a couple of white flicks were diving in the choppy swell. Even from an anonymising distance I could tell they were gannets straight away, recognising the stiff beats of their black-tipped wings. As I withdrew further into my coat with hunching shoulders, another flash of white caught my eye. This was the clincher, a sign I’d been waiting for. A flock of eider ducks meant autumn was coming.
Summer isn’t my favourite season by a long way, and this year it was made particularly insufferable by a 40°C heat surge that coincided with my first case of Covid. Still, I can look back and say this summer has been both productive and great fun. Most of it was taken up by research for my book, which is now due in six weeks. I’ve explored Aberdeen, Portsoy, Glenlivet, Ballater, Braemar, Banchory, Dufftown and Carrbridge in the last two months alone, filling the last gaps in my Slow Travel Guide to North East Scotland.
After spending so much time walking outside, I was pleasantly surprised to find tan lines beneath my rings and watch strap. I mostly write at my desk, so I loved having the opportunity to stretch my legs and assure myself that spending days on end walking through forests and wandering around coastal villages was in fact work. Putting this book together has tested my organisation, self-discipline and resolve, but I’ve now emerged with a complete manuscript. All that remains is the entire editing process.
During my research trips I’ve been learning more about butterflies. Birds and mammals have been favourites of mine for years, but insects in general have never been my strong suit. This summer I thought I’d make use of not being able to birdwatch as much, and expand my nature knowledge in another area. I found it fascinating, stopping frequently to crawl on the ground for a closer look at a red admiral, peacock or, on two wonderful occasions, a common blue.
The butterfly I saw most was Scotch argus, which has made my English friends jealous. Many of them have never seen one, let alone several on just a short walk. It’s been a fantastic learning experience and one that I’ll continue next year.
Now, however, as both summer and my time working on my first book draws to an end, I’m looking forward. Fly agarics are popping up in the forest and eiders are rushing past over slate grey waves. I know it won’t be long before some of my favourite birds – fieldfares, redwings and long tailed ducks – make their reappearance. That chill in the air is the sign that autumn is waiting in the wings, and I can’t wait.
This summer is zooming by! I’ve been spending the past few months travelling and writing my book, which is now due in three months. That’s quite a terrifying thought actually…
My research trips have involved stomping through Caledonian pinewood, sampling local whiskies and searching for hidden stone circles. I’m absolutely loving this challenging yet rewarding project and can’t wait to see the finished product on the shelves. Here’s a sneak preview of the front cover.
As well as book writing, I’ve been putting together my 2023 calendar. Like last time, it features a range of Scottish birds and mammals that I’ve photographed this year including snow buntings, badgers and even a goshawk!
And finally, I took some time away from the north east recently and headed down to Perthshire to photograph beavers. These incredible animals completely transform their surroundings and it was a privilege to spend so much time with them.
What a month! It’s usually birds that take up most of my camera’s memory card, but over the past few weeks I’ve been lucky enough to get some fantastic mammal sightings, including the second rarest carnivore in Britain…
Recently I visited a friend’s private hide. I arrived at 2:30pm and enjoyed squirrels, siskins and jays. Seven hours later, I glanced up and saw this badger approaching the clearing. You know that jolt in your chest when you see something absolutely incredible and rush to get your camera ready but your hands seem to move at half speed? That was me. Luckily this little one was in a meandering mood and took its time snuffling along the grass towards me. Obviously I kept as quiet and still as I could (despite the manic joy) but it still glanced over at me. There’s no fooling wildlife!
Roe deer prefer the seclusion and shelter of trees. Although they meander into open fields, they rarely stray far from the woodland edge. They are associated with Cernunnos, a Celtic horned god of wild animals and fertility. Deer were thought to have the power to pass to and from the Otherworld! Their antlers, shed each year, represent rebirth and rejuvenation. I saw this gorgeous buck from the same hide as the badger, which allowed me to get such intimate views. For me they’re one of Britain’s most magical creatures.
I’d been filming seals hauled out on the beach but there were some very grumbly clouds heading my way so I quickly packed up and hurried back to the car. Just beyond the sand was a dense area of gorse so as I walked I kept an eye out for stonechats and linnets. But instead I spotted a rabbit feeding out in the open. I was just marvelling over how darn cute he or she was when something caught my eye and this bundle of perfection appeared at the mouth of the warren. I’ve never seen a baby rabbit before and it was just as eye wateringly cute as I imagined. As a result of me stopping to take these photos I got caught in an absolute downpour before I made it back to the car, but getting soggy was totally worth it.
I haven’t posted a squirrel photo since January so this is way overdue! I’d just enjoyed a swelteringly hot day in the Cairngorms. Aviemore was swarming with tourists so I made a hasty retreat back home. On the way I popped into my all-time favourite forest. It’s the sort of place you can get hopelessly and wonderfully lost in. I was tired and hungry after a long day but I thought I’d have a quick wander in case I spotted a squirrel. I walked for less than five minutes before I heard a crunching to my left and turned to see this little cutie at eye level, positively glowing in the sun. It was one of those right place right time moments.
Although I wish I could open my window and draw in all the animals with my angelic singing (while a pie cools on the windowsill), I’m not actually Snow White and the real world isn’t like that. For certain creatures, a little more effort has to be put in and a hide is the only way to go! The pine marten belongs to the mustelid family with stoats, weasels and otters. They’re Britain’s second rarest carnivore after the Scottish wildcat, making them (in my view) as special as unicorns. I’ve been lucky enough to see them twice in the past, but both times were in the dark so photos were impossible. Recently I achieved a huge goal of mine and got my first images of a pine marten! Despite their leisurely-looking lollop, these cat-sized animals shift at a fair pace. Luckily I managed to catch this lovely female running straight towards the hide.
Since posting this photo on Instagram, I was approached by Countryfile who then shared it on their account! I was incredibly chuffed.
As this strange year continues, I’ve been busy taking photos, writing articles and getting stuck into new projects. I’ve ticked off 36 new species this quarter including my first otter, basking shark and northern bottlenose whales. Now the temperature has started to drop and I’m really looking forward to autumn and all its exciting wildlife spectacles!
I go through phases when it comes to wildlife watching. For the past couple of months, I’ve been deep in a forest phase and all I’ve wanted to do is wander through trees and look for birds and red squirrels. My Instagram was full of greens and the first hints of autumn oranges.
But then the ocean started pulling me back. After a few weeks with no sightings, bottlenose dolphins started to make appearances along the Moray Firth again. It was looking unlikely that I’d see my first orcas this summer, but I was still looking forward to getting dolphin photos that showed slightly more than the departing splash. I was back in an ocean phase.
Earlier this month, on a particularly choppy morning, I found myself running full pelt along Burghead harbour to reach the end of the sea wall that juts out conveniently into the sea. From there, I could watch three different pods of bottlenoses as they caught fish. With so many breaking waves and white peaks, I didn’t know what I’d managed to capture until I returned home and uploaded the photos. I was thrilled to discover I’d caught a little face just as it breached the surface.
A few weeks later, I received a text alert from the local shore watchers saying there were bottlenoses heading west around the headland. Snatching up my camera, I made a beeline for my favourite vantage point at the end of the harbour. Unlike last time, the water was completely flat and every flash of fin caught my eye. Unfortunately all the feeding action happened far out, way past the range of my lens, but I did have an unexpected visitor pass close by.
The action continued the next week. Another text alert had me hiking up to the Burghead Visitor Centre at sunset and before long I had my lens pointed at a small pod who were following a jet ski and giving the driver some sensational views! As well as belly flops and tail waves, there were plenty of breaches. It was amazing to see the dolphins so active.
In the last of a flurry of excellent dolphin sightings, I paid Chanonry Point on the Black Isle another visit: one of the prime dolphin watching spots. Within moments of arriving – being sure to time my visit with the rising tide – a pod cruised straight past. Although there were no breaches this time, one particular dolphin dived three times directly in front of the crowd, revealing a distinctive notch in its tail fluke. I was also delighted to see a newborn calf among the adults, sticking closely to Mum as they passed by.
As summer blends into autumn, the dramatic display of emerging fungi will undoubtedly draw me into another forest phase, but I’ve loved having so many marine wildlife encounters this month. I’ve now got plenty more dolphin photos to add to my portfolio too!
August is an intriguing time for wildlife. Although birds are relatively quiet at this time of year, insects are out in force. This month sees summer and autumn blending together and there is plenty to discover out in the countryside. So, here are some of my favourite British wildlife highlights during August.
This month, yellowhammers are one of the few birds still singing. They can be seen perching high up on gorse bushes as they fill the air with a charismatic phrase that many birders say sounds like “a little bit of bread and no cheese”.
Migratory British birds such as swifts and blackcaps start to make their way back south this month – swifts are particularly noisy flyers and soon the skies will be much quieter in their absence. Other migrants including swallows and house martins will stay around a little longer and usually depart around September.
Tawny owls may start calling in August, but this usually picks up in autumn and then throughout winter. It is during this time that young birds leave their parents and attempt to establish their own territories, using their calls to announce their presence. The well-known “twit twoo” call of a tawny owl is a combination of voices – the female calls “ke-wick” and the male answers “hoo-hoo-ooo”.
August is a good time to spot hares because farmland is starting to be harvested and crops are cut low to the ground. Keep an eye out for them darting along hedgerows or crouching low to the ground, looking remarkably like rusty stones.
Bats are actively feeding on the explosion of flying insects and badgers are starting to collect their bedding. Dry, warm weather can often mean there are fewer worms available and badgers may be drawn to gardens to drink from ponds.
Unlike red deer which rut in the autumn, roe deer have their breeding season from mid-July to mid-August. During this time a male – which is called a buck, not a stag – follows a female (doe) around and chases her in tight and continuous circles. This behaviour is known as ring-running, and when a ring is stamped into a permanent trail it may be used for future ruts.
August is also good for spotting insects. Dragonflies such as the common darter can be seen flying around ponds and other still bodies of water. They are also found far away from water as they rest on plants in patches of woodland.
This month, the second generation of many butterfly species are on the wing including comma, red admiral and painted lady. For those interested in butterflies, now is the time to contribute to The Big Butterfly Count. Launched in 2010, this UK-wide citizen science survey is running from the 17th July to the 9th August. It’s easy to take part – just choose a place to sit and record the butterfly species you see for fifteen minutes. As pollinators, butterflies are extremely beneficial for the health of the ecosystem but are currently facing severe declines, so the records collected during the count will provide valuable data for conservation projects and research.
This article was originally published on Bloom in Doom as part of my role as Nature Editor. It is the first of a monthly column of the best British wildlife highlights throughout the year.
I had seen gannets a few times before; on a trip to the Isles of Scilly they had flown over the boat, and more recently I’d enjoyed watching them dive for fish near where I live in Moray. However, nothing could have prepared me for Troup Head. This RSPB site in Banff, about an hour’s drive from Aberdeen, provides nesting grounds for two thousand pairs of gannets, as well as thousands of other seabirds. During the short walk from the car park to the cliffs, both sounds and smells intensified until they reached a crescendo of squawks and guano pongs.
There were gannets everywhere. Without wanting to make them sound like flies, they swarmed around the cliff, gliding in deep circles as they came into land on the rocks. Many of them had chicks – currently clouds of white down with black reptilian heads. Dotted among them were the auks: guillemots, razorbills and the occasional puffin all grappling for a bit of wing room in the tight squeeze. Peering carefully down, I noticed just how high up we were. The swan-sized gannets – Britain’s largest seabird – looked like sparrows at sea level. Even the coastguard helicopter that passed by was below us. Troup Head really was a bird’s eye view.
The site became a significant birdwatching spot when gannets began to colonise it in 1988. Troup Head is now Scotland’s largest mainland gannet colony. We spent seven hours wandering along the track, shuffling across the tussocks to get the right vantage point for photos. Gannets came sweeping in to land in an endless queue, many suspended in mid-air and bobbing in the wind. There was something very duck-like about the way their webbed feet stuck out to the sides, and more than once a bird would crash-land quite unceremoniously with a ruffle of the feathers.
It was interesting to see lots of gannet behaviours up close. The birds pair for life and return to the same nest site each year with the same partner. To cement their pair bond, males and females will ‘fence’ together, clicking their bills from side to side and mutually grooming one another.
To ensure that one parent remains on the nest at all times, a gannet will stretch its neck and stare straight upwards in a pose called ‘sky pointing’, which signals to its mate that it is about to take off.
With so many birds on one cliff, it’s inevitable that there will be disputes over space. If a gannet gets too close to a neighbour’s nest, there is a display called ‘menacing’, where the birds will open their bills and lock them together in an attempt to jostle each other off the cliff.
While some quarrels are short-lived, others develop into full-blown fights, and with such formidable bills these can be aggressive.
Gannets have been a favourite of mine for many years, so to see such a vast colony so full of activity was a real treat. I was even more impressed that I didn’t get pooed on once!
Earlier this week I went looking for badgers. Unfortunately I didn’t see any but I wasn’t discouraged. Any foray into the natural world is dependent on good timing and a healthy dose of luck. Besides, even if you don’t manage to see what you set out to find, there’s nearly always a surprise and this evening was no exception. As well as a brown hare, a very well camouflaged roe deer and pairs of siskins and greenfinches, I met a bubbly family of wrens living beneath the eaves of a tiny shed.
There were two slender adults and five golfball chicks all hopping from the shed to nearby trees and back, the latter being particularly vocal and standing with their beaks wide open demanding a snack. Wrens are notoriously bold and easily one of the noisiest British birds in relation to their size so they weren’t at all afraid of me; in fact they continued their foraging quite happily while I sat below with my camera. Of course it would have been lovely to see some badgers, but it’s just an excuse to go back and see what surprises I find next time.
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.