A Song of Ice and Footprints

I’ve been loving my wintery walks recently and don’t actually want spring to come just yet. We don’t often get snow by the coast but it was finally cold enough for a spell of it this week. When I’m out and about I’m usually peering up and searching for birds or squirrels in the trees. But when the snow came I found myself watching my feet a little more, mostly to avoid patches of ice that would send me flying but also to admire some of nature’s art. By doing this I also discovered some special secrets.

Frost and ice have always fascinated me. They can transform everyday objects into magical ones by covering them in the most exquisite artwork. Puddles and windshields are given new textures and patterns. Depending on where you find frost, the shapes can vary significantly. The two images below are both of puddles but one is out in the open and exposed to sea breezes while the other is tucked low in a muddy trail, sheltered on both sides by tangles of gorse. The results are two complete contrasts of smooth swirls and sharp shards.

The snow also reveals the goings on of our more secretive neighbours, preserving snapshots of where different feet have trodden. This was excellent news for me as I have outrageously bad luck when it comes to seeing deer. While the majority of Scotland seems to be plagued by deer and has grown so accustomed to them that they’ve become a bore or even a nuisance, I’m absolutely enchanted by deer but see one every few months if I’m lucky. So the other morning I was thrilled to see that I’d crossed paths with a roe deer, even if I was there several hours later. There in the snow were the most perfect roe tracks I’d seen, and the sporadic placement suggested that the deer had been browsing in one place. How lovely it would have been to see it! I shall continue to look for them.

Elsewhere I made more discoveries. Beneath a clump of Sitka spruce was a large muddled patch of pheasant prints with several tracks spreading outwards like starfish arms. Each print was placed exactly in front of the previous one – I can just imagine the pheasant putting each foot down slowly and methodically before shifting its weight. Beside these thick prints were the scratches of much daintier ones that I guessed belonged to a blackbird, which often forage on the ground while smaller birds flutter above.

I left the most exciting find until last. Crossing a main path into a small grassy tunnel in the verge were several pairs of paw prints. I knew the square shape of badger prints but these were much smaller. I consulted my new indulgence purchase (Tracks and Signs of the Animals and Birds of Britain and Europe by Lars-Henrik Olsen) and checked first for pine marten. Although these were a similar shape, they were bulkier and didn’t seem right. The pictures of the stoat prints, however, looked much more like it: arranged in pairs like mine were on the trail and a better size match (3.5-4cm hind print). Again I wished I could have been a fly on the leaf when the stoat dashed across the path. Who knows what time it was, but one of the many beauties of snow is it can freeze time and preserve nature’s wonders just a little longer.  

Red Morning Ophelia’s Warning

Every morning when I wake up, I trudge to the window and peek outside at the weather. When I did this on Monday, the world was in sepia. A bizarre, yellow hue covered buildings, cars and streets. My sleep-fuddled mind thought perhaps the world was finally coming to an end; Earth had reached the end of her tether with the deadly human virus and was expelling us once and for all.

On my way to uni, I half-expected to see zombies staggering around. It was 9:30am, but the sun was nowhere to be seen. In the canteen all I could hear was talk of the sky and how long we all had left to live. This carried on for some time, until eventually the sky turned blue again. Strangely, the day turned into a beautiful one, and by the time I was walking home it was the warmest October afternoon in a while.

As many people soon realised, the cause of the red sun and yellow sky was Hurricane Ophelia, making her presence known everywhere possible by pulling with her a torrent of dust and tropical air from the Sahara. According to BBC weatherman Simon King, these clouds of dust meant shorter wavelengths of blue light were scattered, giving the sun its red hue.

That wasn’t all in Monday’s sky cocktail. According to the Met Office, the “vast majority” of the dust was an accumulation of debris from forest fires in Spain and Portugal, hitching a ride with Ophelia and spreading north.

So not quite the apocalypse that most of Twitter was anticipating, but the truth is terrifying enough. Hundreds of people have been sharing photos of the red sun and commenting on the weird and whacky events, but the cause of this phenomenon was a hurricane that has claimed three lives and left nearly 400,000 homes without power or running water… and that’s just in Ireland.

It’s easy to forget how devastating natural events like hurricanes are when they’re hitting thousands of miles away. But the aftermath of this storm is still very much a threat in the UK too. The damage that this hurricane, and that of Irma, Jose, and all the countless others should not be shrugged off as a pretty and peculiar occurrence.

Nature’s Fisherman

It was time once again for a wander in the wild. Kacper had told us about a kingfisher he’d seen on the River Caldew, so Zahrah and I met him in town and we set off. I’ve had two kingfisher sightings both in Cumbria, one with my camera one without. I managed to get the speedy bird in frame for one of my shots, but I wanted to slightly improve on an indistinct electric blue blur this time.

It was so refreshing seeing the first signs of spring. Little pops of colour speckled the green grass as snowdrops and crocuses stretched out of the cold, hard ground – dainty little warriors taking on the end of winter.


We were met at the river by a smoky grey guardian – a feathered old man that stood hunkered up at the top of a tree. The heron surveyed his river with grumpy indifference. Zahrah is under the impression that these birds are beautiful. While I can’t quite agree on that, they are a spectacular looking species that always draw my attention, whether they’re sat slouched on a branch or flapping through the air with spindly dangling legs.


After leaving the heron behind I spotted the elusive kingfisher, so we followed it along the river bank as best we could. In the meantime, Zahrah had a play with medium format film, and attracted a couple of inquisitive mute swans.


Despite the slow emergence of spring, it still got bitterly cold and before long the light began to fade. We were just about to head for home when another flash of blue shot across the water. Hurrying across the bridge, we staked out the riverbank and managed to spot the kingfisher resting amongst the scrub. It’s still not the best kingfisher photo ever taken, but it’s a vast improvement on my last – you can even see it’s an animal this time!


Great British Heat Wave

As the train sped towards Edinburgh, I caught glimpses of countryside soaked in July sunshine. A heat wave clung to the landscape, sending a wave of drowsiness over every passenger that pressed down with all its weight. The air hung sticky in the carriage; a line of sweat glistened on every top lip.

Crisp packets and book pages rustled in muffled tones. Water bottles cracked as parched passengers drained their contents. Beneath the seats shoes lay abandoned, cracked sandal straps twitching with the train’s motion. Itchy seats made us wriggle, skin sticky with the day’s intense heat, extraordinary for this climate.

Outside, the sun-scorched grass stood still, not a breath of wind to stir it. Hazy thick air was ripped by as trains tore past. Trees stood to attention, their hidden roots probing the earth with cracked spindled fingers, silent but desperate in their search for sustenance. The sky was a single sheet of undisturbed silk, a baby blue blend from near royal blue to almost white. A single cloud hung suspended on an empty canvas, floating lonely through the afternoon.

In the fields that whizzed by in a flash of brown and green, a tractor churned up clouds of palomino dust that choked the seabirds that pursued it. Baking in the sun, hay bales sat like blocks of butter. Pale grey cotton balls feasted on the dried grass, shaking off the flies with a flick of the ear.

Countryside blended into the urban jungle. Telegraph lines arced up and down in shallow waves before dipping down out of sight. Grass became concrete and sheep became people. Sat at Doncaster station, we waited for engineers to try and fix the air conditioning. We slowly cooked in anticipation as a steward handed out bottles of water. Once again the carriage was filled with the water bottle chorus: the sudden snap of a lid being broken, the sharp fizz of the sparkling variety, plastic crackling as the contents disappears down dry gullets.

Comfort is sought in the movement of passengers down the skinny aisle of the train, sending a brief but delicious breeze across hot skin. A student leafs through her notes, hand pressed against her forehead as she struggles to overlook her discomfort.

Trains arrive and depart on either side, leaving us behind. Such an uncommon thing, to have a train so hot in the United Kingdom. Deep sighs escape irritable passengers, while laughs erupt from the enthusiastic amongst us. I sat in silence, fingers drumming the keys and etching the here and now onto paper. My hair felt like a woollen blanket on my neck, but somehow the heat had made tying it up seem like a considerable effort.

The crackled voice of the train manager has informed us that nothing can be done for our overheated train, so it crawled lazily out of Doncaster station and continued on to Edinburgh Waverley. I suddenly wondered why it is that wherever I needed to depart is always the last station on the route. An amusing inconvenience.


By The Sea

Recently, England was treated to some incredible weather. After coming back from a walk in the park, I was asked out to the beach with the gang. Initially I was bamboozled at the thought of spending the day at the beach during late British spring, but the day really was lovely.

After a swift trip to the supermarket for sun cream and nearly passing out at the price – £7.50 a bottle (!) – we set off. In an hour we’d arrived and I was breathing sea air!


Almost immediately, we stumbled upon a cormorant’s corpse on the beach. Although slightly grim, it was interesting to see. We wildlife students can’t resist a photography opportunity, even when the subject matter has seen better days.


The rest of the day was spent relaxing. Unbelievably, the sun was so hot I could feel my arms prickling almost immediately. Still, I wasn’t about to complain about British weather being so glorious. I wasn’t quite prepared to dive headfirst into a British sea though, so I had to make do with plenty of water to keep cool.


After spending many hours on the beach we headed back. The sights and sounds of summer are upon us; I just hope they stick around!