Apparently it’s World Ocean Day! I can never keep up with all these international days, but I was keen to get involved with this one. Since moving to Scotland, the ocean has become a huge part of my local landscape and it never fails to both relax and inspire me.
My local patch is a mile-long strip of rocky shore that’s bursting with wildlife – depending on the tide I can see gannets diving for fish, turnstones foraging among the kelp or bottlenose dolphins flinging themselves into the air.
I’ve also been lucky enough to watch marine wildlife in Norway. During an unforgettable trip in 2020, I saw orcas, humpback whales and white tailed eagles – often all at the same time. Despite a dash of seasickness and some very numb toes, it was one of the best experiences of my life. I couldn’t believe I was surrounded by such huge animals, and it was a real privilege to share the icy fjords with them.
When I arrived at Troup Head I could barely see. The mist was so thick it obscured the sheep chatting away in a field less than 30ft away. Seeing as I was here to photograph gannets at their clifftop nesting site, visibility as poor as this suggested impending disaster.
Refusing to waste a journey, I geared up and set off on the coast path. I took the long route to the cliff in the vain hope that the mist would have cleared by the time I arrived. Sadly not. As I approached the nesting site I could make out the blurry outlines of gannets gliding past – white against slightly duller white.
I settled on the grass and propped my camera lens on my knees. The entire ocean had disappeared, but luckily a cluster of gannets were perched close enough for me to actually see them through the fog.
I already had huge respect for gannets, with their vast wingspan, dagger-like bills and ability to slam into water from a great height without injuring themselves. But watching them navigate a jumble of clifftops through what was essentially a white-out was even more impressive.
Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, after several hours I managed to get some shots I was happy with. Gannet goings-on continued as normal, and I watched bonding behaviours between mating pairs, grooming, and the occasional brawl when a neighbour shifted too close.
You can anticipate exactly when a gannet is going to launch itself off the cliff, as it takes several slow steps along the ledge with its bill pointed straight up, as if either limbering up for take-off or encouraging its companions to watch. It’s a bit of a showy thing to do and I love them for it.
By midday the mist hadn’t moved and my stomach was grumbling, so I called it a day and strolled back along the coast trail. Scottish weather is nothing if not predictable, but this means you usually don’t have to wait long for it to change.
Sure enough, when I returned the next day the sun was gleaming and the ocean was back. This time I could see gannets everywhere, swirling in the now cloudless sky as well as perching on their precarious ledges.
I’d taken lots of stationary shots the day before so I turned my attention to birds coming into land. This provided its own set of challenges – unlike their sky pointing routine before take-off, there was no warning before they popped up in a flurry of white wings.
It was a pleasure to spend time with such striking and charismatic birds and watch their daily routine from the lofty heights of the clifftop colony.
There are certain birds that I look forward to seeing every year. As the seasons shift, there’s a constant shuffle of some leaving the UK and others arriving. One particular spring/summer visitor who’s pretty much everyone’s favourite is the puffin.
Recently I set off on one of my annual pilgrimages to see these tiny seabirds at one of the clifftop nesting sites they share with guillemots, razorbills, fulmars and kittiwakes. They blend in well despite those luminous bills, often tucked away in their burrows and out of sight altogether. The key is to look for orange legs, which the other cliff inhabitants don’t have.
After a bit of fruitless searching I was just rummaging for some elevenses when a flash of orange made me abandon my search for chocolate. In a scrap of a second I’d seen a puffin fly past, curving around the cliff edge and back out towards the open sea. I hurried into position in case it returned and luckily for me it did, performing four rapid fly-bys with spectacular feet dangling.
Later in the day I tried my luck at a different spot, settling in a cup of earth in view of several grassy burrows that looked promising. I got distracted by a puffin on the water, some 100ft down. Even from that distance I could spot orange legs beneath the clear surface, so I enjoyed watching it through my binoculars as it bobbed around with its larger neighbours.
Birds are like buses in that they’re notoriously unreliable and just when you’ve waited long enough for one, two show up. Once I put down my binos, I found myself staring at another puffin perched 20ft from my lens. The little scamp! Luckily it had decided to take in the views before disappearing into its burrow, giving me a chance to make up for lost time and get some portrait shots.
Forty minutes later, a magic trick occurred and two puffins popped out. Either I’d missed the first one while I was ogling the water, or it had been hanging out inside the burrow the whole time. They lunged off the cliff together and I tracked them heading way out to sea, shrinking to black dots. Not ideal, as I had no idea how long a puffin took to fish.
Two hours, as it turns out. The sun had been screened by cloud all day but of course once I had no puffins to photograph it broke through and illuminated the burrow entrance like a theatre spotlight. By that point I’d spent seven hours on the cliff and evening was drawing on – I had a runny nose, numb bum and grumbling stomach and was ready to call it a day. But any superstitious photographer fears that as soon as you leave, the action happens. A combination of bird FOMO and my usual stubbornness made me stick it out a little longer.
Less than five minutes after I decided not to leave, the puffins returned, now looking radiant in the sun. A snaky pair indeed. Every minute spent staring at an empty burrow was suddenly worthwhile, and I finally left feeling ravenous yet thrilled with the day’s success.
It’s that time of year again! One of my favourite things about spring is watching ospreys plummet into the water and emerge carrying huge flatfish, with the suave flourish of a magician extracting a rabbit.
I’ll be honest – I rarely get excited about larger raptors as they’re usually just a hazy speck in the sky. But ospreys bring all the drama, sometimes appearing out of nowhere and sending nearby herring gulls into a flap.
An osprey will hover high over the water, using its incredible eyesight to track a fish. Then it sidles down through the air, finally slamming into the shallows talons first.
It’s often a game of luck if you’re standing in the right place when they dive (and if you’re nimble enough to catch the actual dive, which I regrettably wasn’t), but you’ll hear the splash even from several hundred yards away.
Elsewhere on the water, I was watching a heron minding its own business when it was mobbed by a couple of common gulls. Despite the size difference, the heron was shooed off its patch and raced past me with a reptilian squawk and a sweep of its vast grey wings.
Snow scuppered my last attempt to photograph my local hares, and I didn’t have an opportunity to try again until this week. The conditions couldn’t have been more different, and I arrived in semi-darkness just as a smudge of yellow was blooming to the east.
In my initial binocular scan, I spotted two hares in the far corner of a stubble field, so I made my long way around, keeping to the edge beside the dry stone wall. At a respectable distance, I settled on the ground and wriggled into the comfiest position I could manage in hard yet soggy mud. Soon after, golden hour struck with heaven-like intensity, turning the grass to flame. The hares were perky, lolloping around with the occasional burst of a chase.
One hare disappeared and the other started foraging far off in the centre of the field. With my camera propped on my knees, I was watching it through the viewfinder when a blurry blob covered my view. The first hare had reappeared some forty feet from my lens, no doubt having watched me with a hare’s version of amusement ever since I’d been willing its companion closer.
Twisting my back in all sorts of wrong ways, I followed the hare as it ambled in a semi-circle around me, sitting for a few moments to have a nosey before disappearing into the long grass.
Light that molten was never going to last, but I was already covered in mud so I hung around after golden hour to see what else might happen. And before long another hare hopped over. The key with any wildlife is to let it come to you, and hares are no exception – I’ve discovered they can be curious to the point of full-out snooping. If you sit still, they often sidle over for a closer look.
My special sunrise with the hares was well-timed for Easter this weekend. Hares are said to be the companion animal of Eostre, or Ostara, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of dawn and spring. The link between eggs and the Easter Bunny doesn’t seem to make much sense at first, but one explanation comes from a bit of lapwing ecology.
Unlike rabbits, hares don’t use burrows but instead lay in scratched-out forms on flat ground. Lapwings are ground-nesting birds and often lay their eggs near a hare’s form or even inside it. Seeing lapwing chicks and baby leverets emerging at the same time could have led people to believe that hares laid eggs.
To be fair, hares are stealthy and mysterious animals, and that’s part of their irresistible charm.
As habitats go, a river is a particular favourite of mine. Not only does it make one of nature’s most soothing sounds, but it’s usually a hub of wildlife activity.
When I arrived, the first bird to catch my eye was a blue tit, which was loudly serenading everyone around it with its ‘tea-tea-lily-lily-lily’ call. Beneath it, flickering from rock to rock, was a grey wagtail. Similar to other river-dwelling birds, grey wagtails have a high-pitched call that cuts through even the chattiest of rivers.
On the calm pond beside the stream, a pair of mallards swept around in slow circles. Surely one of our most under-appreciated beauties, the male mallard shimmers in direct sunlight.
I’d come to the river especially for dippers. This patch has a Rocky Road structure of stones, logs and twigs jutting out of the water, providing countless opportunities for perching and dipping.
On some occasions, I’ve had to settle on the bank and wait a while for the flash of brown and thrum of stumpy wings as a dipper zoomed by, but today I timed my visit perfectly. Just as I was peering along the water channel for a white bib, a dipper came zipping past me and landed several feet away.
I crept closer and watched as it ducked down behind its perch until only the top of its head was visible. It emerged holding an enormous clump of moss in its bill. With another dip, it sped back downstream, returning minutes later without its foraged cache.
For the next hour I watched a pair of dippers gather moss almost continuously. I’m always heartened and impressed by the diligence of some bird parents. Chicks were obviously on the way, and they would have a luxuriously cosy nest ready for them when they arrived.
My plan had been to photograph boxing hares. According to the (notoriously unreliable) forecast, it was going to be a cloudless sunrise, so you can imagine how nettled I was to find myself in a mild blizzard at 5:30am, barely able to see 100 yards past my nose.
And of course, that’s when four hares appear out of nowhere and start boxing, just as I’m pawing great hunks of snow out of my eyes. By the time the snowfall subsided the boxing match was over, but a solitary hare was still loitering in the open, just as crazy as I was.
Determined to have more luck elsewhere, I ventured into the forest and found long-tailed tits and goldcrests. These tiny scamps really tested my reflexes, barely pausing for a second before flitting off to another branch.
A few hours later my feet were sufficiently numb so I headed back home. I passed the beach on the way, which was just as white as everything else.
Nature is unpredictable at the best of times, let alone when snow is involved. I ended up really pleased with what I managed to photograph though, despite the shaky start to the day. Still, I’ll be back for those mad March hares soon…
I moved to Scotland three years ago today. It’s not that long really, but both my world and the actual world have changed a huge amount in that time. Nonetheless, my local patch has stayed exactly the same.
If you’ve been following my updates for a while, you’ll know that I grew up in southeast England and went to university in Cumbria, where I lived just a few miles from the Scottish border. While my fellow students spent their weekends in the Lake District, I was pulled north instead. During my degree, my interest in nature became a passion and it took on a decidedly Scottish flavour.
After graduation, I had the unpleasant ‘oh god what now’ realisation and returned home, hoping to figure out what to do with the very expensive piece of paper I’d worked so hard for. Less than a year later, it was apparent that I didn’t belong in southeast England anymore. Having experienced what Scotland had to offer a bird nerd like me, I needed to be back there. On 22nd February 2020 I drove 546 miles to my new home on the Moray Coast.
Of course I had no idea what would happen to us all some three weeks later, but even after the first lockdown hit I was fortunate enough to have wildness literally on the doorstep. When restrictions were at their tightest, I walked the same mile of coast path every day.
Because it followed a stretch of rocky shore, no two walks were the same. Sometimes the tide was out, revealing boulders both slick with kelp and crusty with barnacles. They were crowded with oystercatchers, redshanks, turnstones, ringed plovers, rock pipits, herons and bar-tailed godwits – I’d only seen most of these in books before that point. At high tide, deeper waves brought a legion of ducks closer to land including eider, goldeneye and long-tailed ducks, as well as cormorants, red-breasted mergansers and fulmars.
This was all going on in just one direction. If I swivelled to face south instead, my binoculars were full of yellowhammers, linnets, stonechats, dunnocks, wrens, goldfinches, reed buntings and song thrushes, all attracted by the dense shelter of gorse bushes and the stubble field beyond.
As my first spring in Moray became summer, these resident birds were joined by migrating visitors: whitethroats, willow warblers and chiffchaffs perched on the gorse while gannets, swallows and sandwich terns swooped over the water. I’d never seen so much birdlife in one small area, and the coast path remained my regular local patch even after restrictions eased.
However, my eyes naturally wandered and I ventured east into Aberdeenshire and south into the Cairngorms National Park. One thing led to another and less than eight months after moving to North East Scotland I secured a commission to write a book about it which, as you’ll probably know (because I never shut up about it), is what I’ve been grafting away on ever since.
While I was gallivanting all over the place researching my book, I neglected my little patch of coast path. I still walked the dog that way occasionally, but I couldn’t dedicate the same amount of time to watching the birds there as I could when I first moved.
My book will be sent off to the typesetter in just over a week’s time, so aside from proofreads and final adjustments, this monumental task I’ve taken on is almost complete. Today, on my third anniversary in my new home, I walked the coast path again, dedicating a whole morning to wandering and watching.
Although I couldn’t spot them all, I knew yellowhammers were everywhere because their distinctive song – ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese!’ – was bouncing around like a bullet in a cave. You wouldn’t think a luminous yellow bird could blend in, but when they’re perched on gorse flowers of a similar shade, they camouflage remarkably well.
Elsewhere I saw a pair of stonechats on the tallest sprigs of a particular gorse bush, regarding me with a cock of the head and a bob of the tail. It’s fanciful thinking, but seeing as stonechats can live for a handful of years it’s possible that they’re the same ones, occupying the same territory, that I saw on my first forays in 2020.
In three hours, I spotted 33 different bird species – not bad for one mile of coastline before spring has even got going. Of that list, it was the yellowhammers and stonechats that I most enjoyed watching. They were two of the first birds I ever saw in my new home, so they’ve become familiar and even nostalgic – especially when I think back to the surreal times of only being allowed an hour’s outdoor time each day. Luckily for me, that one mile is as bursting with life now as it was back then.