Happy Accidents

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…

Lochans and Carved Faces

Monday was the perfect combination of winter chill and dazzling sunshine, so I decided to take my mum and the dog to two of my favourite wild spots down in the Cairngorms.


Looking like a blue pawprint when seen on a map, the Uath (pronounced ‘wah’) Lochans are four small pools bordered by pines. Their surfaces are sometimes wobbled by goldeneye ducks but they mostly stay mirror-steady, reflecting the trunks standing around them.

There are two short waymarked trails that can easily be combined into a meandering loop. One threads between the lochans, following compacted earth paths and sections of boardwalk over boggy pools. The other climbs a brief incline, offering an eagle’s eye view over carpets of pine and further into the mountains.

Less than three miles north, the Frank Bruce Sculpture Collection is a series of artworks that have been carved into wood and stone, destined to eventually rot and fade back into their woodland surroundings.

Because the carvings are natural, they have excellent camouflage and some are trickier to find than others. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust before you can pick out sculpted faces and hands among all the other trunks. A needle in haystack situation!

It’s possible to walk a small loop here too, following a stretch of the River Feshie as it tumbles over pale shingle. The river sparkled and the trees beyond shimmered in the winter sunlight.

Although the sun was boiling as it streamed through the car windows, outside was a different matter, so once the chill began to seep through our clothes we returned home. The winter light persisted until the very last moment and I wandered up to the headland to watch the sun set. It’s not often I spend a day without looking at screens, so it was a welcome treat.


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Winter Sun

Winter Sun

Good weather may not be as forthcoming during winter, but I’d argue that winter light is the best of the year, if you can find a break in the clouds.


I checked the forecast and saw a long line of sun symbols, so I donned my thermals and headed out to see what wildlife I could photograph. First I tried for hares at sunrise, but they were otherwise engaged. Frustratingly, golden hour was flaring bright and I was itching to get photos of something, anything, in those syrupy hues.

After several hours with a numb bum, looking at diddly squat, I visited the library to return a book and warm up. When I came out, a flock of tufted ducks were bobbing in the city pond. The light was still fantastic, so I lay on the ground and got snapping. Like mallards, tufties have stunning iridescence if you catch them in direct light. I hadn’t set out for ducks, but it was a happy accident and I loved photographing something so closely for a change.

Rejuvenated by my unexpected success with the ducks, I moved on to one of my local lochs, where there’s always some sort of activity. As usual, the feeders were swept up in a feather storm: chaffinches, dunnocks, robins, great tits, long-tailed tits, blackbirds, woodpeckers and song thrushes all muscled in in for a mid-morning snack.

As my eyes snagged on each passing bird, I realised I couldn’t remember the last time I photographed a blue tit. I’m always looking for rarities and don’t appreciate common birds as much as I should. When I actually paid attention to the blue tits that were zinging in the bright sunshine, I appreciated just how multi-coloured they are. A British bird of paradise!

The sunlight may look warm in my photos but it didn’t feel it, and after a while I was ready to retreat for tea. Before I headed home, a small gaggle of greylag geese swept over the loch, dipping in flight until they skidded to a halt on the surface. Luckily for me they were facing the sun, so I caught some high-contrast shots of their smooth landing.

After an uncertain start, my trip became a common bird appreciation day, which I probably needed. I get blinkered looking for the rare and exotic, but with winter light as special as this, every bird looks superb.

Stig, Rex and Misty

It was time to go back to Assynt on the west coast this week. Friends of mine own a wood cabin on the edge of a loch –  with no phone service and barely anyone else around, it’s one of my favourite places to stay.

The weather has been unpredictable for weeks where I am. One minute we have torrential downpours and the next radiant sunshine. I was a little dubious what I’d be faced with at the chalet, and as my friend Steve and I headed west towards Inverness it soon became apparent that we’d be battling the elements again. The hills were hidden behind mist and the rain was falling sideways.

It turned out that I would only photograph two species during the trip but they were two crackers: red deer and pine martens.

In Inchnadamph, a small hamlet about fifteen miles from the cabin, there were red deer everywhere. The name of the hamlet comes from the Gaelic Innis nan Damh, which means ‘meadow of the stags’. Deer are drawn to this particular area because of the limestone, which makes the grass sweeter.

I was grateful for that sweet grass because I got to see dozens of deer, both stags and hinds, as they foraged with the mountainous Assynt landscape all around them. I also found a fragmented antler in the heather. It’s less than a hand’s length but it’s got the sunflower-shaped face that once attached it to the stag’s skull. I took it as a good luck omen for the week.

When we arrived at the cabin we began setting up for our first night watch. On previous visits we’ve sat in the dark watching pine martens and badgers right outside the window, but the light’s always been too poor for photos. This time we upped our game and brought along two small freestanding lights to point onto a mossy log perch. Once the peanuts had been sprinkled it was time for the long wait to begin.

That first night was probably the most successful wildlife session I’ve ever had. From 9pm until we gave into exhaustion at 4:30am, we were visited seven times by a pine marten and twice from a huge stag, who scared the life out of me when his shining white eyes appeared in the dark. I hoped this was Stig, who often browses in the chalet garden and has been watched by lots of visitors to the chalet.

Stig stayed for half an hour on two separate occasions. Both times he made a beeline for the gorse bush closest to the chalet steps. I couldn’t imagine putting gorse anywhere near my face let alone in my mouth, but the stag couldn’t munch it quick enough.

Phone photos from our “hide” in the chalet

Although it was great to see a stag so closely, the pine marten was spectacular. Every time it appeared it would pop its head up from behind the square wire fence, then most times after that we would spot its shining eyes and pale bib from the bottom of the gorse bush that the stag had been munching on.

After a brief sniff and glance both ways, it lolloped into the open and leapt straight onto the perch, claiming its prize and gifting us with fantastic views.

For the next three nights we stayed up waiting for the pine martens. We knew there were two because one of them only had one flashing eye on the trail camera footage. We’d already named that individual Misty on our previous visit. Misty was far more elusive than Rex, our other visitor. We’d chosen this name because of the mark on its bib that looked like a T-Rex claw.

Rex came multiple times a night – on the second night we were slightly peeved that we had a tactical nap right when she/he dropped by, so we were fast asleep while a pine marten was munching a metre from our heads… Misty really challenged our nocturnal abilities but Steve managed to see her/him once on the last night.

Pine martens are one of my favourite animals, so to be able to watch them from the comfort of the cabin and at such close range was a real treat.

Once our time on the west coast was over, we passed through Inchnadamph again on our way back east. This time there was some lying snow, which made photographing the deer even more special.

Each time I return from the chalet I’m wondering when I’ll be back. I love living in the northeast and there’s some incredible wildlife here too, but there’s something so addictive about that cabin in Assynt.    

Traditional Flora of Yule

I’ve always loved winter the most. It might be because I’m a December baby, or because I love snow, ice and winter wildlife – there’s just something special about the dark half of the year. After a summer slump, my motivation begins to grind again in autumn and by winter I’m raring to go.

Today is the winter solstice, which marks the longest night of the year. From now on the days will start to lengthen. I know a lot of people struggle with these short, darker days, but with the winter solstice come exciting prospects for the new year and a clean slate to begin again. For me this is a time of possibility. There may be darkness now but the light is slowly returning.

I’m interested in the pre-Christian traditions surrounding the winter solstice, or Yule. Many of these old traditions are still familiar to us today, in particular those associated with wild plants.


HOLLY

One of several protective evergreens, holly has been a significant part of Yule tradition for thousands of years. The Druids regarded it as the sacred king of winter – while other plants withered during the cold months, holly continued to flourish.

As a result, the prickly plant became a symbol of renewal and rejuvenation, maintaining high spirits through winter. Many ancient Europeans brought holly into the home as protection – its spikes were said to repel unwanted spirits and bring good luck.

red berry plant
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IVY

The Druids considered ivy to be the queen to holly’s king. Also an evergreen that endures challenging environments and keeps its colour all year, ivy is symbolic of endurance and promise.

Thought to possess magical qualities, it was hung in the home to bring luck in the spring. Ivy is especially significant because it grows in a spiral, reflecting the Wheel of the Year.

green leafed plant
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MISTLETOE

This plant is typically hung from the ceiling and its magical properties come from the belief that it exists between two worlds: sky and earth. It is cut carefully to ensure that it doesn’t touch the ground.

Mistletoe has long been regarded as a symbol of freedom. Ancient Europeans believed it was a sign of peace, and any time warring Celtics found it in the forests, they would honour the plant and drop their weapons. Today, mistletoe is less of a white flag of surrender, but we still honour it with compassion by sharing a kiss!

four pine cones on top of brown wooden surface
Photo by Jessica Lynn Lewis on Pexels.com

YULE TREES

Evergreens such as fir and spruce were seen as signs of eternal prosperity. They were symbols of optimism and freshness even in unforgiving environments. By bringing their branches – and more recently, the whole trees – inside during Yule, it was believed that evergreens could enliven and invigorate the home in preparation for the coming year.

Yule is a time to rest and reflect, which is especially important after a year like this one. I hope you have a warm and restful time with family and friends!

Dreaming of a Green Christmas


Christmas always ends up being a hectic whirlwind, but this year I think we’re all looking forward to a bit of festive cheer. However, the festive season can get wasteful and very expensive, so I’ve put together a list of tips for making this Christmas a green one.

red fruits on table
Photo by Jessica Lynn Lewis on Pexels.com

Cards

While I try to limit my online shopping, it’s inevitable that I’ll order something now and then. Luckily, the cardboard packaging is perfect for trimming down and transforming into homemade cards – ready to be decorated with photos and messages.

If you keep your cards dinky, you can make several from one piece of packaging. For even more crafty points, save the Christmas cards you receive this year and cut them out to decorate your homemade cards next year. You can make your own gift tags this way too!

A selection of last year’s cards ready to be recycled this year

Tree

There’s an ongoing debate about whether it’s better to have a real or artificial tree. While there are pros and cons of each, for fresh trees it’s best to find a locally grown one that supports local businesses and reduces the pollution associated with delivery. To find out where the local retailers are near you, check out the British Tree Growers Association.

To prevent your tree from going to landfill after Christmas, look out for tree recycling schemes which are offered by a lot of local councils. It’s also possible to rent a tree! After enjoying your tree over the Christmas period, you return it to the grower who replants it ready for next year. 

There’s nothing better than that Christmas tree smell, but whether you have a real or artificial tree make sure you buy local

Decorations

Once you have your tree, you’re going to want to decorate it. We’ve all seen the countless decorations on display at garden centres but beware: lots of these ornaments are covered in glitter – a harmful microplastic which should be avoided.

For more sustainable decorations, why not make paper chains using brightly coloured cardboard from cereal boxes and other packaging? You could also gather some natural materials such as holly, ivy, pinecones or small pine branches to make your home both festive and wild.

red and brown fruits wreath
Photo by Luna Lovegood on Pexels.com

Gifts

While swapping gifts can be loads of fun, I’m sure we’ve all received some we’d sooner exchange for something else… To avoid any awkwardness on Christmas morning, get your loved ones gifts that are fun and practical – reusable metal straws or plastic-free shampoo bars perhaps.

Check out Not On The High Street for original and often personalised gifts that support small businesses.

Food

We’re all guilty of a little overindulgence at Christmas but that’s perfectly acceptable – it’s Christmas after all! Although, we should be aware of how much food we end up throwing away.

To minimise waste, it’s a good idea to eat all your freezer food during December to make room for leftovers. Everyone knows about turkey sandwiches, but there are lots of other good leftover recipes around including vegetable tray bakes, turkey curry and countless soup flavours. 

two clear glass footed mugs
Photo by George Dolgikh @ Giftpundits.com on Pexels.com

Crackers

Has anyone ever been pleased by what they’ve won in a cracker? Let’s be honest – it’s all tacky plastic tat! A very refreshing trend that’s growing more popular is homemade crackers – this handy guide is easy to follow and doesn’t require many materials, but you can experiment any way you like. Making your own crackers not only cuts down on single-use plastic but also gives you the freedom to choose the gifts. And maybe find some better jokes too.


Do you have nifty ideas for an eco-conscious Christmas? I’d love to hear them!

Winter Wonderland


Typical. I lived in southeast England for 18 years and never had snow in November, but it seems like it was all over Britain this weekend! As I live on the coast snow is rare here, but after a 40-minute drive south to Grantown-on-Spey there was snow beneath my boots again.

A festive food market was in full swing along the main high street. We had a quick browse before heading down the aptly named Forest Road to one of my favourite wild places in Scotland: Anagach Woods.

The last time I visited was on a sweltering afternoon in May. This time everything was coated in white, adding cartoon highlights to branches and trunks. Over the past couple of years I’ve become a real winter baby so I was in my element.

As we walked along a high ledge overlooking deep bowls of forest floor on either side, a chattery cackle overhead made me look up and jump for joy: a flock of fieldfares were flying over!

I’ve been longing to see fieldfares since they left for their breeding grounds in Scandinavia at the end of last winter. They’re one of my power five – along with bramblings, waxwings, redwings and long-tailed ducks – and I can’t wait to try and photograph them again this year.

Taken in February this year during heavy snow in my home town

There’s nothing like snow and fieldfares to get me even more in the winter mood!

Silver Season


It’s about this time of year that I turn into an excitable child again. The moment we cross into November, my mind’s full of frost, knitwear and Christmas. I think it’s linked to the clocks going back. While getting up before the sun can be horrid, I love that my afternoon walks are in the dark now. I’m sure it won’t be long before Christmas lights start appearing up and down the village.

Last winter I was spoilt rotten with over a week of thick, persevering snow. It was unheard of in Burghead, seeing as we jut out into the Moray Firth and the salt air usually prevents anything more than frost from settling. I know I shouldn’t expect another wonderland like that again this year, but the aforementioned excitable child has her fingers crossed!

The natural world is stunning throughout the year but in winter I believe it becomes even more special. Here are some of the things I love most about the silver season.


Frost and ice

Frost is what first got me interested in macro photography. The sparkly sheets covering the ground look pretty even from afar, but getting right up close to shards of microscopic ice is completely addictive.

It’s not all sharp and jagged either – in the past I’ve photographed a huge range of shapes including swirls, ribbons and bubbles.

Winter sunsets

At this time of year the sun takes on a milky, diluted glow which is just delicious to photograph. I’m not much of a landscape photographer, but on my recent trip to Portknockie I spent hours on the beach capturing Bow Fiddle Rock as the light dimmed.

Initially the rock was bathed in gold but once the sun sunk below the horizon, the sky behind Bow Fiddle glimmered with pinks and blues. It’s a chilly image and I’m really pleased with how it came out.

Northern lights

I count myself extremely lucky to live in a part of the UK where the northern lights occasionally show up. The displays here aren’t as elaborate as they are in Norway or Iceland and they can be tricky to make out with the naked eye, but last weekend there was a particularly good show and I managed to catch a few pillars on camera.

The northern lights remind me of His Dark Materials, which remind me of witches and animal dæmons and all that good stuff. I also believe the aurora is the closest thing to magic we can physically see, and it’s one of my ultimate winter highlights. Even if you don’t live in an aurora zone, you can still watch it real time on this Shetland Webcam. There’s the added bonus of not having to get freezing cold!

Migrant birds

Summer and winter are great times to be a birder as there are new faces to see. While I love the ospreys, swallows and whitethroats that accompany long summer days, I have a soft spot for the winter migrants. I managed to see waxwings last year and I’ve got everything crossed that we’ll get another royal visit from them this time round, but some years they just don’t show. Even without waxwings, we have redwings, fieldfares, bramblings, eider ducks and long-tailed ducks on the cards. So many photo opportunities!

I know a lot of people struggle with the long nights during winter and this is definitely a challenge, but I hope this list will provide some wintery inspiration. There’s plenty still to enjoy in the dark half of the year.   

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.