A Day at Sea

Like almost every other visitor to the Isles of Scilly, I had my sights set on puffins during my stay, not to mention razorbill, guillemot and perhaps a seal or two. I’d planned on joining the afternoon Sea Safari around Annet, known as the bird sanctuary island, and the Western Rocks.

I wandered down to St Mary’s Quay to check it was going ahead and saw there was a trip to Annet in the morning too. I stood at the harbour and pondered what to do. The weather didn’t look promising – the looming clouds threatened to burst at any moment. So, somewhat recklessly, I bought a ticket for the morning trip and boarded the Sea King. As St Mary’s drifted slowly out of view, I hoped I’d made the right decision.

By the time we reached St Agnes the sun was doing its best to break through. As we headed out towards Annet, our guide pointed out the rock called the Cow, a smaller rock named the Calf beside it. When the tide came up, the Calf disappeared completely, only emphasising the fact that boatmen on Scilly needed their wits about them when navigating such challenging waters. Shags were perched on the Cow with wings held wide. The structure of their wings reduced buoyancy, which made it easier for the birds to chase fish underwater. As a result of this adaptation, however, their feathers were not truly water-repellent, so they needed to hold them up to dry them. Although, I doubted these shags would have much luck drying them in the current temperature. Perhaps it was for another reason; spread-wing postures aid digestion. Birds that adopt this position have low metabolic rates and high rates of heat loss. By positioning themselves with their backs to the sun, shags could increase the rate of thermoregulation, absorbing solar energy to increase their metabolic rate.


Lesser black-backed and great black-backed gulls wheeled overhead, mouths open as they wailed at us. I had my binoculars scanning the rocks and nearby surf for a glimpse of vibrant, toucan-like beaks and droopy, clown eyes. The skipper slowed the boat suddenly and I sat up straight – a sure sign he’d seen something. A pair of great northern divers cruised into view when a wave subsided – beautiful grey birds not yet in their summer plumage. The divers, as a group, were extremely glamorous, with sleek heads and slender necks and bills.


A while after our divers had swum further away, I suddenly found myself looking at my first puffins. Two of them, perhaps a breeding pair. Down the binoculars, all concept of scale was warped, and it was impossible to see how small they were – just 12 inches tall! After a few moments they took to the air and, flapping rather ungainly, they gathered enough momentum to carry them off across the water. I was thrilled.


Leaving Annet behind, we moved into choppier water, the boat swaying beneath us as it negotiated unsteady waves. I was reminded again of how wild and isolated Scilly was, and it was this seclusion that protected and enhanced its flora and fauna. It was an island paradise.

A razorbill – a member of the puffin family – flew into view, wings beating rapidly either side of a stout, monochrome body. It wheeled in a wide circle, zooming back around the boat and away again; a bird’s second glance, too quick to photograph.

Just before it was time to turn back, a vast herd of forty grey seals appeared, some sprawled across the rocks and others bobbing in the water, long dog-like noses pointing in our direction. There were a range of ages, with some of the seals still sporting very lightly coloured coats and juvenile, inquisitive expressions. They continued to gaze after us until the rocks obscured us from their view, and the skipper took us back to St Agnes.


Once we had all disembarked from the Sea King, it wasn’t long before the Spirit of St Agnes had taken its place, ready to take more eager birdwatchers out to sea. I decided that I rarely had the opportunity to go looking for puffins, so I bought a ticket and left dry land again, excited to be back out on open water.

Amongst the blue-green waves were the white outlines of gannets, looking like swans of the sea with their slender necks and stocky bodies. Britain’s largest seabird, with a formidable wingspan of six feet; not only did they have beautiful plumage and facial markings, but they were truly built for a life at sea. Gannets can dive into the ocean from heights of 40 metres, hitting the water at speeds of almost 60mph. To withstand the pressure of such a dive, gannets have “airbags” that protect their organs on impact. They also breathe through slits, situated where the upper mandible meets the head, which are covered by flaps of hard tissue that prevent water from entering them.


These gannets weren’t diving, but they were soaring low over the boat, providing beautiful photo opportunities. It was always a challenge trying to focus a fully extended 400mm lens on a rocking boat, but I kept the camera as steady as possible and followed the birds as they glided majestically overhead.

The last bird to make an appearance was a special one; the Manx shearwater. Belonging to the order Procellariiformes along with albatrosses, these birds can live for some sixty years. They only produce one egg a year, so are highly susceptible to predation by rats. To combat this, the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project was established to eradicate rats from St Agnes, as it was suspected that they could swim the reasonably short distance to Annet, where the Manx shearwater bred. The project was successful, St Agnes was declared rat-free and the birds are now breeding successfully. In 2015, a total of 28 Manxie chicks were seen to be fledging from St Agnes and Gugh. These birds only breed on Scilly and Lundy in the UK, emphasising the importance of protecting the Scillonian population.


Before long it was time to leave rugged Annet behind and return to (scarcely) populated St Agnes. Although we’d had Manxies and gannets on this trip, the puffins had eluded us. I spoke to the guide on the journey back and she said they didn’t like bright sunlight. As the clouds had shifted and it had turned into another beautiful day, the puffins were obviously finding shade elsewhere. Later, as I looked through my photos, I felt very fortunate to have gone down to the harbour earlier than planned.


Filming Red Squirrels

It’s been a mad couple of weeks, with my second year at uni finishing this week: three deadlines in four days. The last – and for me the most challenging – is a five minute documentary on anything we can think of. The vagueness could seem like a blessing, but when you have the whole world as your subject matter, it seems impossible to think of anything to fill five short minutes.

After the racking of brains and chewing of fingernails, I decided to combine my project with my first visit to Eskrigg Reserve in Lockerbie. It was infamously known among Wildlife Media students for its resident red squirrels; I’d been meaning to go for the whole two years I’ve been living in Cumbria, and only now with a deadline looming did I decide to visit. I headed up the road mid morning and by late afternoon I was perched in front of the hide, sharing a small open clearing with four foraging red squirrels!


Jim Rae, the Reserve Manager, is one of the nicest people I’ve met, and incredibly passionate about wildlife. Upon arrival he welcomed me like an old friend, giving me the tour of the reserve before settling down in the hide for the interview. He had prepared four typed pages of notes, and when I sat outside later to film the squirrels he brought me a nutcracker and a box of hazelnuts for me to feed them. I couldn’t believe, after only just seeing a wild red squirrel for the first time in Chesters two months ago, I was now spoilt for choice of animals to film.


It is not difficult to see why people get so attached to these creatures. A lot smaller than the greys and with delightful little ear tufts, they bound across the grass like furry chestnut bullets – trying to keep them in frame was a nightmare. I’d get one in perfect focus as it paused to claim a nut, then it was off and I was filming empty grass again. I’d never been so challenged as a photographer, but their nippiness provided an excellent opportunity to test my reflexes.


I could have stayed for hours, but I had a film to edit and countless clips to go through, 90% of which were squirrels. As of today I’m just making the finishing touches ready for the deadline on Friday. Eskrigg is a gem of a reserve, and somewhere I will definitely be revisiting over summer!


Have a watch of the finished documentary here:



Down on the Farm!

I’d always planned on doing volunteer work when I came to uni. It was just something I thought would add something to the whole experience.

So, when the University of Cumbria Students’ Union posted about volunteering at Wetheriggs Animal Sanctuary, I leapt at the chance. I’d be able to spend time with animals and be doing something worthwhile at the same time – a winning combination for me.

Making New Friends
Making New Friends

It certainly wasn’t glamorous work, but it was work that needed doing, and I feel proud to have helped out a small association for the day.


My duty consisted of cleaning out the bird enclosures. I spent some quality time with ducks, chickens and quail, most of which had been badly injured and rescued by the charity. Wetheriggs runs a rehoming service, and even while we were there a couple came and adopted a group of chickens, so I know all the birds will eventually go to new homes.


The sanctuary also kept larger animals out in the paddocks. An array of sheep, horse, goat and alpaca came to greet us as we were taken on a tour of the grounds. There was even a rather ruffled group of turkeys who didn’t hesitate in making themselves heard.

The Face of an Angel
The Face of an Angel

It was a really enjoyable day and I got to meet a lot of new people from the Lancaster campus of the university. We were given stylish canary yellow volunteer shirts and I wore mine with pride as I shovelled up dirty sawdust. A good day’s work!

Cheesy grin
Cheesy grin

Please go and visit the sanctuary’s website, they’re doing so much good work!

Discovering Leighton Moss

There is something magical about nature reserves. They’re safe havens for creatures great and small, where both food and shelter are plentiful. For photographers, they’re gold mines on the right day.

A Spider's Pearl Necklace
A Spider’s Silver Necklace

Alas, for me Leighton Moss Nature Reserve did not reveal its treasures. I wandered through the woods wide-eyed, hoping to catch a glimpse of the red deer. We sat huddled in hides for otters, but they too missed the memo that we were coming. The lone bittern remained in the marsh and the crested tits stayed nestled out of view.

Female Pheasant in the Undergrowth
Female Pheasant in the Undergrowth

It was a long shot, hoping to see so much in a single day. It’s a shame Leighton Moss is an hour’s drive away, otherwise I’d be there all the time. I didn’t bring a car to uni because of the expense that comes with it, but hopefully we can go to some closer sites over the coming weeks.

View Over The Water
View Over The Water

Although we didn’t see any rare gems, we were entertained over lunch by a very bold robin who sat perched on our picnic table, chirruping. I offered some crumbs and was amazed to watch him hop over and peck the food out of my hand!

Our lunchtime visitor hopping through the trees overhead. I couldn't resist capturing him at such a quirky angle.
Our lunchtime visitor hopping through the trees overhead. I couldn’t resist capturing him at such a quirky angle.

Despite a lack of deer and otter, I was fortunate enough to tick off four new birds: shoveler, greenshank, water rail and kingfisher! I was astounded at how tiny kingfishers are; a rapid flash of blue and he was gone, but I definitely knew I’d seen my first king of the pond.

Female Shoveler On The Lake
Female Shoveler On The Lake
The secretive Water Rail wading through the reeds
The secretive Water Rail wading through the reeds
The head of a male mallard is one of nature's unappreciated beauties. Such vivid emerald green is always incredible to see.
The head of a male mallard is one of nature’s unappreciated beauties. Such vivid emerald green is always incredible to see.
Little Egret In Flight
Little Egret In Flight

It’s so thrilling being around other people my age that cherish wildlife. The excitement around me from others on my course was contagious.

Lone Swimmer

Stolen DNA

Last night I settled down to read the next issue of BBC Wildlife magazine, which arrived yesterday. Only eighteen pages in and I’ve already read something bamboozling: several species of seaslug can photosynthesise.

Nature's weird and wacky - not my image
Nature’s weird and wacky – not my image

Looking at a seaslug such as this one, you’d think it simply swallowed a giant leaf. However, it may well have just stolen chloroplasts from the algae that it eats and used them to release its own energy from sunlight.

Here’s what’s even more strange. Normally chloroplasts would stop working after a few days in these conditions, but in green seaslugs (Elysia chlorotica) they keep going for months. Amazingly, the animal has found a way of inserting the algae’s genes into its own chromosomes, allowing the seaslug to keep using the chloroplasts that they code for.

This is a fascinating example of a species going to great lengths to survive. This level of innovation is brilliant, and shows that even the most unattractive of species deserve a lot more respect from the rest of us.