Recently I was accepted onto the Travel and Nature Writing MA at Bath Spa University, which I’ll be starting later this month. In preparation for this exciting new challenge, I signed up for a travel writing workshop run by Peter Carty, who regularly writes for publications such as The Guardian. Although my focus will definitely be more on the nature half of my MA, there is a lot of overlap with travel and I would love to develop my portfolio in this area.
Peter’s workshop was extremely useful, especially the postcard exercise. Over lunch, we were let loose into London with a blank postcard. The challenge was to find a new and intriguing place and write a short travel piece about it on the postcard, including quotes from people we met along the way. As a wildlife writer I’ve had very little experience with interviews, so approaching strangers and getting quotes was daunting but rewarding. I decided to visit the Grant Museum of Zoology in Fitzrovia, which turned out to be a treasure trove of taxidermy and scientific specimens.
A jar of moles, a penis worm and a dissected rat. These are just some of the specimens on display at the Grant Museum of Zoology. But past the imposing elephant skulls and ominous, pickled jars is an intriguing display of alien-like creatures nobody would notice in the wild.
It’s said that 95% of known species of animals are smaller than a human thumb. The Grant Museum, named after British anatomist and zoologist Robert Edmond Grant, sheds light on the mysterious and microscopic in its Micrarium: a seemingly infinite display of backlit microscope slides that are creatively reflected in a mirror mounted on the ceiling. There are 20,000 slides in the whole museum, but the selection of 2000 in the Micrarium exhibit alone is impressive enough.
“It’s probably one of our more popular exhibits,” explained volunteer Margaret, “We get lots of people taking photos for Instagram.”
I can see why. Step inside this bizarre taxidermic phone box and you can observe minute insects and cross sections of tissues in astonishing and multicolour detail, painstakingly plastered across three walls. Among the specimens are the muscly leg of a flea and a whole squid measuring less than a centimetre long.
“While public displays very much focus on larger animals,” said Jack Ashby, manager of the Grant Museum, “Most natural history collections have thousands of very small specimens kept in their storerooms which are rarely shown to the public.”
Once used for research at UCL, the neighbouring university, the Micrarium now enthuses the general public instead, uncovering secrets of the miniature monsters that crawl well out of human sight. It’s not quite the blue whale at the Natural History Museum, but it’s an insight into 95% of animals on our planet, which definitely deserves a second look.
The trains to Glasgow and Largs and the ferry to the Isle of Cumbrae were all fine. It was when I boarded the bus to the Millport Field Centre that it dawned on me: what on earth had I let myself in for?! I’d booked onto a weekend course run by the Field Studies Council called ‘Marine Species and Habitats: The Biotope Approach’. After volunteering at an aquarium had sparked a new fascination for marine wildlife, I wanted to learn more about what could be found on British shores. I’d done a bit of research using the course’s suggested reading list, and had half an idea what a biotope was, but as I dragged my bags off the bus I wondered if I’d booked myself onto something that would sail completely over my head. I imagined working alongside a team of marine biologists with decades of experience in the field, and here I was with a newborn interest in fish. I was suddenly terrified, and literally marooned on an island for the weekend.
As I was mulling this over in my head, a girl my age carrying a black hold-all asked me if I was attending the Biotopes course. I was thrilled; fate had brought us together on the same ferry and meant I didn’t have to amble around alone wondering where I needed to be. Our rooms weren’t ready yet so we went for a wander towards the town of Millport. Her name was Abbie, and she was currently part-way through a PhD in non-native seaweeds. This was something I knew literally nothing about, but we chatted about uni and wildlife and all things in between. Meanwhile, it was a chance to see where we’d be spending the weekend, and it was beautiful. Of course, almost everywhere is beautiful in bright sunlight, but even so the Isle of Cumbrae promised a fascinating chance to survey marine wildlife.
After a loop around the bay we headed back to the Field Centre and took our bags to our rooms. I had feared with some trepidation what the washing facilities would be like, but was very pleasantly surprised to discover a large ensuite shower, not to mention a bed like a cloud. I hastily unpacked then met the rest of the group for our first briefing. Here I met Emily who worked at the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, and before dinner Abbie and I went for a walk with her to the shore to soak up the last sun of the day.
Dinner was macaroni cheese and apple crumble, perhaps one of the most perfect combinations of courses there can be. Then it was time for our first lecture: an introduction to biotopes. My research had prepared me well – a biotope is the combination of a physical habitat and the biological community found living there. Although some of the lecture’s content was lost on me, I left feeling inspired and ready to face new challenges over the weekend. I’d already met lovely people, and all my earlier worries began to feel very insignificant.
Today began early, and by 9am we were down on the beach beginning our first biotope survey. It was a beautiful day for it, and we wasted no time getting stuck in, in my case literally getting my wellies wedged in rock crevices and clinging desperately to my balance. Common species included beadlet anemones, dog whelks and acorn barnacles, but we also found common starfish, hermit crabs, a star ascidian (type of sea squirt) and plenty of seaweed. My knowledge of seaweed species was even smaller than my knowledge of seashore vertebrates, but as Abbie was doing her PhD on them I had a source of very valuable information.
Once we’d covered as much of the bay as we could we ate lunch out in the sun (an excuse for some of the group to catch up with the goings on at the royal wedding) and then headed back to analyse our results and try to determine which biotopes we’d found. This was also an opportunity to play with lab equipment, which I haven’t been able to do since A Level Biology. I had good look at the bryozoa I’d found on a strand of seaweed (below). Bryozoa means “moss animal” and viewed up close reveals an intricate lattice of animals situated closely together. I studied these individuals for a while but couldn’t decide between Sea Mat or Hairy Sea Mat.
After beating the queue and getting served dinner almost first, I went back to my room for much-needed downtime before bed.
Today was another early start, and this time we drove the short distance to the northern end of Great Cumbrae to a much larger site. The weather was a little dreary but armed with quadrats, transects and clipboards we began to survey the biotopes. Findings started off slowly but once we reached the rock pools things really got exciting. Our course leader Paula found a slug species called a sea lemon – a very pretty blob – and a butterfish. Abbie, Alex and I found a sand goby, sand mason worm, lots of brittlestars, more hermits and beadlets, and my favourite from today: a dahlia anemone. It was the largest anemone I’d seen before, and had beautiful striated and brightly coloured tentacles that slowly emerged again once we’d calmed down to watch it properly. Just as I was squatting to try and get a decent picture, two common prawns appeared underneath a nearby rock. I didn’t know if maybe these were boring sightings but I recognised them from my volunteering at the aquarium so was thrilled to be able to confidently identify something in the field.
Back at the lab, Abbie got to work identifying her seaweeds and Alex had an ID test to do for his assignment, so I had a bash at identifying today’s biotopes by myself. Once I’d done that, I realised I’d accidentally brought a tiny brittlestar home with my sea urchin shells. With Paula’s help, I identified it as Amphipholis squamata. Later, Paula asked us what we’d found, and Alex and I had got the exact same biotopes! I was so pleased with myself.
Dinner was Sunday roast and sticky toffee pudding. I must have put on about eight stone this weekend – I’ve been fed like a queen and although my brain has been working overtime, my body hasn’t done so much. After dinner we had our last round-up lecture and went to the bar for drinks. I ended up talking to the two guys from Belfast about Father Ted – it was pretty funny talking to Irishmen about it. I would have stayed longer but I was absolutely shattered. So I headed to bed, falling asleep almost instantly.
During this time of year, many birds have migrated for the winter. Some, like Partridges, don’t stray more than a kilometre from where they were born, but most birds – at least 4000 species – will migrate to seek new pastures that will see them through the colder months. There are several different types of migration that British birds follow, due to food availability or sometimes their own adaptations.
In an irruption migration, large numbers of birds that do not usually visit the UK arrive in a short space of time. In some years, the population grows too large for the food that is available in the birds’ usual territories, forcing them to relocate. Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) migrate in this way; some years we are fortunate enough to see large groups of these striking birds feeding on berries high in the trees, while other years there are none at all.
While many birds travel from north to south or east to west, some make shorter journeys from low to high altitudes and vice versa. Even though this migration may not be as physically demanding, there are still new challenges that come with a change in environment. In the UK, various larks, pipits and buntings are altitudinal migrants, including the Skylark (Alauda arvensis). As well as an altitudinal transition, many Skylarks will change habitat in winter. Having spent most of the year roaming farmland and heathland, coastal marshes become more favourable during the winter months.
Other migrations aren’t as a result of finding new feeding grounds but simply to stay safe. While all birds shed old feathers to grow new ones, species such as the Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) lose all their flight feathers, making them very vulnerable to predation. In order to increase their chances of surviving while new feathers come through, Shelducks migrate to safer areas in late summer once the breeding season is over. A popular location for Shelducks is the island of Heligoland, situated in the North Sea. This allows the birds to moult with little disturbance.
It’s always a delight when I stumble across a dinosaur story in the news. These genuine legends will be part of modern society forever, I’m convinced of it.
Yesterday I read a story of Psittacosaurus (“parrot-lizard”), a herbivorous creature that roamed forests in parts of China, Mongolia, Russia and potentially Thailand during the Early Cretaceous period, about 130 to 100 million years ago. Despite its distinct lack of horns, it belonged to the same group as Triceratops:Ornithischia, meaning “bird-hipped”. Its name comes from its thick beak, as a result of the prominent rostral bone at the tip of its upper beak. It is a peculiar creature in that it chewed its vegetative food like a mammal, but then ground up the tougher matter with stones in its gizzard, a common feature found in birds and reptiles such as crocodiles, that forms part of their digestive system.
Being herbivorous and lacking the teeth and claws to defend itself, Psittacosaurus needed a way of defence. As seen in penguins and some species of dolphins, Psittacosaurus was darker on top and lighter underneath. This form of camouflage is known as countershading, and effectively disguises the animal by offsetting its shadowing. Dark parts of the animal’s body are exposed to bright sunlight, while paler parts are exposed to shade. This shading provides a contrast to usual light-to-dark gradient of natural illumination. The effect makes the animal flatter and without depth, obscuring its outline to potential predators.
It is understandable to think it impossible for scientists to know if Psittacosaurus demonstrated counter shading without being able to see its skin. However, recent evidence into the preserved pigments in the dinosaur’s fossils has indicated that there was a pattern in the distribution of melanin; more on the animal’s back than its belly, thus proving its countershading camouflage.
In response to this new evidence, scientists have created a life-size model of Psittacosaurus, with the help of palaeo-artist Bob Nicholls, to see how its camouflage helped it survive in its forest habitat. The findings have been published in Current Biology journal. One of the authors, Dr Jakob Vinther, said that this kind of investigation “can provide not only a better picture of what extinct animals looked like, but they can also give new clues about extinct ecologies and habitats”.
Read more about Psittacosaurus and this innovating science at:
After a week of stressful moving out of halls of residence, I am now settled at home for the summer. On Saturday I volunteered at the Heartwood Forest Summer Festival, an event held at a Woodland Trust site near where I live. We had fantastic weather all day and many hundreds of visitors – it was a great success!
This morning Heather woke us all up with a real treat; last night the Longworth trap had caught a wood mouse. As quietly as we could, we took some brief photos then sexed the animal. The nipples were clearly visible, meaning our mouse was a breeding female.
After a few more hours sleep we visited what Heather described as a ‘sweet shop’. The shed beside the house was full of barn owl pellets which we had the opportunity to dissect. After some initial apprehension we got to work and I found myself enjoying pulling apart what a barn owl regurgitated many months previously. In my pellet I found both a mouse skull and a vole’s skull, as well as numerous minuscule jaws and ribs. It was yet another new experience for me and it was fantastic to analyse what an owl on Carna had been eating.
Shortly after we’d finished with the pellets Andy came to pick us up on the boat for a trip around the islands. Unbelievably we had another fantastic day of sunshine, so conditions were great for photography. For a while we watched common terns mating, and their stark white feathers contrasted with the rich colours of the moss clinging to the rock.
Once in open water we saw two more porpoises breaking through the waves. The tide was choppy and negotiating tripods and telephoto lenses while the boat tilted from side to side was a challenge we had to overcome. Once again Lequane was first to notice the white-tailed eagle far up in the sky, but almost immediately after we noticed a different bird above the hills. As it descended and came within binocular range we saw the rich hazel hue of the golden eagle’s wingspan. It dipped low and landed amongst the trees so we lost it, but this bird was near the top of my wish list and it was so satisfying ticking it off.
On the way back to the house we spotted some of the wild goats that had made the rocky coast of Carna their home. We also stopped off at the shag’s nesting site again. Not many people are aware of these birds but I find them extremely handsome with their sharp yellow eyes and the green sheen in their feathers.
When we got back Cain and Heather had gone to pick up the camera traps and we all gathered at the kitchen table to see what we’d captured. It was nothing short of a success. In the first trap we had several clips of an otter trotting in and out of a small cave mouth and sprainting at the entrance. In the same spot a few hours later the whole frame was filled with two pricked up ears and a pair of antlers that were unmistakably a roe deer’s. Heather and Cain informed us that this was the first official footage of a roe deer on Carna so this was fantastic news. By using the camera traps we can find out new information about just how diverse Carna is.
Footage from the next trap showed a vole that we were unable to identify. It could have been either a bank vole or field vole sub-species. Either way, it was great watching the rodent feast on the apple and seeds we’d left, although it did manage to shift the trap so we could no longer see anything but out of focus rock.
Yet more treats were to follow. The next trap had been set in the bluebell wood and a fox had visited late one night. Though it didn’t linger, we still got to see the mammal’s gorgeous fluffy tail as it trotted through the bracken.
Seeing the wildlife on the Isle of Carna on the camera traps was a great end to an unforgettable experience. In only four and a half days I have learnt so much about tracking and field craft and got an insight into the ecology of an island rich in wildlife. It was so refreshing being around people who get as excited as I do when I hear a cuckoo or glimpse an otter swimming across the loch. By being separated from technology I have had the chance to enjoy the outdoors even more. I’ve been out of breath on numerous occasions during our hikes and scrambles but it’s been worth it every time. I even did some sketching, a pastime I haven’t enjoyed in years.
Everybody should spend time in a place like Carna, especially those who don’t fully appreciate the natural world. Sharing a loch with seals, otters and porpoises is something everybody should experience. While I am the last person to criticise books, sometimes the best way to learn about wildlife is to be a part of it. Get your hands dirty lifting rocks to see the starfish underneath, wade ankle deep in mud to set a camera trap and get a crick in your neck gazing at eagles. It really does change you.
After a great night’s sleep we woke to brilliant sunshine. Over breakfast, we started writing a storyboard for a film that would document our Carna experience. After some lunch, we headed out with Heather and Cain for a walk across the island. Naturally our pace was slow as we were stopping every few seconds as a mystery bird swooped over or a brief flash of brown promised an otter. Once again we were rewarded and saw many different species of bird, invertebrate and mammal.
Of birds we saw a cormorant, common sandpiper, buzzard, rock pipit, grey heron and a pair of cuckoos, something we were all excited to see. We also found two drinker moth caterpillars, beautiful insects of black, hazel and amber. During the day we were fortunate enough to see mammals too. We were just admiring a view only the birds got to see when an otter came into view. It was hard to tell the gender, but we watched it for a while diving into the water and popping up again in a new spot. Heather explained that when a dark blob in the water was hard to distinguish, otters always show their tail when they dive under while seals do not. Our otter soon climbed on land and disappeared from view. We made our way down the hill after it but the sneaky mustelid was long gone. A lens change and a snack later, we spent some quality time perched on the rocks watching a herd of Common seals lounging in the sun. The group was spread out over two sub-islands; one was a skinny scrap of shingle where six seals were basking, both adults and juveniles. Seals are always so entertaining. Despite hardly moving, they provide endless enjoyment. For me it’s a combination of their banana pilates move, orb-like bottomless eyes and long white whiskers speckled with sand.
In a while we left the seals behind and headed into the wood. The area was predominantly silver birch; the thin overhead branches of the species allow bluebells to cover the forest floor in splashes of violet. We ascended up and up and started noticing several spraints left by otters, as well as some evidence of deer scat. The grass had been worn down in a narrow pathway, indicating that the area was frequently used. This looked like a good place for one of our camera traps, so we set up the kit and crossed our fingers.
After leaving the first camera behind we soon found a good place for the second. Near the top of the hill we were climbing were small constructions of dry stonewalls that were slowly crumbling from misuse. It looked like the perfect haven for small mammals with countless hidey-holes, so we found a spot for another camera and baited it with apple.
By early evening the sun was strong and casting an incredible light across the landscape, throwing the hills into sharp relief. Now standing amongst the heather and drinking in the view, the challenging terrain and heavy camera bags seemed trivial now we’d reached the top. The weather couldn’t have been better, no rain and hardly a breeze.
The way back was shorter as we cut across the hills instead of sticking to the coast. This allowed us to photograph the landscape from several high viewpoints and savour the perfect evening. Cain spotted a red deer darting through the heather and moments later we watched six more grazing across the water. After only a few slips and falls we made it back to the cottage unscathed. Needless to say, we would all be sleeping well tonight after a long but extremely awarding day.
From May 21st to 26th, I joined four other Wildlife Media students for an unforgettable expedition to the Isle of Carna, a beautiful remote island on Loch Sunart on the west coast of Scotland. Our aim was to rewild ourselves by taking part in conservation activities like conducting bat surveys, setting up camera traps and recording wildlife using journals.
By mid afternoon we arrived at Ardnamurchan Charters, eager to see the island where we’d be spending the next five days. Andy Jackson, owner of the Charters, met us with his dog Tag and we began loading our kit onto the boat. There was a surprising amount for such a small group!
The day was overcast but Carna still looked impressive as we sped towards the island. The cottage came into view, a quaint white building with a conservatory that we knew would be perfect for observing wildlife on the loch. Sure enough, in the first few hours we saw red-breasted mergansers, chaffinches, song thrushes and a lesser redpoll.
After settling in, we noticed how beautiful the evening sky was and armed ourselves with cameras and binoculars, eager to find out what we would see when the sun went down. After capturing a radiant pink sunset we retrieved the camera traps Heather and Cain had previously put out. The first was at the end of the pontoon, and immediately we saw evidence of otter sprainting, a sign of territory marking. Otters will use their faeces in this way to make their presence known to others in the area. At the pontoon there were several patches, so we were hopeful that the camera had caught the night-time visitor.
The second camera was in a wooded area up the hill. We knew the long grass would be full of ticks, but we’d bought tweezers and knew this was one of the many sacrifices a wildlife enthusiast has to make! Eventually we found the camera and made our way back down the hill.
A peculiar sound made us stop and listen. Heather quietly told us they were snipe, which make an extraordinary drumming noise with their tail feathers. Although we never saw them, they must have been wheeling around our heads, as the noise reverberated in every direction. Amongst the snipe’s commotion, we also heard the distant calls of a tawny owl and a cuckoo.
Just as we were heading back to the cottage, Cain and I decided to check the pontoon with our binoculars. I made out a black blob in the gloom and suddenly the blob moved. As silently as possible, we alerted the others and watched the otter wander across the pontoon. This was my first ever wild otter so I was thrilled to see one on my first night here. I was so excited I almost missed a barn owl swoop across the loch, screeching into the night.
I couldn’t believe how much we’d managed to see in the first night alone. I got into bed tired after the long journey but excited for the following days.
I’ve been volunteering at Tullie House Museum, Carlisle, for a few weeks now. My role involves documenting the prehistoric specimens in the stock room, including their age and locality. Eventually, I’ll be photographing the specimens and logging each one onto a database.
My work has now been put on hold for a few weeks, having been temporarily replaced by something even more exciting. The museum has acquired a near complete sei whale skeleton, which will be put up on display some time next year. The whale was discovered in October 2014 near Drigg in West Cumbria, stranded on a beach.
Yesterday I was involved in cleaning the whale bones. They’d been buried with manure for a year to decompose, so were all caked in soil and sand. Myself and two other volunteers – who happened to be two of my fellow Wildlife Media students – got to work scrubbing the bones clean. First, we hosed them down to soften the soil. Then we used soft brushes to gently remove the residue and expose the bone beneath. In three hours, we managed to get through all the vertebrae.
The image above is of plates that should have been fused to the vertebrae – this leads the curator of natural sciences, Simon Jackson, to believe that the whale was an undeveloped juvenile. However, they can’t say with confidence which gender the animal was.
Here are the ribs, each nearly as tall as me! Although a juvenile, the whale was approximately fourteen metres in length.
Luckily the weather was fantastic, so once we’d cleaned the bones we could lay them out to dry in the sun. With the dirt washed away, they looked amazing. Being photographers, we couldn’t help snapping away. When I came to uni I never thought I’d say I’ve helped clean part of a whale skeleton. This is just another of the fantastic experiences I’ve had in my first year alone.
After we’ve finished our lengthy but rewarding job the bones will need to be treated, to remove the oils that give them an orange colour. Then they’ll be ready to be put together and displayed in the museum atrium. Here’s hoping the whale will give Tullie House well deserved promotion – Dippy the Diplodocus may have some competition!