The Freeze

The snow was here again. It descended from the skies in heavy drifts, flakes swirling as they came to rest. All through the night the snow fell, dramatically silent, and when morning came everything was smothered in pristine white icing: irresistible.


Outside there was a chill that tightened the lungs, so cold was the air that even breathing in felt like getting smothered in snow. Each branch was cloaked, giving the impression of an overly enthusiastic artist splashing every bough with thick white highlights. Undisturbed snow on the sides of the track glistened, catching the light and sparkling with wintery luminescence. On the cusp of March, it was more of a spring wonderland than a winter one, and yet it could have easily been Christmas morning.


Up in the trees, a whisper of falling snow betrayed the presence of a blackbird, sending tremors up the branch that dislodged loose flakes. A male, black feathers stark against his festive background, spotted with rich red berries and the undersides of dark leaves. He chirruped softly, his song more melancholy than it should be.

A man passed me on his bicycle, his tyres crackling like static feedback that faded as he disappeared. The landscape quietened again, a deafening silence only found with snow, when the world stops and waits with baited breath for this unexpected phenomenon to pass. It is a time when even nature stands still. Water is stopped in its tracks, defiant of gravity’s pull.


Sloping down the bank to the river was a series of deep tracks, dogs mingled with hopping birds. The ever-falling snow began to repair the damage, forming undulations of half-hidden footsteps with softened edges. A wren sped past, trilling its bold song that seemed too big for its tiny lungs. What must the birds think? Have they anticipated this, read some sign in the climate to help soften the blow? The already challenging task of finding food in winter just became more trying, a test of strength and endurance in such temperatures.


After a while my feet began to grow numb and my stomach rumbled. As I trudged back up the track, curving away from the coursing, white-framed river, I thought how I would snuggle up in my warm house with something to eat. I glanced back over my shoulder and saw a song thrush foraging. It had a snail pinned in its beak, and was cracking the shell hard on a rock. Such work the birds put in, when all I needed to do was open a can of soup and I’d be warm.

Back at the house, I peered outside and saw the feeder swinging empty again. Thinking of the blackbird, wren and diligent thrush, I hurried into the garden and replenished the feeder with rich fatty seeds, sprinkling some on the ground for those too heavy or timid to feed from the plastic perches. The birds needed all the help they could get.

The Beginnings of Winter

Before I’d even got to the hide there was a chirruping in the bushes and I turned to see a group of juvenile yellowhammers mobbing their parents, hopping between branches for attention. Three birds flew past overhead and I caught the triangular shape of starling wings as they soared over me.

The lake was quiet – a pair of mallards floated in circles on the far side, while mute swans waddled along the bank. Once I was settled inside, they appeared by the feeders, accompanied by the juvenile swans I’d seen last time. The whole family loitered beneath the swinging seed canisters, mopping up anything dropped.

The feeders themselves were a flurry of activity. As usual, the nearby bushes were full of house sparrows, fighting to snatch a mouthful. Blue tits and great tits waited in the queue and I was particularly excited to see a lone greenfinch among the group too; back home in Hertfordshire these birds are becoming scarcer and scarcer.

After watching the birds feed for a while, I wandered on. It was a lot colder than usual – dew covered the grass but it wasn’t quite cold enough to freeze it, though perhaps this may soon be the case on early mornings. There were other signs of winter too; bursts of red berries and a fat robin perched on the fence. Even though these birds are around all year, somehow a day in early winter feels like Christmas is a lot closer when you spot one.

As I made my way to the wood the only sound was the usual “whizz-burr” of the turbines as they swung. There was a break in the clouds and beautiful streaks of sunlight shone through at jaunty angles. The forest was gloomy but still inviting, and as I walked round I scanned both sides of the path to see if any fungi were sprouting up. The ground was boggy in places, and when drops of water fell in the puddles, the reflected trees twitched.


Suddenly, just as I was looping back round to the gate, a woodpigeon exploded out of the trees and made me jump a mile. Why do pigeons love doing this? It must give them a wicked satisfaction to see me clutch my chest and try to get my breath back to normal.

Once I was back in the open, the chill was even stronger. I wrapped my coat tighter around myself and hurried back to the cafe to warm up.


Exped in Miniature

Last week Heather and Cain dropped into uni for a mini exped around the local area. I welcomed any chance to learn more fieldcraft from them and it was also good to spend time with Zoology and other Wildlife Media students – there are fewer and fewer of us wildlies out there so it’s great to meet up every once in a while!


We began following the river through the park, spotting the first sand martins of the year swooping over the water. A jay darted into the small wooded copse in front of us and cormorants zoomed up the river, wings flapping furiously.


As cities go, Carlisle is one of the few that still has many pockets of wilderness nestled amongst the urban landscape features. It’s that combination of having everything I need close by but still being able to escape to a new wild place is what attracted me to studying here. I never thought I could see roe deer with a Virgin train zooming past in the background, but I’ve been proved wrong by wildlife encounters like these all year.


We carried on, walking along the Eden as it snaked through the golf course and reached the suspension bridge. Here we went off-road and found some truly amazing discoveries. On a sand bank tucked away from the heavy footfalls of regular dogs and their owners, we found a wildlife metropolis. There in the sand, perfectly imprinted, were dozens of tracks, bird and mammal alike. There were the broad irregular squares of mallards, tiny pin lines of grey wagtails, even tinier fingers of brown rats and the very dog-ish prints of otters! I practically jumped down into the sand to photograph them – not only were there prints but also a lonely otter spraint, deposited in full display of every visitor as an indication that this territory was claimed. It was fascinating to see just how many species had paid this relatively small sand bank a visit. I vowed to return very soon with a camera trap and see if I could get better acquainted with them!


Whale Bones and Walking Stones

As usual, I trundled to Tullie House Museum for my weekly volunteer shift. Right now everything is focussed on the whale project. Following the discovery of a 16m fin whale skeleton on a beach in Cumbria, Tullie House now has the makings of a smart new welcome feature in their entrance hall. The bones are being taken away for professional cleaning in less than a month now. There’s still a lot to be done before that happens, so it’s all systems go!

Today I was joined by a new volunteer called Will, who turned out to be a fascinating character. As we set to work on scrubbing dried whale flesh off vertebrae the size of my hips, we got chatting about wildlife. Turns out, he’d travelled to some stunning places for expeditions, something I was incredibly jealous of. One one expedition in Abu Dhabi, he had the chance to excavate fossilised camel skeletons as part of his master’s degree in zoo archeology. Once they reached the ribs, the guide assured them there would be nothing of interest to investigate. Will decided to convince him otherwise and together they found an ancient spearhead embedded in the bone. The small discovery prompted a thousand questions: who killed this camel? For what reason? It was fascinating.

Soon, Will is heading off the to the Far East, but he’s done a lot of work in East Greenland. Highlights from his trips here included a sighting of a polar bear jumping through an enlarged seal breathing hole and into the ocean below, and a herd of very intimidating musk oxen, as well as polar wolves, snow white relatives of the grey wolf. On one encounter, Will’s team heard a distressed ringed plover and glanced out the window of their lodgings to see an arctic wolf mere feet away.

As amazing as these stories were to hear (as I sat on the floor scraping white fat off whale bones), my favourite was the tale of the walking stones. Will described how, when rocks fall onto a glacier, they create a natural phenomenon. While the ice around the rock melts under the sun, the patch directly beneath it is kept sheltered. After many hours, the rock is “lifted” by its ice pedestal as the rest of the glacier melts away. Soon though, even the elevated platform succumbs to the sun’s heat and the rock falls onto a patch below, beginning the whole process again. The result is a very slow game of slinky, but one that fills me with such joy that nature is so beautifully playful.

Birds on the Pond

Over this year I’d heard some good stuff about Hammonds Pond in Carlisle – the otter sightings had particularly caught my interest – so Zahrah and I set off bright and early to make the most of the morning.

We were immediately met by a beautiful green park with footpaths snaking off in all different directions. Nestled in the middle of the green was shimmering water. ‘Pond’ seemed too small and meagre a word for it. It took us half an hour to circle the perimeter, though that may have been as a result of us stopping to photograph the inquisitive and downright adorable Mallard ducklings (Anas platyrhynchos).


The skies were clear and the sun was shining down on Hammonds Pond. As we crossed the bridge that split the water in half I saw my first black-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) of the year. The last time I’d seen these smart-looking little gulls was at St Andrews beach in Scotland several years ago. According to the ICUN Red List the species’ current population trend is decreasing. I hope they can regain their numbers; it’d be a shame for yet another British species to become threatened.


After leaving the water birds behind, we followed the track further down the pond. Suddenly a bright speck of blue appeared in the dark soil. After some deliberation we decided the egg had belonged to a blackbird (Turdus merula). Although similar to those of a thrush (Turdus philomelos), theirs aren’t quite as speckled. Sadly this egg was still inhabited – a crack in the shell showed a glimpse of shiny orange yolk inside. Although this bird wasn’t going to make it, we both knew someone would gladly take up the offer of a free meal.


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After a loop through the woods we had a sit down by the miniature railway and watched flies wander closer and closer to their fate on the spider-web covered information post. We were joined by a regular visitor to the pond, who told us that the otter had recently left, but that there had been sightings of three individuals here. Although we wouldn’t see any otters for the foreseeable future it was good to hear that these beautiful mustelids were visiting, especially since stumbling upon Hammonds Pond is unlikely. As no water leads to it, the otters were obviously travelling across land to reach the pond, which was both interesting and encouraging.

Soon I heard the sharp trill of a wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) and moments later the tiny bird appeared atop a signpost, singing at the top of its lungs. After graciously posing for us it took to the air and disappeared, though its voice could still be heard loud and clear.


Just before we started to head back we got one last treat: mating chaffinches (Fringilla coelebs). I’d only just seen the male chaffinch’s mating display in Carna a few weeks previously; watching him shuffle to one side then another with chest puffed out and head bowed was fascinating then and now. In response to his alluring routine the female bowed low to him with an upturned head and accepted him. It was a privilege seeing such an intimate moment and rounded off a great wildlife-filled morning.

A Visit To The Park

Last Friday some of the Wildlife Media crew met with Dave Pearson, a green space officer for Carlisle City Council. We learnt all about St James’ Park in Carlisle, and what Dave’s position entails there.

A combination of communal space and formal shrub areas, St James’ Park is an urban park, dating back to the Victorian/Edwardian boundary. During this time parks were developed by entrepreneurs, to allow people to get away from the work place. Dave told us it was for “enjoying the opportunity to get out into nature and wildlife.” However, society has changed drastically since then. Nowadays, people visit parks to walk their dogs, let their children play on the slides and swings, and play sports such as football or ride their bikes over the BMX track that has been installed. There is currently no protection on the site. However, by being classed as green space, no building can take place there.

Dave’s job is to “balance the needs of the community with the urban wildlife reservoir” that is clearly present at St James’ Park. Being a freelance ecologist, he is well informed of the wildlife that inhabits the site, and how it should be conserved. “The park acts as a corridor” he told us, “wildlife travels from one area to another. When there are pockets of wildlife that aren’t interconnected, how will they recover if subjected to environmental pressure?” In the middle of a main city, it’s vital that wildlife in St James’ Park can move from one area to another without getting trapped. The park extends across a main road, but aside from this hazard the wildlife has plenty of access to trees for nesting and open spaces for gathering food.

Dave is involved in several different aspects of management. He carries out site safety inspections and is also involved in allotments. The bushes in the shrub areas are not allowed to grow out of control, but carefully maintained to provide a suitable habitat for nesting and foraging birds. “Wildlife always thrives when it’s allowed to live without disturbance,” Dave told us. There are a wide variety of trees in the park, including silver birch, elm, ash, goat willow, weeping willow and mature poplars on the banks.

A lot of Dave’s work involves raising awareness. It’s about providing the context to educate the public on necessary wildlife issues. Dave told us about the importance of stinging nettles for species such as Peacock butterflies. However, in a public park where children come to play, it is understandable that many parents wouldn’t want patches of nettles nearby. It’s difficult to provide a suitable environment for both wildlife and people, when their separate needs vary.

It was really interesting hearing the challenges Dave faces when trying to maintain and manage St James’ Park. While it currently provides ample opportunities for families and young people, he also needs to consider the welfare of the animals, birds and plants that inhabit the site. So far, he seems to be finding the balance; when I was there on Friday I could hear and see a wide range of species. I hope this park and others across the country will continue to allow people and wildlife to coexist happily!

A Flight To Remember

Yesterday afternoon Wildlife Media students were given a real treat – a visit from local falconer Gary Swainson from the Cumberland Bird of Prey Centre in Thurstonfield, Carlisle. We all got to meet Gary and his raptors for a magnificent display of the birds’ agility and speed.

African Spotted Eagle Owl (Bubo africanus)

At first, the birds posed beautifully for us on their perches, gazing into the surprisingly warm afternoon sun. We couldn’t have asked for better weather. The cold still numbed our hands, but there was no wind and the sun shone brightly, giving us the chance to capture some beautiful shadows as the birds flew.



First up was Meg, a stunning Harris hawk. Unique among raptors, Harris hawks are gregarious, meaning they hunt in groups. This allows them to bring down large prey that would be impossible for solitary hunters (BBC, 2014). As Meg demonstrated her flying technique, Gary explained that Harris hawks fly close to the ground to prevent their silhouette being seen by their prey against the sky. This allows them to approach unseen and ambush their unsuspecting victims.

Harris Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)

Next to take to the air was Willow, a camera shy but beautiful Barn Owl. She hunts in a different way to the Harris hawk, relying heavily on sound. Described as “crepuscular” (Svensson, 2009), barn owls are twilight hunters. Their flight feathers have a comb-like fringed edge to them, which effectively muffles sound and allows them to fly in complete silence. This enables them to hear their prey – usually mice, voles or shrews – at much  higher frequencies. Barn owls, along with some other species, have a very pronounced facial disc, which works like a radar dish, “guiding sounds into the ear openings” (The Owl Pages, 2012).

Willow getting some limelight
Gary guiding Willow to a member of the group
Barn Owl (Tyto alba)


Finally we got to see Bungle stretch his wings. Bungle was a Bateleur eagle, a magnificent bird 60 cm long. Their name comes from the French meaning “tight-rope walker”, referring to the way their wings rock from side to side as they come in to land. This individual was the only bird we saw who was born wild. He came to the Centre as a rescue, after having been illegally imported into the country. Bungle was suffering “cut primary feathers and broken wings” (Cumberland Bird of Prey Centre), but has recovered well.

Bateleur Eagle (Terathopius ecaudatus)

I feel extremely privileged to have seen and been able to photograph such beautiful birds of prey. Gary’s enthusiasm and passion was contagious and I was inspired to write about my experience so others can see and appreciate the good work that the Cumberland Bird of Prey Centre does. Please visit their website for details on how you can book a day with these incredible birds.


  • BBC (2014) Harris Hawk. Available at:’s_Hawk (Accessed: 12 February 2016)
  • Cumberland Bird of Prey Centre. Gallery. Available at: (Accessed: 12 February 2016)
  • The Owl Pages (2012) Owl Ears and Hearing. Available at: (Accessed: 12 February 2016)
  • Svensson, L. (2009) Collins Bird Guide. 2nd edn. London: Harper Collins Publishers