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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

To Spy a Hawfinch

After our great grey shrike stood us up last week, I was determined to tick a bird off my wishlist. I did some digging and found there were a few good spots for hawfinches down in Kendal. Zahrah and I picked the best day of the week and headed down, this time with Kacper. As usual, when the alarm sounded I was struck by an overwhelming urge to leave the hawfinches to their business and dive back under the covers, but when I snuck a glimpse out the window and saw the bright promise of a beautiful day, I knew we had to go for it.

Despite the rather vibrant sun, a sharp chill met us as we left the warmth of the car, reminding us it was still February. Clutching my fists together in my Sealskinz gloves, we made our way up the track, away from people and towards wilderness. The path wound through a small wood, dappled by sunlight filtering through overhead. What had been squelchy mud was now frozen hard as concrete, and crunched under our footsteps. We were initially prevented from entering the open field due to a very restrictive swing gate. My bulging rucksack got wedged and I had to hold my tripod flush to my chest and reverse through – far from a sophisticated entrance.

The frozen ground stretched further, blades of grass as solid as real blades, and it was strange not to feel the gentle give of soft earth. The sun was trying to warm the landscape, taking every opportunity the clouds allowed it to reach us. Once back in the woods, it was shadier. Muffled conversations sounded in every direction; the proud song of a robin and the chatterings of crows all mingling together. We tried to ignore all of these and listen solely for a piercing whistle. This was the call of our target: the hawfinch.

Hawfinches are beautiful and unmistakable birds with striking colouring and formidable conical bills. Usually secretive and shy, they spend most of their time in the topmost branches, making the UK’s largest finch difficult to spot. Typically found in mature deciduous and mixed woodland, hawfinches regularly frequent hornbeam trees. The bill of a hawfinch is highly specialised to cope with the hard seeds and cherry stones that form much of its diet. Once a bird reaches maturity, its skull ossifies and two hard knobs form within each mandible, which are essential for holding a seed still while it is cracked. Findings from an experiment showed that hawfinches can exert a pressure of 60-90 pounds of force, which isn’t bad for a bird smaller than a blackbird.

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Hawfinch (RSPB)

As hawfinches frequent the tops of trees, spotting them can be a challenge, not to mention their timid calls are often lost among those of the more plucky birds. Although I never want to criticise the sun, it was shining at a rather inconvenient angle, so gazing up meant we could barely see the treetops, let alone brown birds. So, we tried to climb as high as possible to get a better vantage point. Soon we found a large clearing that gave us a 360° perspective of the forest. Seeming like a good place to set up shop for a while, we perched on a fallen tree and scanned with our binoculars.

There’s nothing quite like sitting in silence, listening to wildlife. Upon arrival you think the forest is a quiet and secluded place, and it would be to a person used to the thrum of cities and traffic. But to sit still and listen in a wild place is to hear a whole new language. I don’t understand it yet – something I’m hoping to soon rectify – but I could listen to its lyrical beats and rhythms all day. Understanding birdsong brings a whole new dimension to bird watching. Cain Scrimgeour, someone I consider a bird connoisseur, can hear the slightest chirrup up in the trees and tell you who made the sound. Sure enough, moments later that bird emerges. To me it’s magic. I consider my knowledge of British birds to be competent, but to know their sounds as well as their appearances is a truly incredible skill.

I heard a soft crunching of leaves as Kacper made his way towards me.

“What’s this?” He whispered, holding his camera up for me to look at the image on the screen.

My eyes popped and I bit back a loud gasp, “That’s a hawfinch! Where is it?”

He led me back to where he’d been standing and pointed up. Now began the near-impossible task of explaining to a person which tree in a hundred trees you are looking at. After a painfully long-winded ordeal I found where he was pointing, and with binoculars trained I saw my first hawfinch. Females are only slightly less brightly coloured than males, so to my eye I couldn’t tell which this one was. The bird was perched looking straight towards us, feathers hunched up. It was foraging, and I saw it pick a seed from its branch and arrange it in its bill to crunch down with that extraordinary force. The bill almost seemed too big for the bird’s body. It was like a person with a party hat positioned over their nose and mouth, almost comical.

Zahrah was a way off, so I was incredibly patronising (though I believed it was necessary in this occasion) and made several hasty finger clicks to get her attention. Once she’d arrived Kacper explained the bird’s location again and we all watched. I made the mistake of retrieving my camera from its resting place by the log, and when I returned the bird had retreated to a tree further off. It was joined by three more, and although I tried they were too far off to photograph. This, to my shame, was the result.

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Not exactly Bird Photographer of the Year

There was another rustling of leaves and we turned to see an elderly man making his way down the bank.

“Seen any?” He asked, knowing exactly why we were gathered there.

“A few!” I replied excitedly, and once again Kacper directed the man’s view to the right tree.

“There were 43 here yesterday, so I’m told,” the man said, “The reserve ranger and volunteers saw them, couldn’t believe their eyes.”

Forty-three hawfinches. For a moment I cursed myself for not thinking to come a day earlier, but as I watched a pair perched way up in the topmost branches I was grateful we’d seen any at all, even if the photos were incredibly dodgy.

After a while the finches flew off. I glanced up in our immediate surroundings, wondering if the elusive birds had gathered directly over our heads – it’s something I would do to birdwatchers if I were a pretty finch – but the branches were bare.

“There’s another good spot back the way you came,” the man told us, “In the clearing. I’m walking back home that way I’ll show you.”

So we headed up the track, which by now had begun to thaw, the mud regaining its sticking power. Back in the open field, we were reminded again of the chilly February breeze, and willed the sun to make a reappearance.

We thanked the man as he went on his way, then we settled down to eat our lunch overlooking the open fields. Every time one of us spotted a dark patch in the treetops, we hastily studied it through the bins. But the hawfinches had headed off, submerged once again in their woodland domain.

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.

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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.

 

A Day in the Fells

As we turned into the car park at Honister Pass, the clouds were grumbling. Geoff Cox appeared and shook my hand in greeting, with the same kindliness he might offer to his closest friend. Having roamed the fells since childhood, the bracing chill and spattering rain are all too familiar to him. A gust of wind blew me sideways as I struggled to catch the flyaway sleeve of my coat and hastily zip it up. Pulling a hat firmly down on my head, I gazed up at the fells. The day was bleak, and an ominous mist obscured the tops of the hills, which would provide a dramatic background for filming.

Today marked the penultimate day of shooting for the second documentary about Geoff’s experiences as a fell runner. During his sixtieth year he attempted to run three notorious Lake District endurance-running rounds: in the Joss Naylor Lakeland Challenge and Gerry Charnley he was successful, but the Bob Graham round defeated him. The film we’d be shooting today was a reflection of this unsuccessful round, and how Geoff found redemption to complete the Charnley. Geoff wrote poems about each round to process these challenging ordeals, and approached filmmaker Richard Berry to transform his words into films. Today, I was joining them to see what happened behind the scenes.

We set off, following Geoff and the other endurance runners up the first incline. Before long it became evident just how comfortable they were on this terrain; while I took my time negotiating uneven and slippy rocks, the rest of the group hiked with confidence and admirable swiftness. As we climbed higher, I was told that the views up here were usually breathtaking, but the fog hung over the entire horizon like an impenetrable curtain. We were completely enclosed, walking along a single clear track with white walls on all sides. “Drifting in the Skiddaw mist”, Geoff wrote in his poem; how apt this line was today.

Now 62, Geoff has been fell running for decades, and can’t remember a specific time when this habit became a continuous routine in his life. “Work and family pressures meant I needed a sport I could focus on which didn’t need other people,” Geoff explained, “With running I could drop everything and go anytime, day or night.”

Fell running in the wilderness of the Lake District is a lonely and secluded past time, something Geoff often welcomes. “I needed a place where I could have a bit of ‘me time’. Society seems to look upon somebody who needs these extended periods of time in isolation as strange and even a bit weird. Long days running in the hills gave me what I needed; something about the independence and self-sufficiency was very appealing.”

In a few hours we reached the right place to begin the day’s filming. Director Richard and camera operator Kerr McNicoll set up and before long shooting was in full swing. Agile as mountain goats, the runners cascaded down the rocky slopes with impressive assertiveness. Surrounded by the silent fells, the only sounds were the cracking of the colliding rocks and soft squelch of mud as feet drove through. Puffs of breath spilled into the sky, and as the runners headed further off, the mist soon swallowed them.

“And again!” Richard shouted, the echo of his words bouncing for miles. After a few moments, the group appeared again. From this distance they looked like small dashes of coloured paint on a white page – the only distinguishable features of the landscape. They looped around a small lake, reflections bouncing on the water. After several takes of this shot it was time for cake – a delicious fruitcake made by Jim, one of the runners. This burst of energy was welcomed with open arms, and once Richard had filmed Geoff scaling a large rocky outcrop on his gimbal, we began to snake back through the fells, gathering footage on the way and constantly referring to Geoff’s poems to capture the essence of his experiences and narrative.

Writing poetry has helped Geoff to process the challenges and obstacles associated with endurance running. “I started writing poetry as a way of processing the mental and emotional garbage floating around in my head, or ‘mental detritus’ as I call it. Prose didn’t work because it has the wrong rhythm. Poetry allowed me to talk about what I’m thinking and meant that I could introduce the pace and metre that matched my memories.”

One of these memories took the form of white theatrical masks, worn by three of the runners looking over their shoulders at Geoff while he hung back, exhausted and near defeat. It was an intriguing idea and as we walked back through the fells I asked Geoff why he decided to include masks in the film. “They’re a symbol of how small doubts kick in and grow more insistent as the run goes on” he explained, “So we made them progressively more obvious throughout. ” This feeling of doubt was linked to people coming out to support Geoff while he competes and the pressure of not letting them down, a burden that can hang heavy on a runner under such physical and emotional strain.

I was astonished to hear that the masks were also a representation of hallucinations that Geoff said will be very familiar to long distance fell runners out on the hills for 24 hours or more. This “sleep monster” phenomenon is a result of exhaustion and sleep deprivation. “My particular version seems to be that I find myself running across strips of beautifully patterned Axminster carpet” Geoff told me, “All the time I’m thinking ‘It’s amazing that somebody has been up here and laid this carpet across these mountains!’”

Fell running in the Lake District is not for the faint-hearted. Unpredictable weather, unforgiving terrain, and a vast secluded landscape, and all with a burning in your legs. Even today, after walking seven miles, I returned to the warm café with aching knees. Geoff has proven that age is no match for will and determination, and is continuously training for new rounds to run. For him, fell running is more than exercise but a way of managing stress and even inspiring poetry. Spending time with him and the other runners opened my eyes to a life spent high above the ground, where so few people think to look.

Bike Ride in the Woods

Another visit to one of my favourite wildlife places: Watchtree Nature Reserve. Zahrah and I hired bikes and set off through the reserve, taking a leisurely ride away from the hubbub of the café and car park to the quieter open fields and woodland.

The lake was fairly busy. A pair of Mute Swans and their two cygnets glided silently to and fro in one corner, shaking heads and rustling feathers. The youngsters were almost fully grown, their juvenile grey foliage blending to pristine adult white. When one stretched his wings, bright white armpits showed. Elsewhere on the lake, three Tufted Ducks were feeding, golden eyes blinking as they came up for air. A lone Little Grebe dived under the water and popped up again several metres away. As agile as a fish, the tiny bird curled its body and slipped silently beneath the surface.

Suddenly, as I was scanning the feeders for any birds joining the Tree Sparrows already tucking into the feast, my eye caught on a brown shape nestled amongst the grass. From my vantage point on the top storey of the hide I could see the Brown Hare perfectly as it chewed, hunkered down. I called in a hushed whisper to Zahrah, who’d been watching the pond from the bottom level, and she darted up to see.

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The hare was beautiful, with rich, brown streaked fur and piercing eyes. Its ears were pinned tightly to its nape, in an attempt to remain as inconspicuous as possible, but the creature was still brave enough to forage out of the cover of the long grass. We watched it for a few minutes, before it turned and hopped back into the grass. After waiting a while to see if it would re-emerge any closer, we accepted our hare was long gone.

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Leaving the lake behind, we looped around the reserve and cycled back through the woods. Once again, I was distracted by fungi, and Zahrah amused herself while I crawled around on the floor with my camera. Today, as always, there was plenty to see. A huge troop of Stump Puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme, the only British Lycoperdon to grow exclusively on wood) stood to attention on a fallen log, their portly bodies stood side by side.

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Stump Puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme) 

The delicate Candlesnuff fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon) stretched out of the wood, tiny black spindles dipped in white. Just as I had finally put away my camera and climbed back on the bike, I was greeted by three Shaggy Inkcaps (Coprinus comatus) stood on either side of the path like security guards. I hadn’t seen this fungus since autumn last year so it was a treat to photograph them again, and provided a satisfying end to our cycle in the woods.

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Candlesnuff (Xylaria hypoxylon) 
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Shaggy Inkcap (Coprinus comatus)

Foraging Foray

Almost all of the natural habitats that can support life are inhabited by fungi. While some species are only found in particular habitats, such as Black Bulgar (Bulgaria inquinans) on oak wood and Purple Jellydisc (Ascocoryne sarcoides) on beech, other species can thrive in many different types of habitats – coniferous woodland, broad-leafed woodland and heathland to name a few.

Autumn is one of the best times to see fungi in its prime. September rains bring the varied and often vibrant fruiting bodies out of the leaf litter and into the open. With a broad range of habitats and often wet weather, Cumbria is a fantastic location for finding fungi. I set out to several different locations to record the species that were in fruit at this time of year. Identifying them can be a challenge, so I enlisted the help of Paul Nichol from the Cumbria Fungi Group to help me with the trickier varieties. After just a few walks I’d seen dozens of species of different colours, shapes and sizes. Of these, there were four that stood out: the Common Puffball, Ochre Brittlegill, Sheathed Woodtuft and Artist’s Palette.

 

1) Black Bulgar
Black Bulgar (Bulgaria inquinans)
2) Purple Jellydisc
Purple Jellydisc (Ascocoryne sarcoides)

Common Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum)

With a season spanning from July to November, the Common Puffball can be seen regularly in a broad range of habitats, from the leaf litter of broad-leafed, coniferous or mixed woodland to pastures and heathland. Although these Puffballs can be seen growing individually, they are frequently found in groups.

Young specimens are white and covered with tiny, pyramid like spikes all over the spherical cap. As the Puffball ages, its flesh begins to turn brown, and mature specimens have a circular hole on the top, which is used to release the spores in a ‘puff’ of brown powder.

Common Puffballs range in size and shape; while some are small with a stem that is barely visible beneath its low-lying cap, others grow larger with a thick stem sometimes reaching 9cm high.
I’d seen puffballs before, but never one this size; the stem was around 7cm long so the fungus protruded high up out of the ground. There were other Puffballs close by, though the stems of these were barely visible and hidden beneath the cap.

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Ochre Brittlegill (Russula ochroleuca)

The Brittlegill family is an extensive one – there are over a hundred species in the UK alone. Of these, almost all have white gills and stems. The gills of this group are particularly interesting because they’re not varied in size with some small and some long, as is common in a lot of mushrooms, but all stretching from the stem to the edge of the cap in a uniform arrangement. While some are edible, others can make you very ill indeed, the Geranium Scented Russula (Russula fellea) being the nastiest of these.

Every tree you see will have a fungus growing on it somewhere. While some species are parasitic, there is often a very heart-warming relationship between the two. When a fungus grows on the root tips of its tree host, it is nourished by the tree’s photosynthesis. In response, the fungus absorbs the minerals produced, and passes on the excess back to the tree via its roots. This is an example of symbiosis between the tree and the fungus, where both species are benefitting from the interaction.

I’ve seen quite a few Brittlegill now. This one is Russula ochroleuca, the Ochre or Yellow Brittlegill. With a bright yellow cap and snow-white stem, it’s an extremely pretty mushroom, but with a distinct peppery taste so is not usually eaten. This chilli taste is typical of several varieties of Brittlegill, and can be used as an indicator of its species.

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Sheathed Woodtuft (Kuehneromyces mutabilis)

This impressive-looking mushroom is one of the largest I’ve seen, and stood proudly with its troop amongst the nettles. After first consulting my fungi guides, I thought I’d found Velvet Shank (Flammulina velutipes). The bright orange, two-toned colour was consistent, along with the trooping. However, this mushroom was a lot waxier than the specimen I’d found, not to mention the size difference. While Velvet Shank stems can reach 10cm in length, these mushrooms were nearly double that. Stumped, I showed my photos to Paul, who informed me that in fact I’d found the tufted toadstool named Sheathed Woodtuft (Kuehneromyces mutabilis). Halfway down the stem was a clearly visible ring, which is present on a lot of mushroom stems, and is a mark of its development. When the fungus first emerges above ground, the cap is ball-shaped and attached to the stem. As it grows, the attachment breaks and the cap stretches into its mature umbrella shape, leaving the ring mark behind.

Artist’s Palette/Bracket (Ganoderma applanatum)

The Bracket family of mushrooms is a peculiar one, and quite often seen climbing trees in a ladder-like fashion. This particular troop of Ganoderma applanatum, or Artist’s Palette, was very impressive. A parasitic species with a creamy white pore surface and a red-brown upper surface, the fungus takes a host tree and slowly depletes it of nutrients, until it eventually grows on the deadwood alone. The vast slabs were longer than my hand and extremely tough. The fruit body grows perennially – producing new spores from the same fruiting structure over multiple years, as opposed to one (annual) – and the spores fall as a fine, rusty brown powder. This means it is essential for the Artist’s Palette to grow horizontally, to ensure maximum spore dispersal. Some of the individuals we saw lower down the tree were covered in a brown snow of spores from the brackets above them.

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After just a few weeks studying fungi in Cumbria, I’ve seen just how many species there are to see, from vast, hard Brackets to tiny, squishy Puffballs. With plenty more chilly autumn days to come, I can’t wait to see what else begins to emerge.

Photography in Cumbria

During my internship at Student and Graduate Publishing, I was asked to write a piece for Study International magazine. I thought it would make a nice story to reflect on my favourite photography spots in Cumbria, to show international students studying in the North West just how beautiful it is. 

Studying at the University of Cumbria, I get the best of everything. Carlisle is a bustling city with all the facilities and resources a student needs, but nestled amongst the city are pockets of forest, river and grassland. Drive just a few miles out and you have access to the coast, vast expanses of woodland and beautiful nature reserves.

So for a student like me who is passionate about wildlife photography and writing, Cumbria in the North West of England is the perfect place. If you’re an avid photographer or just enjoy a walk outdoors, have a read of my favourite spots to enjoy in this beautiful area. For more inspiration see VisitCumbria.

The Ennerdale Valley boasts some of the most vibrant natural environments in England, and has been part of one of the longest ecological restoration projects in the UK. The Wild Ennerdale Partnership is determined to minimise human impact on the landscape and ensure the valley stays as wild as possible, while still being enjoyed by responsible visitors. The restorative work in the valley makes it one of those few naturally wild places, and is breathtaking to see.

One of our first year trips was to Ennerdale Valley, and I couldn’t believe how untouched the landscape looked. The hills were a patchwork of different shades of green dusted with snow at the very top, and luckily we’d visited on a beautiful day so the sky was a vivid blue. Down at the water’s edge, we could see straight through to the rocks below, indicating just how clean and pure the water was. There were so many photo opportunities that day, and definitely a location I’d recommend for landscape shots! For more information on the work Wild Ennerdale is doing in the valley, check out their website.

With the Lake District attracting 15.8 million tourists every year, it’s easy to forget that, although the Lakes are beautiful and well worth a visit, there are other parts of Cumbria with just as much wildlife, stunning scenery and photographic opportunities.

Carlisle is the county town of Cumbria and amongst its high streets and residential areas, a lot of wild places can be found. The rivers Eden, Caldew and Petteril wind through the city, breaking up the drab grey and giving wildlife space to thrive. Otters frequent the River Eden, and although I’ve yet to see one out and about I’ve been lucky enough to capture photos using remote camera traps and see their footprints in the sand just metres from a busy pedestrian bridge.

Just outside the heart of the city is Watchtree Nature Reserve, where a diverse variety of mammals, birds and invertebrates can be seen. Roe deer stalk the forests, while brown hares bound at astonishing speeds across the fields. If you’re lucky you’ll see a glimpse of red foxes between the trees when the sun sets, perhaps accompanied by scruffy cubs during spring time. For a list of things to do at the reserve – from attending guided walks to hiring bicycles and enjoying the reserve at a faster pace – see Watchtree’s website.

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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Puffballs, Prints and Pellets

Due to a lecture cancellation, Zahrah and I seized the day and paid Watchtree Nature Reserve a second visit. As the sun was actually shining, we made haste before the English climate returned to its usual cheeriness.

As we’d found several roe deer skulls at the reserve last time, we headed straight to Pow Wood and began to forage. My first find was a cluster of puffballs (Lycoperdon sp.). I find these little guys are extremely difficult to identify, but they’re always fun to see and remind me of terrestrial sea urchin shells.

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Further into the wood I was extraordinarily excited to identify more fungi. This ID lark is slowly getting easier! I found a patch of jelly ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) on some dead wood, and wrestled for some time with said dead wood to get close enough for my macro lens to work its magic.

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Shortly afterwards, I found several violent red blooms amongst the green foliage. The only scarlet elf cup (Sarcoscypha austriaca) I’d seen before was the size of my little fingernail, so to see some two inches wide was fabulous.

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Finally, my eye caught on a bright patch of yellow as we untangled our clothes and hair from the low-hanging branches of the pine trees and, completely forgetting my wildlife voice, I shrieked “witches’ butter!”. In my defence, Tremella mesenterica is a really intriguing fungus and it’s the first I’ve seen up close.

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In addition to our success with fungi, we also did some pretty good tracking. Putting the tricks we’d learned from Alex to the test, we found some deer tracks in the mud. As we found roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) skulls in Pow Wood on our last visit, we deduced that the same species had left these prints. Our suspicions were confirmed when we saw a flash of white and watched as three female roe deer darted into the forest, white bob tails stark against the brown and green of the trees.

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Incidentally, I didn’t realise that I was on a walk with Hawkeye. In just a few hours, Zahrah found two roe deer skulls, what we suspect was a sheep skull, and a headless skeleton with beautifully pristine white vertebrae. I guess I’d been too distracted by the fungi. We scooped up the bones into a plastic bag, ready to douse them in hydrogen peroxide when we got back home.

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Despite my ineptitude at finding skulls, I did find a collection of pellets at the foot of a tree along with a discarded white egg shell. The combination of these two signs suggested that the tree was home to a nest. After some research, I discovered that barn owls (Tyto alba) are known for their stark white eggs and dark, charcoal grey pellets, so perhaps this was our bird.

Back at the house, I dissected the pellets and in just three I recovered the remains of six rodent skulls, seven mandibles (lower jaws), several loose rodent incisors and a variety of leg bones. I attempted to identify who the skulls belonged to, but sadly they all looked the same. Still, it was fascinating to see how many kills the owl had made; there were at least two skulls in each pellet. This indicates that the bird was hunting regularly, as a barn owl usually regurgitates 1-2 pellets each night (Barn Owl Trust).

In addition, the egg shell I found had no yolk, suggesting the chick hatched naturally and wasn’t predated. If this were the case, the edges of the shell would have been pushed in and parts of the membrane would still be visible.

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In short, it was a very successful day’s foraging! It’s amazing how much you can see when you know what to look for.