Landing in the Sunshine State

I’d never been to America before. It was a vast, distant land that I didn’t think I’d have the chance to visit very soon, perhaps not until my thirties or even later. However, after weeks of planning and preparation here I am in Florida, the Sunshine State. For two whole months.

The journey here was the first big hurdle. Jet lag is defined as a sleep disorder which alters the internal body clock. Some people experience insomnia, others indigestion. I just sobbed for a while. Having religiously followed an eight-hour sleep routine for as long as I can remember, I suddenly found myself getting off the plane in Jacksonville at 17:30 while my brain was convinced it was actually 22:30. A combination of this disorientation, stress from travelling and heat that I had never experienced before all descended on me at once.

I could have slept standing up that night. When I woke up and remembered I was in America, I experienced another jolt, this time not of fear that I’d forgotten something or panic that Passport Control would send me back home, but of sheer excitement. Even as I nervously picked up the rental car and grappled in the door for a gear stick that wasn’t there, I was eager for the adventure to begin.


I have begun to slowly acclimatise myself to daily American life. I still can’t resist acting the tourist, taking photos of the British section of the supermarket (Jammy Dodgers and Ambrosia custard akimbo) and marvelling over the countless lizards that scoot across the pavement, or should I say sidewalk. I have seen the yellow school buses, driven past long lines of mailboxes at the end of driveways, and already been complimented on my accent, plain as I think it is.

The heat in Florida is something I’m still not used to, however. I had envisaged myself getting a glorious tan, but by 9am it’s already too hot to sit outside. Thank goodness for high-quality air conditioning, a world away from the lousy version back home that’s either non-existent or Baltic.

Caught up in the whirlwind of settling in, I haven’t yet had the chance to get out and truly explore what I’m sure is incredible native wildlife. Every time I see a bird I’m craning to see what it could be, despite not having the foggiest idea. All I know for sure are the circling vultures that I regularly spot driving, and I think that is a brilliant start. After all, when have I ever had the chance to see wild vultures in the sky before?! There have been huge swallowtail butterflies fluttering in front of the car, and of course the lizards that I’m becoming obsessed with. I’m so excited to see what I’ll discover over the next two months, and I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll make some unforgettable memories.

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!


Wild Film Fest Scotland

Last weekend was the first Wild Film Festival Scotland, which took place in beautiful Dumfries and Galloway. Myself and a few other Wildlife Media students were lucky enough to volunteer during the event, which involved some amazing talks and a rather fetching cobalt blue volunteer hoodie.

I headed up to Dumfries on the train and arrived mid afternoon. As I stepped onto the platform I realised what the niggling feeling I’d had was about: no pyjamas. To prevent severe embarrassment at the studio flat I was sharing with Zahrah later on, I made a quick dash up the high street then wandered down to the Theatre Royal to catch a talk from photographer Gordon Rae about his work. He told us about a trip to Churchill in the Canadian Arctic, where there were more polar bears than people, something I found incredible.

Later on was one of the festival headliners: Simon King. Excitedly, Zahrah and I joined the other volunteers and spent the next two hours hearing some extraordinary bird noises. Simon King is a real impressionist; I’d heard some of the animals he impersonated in the wild, and his versions were truly uncanny.

The next morning I headed down to the theatre for my induction, donning my hoodie and making my way to the Robert Burns Centre for my first shift. I welcomed visitors and clocked them in with the clicker, something I found more entertaining than perhaps I should. In between shifts I managed to catch a lot of films and talks, learning some amazing things about the natural world. Being at an event like Wild Film Fest with some professional naturalists made me realise just how much I still have to learn. It’s a blessing and a curse; of course I’d love to be a wildlife connoisseur overnight, but at the same time it’s exciting know how much there is still to find out.

The weather this weekend was stunning. During my lunch breaks I sat by the river and watched the goosanders dive and the mallards struggle against the current. I bumped into Cain, who told me there were otters on the river, but not while I was looking for them. The only wild otters I’ve seen were on the Isle of Carna – by the time I graduate I want to at least see them in Carlisle, where apparently the world and his mother have seen them.

Sunday night was Iolo Williams. The theatre was packed – after checking tickets and doing the headcount, I nipped up to the balcony and watched the talk with a bird’s eye view. Iolo is a great naturalist and a real entertainer. I asked him what he thought about the re-introduction of wolves in the UK, and he replied that the best place to release a pack would be the Houses of Parliament. Like all good naturalists, it was clear he had passion.

In seemingly no time the weekend and the festival were over. After a very nice bolognese at Hugo’s restaurant, we headed to the train station and made our way back to Carlisle, leaving behind a beautiful crimson sunset. It was a brief but really great weekend. Volunteering at the first ever Wild Film Fest Scotland is something I’m proud of, and hopefully next year’s will be an even bigger success.

Standing centre stage in front of one of the festival’s venues!


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.

Camouflage in Psittacosaurus

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:

Carna – Day Five

Species seen:  

  • Chaffinch – Fringilla coelebs
  • Common Porpoise – Phocoena phocoena
  • Common Seal – Phoca vitulina
  • Common Shag – Phalacrocorax aristotelis
  • Common Tern – Sterna hirundo
  • Golden eagle – Aquila chrysaetos
  • Grey Heron – Ardea cinerea
  • Herring Gull – Larus argentatus
  • Hooded Crow – Corvus cornix
  • Lesser Redpoll – Acanthis cabaret
  • Oystercatcher – Haematopus ostralegus
  • Song thrush – Turdus philomelos
  • White-tailed eagle – Haliaeetus albicilla
  • Wood mouse – Apodemus sylvaticus

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.

Heather assured us the use of a plastic bag was standard procedure and it was held open for the very short time the mouse was inside. After releasing the animal back at the trap site, it scuttled away safely and unharmed.

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.