Camping in Dumfries

Kerr and I arrived at Caerlaverock Nature Reserve mid afternoon. We’d chosen the perfect day for our camping weekend; the sky was cloudless and the breeze off the water blew the scent of salt across the grass. We began our walk in the forest, following the trail as it weaved through the trees. A trickling stream criss-crossed beneath us, water glistening as it caught the sun. The path was dappled with patches of light that shifted as the breeze stirred the trees.


Soon we emerged into the open. Despite the breeze, the sun was strong and before long we’d both abandoned our jackets. A Red Admiral butterfly fluttered from reed to reed, buffeted by the breeze. As it rested on a patch of undisturbed grass I managed to snatch a few shots before it took to the air again, soon getting lost in the swaying grass.


We followed the track on until grassland dissolved into farmland. Cows gazed at us quizzically as we passed, large eyes blinking. Before long we reached the end of the first field, where the only route to the next was crossing the stream over a felled tree. Balance is not my strength, but with Kerr’s help I reached the other side without getting soggy.


The obstacles weren’t all behind us though. I wouldn’t say I have a phobia of cows, but I certainly make an effort to avoid sharing a field with them, something I inherited from my mother. So when we emerged from the tree bridge and saw a herd forty-strong, I was a little apprehensive about going any further. Not only were they everywhere, they were also the friskiest cows I’d ever met. When they spied us, they broke into a run and spread out, covering our path to the gate. We were just contemplating the best course of action when they turned tail and retreated quickly back to the far end of the field. I knew my choices were to face these herbivorous, harmless creatures head-on or stumble back across the tree and find a new way round. Seizing the day, I gripped Kerr’s hand and we made our way slowly but surely across the field.

We were two thirds of the way across when I snuck a glimpse to the side and, to my horror, saw the entire herd stampeding right for us. The inevitable terror set in and I dragged Kerr towards the gate. He was telling me not to panic as I launched myself at the gate, wading through sticky mud in my haste. We’d just dropped down on the other side when the first cows reached us. I locked gazes with them, and for a moment they were cute and endearing again. Suddenly they took off again, galloping after each other like horses at the Grand National. I’d never seen such energetic cows in my life.


After all the drama, I was glad to be back on a tranquil, cow-free track up to Caerlaverock Castle. Two rabbits popped up out of the long grass, standing tall. Too tall in fact. I lifted my binoculars and saw that our rabbits were in fact hares, and my suspicions were confirmed when they pelted at the speed of lightning into the next field. They were small though, perhaps leverets exploring their new surroundings. I’d only seen a handful of hares before so it was a great sighting.


Leaving the hares behind, we headed past the castle and back to the car, where I’d foolishly left my cream soda Barr to boil. We left Caerlaverock behind and made our way to our camping spot. Buildings gave way to trees and before long the only sound was the radio. Once we were parked up, Kerr was determined to carry all our kit down to the site on a single trip, so I made the descent down the marshy hill with some trepidation. With my gaze fixed firmly on my feet, I almost didn’t notice just how incredible the spot was. From my vantage point on the hill, I gazed down at a flat clearing perfectly sized for a tent and campfire. The site was in a fishbowl, trees curled around it on all sides and a gurgling stream providing the perfect moat.


After hopping across the stream and setting down our kit, I congratulated Kerr on finding the perfect hideaway for a weekend’s camp. The flies and midges soon made their introductions, so before anything else we spritzed each other with repellent in the vain hope they’d keep their distance. First up was the tent, and in no time it was pegged in place overlooking the west side of the forest. The sun was beginning to set, transforming the woodland into a pinstripe suit of dark shadows and bleached highlights. A buzzard shrieked overhead, and I peered upwards just in time to see it appear in a suspiciously Batman-shaped break in the trees.



Soon Kerr had a magnificent fire going, and the sound of cracking wood was added to the hushed forest soundscape. Dinner was gnocci with chorizo – fried by yours truly on our fire – and with full bellies we sat back and relaxed, watching the flames flicker. A tawny owl hooted in the distance, and once the sun had finally sunk below the hills the first pipistrelles appeared. I’d been worried I’d feel the cold, but huddled by the fire I couldn’t have been cosier. Watching the flames for so long soon made me drowsy. We cleared up the dinner things and waited for the fire to fizzle into smoke and crisped kindling, before retreating into the tent for an early night.


I woke to the soft patter of rain on the tent. After such a beautiful day yesterday, it seemed we wouldn’t be so lucky today. We’d planned on cooking bacon and eggs for breakfast, but the darkening sky didn’t look promising so we decided to hit the road a little earlier. Once everything was packed up we headed back up the hill, which was getting slippy with the rain. We had just made it back to the car when the heavens opened. On the drive back home, the rain lashed on the windscreen and the sun was nowhere to be seen. We couldn’t believe our luck.


Sun in the Woods

After discovering Eskrigg and how fantastic a reserve it is, I really wanted to take Zahrah as she’d never seen a red squirrel before. After my success last time, I was sure we’d have some luck. I also wanted to give the Manager, Jim Rae, a copy of the film I made on the reserve for my assignment.

We arrived at lunchtime, so headed straight for the Eskrigg Centre to set up tripods and tuck into our Sainsbury’s meal deals. The feeders were busy as usual. I kept an eye out for reds, but in the meantime we watched siskins, a nuthatch, a woodpecker and plenty of chaffinches snatching a quick snack before zooming back into the trees. It looked like the visiting female mandarin had moved on – it was a shame not to see a male, but still exciting to be able to tick off a new species.


On my last visit, prime squirrel time was about 3pm, so after finishing up lunch and having our fill of the birds on the pond, we headed to the squirrel hide, joining a group of fellow photographers and twitchers. Coal tits swept across the clearing while robins hopped about on the ground. A lone male blackbird darted about with the species’ usual uncoordinated urgency, clutching a feast of flies and worms in his beak for a lucky brood.


An hour and a half passed with no fluffy red visitors. I was a little embarrassed, having shown Zahrah my photos from last time and taken her with me today with perhaps blasé confidence that we’d be overrun with squirrels again today.

The heat of the day was fading and under the cover of the trees it was getting cool quickly. The group of photographers shouldered their cameras and left, and soon we began to consider abandoning ship and coming back next week. Zahrah suggested we stay half an hour longer, and in the next ten minutes my eye caught on a bright orange tuft twitching behind a nearby tree. As I hurried to focus I breathed an enormous but hushed sigh of relief.


The squirrel approached slowly, sniffing the ground but pausing every so often to stand on its hind legs to look at us. I tried with all my might to catch these meerkat moments, but these animals are unbelievably nippy.

Soon, the squirrel was out in the open, collecting the hazelnuts that Jim had cracked and I’d sprinkled about. Pauses to eat were the best times to snatch some photos, when the animal’s only movement was a twitch of the tail. The way it clutched the nut in almost human hands and strategically nibbled was enough to make the coldest heart melt. As our cameras clicked I couldn’t help but gasp and squeal with excitement. Despite my interruptions the squirrel carried on feasting, scooping up all the nuts I’d left one by one.


Before long, a second squirrel joined the first, skirting down a tree to find any nuts that the first had left, a third soon joining them. One of these individuals had somehow lost an ear tuft, looking adorably wonky as it paused to nibble, tail curled over its back in the iconic position.

My memory card was filling up fast – I couldn’t help but keep snapping as the squirrels explored and foraged. For me it was a combination of their distinct personalities, lovable curiosity and cute outfits that had me obsessed. They ventured close, peering up at us with beady eyes and tiny parted lips.


I forgot to notice the growing chill but the slowly setting sun was beginning to make photography a challenge, especially when the squirrels’ rapid movement made a slow shutter speed impossible. We were about to finally pack up and leave when three more arrived, this time of the darker variety. So we stayed a little longer and kept taking photos. I had a sudden thought – if photography was still dominated by medium format film, I would have spent my entire student loan. The habit of only pressing the shutter for the perfect moment was admirable, but I don’t think everyone’s had the opportunity to photograph red squirrels.

When we eventually did get home, I uploaded the shots and assessed the damage. Six hundred and sixty photos, not bad at all.


Chasing Autumnwatch

Last Friday, the Wildlife Media students (or wildlings as we are now sometimes known) visited Caerlaverock Wetland Centre in Dumfries, Scotland. This was the site that BBC Autumwatch used as their base this year, and although it’s always great to visit a new nature reserve, it would have been incredible to visit while the studio was set up.



We arrived at the site at 6:30am, shivering against the cold but ready to catch the sunrise. Led by our guide Sara, we frog-marched into the mere and set up, hoping to capture the Barnacle and Greylag geese coming in to land. The sunrise was satisfyingly dramatic, but the geese decided to take shifts when landing, so the sky was never really the sea of flapping wings that we’d hoped for.



Today marked my first Whooper Swan sighting, and I was spoilt for choice when it came to photographing them. I loved the way this individual was preening his feathers, so decided to capture the water running off the bird’s bright yellow bill.


I also saw my first Wigeons today. I’ve fallen in love with this delightful little bird. Although tiny and cute, they had no problems in making themselves heard. Sat in the hide, I often saw a feisty male nip birds four times his size on the tail feathers in his haste to get to the grain.




I thought I’d try going a little artsy. Supporting my camera with a tripod, I used a slower shutter speed to blur the movement of both the rippling water and the paddling geese. The result looks dreamlike and serene.


I had a great time at Caerlaverock. Although it was bitterly cold, the wait was rewarding and I got to tick off several water bird species from my list. Here’s to the next field trip with the wildlings!