Beaver Expedition: Day 2

The day began with waking up from a heavenly night’s sleep – my bed was like a marshmallow. After breakfast and a dip into what Heather calls THE Beaver book, by Andrew Kitchener, we headed back along the river to find some spots to set up camera traps.


The sun came and went, bringing its heat with it so I couldn’t make up my mind whether I wanted my coat or not. Every so often we’d see a different coloured spot in the sea of green grass, and I spent a lot of the afternoon squatting in the grass training my macro lens on day moths, flies and beetles. Before long we reached a clearly trodden corridor in the grass that snaked down to the river. We followed it down and saw a defined mud slope leading into the water; this was a sure route for beavers. One camera trap set and ready.


We set the other two on the other side of the river, to hopefully catch any beavers coming down from the adjacent field like the one we spotted last night. Beaver footage would be incredibly exciting, especially during the day.

Back at the cottage, we retrieved the moths that Heather and Cain had caught in the traps during the night. Taking them outside, we had a little macro photo shoot. White Ermine, Poplar Hawkmoth, Large Yellow Underwing, all beautiful, delicate creatures with easily the same beauty as butterflies. Seeing them up close instead of zooming around my head in the shower made a world of difference; stood still they were stunning, covered in shimmering dust of every colour imaginable.


After some lunch at the cottage we headed back out, this time with nets and white trays ready for some pond dipping. I hadn’t pond dipped since I was tiny, so it brought back a lot of memories for me.


Finding the perfect dipping spot was difficult. The first place we tried was too steep, and knowing my balance I’d have fallen straight in. The next spot we found was good for dipping but we only managed to find a few blood worms, miniscule grains of wiggly sand that catapulted themselves around the tray with curled convulsions of their tiny bodies. Finally we headed away from the cottage towards the lake – made entirely by the beavers I hasten to add – where we had much better luck. In a single tray I got a good look at caddis fly larvae, damselfly nymphs, backswimmers (which performed their rather comedic backstroke around the tray), water beetles and lots of microscopic creatures. Using my macro lens I could capture the beautiful detail that make these pond aliens so extraordinary. They honestly looked like visitors from another planet.


There were even more treats on the journey back. Just as I was ducking under a low fern I saw a flash of chestnut red and my arm rose of its own accord in a rapid point. “Squirrel!” I whispered as urgently but quietly as I could. The squirrel darted along a felled tree then up a living one, skirting up the bark just as easy horizontally as vertically. A group of chaffinches began to mob it, clearly too close to a nest. Bounding from one tree to the next, the squirrel speedily made its way away from the ruffled birds, and paused to peer down at us as we gawped. A tail twitch later and he was down on the forest floor again, disappearing into the forest.

We continued on, making our way back to the cottage. Dinner was stir-fry, and after finishing up we headed to the river, in the hope of seeing our beavers again. We took cover under the overhang of a tree, nestling in amongst the roots that divided us like the arms of cinema seats. Then we lay in wait. And once again, after only a short wait there was a rustling beneath the rhododendrons and a dark shape emerged. It was too dark for photos, but just to see the beavers only a short distance away was yet another treat. Now all we had to do was return at sunrise.


Species seen: Blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) European beaver (Castor fiber) European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) Great tit (Parus major) Heron (Ardea cinerea) House martin (Delichon urbicum) Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) Pied wagtail (Motacilla alba) Red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) Swallow (Hirundo rustica) Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus)

Beaver Expedition: Day 1

The drive to the cottage was as picturesque as I imagined it would be. As we bumped down a winding gravel path I peered out the window into the dense woodland on either side. As trees whipped past I squinted to see between them, in the hope of spotting a squirrel or perhaps a deer, or maybe even the star of our expedition, the European beaver.


Woodland gave way to open fields, and amongst the sheep was a river that cut across the road. What was once a trickling stream was now several metres wide, all thanks to the handiwork of the beavers. Every once in a while a tree stump chiselled to a sharp point came into view, with a bed of wood clippings littered all around; countryside statues designed by the very large incisors of our beavers. Like all rodents, their incisors grow continuously, and have both a hard enamel outer layer and a softer dentine layer. Over time, wear of these two layers creates a very sharp edge, allowing the beavers to make short work of hard bark.


After settling into our quaint accommodation, it was back into the wild for a wander while we still had the sunlight. We headed back down the path and began to follow the river away from the cottages. It was clear this was prime beaver habitat. Branches of all different sizes lay strewn across the river, and every so often we’d come across a dam. Beaver dams are extremely important for preventing floods, stemming the flow of the river with packed mud and wood to force the water to flow at a much slower pace. Fascinatingly, the beavers here used to be captive, but after felling trees in their enclosure during the time of a flood, they managed to make their escape, and have since made this beautiful part of Perthshire their home. Now the fact remains whether they are feral, having escaped captivity, or wild, as they have had kits.


A sudden ripple on the water and we all crouched down, scanning the reeds and waiting silently. Perhaps a fish, perhaps something furrier. The tricky thing with beavers is, they can move through water almost without disturbing it, so while we were watching where the ripple was, the animal could now be metres downstream. We walked on, keeping an eye out for beaver prints in the mud. More gnawed trees, and I was astonished to see a smooth chunk out of the bark several feet off the ground, meaning beavers were perfectly capable of climbing.

The forest was one of the greenest and richest I’d been in. It felt like the setting of Jurassic Park, with moist, bouncy grass and dense thicket. Beavers really are skilled decorators, adapting their habitat and changing the land and water use. Right now in late evening, the only sound I could hear were the bleats of sheep from the farms, but I knew hidden in these trees were hundreds of birds, mammals and invertebrates all taking advantage of the idyllic conditions here.


We made our way off the beaten track and wound through the long grass. Suddenly, a sharp “WO” sound echoed through the air, signalling the presence of roe deer. A short time later and a female appeared, eying us cautiously with ears pricked up. She barked again, and in the distance the lower sound of the male echoed back. She foraged for a while before turning away, white tail flashing as she hopped athletically over the tussocks of grass.

She was doing a more graceful job than I was. Not blessed with great balance, I was staggering over logs and wading inelegantly through the grass that the deer negotiated so easily. As I stopped to find my next step, there was a speeding black bullet overheard and I looked up to see a bat zooming around in rapid circles. Heather turned on her bat detector and the alien-like clicks of the bats’ echolocation broke the silence. The calls were clearest at around 40-45Hz, suggesting that the bats were common pipistrelles, though the range of soprano pipistrelles also reaches 45Hz, so we couldn’t be entirely sure. Whichever species it was, they were abundant here; wherever I looked there were bats.

After a quick glance at the time, we realised it was nearly 11pm, despite there still being enough light to see clearly. We made our way back through the grass and towards the river, glancing at the water to see if there was any activity. A flash of white caught my eye and I felt a buzz of excitement as a barn owl swooped by in complete silence, looping ahead of us and disappearing into the trees.

Suddenly Cain froze and we ducked again. There in the field over the river was a brown blob that looked suspiciously beaver-shaped. Sure enough, the blob moved, and our first beaver made its way back towards the water, sliding down a trail and diving below the surface. The excitement was palpable, and we crept as quietly as possible along the path in an attempt to catch a second look.

The beaver didn’t seem to resurface, but then a line of ripples leading back the way we’d come made us freeze again, and a beaver raised its head above the water. As we hadn’t seen ripples coming the other way, we assumed it must be a second individual, which was even more exciting.

Sitting in complete silence, our eyes and ears were trained for any sign. Then we heard a chewing noise, and I realised I was listening to a beaver feed, which was a fantastic thing to hear.

We saw another, slightly smaller beaver floating at the edge of the river, and watched until it swam out of sight, then decided we must get back to the cottage and have some dinner. After such a successful first night, I couldn’t wait to see what we could find over the rest of this weekend.


Species seen: Barn owl (Tyto alba) Common Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) European beaver (Castor fiber) Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) Swallow (Hirundo rustica) Tawny owl (Strix aluco) Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)


European Beavers

This week, I will be going on an expedition recce with Wild Intrigue to a Perthshire site, in the hope of studying European beavers. We’ve got loads of blogs to write and vlogs to film and I can’t wait to get back in the wild. I’ve loved my second year at uni and it’s been great to be so busy, but due to assignments and increasingly bad weather I’ve hardly been able to go on any walks to take photos.

So in preparation for my next exped, I wanted to find out a little more about the largest rodent in Europe, which I’m really hoping to photograph while we’re there. I didn’t know hardly anything about beavers, and due to their elusiveness it seems their lifestyle is largely a mystery.

Living by still or slow-flowing water with adjacent woodland, beavers are known as ‘ecosystem engineers’ for their river handiwork. By building their dams, they regulate the water level and alter its flow pattern, which ultimately reduces erosion, as well as providing an important store of water for plants and animals during droughts. By felling trees, beavers open up their forest habitat and create new, small-scale landscapes such as ponds and swamps.

Beavers were driven to extinction in Britain in the 16th century. For many years they were hunted for their valuable fur, but also for the secretions from a pair of musk glands beneath their tail, which the beavers use for marking their territories. The secretion (castorium), was sought after for traditional medicine and the manufacture of perfumes. Despite this persecution, beavers have since been successfully reintroduced to parts of Scotland and southern England.

Beavers have two layers of dense fur, a courser outer layer and a woolier under layer. Their hind feet are webbed and used to propel the body through water, while the front feet have opposable digits for gripping branches. Similar to crocodiles and hippopotami, the beaver’s sense organs are aligned in a row so that they can swim with their nostrils, eyes and ears raised above the water while keeping the rest of their body submerged.

A beaver’s tail is a multipurpose tool. Broad and covered with overlapping keratin scales, it’s used as a prop for balance when cutting trees, as a rudder during dives and an alarm signal when in distress, where the animal slaps it against the water. Fat reserves are stored in the tail and a counter-current arrangement of blood vessels enables an efficient heat exchange system, that can result in a 25% heat loss through the tail in summer and 2% in winter.

Entirely vegetarian, beavers are crepuscular, meaning they are mostly active at twilight. They can use their chisel-like incisors to gnaw through an 8cm wide tree in five minutes. In fact, they can carry on gnawing while submerged underwater by sealing the backs of their mouths with folds of skin. On dives they can close their nostrils and ears and cover their eyes with a nictitating (transparent) membrane.

So it turns out that beavers are fascinating creatures. Now that I’ve got myself acquainted with these industrious rodents, now I can only hope that I’ll get a glimpse of some this weekend.



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!


Chesters – Day Four

Sadly the day began with no visitors to the Longworth trap we’d set out, but on a positive note the Cheviots were shining under the sun again. I walked up towards the conifer plantation where we saw the red squirrels and drank in the views. Northumberland National Park was beautiful even on a grey day, but when the sun was bright and the clouds’ shadows were drifting across the hills, it was truly stunning. Despite the river gurgling many metres below, I could hear it as clear as if I was standing on the shingle bank. With no disturbance and very few voices on the air, sounds sliced straight through the landscape. It was one of the most tranquil places I’d ever been to.


After gathering our bags together ready to leave Chesters, we went on a final walk to a new plantation close to the bothy. As we scanned the horizon, we spotted three buzzards circling. Heather told us it was a courtship display, where the males soared high into the sky then dropped down in a dramatic feat of bravery to impress would-be partners. It was fascinating to watch – I only hope the watching females were as impressed as I was!

The plantation we visited was dominated by larch trees, and despite fragmentation of woodland in the Cheviots it was a very old habitat. We could tell this by the presence of tummocks; moss growing over the rocks. This kind of succession would take many years to take place, meaning the habitat had become established a long time ago.

Throughout the plantation, there were many holes in the grassy bank of many different shapes and sizes. Commonly, a fox hole will be oval-shaped, while the sett of a badger will have a sideways oval opening. Meanwhile, a rabbit warren will be made up of many holes of similar size. There were also a lot of droppings, including the dimpled pellets of roe deer, fox and what Heather suspected to be pine marten, which was a really exciting find with a pine marten never having been seen at Chesters. Both of the scats belonging to predators had been deposited right outside the opening of a rabbit warren; a sign to other predators that the poor rabbits within were claimed prey. It was a sinister sign, especially for emerging rabbits!

In fact, the plantation had a likeness to a graveyard. Mammal and bird bones littered the forest floor, from woodpigeon and pheasant to ram skulls. I found a pheasant’s pelvis, which was beautifully intricate and incredibly fragile. However, bones weren’t the only treasure. After nearly stubbing my toe on it, I found an open orb of white quartz within an ordinary rock. The crystals in the crevice were tiny, but reflected the sun in dazzling fragments.

Shortly after, we found an even more peculiar discovery. Hawk-eyed Heather spotted a patch of bright red up in the tree canopy. There, lying in a nest on the end of a bough was a dead red squirrel. Although it was a sad sight, it was also a fascinating one, certainly something I’d never seen before. We debated whether the nest belonged to the predator, or perhaps the squirrel had simply been stored there, or the nest was being used as a plucking post, as is often the case with birds of prey. We walked around the tree looking for feathers or pellets that would tell us the culprit, but there were no tell-tale signs. It was a real mystery that we unfortunately never got to uncover!


Soon we returned to the bothy, carefully carrying the treasures we’d found including the quartz and animal bones, as well as an array of feathers and owl pellets. We spent the rest of the day packing to leave and reflecting on the experiences we’d had over the weekend. As a final send-off, we had a rabbit visit the garden and put extensive time and effort into digging perhaps the beginning of a warren not two metres from the front door. I tested my luck and crept outside to watch him, and was amazed to find him so calm in my presence. Every few seconds he would stop and peer at me, dry earth sprinkled on his head like brownie crumbs, but each time he was convinced I was no threat and continued his work. It was the closest I’d ever been to a wild rabbit and a real privilege to be able to film it digging and moving twigs aside with its long lagomorph teeth. It was perhaps my favourite wildlife encounter of my time at Chesters, and happened right on the bothy doorstep.


Species seen/heard:

Buzzard Buteo buteo Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs European rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus Fieldfare Turdus pilaris Great tit Parus major Grey wagtail Motacilla cinerea Mistle thrush Turdus viscivorus Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus Pheasant Phasianus colchicus Pied wagtail Motacilla alba Skylark Alauda arvensis

Chesters – Day Two

As it happened, I slept extremely well last night, so I missed out on the tawny owl calling from the Chesters bothy roof. The morning was bright, and as I peered out of the cocoon of my sleeping bag I felt the familiar pull of the wild. The combination of hushed soundscape and pine woodland packed with secrets was enough to lure me out of bed.


As I ate breakfast I had the pleasure of watching a bank vole feeding on the sunflower hearts Heather had left out. He was a challenge to photograph as he only stayed in view for a second, but it was impossible not to love his curious expression as he peered through the window.


After preparing the bothy for the expeditioneers’ arrival, Cain and I headed back through the Breamish Valley to meet them. Although no red squirrels this time, we came across two dead pheasants. They looked incredibly fresh with no obvious wounds. The only indication of possible death was the presence of downy feathers in the birds’ claws, suggesting the frisky males had fought to the death. It was a great opportunity to photograph a pheasant’s feathers up close – there are so many beautiful colours.


When we returned, Heather explained the itinerary for the next three days and introduced the expeditioneers to camera traps and Longworth traps, recording equipment used to live trap small mammals. Finally, we all found Chesters bothy on a map of the Cheviots.

Just before the sun began to set, we all headed out into a patch of woodland just beside Chesters, where we used the rest of the daylight foraging for signs of the forest’s inhabitants. There were abundant droppings, and although most belonged to sheep and pheasants, a prominent sprinkling on a mound of grass beside an extensive burrow indicated rabbits. Later, we saw different droppings that were more elongated, suggesting hares were also present. Among other treasures, we found rabbit bones, a red squirrel drey – a nest built of twigs, dry leaves or grass – the chest plate of a woodpigeon and feathers belonging to a buzzard and a long-eared owl.

After a thorough forage we suddenly realised the sun had gone, so we hurriedly set up two camera traps, one in the woods to hopefully capture roe deer and the other beside a clump of frogspawn to see if the parent showed up.

Once the traps were set we returned to the bothy. Heather went to fetch wood for the fire and returned with a sleeping moth. After searching through the moth ID book we discovered it was a herald moth. I’d never seen this species before, and took the opportunity to use my macro lens and accentuate its rich copper-coloured wings. After returning the moth to the woodshed to avoid disturbing it, we had an early night in preparation for our long walk tomorrow in search of elusive adders.


Species seen/heard:

Bank vole Myodes glareolus Blackbird Turdus merula Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs Coal tit Periparus ater Goosander Mergus merganser Grey wagtail Motacilla cinerea Great-spotted woodpecker Dendrocopos major Herald moth Scoliopteryx libatrix Mistle thrush Turdus viscivorus Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus Pheasant Phasianus colchicus Red-legged partridge Alectoris rufa Robin Erithacus rubecula Snipe Gallinago gallinago Song thrush Turdus philomelos Tawny owl Strix aluco Woodcock Scolopax rusticola Wren Troglodytes troglodytes

Carna – Day One

Species seen (heard):

  • Barn Owl – Tyto alba
  • Common Frog – Rana temporaria
  • Common Tern – Sterna hirundo
  • Eurasian Otter – Lutra lutra
  • Hooded Crow – Corvus cornix
  • Lesser Redpoll – Acanthis cabaret
  • Red-Breasted Merganser – Mergus serrator
  • (Cuckoo – Cuculus canorus)
  • (Snipe – Gallinago gallinago)
  • (Tawny Owl – Strix aluco)

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.

Loch Sunart
The pontoon where we waited for Andy

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.

Carna at dusk

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.

Studying the water for otters

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.

Stunning sunset