2018 Wrapped Up

December was quite a dry month for me in terms of inspiration, so I apologise for the distinct lack of posts over the past few weeks. It is high time for some fresh writing, but before beginning anything new in 2019, I wanted to reflect on the progress I made in 2018.


Last year began with my first breakup. After having seen and spent time with a person almost every day and now suddenly being faced with the possibility of never seeing them again, I suffered quite a knock. My inspiration took a significant slump at a time when I needed it most: the launch of my final major assignment at university.

Determined not to let a relationship affect my work, I applied for a grant to help fund an expedition. I had a whacky idea about going to the Isles of Scilly, which at the time seemed a very far-off venture and logistically challenging to say the least. However, after presenting to a panel of judges I was granted enough money to completely cover travel and accommodation. It took a while to come to terms with the fact that the Scilly expedition was really happening.


It was just the solution I needed for my slump. Spending six days in near-complete wilderness with a list of images to take was a perfect and rewarding distraction. I was filled with exciting ideas for my project – a study on the rare and unique flora of Scilly, including the dwarf pansy which is the size of a baby fingernail and found nowhere else in the UK. I was so fascinated by Scilly’s diverse wildlife and intriguing ecosystems, and I never wanted the trip to end. It is a place I will now treasure, as it helped me through a very difficult time, not to mention providing a huge boost to my confidence. I had funded, planned and carried out a full expedition single-handedly, and returned with a great story to tell. Following the trip was my last exhibition at university, and my project was received well. I even made some money from my photographs, which was an unexpected bonus.


Before I knew it, it was time to finish my degree. I picked up my life in Cumbria and brought it back home to Hertfordshire, where I (foolishly) thought that I would land a job straight away. This wasn’t to be the case, but what followed instead was a truly life-changing experience: an internship in Florida.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I was invited for a two-month internship in America to work with SEZARC. I knew they worked with zoos to monitor their animals and help facilitate breeding, but I didn’t know where I would fit in with a media background. I went simply with the aim of learning as much as I could about a completely new field and enjoying the opportunity to contribute to wildlife conservation.


I’d never been abroad on my own before, nor had I been outside of Europe before. Upon arrival, I was hit by extreme panic triggered by a strange new place, having to drive a car in a strange new place, and the fear that this had all been a terrible mistake. However, after a very careful car journey from the airport and arriving unscathed at my accommodation, I was filled with perhaps a disproportionately large sense of achievement. My small victory spurred me on, and after a few more shaky days, I found my rhythm.


Two months later, I was torn between wanting to see my family and friends back home, and wanting to stay a little longer with my new friends in Florida. I had loved the work I did with SEZARC, which was varied and fascinating. I also fulfilled a dream of mine, even if just for a little while: I’d learned to ballroom dance, and met the most kind and welcoming people. Back home in England, I truly realised what an incredible time I’d had in America.

And it wasn’t over. Later in the autumn, I caught up with my friends at SEZARC and was asked to produce their annual report of their progress this year. It is work that I thoroughly enjoy, and I’m so pleased that SEZARC want to keep me involved.


So, moving forwards. The past year has taught me so much, not just about work but also about myself. In all honesty I have no idea what 2019 will bring. I’m hoping a job, but in the meantime I want to continue writing and learning new things (next up is the guitar!) I have the tendency of being anxious without a strategic plan, but after this year I’ve discovered that you just can’t know where twelve months will take you. A year ago today, I had no idea I would soon be journeying to America by myself, nor was I remotely aware that my relationship was about to end. All through school it’s easy to know what’s next: the following year up. There is no mystery, not even after you finish school. For me, the choice was easy and I was going to university. Now that’s over too, and I’m trying not to be daunted by the unknown because as I’ve found out this last year, the unknown can be incredible.

Up in the Air

The plane roared to life and I experienced the age-old feeling of excitement whenever I fly. As we chased the runway and the plane slowly lifted, I pressed my face to the window to see the ground fall away. I will never tire of that feeling of utter weightlessness – the peculiar thought of something so bulky taking to the air.

I’d been invited onto my boss’s plane for a morning trip to Naples, a city in southwest Florida looking out onto the Gulf of Mexico. We were flying to break in a new engine, and planned to refuel in Naples before returning to Yulee. It was a whistle-stop state tour, a four hour round trip that would take twelve in a car.

Within moments of take-off we were over the beach – long piers stretched out into the sea like the teeth of a comb. At 9am on a Saturday the beach was almost deserted. It was a treat to see so much uninterrupted sand before the tourist tide came rushing in.

We curved back inland and passed over a maze of river and marshland that I had already explored by boat, but this time we were too high to look for egrets. The only movement was the white streak of a lonely boat as it navigated the watery trails. I wondered how many alligators were down there, then decided not to think about that.

The marshy solitude of Amelia Island dissolved into towering office blocks, and I soon recognised downtown Jacksonville. There was the Landing, where I’d been just a week before the shooting. It had been enough to dissuade me from visiting downtown again, but I still had fond memories of the river walk, the MOSH museum and the topaz blue water of Friendship Fountain.

Leaving vast, sprawling Jacksonville behind, the landscape was soon dominated by trees again. Green was undoubtedly a primary colour in Florida – a patchwork quilt of field and forest stretched as far as the eye could see. In some places the trees were confined in tightly packed cubic parameters. In others, they were sprinkled sporadically. Criss-crossed over it all were the highways, dead straight lines in parallel and perpendicular.

Fluffy cumulus clouds were gathering, and a rather ominous feeling began to grow in my stomach as we bumped over them. Sunlight poured into the stuffy cabin, which did nothing to suppress my queasiness. Because of the new engine, we had no choice but to fly low. While the views were still stunning, I was somewhat distracted by the turbulent ride, and as Naples came into view I couldn’t help feeling slightly relieved that we’d be getting out of the clouds.

Once down on the ground, we stopped just long enough to stock up on drinks – fuel for the plane, a Gatorade for me – before taking off again, back through the spectrum of concrete jungles and green wildernesses.

Stop and Look

In our bittersweet digital age, it’s so easy to be lazy. As a photographer who has tried using film but undoubtedly prefers shooting digital, I have the ability to take thousands of photos of the same thing if I want to. Once I have a camera and hard drive, there are no other essential expenses or materials required. While I personally didn’t enjoy the process of developing film, I commend those who gather all that equipment and spend hours in the darkroom bringing their images to life. I’ll admit it is dedication beyond what a lot of digital photographers put in.

It got me thinking how I can see more when I explore my surroundings. I often leave my camera at home and just watch for a change, no longer distracted by adjusting settings and looking at yet another screen. But I still want a permanent memory of what I discover. An answer to this that I am trying to introduce into my routine is drawing.

I’ve always enjoyed art but never possessed any genuine talent for it, which is perhaps why it never became more than an occasional hobby. Whenever I see someone drawing or painting I feel an overwhelming urge to join in. I could do this at any time and yet never do. What starts as an “inspiring new project” eventually fades into a half-full notebook.

I was in Tampa this weekend visiting the Florida Aquarium, and I packed my (so far untouched) sketchbook and pens on a whim. On the first evening, I wandered along the riverside just as the sun was setting. Across the water I noticed an incredible building with bulb-like turrets and crescent moon decorations. It looked like an Indian temple; I had no idea what it really was but I retrieved my sketchbook and began to draw it.

Twenty minutes later I had drawn my impression of the scene: the turrets, a large gathering of palm trees and the restaurant in the foreground. During this time three different people approached and asked me about what I was doing. Copying as closely as I could provided an opportunity to observe a level of detail that is far harder to notice when taking photos. I finished with something I was quite proud of, not to mention a talking point with passers-by and a souvenir of my evening.

IMG_1900 (1)

I later discovered that the exotic building was the Henry B. Plant Museum. I was somewhat disappointed to find out that it wasn’t a museum full of plants as I had originally thought.

The Greenway

The Egan’s Greenway is an unexpected jungle in the middle of smoke-belching industry and deckchair tourism. The mundane sounds of traffic are deafened by the furious chatter of cicadas – enormous insects that seem prehistoric. Their strange call is like the sound of angry water sprinklers, growing louder and faster until it reaches an alarming tempo, then abruptly stops.


At first light the Greenway is sharply divided into light and dark. The dense, impenetrable forests are still cool – the trees in muted greens – but out on the marsh the grass is alight with fiery golds and oranges. Naked trees poke the sky with sharp limbs white as bone, while beside them sway lush evergreens. It is a land of stark contrast, a spectrum of vitality and decay. Time passes here with the tick of the cicadas.


The day warms up, throwing a shimmer onto the surface of the creek. Here there be dragons, some cruising between reeds on transparent wings, others scrambling up trees with long claws. A flash of movement and then a disappearing act, they blend seamlessly into their surroundings. Just a flick of the beady eye will give them away, and then they will shoot off into the undergrowth.


Other beasts can be found higher up. Perched on the skeleton fingers are ospreys, scanning the creek in every direction. One takes to the air and its mate follows. Together they wheel in deep circles, overlapping in smooth figures of eight. A wood stork, large enough to be unfazed by the raptors, joins their sky with dark wings barely flapping.


Then, a real dinosaur. A creature that survived what forty-metre sauropods could not, almost unchanged for millions of years. This one is only small, an arm’s length perhaps, but even so it floats beneath the water’s surface with the stealth of an adult, startling green eyes always watching. A glance away and back again and it has disappeared, moving across the creek without a sound.

Where is mum? Perhaps it is best not to stay and find out.


Searching for Spoons

After so much excitement, I’ve neglected my camera recently and wanted to finally spend some proper time searching for Florida’s wildlife. I’d been told about a good spot for wading birds, and knew that the inhabitants included my new favourite bird, the roseate spoonbill. I set out before sunrise and reached the water just as the sky was beginning to lighten; pinks and oranges blending with blue.

My first sighting was almost immediate. Perched on a branch overhanging the lake and peering curiously as I wound down the window was an anhinga. With both heron and cormorant-like features, anhingas spear fish under the water with their long, sharp bills. The name originates from the Brazilian Tupi language and translates as “devil bird”. I don’t quite see the devilish resemblance – I found the anhinga delightful, especially when it shook out its striped wings. Like cormorants, anhingas hold out their wings after swimming to dry them. This one looked like either a female or a juvenile, as males are jet black with silvery streaks.



Soon the anhinga was joined by a yellow-crowned night heron, shoulders hunched down as if with cold. With a white cheek patch and a pale crown of feathers that looks more white than yellow, the yellow-crowned night heron is actually nocturnal, so I must have been really lucky to catch a late glimpse just before the sun emerged.

Yellow-crowned night heron

Elsewhere in the tree was a green heron, who was more brown than green so was perhaps a juvenile. Apparently, green herons are known to throw insects into the water to encourage fish to the surface, which is genius and must look amazing to see.

Green heron

Suddenly a snowy egret burst into view, legs dangling and panicked wings flapping. There was a deep, kronking call as more birds surged upwards. Puzzled, I glanced around for signs of a raptor, when a disturbance in the water caught my eye. There, gliding without a sound, was an alligator. My first alligator! I could hardly contain myself. All I could see of it was a pair of eyes and nostrils, so I had no idea how big it was, which was perhaps more nerve-wracking than seeing the whole animal. Even from the safety of the car my paranoia imagined the alligator leaping headlong at the open window, but it just cruised out of sight and the birds soon calmed down.


I wandered further on to try and find a spoonbill. There was a loud rustling above and I looked up to see the trees absolutely covered in white ibis; wading birds that gather in large groups all across Florida. I was spoilt for choice for photos. Although they’re not the prettiest of birds, their long, red bills still looked impressive, especially when they all took off in one simultaneous swoop. In the absence of car engines and people this early on a Sunday, the only sound to be heard was the wind in their wings which sounded so magical.

White ibis


After watching them leave I wondered what had scared them off. Once again I scanned the trees for signs of a raptor and this time I found one: a stunning osprey with a fish in its claws! I’d only seen ospreys once before in Scotland, all the way across a loch that made taking photos quite the challenge. This osprey, however, was a tree’s height away and sat in a perfect patch of sunlight that made its yellow eyes dazzle. It spotted me straight away and watched as I took photo after photo. Eventually it gathered up its breakfast and took off, just as the first dog walker came into view.



At 9:30am it was already getting too hot to be out without a hat, and my hastily eaten bowl of cereal at 6am seemed far away. I’d loved to have found my spoonbill, but having seen a bonus osprey and alligator I was far from disappointed. I’d just got back to the car and was fumbling for my keys when I glanced up, and by some miracle there was a spoonbill perched at the very top of a tree. It was the pink cherry on an incredible cake.

Roseate spoonbill


More to See, More to Zoo

Last week I visited Jacksonville Zoo, which boasts “more to see, more to zoo”. And it certainly delivered, with a broad range of exhibits including some very special ones that I’d never seen before. A particularly unique exhibit was Wild Florida, a collection of species native to the state. I discovered just how big alligators are (which only confirmed my decision not to go anywhere near a river during my time here) and caught a glimpse of a manatee as it glided underwater. Manatees are the state marine mammal of Florida but threats such as collisions with boats, habitat loss and the devastating red tide have now made them endangered.

In response to these threats, Jacksonville Zoo is in the process of making the first manatee critical care centre in northeast Florida. This will allow more injured animals to be rescued and cared for, and minimise travel distance to other centres such as the ones in Miami, Tampa and Orlando. To make the experience as natural as possible for the manatees, they have a very large tank, which can only be viewed from one side. They are only seen occasionally when they swim close to the tank’s edge, giving them much needed privacy.

Elsewhere on the site was the Emerald Forest Aviary, where I met my new favourite bird: the roseate spoonbill. Native to Florida, this extraordinary wading bird is candy floss pink in colour and sports a magnificent bill that it waves from side to side underwater to sift through the mud. There was a group of them in the aviary, perched on branches overhanging a deep, dark pond. I positioned myself to put this dark pond behind a particular bird who had stood beside some very photogenic foliage. After just a little editorial tweaking, I was pleased with the dramatic result.


Although I always love seeing the star animals of the zoo, some of my best moments from the day were the wild individuals that had snuck in uninvited. As usual, I fell in love with some new lizards, including one that posed for me with an over-the-shoulder glance.


However, the most incredible moment came just before I left. I was wandering past the lions and admiring the wildflowers that were attracting all sorts of butterflies and dragonflies. Then, I saw something larger than an invertebrate zooming around and was thrilled to discover it was a hummingbird!


I fumbled to get my camera ready, and for a while took lots of blurry pictures of flowers. Eventually, I got used to the hummingbird’s pattern of flying and managed to capture the animal in frame. I stood watching it for ages, as usual receiving looks from passers-by wondering what I was so interested in. For me though, it was an amazing sight and one of those perfect surprises.






Meet the Neighbours

After a busy week getting to grips with my new routine in Florida and getting stuck into all sorts of exciting work at the SEZARC lab, I was invited onto a tour of the White Oak site. Having only had glimpses up until now – mainly the white rhinos whose enclosure runs alongside the road to the lab – I was eager to see all of the animals that live at White Oak.

Our first stop was the greater one-horned rhino, and I was thrilled to see one of the females had a calf. The clue to the most immediate difference between these individuals and white rhinos was in the name; white rhinos, from Africa, have one more horn than the greater one horned, and they’re typically larger. To compensate for a shorter horn, these rhinos – from India and Nepal – have very long lower incisors that are used during fights and can grow up to 8cm long in males.


The armour-like skin gives these rhinos the appearance of a prehistoric creature. It is deeply folded to increase the surface area for water absorption, and especially thick around the neck to protect this vulnerable area. Greater one-horned rhinos have a prehensile lip that they use to forage in scrub and foliage.


White rhinos, on the other hand, are known as square-lipped rhinos and shed grass like a lawnmower. As we watched them graze we saw they were surrounded by cattle egrets, a common sight at White Oak. These white, gangly birds follow large mammals around their enclosures, as their weighty footsteps disturb insects hidden in the ground below, which the egrets take full advantage of.


Next we headed off to find the Somali wild ass, a species I had never heard of but fell completely in love with. Found in East Africa, Somali wild ass are the smallest and also the rarest wild horses (equids) in the world, with fewer than 2000 left in the wild. They have a beautiful grey coat that almost appears purple in a certain light. Reminiscent of their relative the zebra, these wild ass have characteristically striped legs. Due to competition with domestic farm animals for grass and water, these animals have become critically endangered. In response, White Oak obtained a herd in 2008, and since then have raised twenty foals.


Nearby to the Somali wild ass was another species I hadn’t come across before: the gerenuk, meaning “giraffe-necked” in Somali. These slender antelope are golden in colour with extraordinarily large necks, ears and eyes. Interestingly, these antelope rear up onto their hind legs to get to even higher places.


One of the final stops on our tour was an unforgettable moment for me: the giraffes. I’ve always had a soft spot for giraffes, and today I had the extraordinary surprise of being told I could hand-feed one. His name was Griffin, and as soon as the bus stopped he came striding over, keenly peering in through the window. One by one, we took a piece of browse and lifted it high, and Griffin gently took it. It was such a treat and a moment I will treasure for a long time.

As we got back onto the bus and made our bumpy way back to the car park, I felt honoured to have seen first-hand what an amazing place White Oak is for conserving and protecting wildlife. While I commend many zoos for their conservation work, I was so pleased with how much space these animals had, giving them the freedom to behave as naturally as possible. It made me so excited to continue my internship and I looked forward to getting even more involved as the weeks progress.


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.

A Manic Few Weeks

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind! I have now completely moved out of Carlisle and come back home in Hertfordshire to spend time with my family and Cockapoo puppy, who at five years old is finally starting to calm down.

I’ve been back for a fourth visit to the Warner Bros Studio Tour of Harry Potter, and was throughly impressed by the new Forbidden Forest, not to mention the Butterbeer ice cream. I won’t give away too many spoilers as it’s an incredible place that you need to see to truly believe. I’ve been a Harry Potter fanatic for a million years and always get teary-eyed when I go. Even my Uncle Rod who was indifferent to Harry Potter ended up taking dozens of photos.


I’ve also had my final results from university and was thrilled to discover I achieved first class honours, though I have to wait until November until graduation! It seems as though I shall need the cap and gown to keep me warm after spending the summer in the much hotter south.


But I barely had time to celebrate my results before I managed to secure an internship at an animal sanctuary in Florida! I will be working for SEZARC (South East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation) and I’ll be getting involved with a lot of lab work. One of SEZARC’s main lines of work is carrying out health studies to try and resolve reproductive issues that rare and endangered animals face when breeding.

It’s such an exciting and important area of conservation and something I’ve never had the chance to get involved with. I’m so excited to begin, but I’ll need to wait a little longer yet. I fly out at the start of August and work for two months before returning at the end of September. Just yesterday I booked all my flights as well as an international driving licence. Driving in America is quite a daunting prospect but seeing as there is no public transport in that part of Florida, I don’t have much choice! I’m quite nervous about going so far alone but I know I’ll love it once I get into the swing of things.

Now I have all of July to continue preparations for my extraordinary expedition! I dread to think how long my packing list will be…