Avian Meditation

I’ve never been able to meditate. I’ve tried it before, frustrated and envious of those people who can sit still and completely disengage from the distractions around them. For a start, I can’t even sit up straight without getting uncomfortable. I know you can meditate lying down, but then I just fall asleep. If I finally do find a comfortable position, I inevitably can’t stop thinking. “Focus on breathing”, all the books and videos say, and I focus on the first three inhalations wonderfully, but soon my mind wanders to my shopping list, deadlines, or reminding myself to put the bins out. I’ve discovered that meditation is just something that not everyone can do, in the conventional way at least.

The other day I went to Rye Meads Nature Reserve in Ware, Hertfordshire. I have quite a lot of things to do at the moment with my MA and the move to Scotland later this month, but I needed some time outside. I find it a real challenge to make time for walks, so I fought my better judgement and put work on hold to sit in a hide and watch birds. I don’t do this much – when I’m out and about I’m either on my way somewhere or keeping an eye on the dog to make sure she’s not getting into mischief, so it was a real indulgence to spend an entire morning ambling around a nature reserve.

I sampled each hide in turn, following muntjac prints in the mud as I walked, and eventually settled in one that overlooked a lake speckled with birds. A group of thirty lapwings were soaring over the water, swinging in a single mass from left to right. Each time they twisted the sunlight caught their backs, illuminating that iridescent green also concealed in magpies and starlings. I watched their display through the binoculars, captivated by the pendulum-like movement. Unlike a lot of wings that end in sharp points, these birds have wings that are loosely shaped like tennis rackets.

Eventually one bold individual decided that was quite enough flying, and as it swooped down to the water its companions followed until the air was empty again. They settled on the rocks alongside a pair of shelducks, shovelers, gadwall and a lone cormorant. The strips of pebbles cut the lake into wedges, separating midnight blue from slate grey. Ripples from bobbing coots sent tiny waves onto the shingle.

“Have you seen the green sandpiper?”

The voice made me jump after such a long silence. It was a member of RSPB staff, brandishing both binoculars and an impressive scope. Shimmying along the bench, I peered down the scope and watched the wader as it scoured the shingle for food on its skinny green legs. I’d have never spotted such a well-camouflaged bird without help. In fact, the green sandpiper was a species that I may have looked at but not noticed many times before.

The man with the scope carefully lowered the window cover and hitched the scope onto his back, heading back out into the sunshine. I carried on watching the lapwings, now foraging with their spiky hairdos fluttering. It occurred to me then that birdwatching was a form of meditation. You have to sit still, as quietly as possible, and often go for hours without speaking. My phone was on silent, buried at the bottom of my bag underneath gloves, sketchbooks and biros. The only connection I had was with the birds. Sure, I was hoping for bitterns, kingfishers and otters (none of which showed), but I found satisfaction in the more common residents. There is undeniable beauty in a young blue tit’s downy feathers, the tight curl of a cormorant’s dive and the vibrancy of a mallard drake’s head, which almost shines yellow in the right light. Maybe I’d denied myself the pleasure of birdwatching too long, but sitting in the hide looking out onto calm water felt like meditating. My work was back at the house and I was in the reserve sharing space with birds.

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.


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.


Sunset Sunday (on Tuesday)

Yesterday my lovely boyfriend cooked me sausages and the most incredible fried bread for breakfast because the horrid lurgy that had been lingering menacingly had finally reared its ugly head. For the majority of the day we watched Sherlock and ate the cake we were up until 2am making the previous night, while I wheezed and sniffed.

By evening I was up for a walk, so we decided to head out to Talkin Tarn Country Park in Brampton, Cumbria. It was a spot I’d heard good things about but never been to, and it was truly beautiful. As the day faded and the sun sunk into shadows, the rich blue evening sky illuminated the water, ruffled occasionally by the passing rower. A wind nipped my fingers and I pulled on my gloves with slightly exaggerated enthusiasm; I couldn’t wait for winter to make its appearance so I could dig out my finest wooly scarves and bobble hats. For now though, all I needed was my trusty Berghaus jacket to keep me warm as we made our way round the lake.


The sunset crept up on us. One moment the sky was blue, the next it was a vivid red, like a furious blush across the horizon. The water, now still and smooth as glass, took on a beautiful pink hue as the clouds rolled over it. Ducks, geese and swans alike settled to roost. One Canada goose honked into the silence, finishing his argument before succumbing to sleep.

We wandered on and perched inside a bird hide for a while, craning out the window for creative angles of the paint-splashed lake. In minutes the colours had drained and all that remained were grey water and an ever-darkening sky. We made our way back around the lake to the car, feeling very grateful to have witnessed such a visually stunning end of the day.


Urban Nature

Last Wednesday, I caught the train to Hammersmith to meet up with Zahrah and embark on another of our wildlife excursions. Today we visited the London Wetland Centre, something I’d heard lots of good things about but never been.

Canada geese (Branta canadensis)

Upon arrival we were greeted by a lovely volunteer who explained the site map to us. Taking her advice, we began on the south route which would take us to various hides that we could spend time in. Halfway down the foliage-lined path Zahrah spotted a warbler, but neither of us could be certain which species the bird was. As we stood stock still squinting into the dense undergrowth another volunteer passed. We told him what we were studying at university and explained how much we loved birds. It must have been refreshing for a wildlife veteran to stumble across two young people with the same interest. He began telling us all about the wildlife at the site, and the best places to view it. He showed us the WWF hide, where sand martins (Riparia riparia) performed an avian display for us, swooping down to the water’s edge and snatching midges from the surface. At this time of year, with no courtship taking place, the water was relatively calm with little activity. A lone mute swan (Cygnus olor) foraged in the shallows while a female mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) shepherded her young back to the nest. A lone moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) waded through the lily pads, pausing beside the pearly white buds.

Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)
Coot (Fulica atra)

As the scene here was subdued, Bryn showed us the Peacock Tower, where we met up with another volunteer with a profound knowledge and passion for birds. Apparently a pair of peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) were nesting in a building nearby, and had been seen flying over the site. While we sat overlooking the lake with our lunch, the volunteer let us borrow his telescope to watch a family of tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula) and a lone gadwall (Anas strepera). Unsurprisingly, Zahrah had the lens trained on a pair of herons (Ardea cinerea), shoulders hunched like sulking old men. Grey herons hold a particularly special place in Zahrah’s heart; it never ceases to amaze me how touched she is by these gangly lake dwellers.

Female Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)
Female Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula) 
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

The fountain of knowledge that was our telescope-bearer told us one of his favourite birds was the long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus). What I didn’t know was that in each group of these beautiful little birds, only the dominant female breeds. All other females act as child minders, sacrificing their own reproductive ability to care for another’s young.


Before long it was nearly two o’clock and the otters were about to be fed on the south route. We left the Peacock Tower with plenty of time, but ended up speed walking after a sharp-eyed photographer pointed out a common lizard (Zootoca vivipara) basking in the hot city sunshine. This naturally required us to stop and snap away for a few minutes, as our model was posing so beautifully.

Common Lizard (Zootoca vivipara)
Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) 

The above invertebrate is a dragonfly, as its wings are positioned perpendicular to its body. A damselfly’s wings are parallel along its body. The individual I photographed is a male; the female is yellow with black markings.


The otters were Asian short-clawed (Amblonyx cinereus), the smallest species of otter in the world weighing less than 5kg. In addition to its size, this species differs from the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra) in that it has blunt claws on some toes, if any. We watched them feed for a while, diving into the water of their enclosure for scraps of fish. After feasting, they rolled in the soil to dry their fur and proceeded to grip fragments of shell in their paws, looking painfully adorable.


By now the sun was high in the sky and the day was sweltering. After watching the otters slip into their holt and out of sight, we wandered around the rest of the wetland centre and visited the more exotic species that inhabited the site. We sat for a while and watched buffleheads, hooded mergansers and more. While they all looked extravagant, the humble moorhen stole the show with its characteristic screech that made me jump on several occasions. I must say, British species will always fascinate me just as much as their foreign relatives. The weather was perfect for our visit to the London Wetland Centre, and I was thrilled to find a new wildlife hotspot.

Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)
Female Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus)

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.

Carna – Day Two

Species seen:

  • Buzzard – Buteo buteo
  • Chaffinch – Fringilla coelebs
  • Common Sandpiper – Actitis hypoleucos
  • Common Seal – Phoca vitulina
  • Common Tern – Sterna hirundo
  • Cormorant – Phalacrocorax carbo
  • Cuckoo – Cuculus canorus
  • Drinker Moth caterpillar – Euthrix potatoria
  • Eurasian Otter – Lutra lutra
  • Eurasian Rock Pipit – Anthus petrosus
  • Great Black-Backed Gull – Larus marinus
  • Green-Veined Butterfly – Pieris napi
  • Grey Heron – Ardea cinerea
  • Hooded Crow – Corvus cornix
  • Oystercatcher – Haematopus ostralegus
  • Song Thrush – Turdus philomelos



After a great night’s sleep we woke to brilliant sunshine. Over breakfast, we started writing a storyboard for a film that would document our Carna experience. After some lunch, we headed out with Heather and Cain for a walk across the island. Naturally our pace was slow as we were stopping every few seconds as a mystery bird swooped over or a brief flash of brown promised an otter. Once again we were rewarded and saw many different species of bird, invertebrate and mammal.

The stunning drinker moth caterpillar


Hidden Beach Treasures
Lone Rock Pipit
Common Tern hunting on the loch
Song Thrush on the rocks

Of birds we saw a cormorant, common sandpiper, buzzard, rock pipit, grey heron and a pair of cuckoos, something we were all excited to see. We also found two drinker moth caterpillars, beautiful insects of black, hazel and amber. During the day we were fortunate enough to see mammals too. We were just admiring a view only the birds got to see when an otter came into view. It was hard to tell the gender, but we watched it for a while diving into the water and popping up again in a new spot. Heather explained that when a dark blob in the water was hard to distinguish, otters always show their tail when they dive under while seals do not. Our otter soon climbed on land and disappeared from view. We made our way down the hill after it but the sneaky mustelid was long gone. A lens change and a snack later, we spent some quality time perched on the rocks watching a herd of Common seals lounging in the sun. The group was spread out over two sub-islands; one was a skinny scrap of shingle where six seals were basking, both adults and juveniles. Seals are always so entertaining. Despite hardly moving, they provide endless enjoyment. For me it’s a combination of their banana pilates move, orb-like bottomless eyes and long white whiskers speckled with sand.


In a while we left the seals behind and headed into the wood. The area was predominantly silver birch; the thin overhead branches of the species allow bluebells to cover the forest floor in splashes of violet. We ascended up and up and started noticing several spraints left by otters, as well as some evidence of deer scat. The grass had been worn down in a narrow pathway, indicating that the area was frequently used. This looked like a good place for one of our camera traps, so we set up the kit and crossed our fingers.


After leaving the first camera behind we soon found a good place for the second. Near the top of the hill we were climbing were small constructions of dry stonewalls that were slowly crumbling from misuse. It looked like the perfect haven for small mammals with countless hidey-holes, so we found a spot for another camera and baited it with apple.


By early evening the sun was strong and casting an incredible light across the landscape, throwing the hills into sharp relief. Now standing amongst the heather and drinking in the view, the challenging terrain and heavy camera bags seemed trivial now we’d reached the top. The weather couldn’t have been better, no rain and hardly a breeze.

The way back was shorter as we cut across the hills instead of sticking to the coast. This allowed us to photograph the landscape from several high viewpoints and savour the perfect evening. Cain spotted a red deer darting through the heather and moments later we watched six more grazing across the water. After only a few slips and falls we made it back to the cottage unscathed. Needless to say, we would all be sleeping well tonight after a long but extremely awarding day.


Last of the Lakes

My friend George was just about to graduate from Wildlife Media, and during his time at university he wanted to visit all the lakes in the Lake District. Technically, only Bassenthwaite is considered a true lake, while all the others are classed as waters, meres and tarns. Still, we set technicalities aside.

The last on his list was Wastwater, England’s deepest ‘lake’ and lying west of the National Park. As he couldn’t get there without a car, I drove him and Zahrah there. Although the route was lengthy, it was worth every minute when we arrived.



Like so many other of my visits to the Lake District, I felt like I’d been transported to Canada or another exotic faraway destination. It always amazes me just how beautiful England can be – places such as Wastwater are a lot closer than similar locations abroad, and often just as incredible to see.


We wandered along beside the lake through a wooded area that kept the blinding sun out of our eyes. A Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) chirruped high up in the trees, silhouetted alongside the shadow-tipped leaves. By the shore a lone Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) hopped over the rocks.

It was refreshing to see an area of the Lake District National Park that hadn’t been overwhelmed by tourists. During our day at Wastwater we only saw a handful of people, most of them either dog walkers or cyclists. When the wind died down there was a deafening silence like time had stood still.


After a while we reached a quaint little bridge running over a stream. The only way to get down was to sneak underneath – it felt like entering a different world. On the other side we perched on the rocks and dipped our feet. The water was ice cold but we felt like characters from the Wind in the Willows, blissful and carefree.


I’m very glad George suggested going to Wastwater; it’s a beautiful location without much disturbance. During our lunch break we watched two wild swimmers bobbing about in the lake, something Zahrah and I would love to try. It’s sad that George will soon be graduating and leaving to continue his study in Salford; I hope we can still meet up during summer holidays and go on other adventures!

Field trip to Derwentwater

As part of the module ‘Interpreting the Natural World for Media’, we visited Derwentwater, a beautiful body of water in the Lake District. Our assignment involves writing a report about the site, the geomorphology of how it was formed and the impact humans have had on its development.


Mallard - Close Up
Mallard – Close Up

It was such a serene location. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to walk around the whole circumference of the water, but hopefully I’ll go back before the assignment deadline so I can experience everything Derwentwater has to offer.

Silhouetted Rook in the Trees
Silhouetted Rook in the Trees
A Pair of Greylag Geese
A Pair of Greylag Geese

I saw a variety of species on my visit, including a nuthatch hopping through the trees and a large gaggle of Greylag geese bobbing in the shallows. They later took off and soared overhead, organising themselves seamlessly.


When You’re Messing About By The River

Today we visited Broad Colney Lakes Nature Reserve, Hertfordshire. I’m always scouring the net looking for somewhere I can go with both my camera and my dog, and this little corner of wildlife paradise permitted both. I wasn’t expecting to see any otters like the website advertised – maybe another time – but I still managed to capture an array of birds on film.

Pretty In Pink: How I Love Spring Blossom!
Pretty In Pink: How I Love Spring Blossom!

My first model was this adventurous moorhen clambering through the branches of a tree stretched over the lake. I couldn’t figure out where it was headed, but I enjoyed watching its valiant efforts trying to maintain its dignity as it wobbled.

Taking On The Trees
Taking On The Trees

I just about managed to capture a song thrush as it rested on a branch for mere moments. So many times I have strived to zoom and focus in time and have missed my subject as it bursts into the air again, but this time I was quick enough.

Blink And You'll Miss Me!
Blink And You’ll Miss Me!

Back by the lake, I was pleased to glimpse a mighty heron perched on the opposite bank from where I was stood. On maximum zoom he was still a way away, but I like the way he is surrounded by tufted ducks as he surveys his kingdom.

A Skilled Fisherman
A Skilled Fisherman

There were also several Great Crested Grebes circling the lake. Again, this one was a way off, but I just love his beautiful plumage as it catches the sun. Up until now I’d only ever seen these birds in Scotland, so was pleased to see my first English individual.

Afternoon Swim
Afternoon Swim

I also found both halves of a discarded egg shell on the forest floor; predominately white with a very faint blue/green shade and brown speckles. If anyone could let me know what bird they think this egg belonged to, I’d be very grateful!

Mystery Egg Layer
Mystery Egg Layer

I love discovering new nature spots! I’m hoping to visit more this summer, after exams when I’ll have more time to spend birdwatching and simply being a part of nature.