Birdfair Begins!

Once I’d pushed my belongings through the campsite in a wheelbarrow, I began the head-scratching task of setting up my tent. I didn’t have much camping experience, but after a practice in the garden earlier in the week I was feeling confident. There was a brief tussle with a stiff breeze, but soon I had everything pegged down and in location. I was in business.

I straightened up to admire my handiwork and locked eyes with a cow twenty feet away, separated from me by a wire-thin fence. I wasn’t entirely thrilled with my neighbour for the weekend and eyed her suspiciously. I’d always been a little wary around cows – a few years ago I’d been crossing a field full of them, which had unfortunately been unavoidable, and when I was halfway across the herd started lumbering towards me at full speed. They say you shouldn’t run from cows, but I had vaulted over that fence with the steely determination of a long jumper. Luckily, this one didn’t seem like she had it in for me, and only stopped long enough to urinate before plodding back towards the herd.

Once everything was in order, I sat in my camping chair and admired the view. The setting sun cast a pink blush over Rutland Water. Although this campsite was slightly further away from Birdfair than the main site, this one had far superior views, not to mention it was blissfully quiet. House martins were out in force, plucking insects from the air and plunging in graceful loops. A little further away a kestrel was hunting, body suspended motionless between two rapidly beating wings. In the stillness, a gaggle of chattering geese passed overhead, but they were too far up for me to recognise the species.

I couldn’t wait for Birdfair to begin. This year would be my third, and I loved being a part of such a prestigious and important event in the wildlife calendar. It’s wonderfully indulgent for bird nerds like me – an impressive gathering of thousands of naturalists, conservationists, photographers and more, not to mention a dizzying range of things to see and do.

Once the sun had set, leaving behind an evening chill, I retreated to the warmth of my tent, snuggling up in my sleeping bag to get a good night’s shut eye in preparation for the first day of the fair.

Birdfair 2017

Zahrah and I only managed to attend the third and final day of Birdfair 2016. This year, we were set on squeezing everything we could out of this incredible event. Kerr decided to join us too, so last Thursday the three of us set off for Rutland Water Nature Reserve.

Due to a slight train mishap from Zahrah, it was nearly dark by the time we arrived at the campsite. We met the very charismatic steward and his wife, who cruised around the site on a rather fetching golf buggy and led us to our pitch. Perhaps ashamedly, I’d only been camping twice before, once ten years ago and once last month, so I was excited to get the tent up and spend our first night in the reserve.


In the morning I woke from a genuinely good tent’s sleep. After eating pots of porridge around the stove we headed over to the fair. As usual, I was overwhelmed by just how much there was to see: eight long marquees, three lecture theatres, the main events marquee and a large cluster of food stalls, merchandise stands and of course, the reserve itself.

After a scan of the programme, we threaded our way through the first marquee. We met a lovely lady from the West Cumbria Swift Group, and I soon realised how little I knew about swifts. Due to house renovations, swifts are losing their nesting sites and should now be red-listed. The fastest bird in level flight, swifts shut down half their brain at a time to enable them to sleep on the wing and endure such long journeys overseas.

In the afternoon I attended a talk on the successes and challenges of conservation. As I listened to comeback stories of black-winged stilts, spoonbills and Manx shearwaters, it struck me how much we all dwell on the ‘doom and gloom’ of wildlife. Of course, it’s appalling how many of our planet’s species are now threatened, but invaluable work is being carried out all over the world and it should be celebrated. The talk inspired me to concentrate on conservation success, not failure, and it’s something I reckon I’ll be turning into a third year project.


Day two of Birdfair began with some more networking in the marquees. I chatted to lots of lovely people, from the BBC Wildlife team to photographers to those offering amazing wildlife holidays (I lost count how many competitions I entered – bring on the promotional emails). After a delicious pulled pork roll with applesauce, my ultimate favourite, Zahrah and I caught Simon King’s talk. He really is a great speaker. Although it’s often the case at these events that the speakers are merely preaching to the choir, it’s always so good to be reminded just how important nature is. He included a quote from Anaïs Nin that drove his message home: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Mankind has done extraordinary things, some of them terrible, and it’s important not to lose focus on what really matters: preserving this planet. It’s a message I really hope can endure the test of time.


I was a little sad to wake up on Sunday and realise Birdfair was nearly over. Zahrah and I anticipated long queues for Steve Backshall so we hurried to the fair earlier than usual. The marquee was filled to capacity, with people lining the walls and stuffing themselves into every space. I suppose it’s the nostalgia talking, but I think Steve Backshall is an inspiration. Deadly 60 was perfect, combining boisterous adventure with important messages about wildlife to capture every child’s imagination. In his talk, Steve showed various images of shark species, to which the children sat cross-legged at the front shouted out the names of without a moment’s hesitation. It gave me a fuzzy feeling: these kids absolutely loved wildlife. It’s true that engaging younger generations is undoubtedly the long-term solution for the natural world, and Steve Backshall was doing just that. I couldn’t help but put my hand up for a question. I asked him what species was next on his wish list, to which he replied the snow leopard.


Before long it was time to go. Kerr had bought the Sony camera he’d been eyeing up for months and at a considerably lower price, so he was happy as Larry. I treated myself to a poster of the ‘Orders and Families of Birds of the World’, which is now hanging proudly alongside my others. Birdfair is one of those rare events where us wildies gather in our thousands to celebrate not only birds, but all wildlife. I know from previous experience that an interest in nature is not a common one, so to meet people from all over the world with the same passions as me is something really quite special. I’m already looking forward to next year.

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.


Weekend Seal Hunt

On Saturday, two of my friends from first year and I met up with some second and third year Wildlife Media students to visit South Walney Nature Reserve in Barrow-in-Furness. The plan was to find seals. Deep down, we suspected the mission might be fruitless, but we wildlife students are nothing if not determined.


The challenges began before we’d even left the car. Due to the high tide, the main road to the island had been completely cut off. After some gentle persuasion, we managed to get permission to park on the caravan site and walk the rest of the way to the beach. The wind was howling and it took all our strength just to stay on our feet, but eventually we arrived at the hide, fingers already numb from the cold.

We were entertained by a group of oystercatchers for a while, closely packed together in an attempt to stay warm. A lone rabbit foraged in the grass, then bolted when the hide door slammed. Of seals, there was nothing.

Eventually, we could feel our hands again, so my friend and I decided to abandon the hide and head down to the beach. That was a pretty good decision. In moments, a grey seal popped up, blinking at us with his huge black eyes. Giddy with excitement, we crouched down and began to snap away furiously. Then suddenly, where there had been a single seal, there were now two, bobbing up and down as the waves rolled over them. I decided to get a higher vantage point, and perched up on the stone with my knees as a makeshift tripod. The seals weren’t bothered in the slightest, and continued to sneak peaks at us as we photographed them.


Gulls circled overhead, struggling to stay airborne in the wind. Below them, more and more seals braved the surface, until a group of five were taking it in turns to have a look at these strange visitors. We’d heard news that a pup had been born that very morning, so the seals were performing beautifully considering that there was a new member of the family to look after.


After a while the seals dispersed, and we felt ecstatic that we’d got so close to such private and timid animals. We were just about to head back to the hide and warm up again when we heard a commotion in the water. We were amazed to see a dogfish writhing on the sand, kicking up a torrent of seawater. After taking a few quick photos, we helped it back into the sea.


This dogfish was immediately replaced by two more. After freeing these two in turn, we wondered whether the fish had beached themselves on purpose. It seemed strange that three would reach the shallows just in the short time we were sat watching.


Another highlight (as if seals and dogfish weren’t enough!) were the jellyfish dotted on the beach, which looked more like spaceships than living creatures. I’ve seen jellyfish on Scottish beaches, but these individuals were magnificent in comparison.


Before long it was getting dark, so we struggled back to the car, bent against the wind. I hadn’t even counted on seeing seals on our visit to South Walney, when in fact we saw plenty, as well as three performing dogfish and some spectacular jellies!